KANSAS COLLECTION BOOKS

William G. Cutler's History of the State of Kansas


ERA OF PEACE, PART 41

[TOC] [part 42] [part 40] [Cutler's History]

HON. THOMAS JOHNSON.

[Image of T. Johnson] (This biography of Hon. Thomas Johnson was received too late for insertion in its appropriate place, in connection with his early work as a faithful missionary among the Shawnees. It was written by Rev. Nathan Scarritt, now a resident of Kansas City, Mo., and for many years the intimate friend and co-worker of Mr. Johnson at the Shawnee Mission School.)

Thomas Johnson, whose history is so intimately connected with the introduction of civilization and Christianity among the Indian tribes lately inhabiting the territory now included in the State of Kansas, was born in Virginia, July 11, 1802. He died by assassination January 2, 1865. Being one of a large family of children whose parents possessed limited means, he was thrown almost entirely upon himself for his own support and education. He came, when comparatively young, to Missouri, where by economy and close study, he prepared himself for the ministry in the Methodist Episcopal Church, of which he was a member.

His first labors as a minister, were in the Missouri Conference, where he filled a number of pastoral charges so successfully as to give him considerable prominence among his brother ministers.

After the Indian Tribes, i. e., the Shawnees, Delawares, Wyandots, Kaws, Kickapoos, etc., were moved from their previous locations, into the territory lying immediately west of the Missouri line, and intersected by the Kaw River, the Methodist Church - a church always ready and willing to do pioneer work - resolved to follow them with its Gospel agencies, and establish missions among them. Some of these tribes, however, especially the Wyandots, had been the subjects of Missionary labor in their old homes. The great body of those Indians, however, except the Wyandots, were in a state of heathenism.

The fact that Mr. Johnson was the first one selected to go as a missionary to the then powerful tribe of the Shawnees, is indicative of the high standing he occupied in the eyes of his church.

He entered the territory (now Kansas) in the year 1829. Whatever Christian influences may have been brought to bear upon the Shawnees, previous to that time, must have been temporary in their effects. As a tribe they were emphatically heathen, from the chiefs down to their lowest subjects.

Mr. Johnson's heart was in the work, and being naturally a man of great energy, he entered his new field with that enthusiasm and hopefulness which characterize every such man entering upon a new and cherished enterprise.

But - as is so often the case - he met with disappointment. It is said that Dr. Carey, the great missionary, labored seven years in India before he made the first convert. Mr. Johnson was not doomed to labor quote so long as Dr. Carey. Ye he did labor long and hard, before he saw any adequate fruits of his labors.

Those stolid Indians seemed as impervious to all Gospel influence as is the granite rock to the falling rain. A less determined man would have become discouraged and would probably have quite the field. But Mr. Johnson was not the man to yield to any obstacles less than insuperable. This seeming failure only drove him nearer to the cross, caused his faith to lay hold more firmly upon the divine promises, and prompted him to put forth still greater efforts in his work.

At length the Word so faithfully preached began to "prevail." It not only began but it continued to prevail, and to prevail mightily The chief of the nation was among the first converts. This effectually broke down the opposition. A great revival ensured, until there was formed a large congregation of believers. From this beginning the good work continued to grow. Mr. Johnson early felt the importance of schools for the education of the Indian youth. Indeed, he saw that without schools it would be an almost hopeless task to bring up the tribe to even a medial state of civilization.

Accordingly he went to work in that direction, doing the best he could with his limited means. He organized a few small schools in such localities as would best accommodate the children to be taught. But he soon found that schools on this plan were unsatisfactory. Meantime he had conceived the idea of a great central school, not only for the Shawnees, but for such other tribes as might be willing to send their children to it.

About the same time, the U. S. Government, having to pay yearly large amounts to these tribes in the way of annuities, was contemplating the project of devoting part of this annuity fund to the establishing of schools against them. The result was that a contract was entered into between the Government and the Methodist Episcopal Church, in which provision was made for the erection of suitable buildings, and for the boarding, clothing and education of a certain number of Indian children.

The church was to do a specified part, and the Government a specified part. The proposed institution was to be a manual labor school, and it was projected on quite a large scale.

It was located but a little more than a mile from the State line of Missouri, and about three miles southwest of the town of Westport, Mo., and seven miles from Kansas City.

Three large brick buildings were erected, standing scarcely a stone's throw apart, and so situated, relatively, that straight lines joining them to each other would form a triangle. Near the center of this triangle was a large, never-failing spring of pure water, which yielded a plentiful supply for the purposes of the whole mission. I mention these particulars to show that the planner of this large and unique establishment was a natural-born engineer. Connected with the mission was a carpenter's shop, a blacksmith shop, a shoemaker's shop, a steam grist mill, a saw mill, etc. Such of the boys as desired to learn trades were put into these shops under the tuition of skilled workmen. There was also a large farm of several hundred acres belonging to the mission, where such of the boys as did not care to learn a trade were inducted into the mysteries of the agricultural arts.

The female department was in a separate building from the male. Much of the success of this department (for it was very successful) was due to the remarkable efficiency of the matron whose services Mr. Johnson was fortunate in securing, viz., Mrs. Stateler, wife of the venerable L. R. Stateler, now of Montana. So large a number of girls in one school were never better managed. They were not only well drilled in the common school literature, but they also were skillfully inducted into a knowledge of all such domestic offices and duties as pertain to the sex in the more refined circles of society.

Aside from superintending this school, Mr. Johnson was constantly engaged in "labors more abundant" in building up the other missions of which he had charge.

After undergoing, for ten or twelve years, those hardships and exposures inseparable from his work, Mr. Johnson's health failed to such an extent that he was compelled to resign his place.

In order that he might be where he could have the care of the best physicians, he moved with his family to Cincinnati. He there spent between one or two years under medical treatment. Having by this time partially recovered his health, but still being unable to re-enter the mission work, he procured a quiet home for himself and family near the town of Fayette, Howard County, Mo.

It was there the present writer first made his acquaintance. Meantime, the Indian Manual Labor School had been under the care of several Superintendents in succession - all good men. But the friends of the school felt the great loss it had all the while sustained, in being deprived of the superior administrative ability of its first Superintendent.

Mr. Johnson's health having now recovered, he was prevailed upon by his brethren to re-enter the work. Accordingly, in the fall of 1847, he was re-appointed Superintendent of the school and missions in the tribes before names.

On his return to the school, he found many young men and women among the pupils who, having grown up in the school, had advanced through the common school branches, and who were desirous of obtaining a knowledge of the higher branches. This suggested to Mr. Johnson the policy of organizing an academic department for the benefit of these advanced pupils. During a visit which he soon after made to Fayette, he persuaded, the present writer (it did not require much persuasion) to resign his place in Howard High School, and go with him and take charge of his contemplated academy. This academy, or academical department, was opened simultaneously with the regular session of the school in September, 1848. This new departure in the history of the school - though undertaken rather as an experiment - proved a decided success. Several scores of young gentlemen and young ladies from "across the line," and some even from the distant parts of Missouri, possessing limited means, and yet desiring to enjoy the advantages of a classical school, were admitted into this department. This brought whites and Indians into close competition in the race for knowledge, and gave rise to an emulation both laudable and salutary. And I just say, touching the capabilities of the two races, that those Indian scholars whose previous advantages had been equal to those of their white competitors, were not a white behind them in this contest for the laurals of scholarship. The success of this department, as well as that of the whole school, I attribute largely to the able management of our Superintendent. While at the head of that institution, he was the right man in the right place. In the first place he possessed strong, practical, common sense. He was a good judge of human nature, and quick to take in the situation in every emergency. A man of deep and tender sympathies, yet he was most firm in his adherence to principle.

This combination of qualities gave him an administrative ability unsurpassed by that of any man I ever knew. He had taken care to have all the departments of his school well manned, and to have the whole establishment thoroughly organized and reduced to the most perfect system.

The result was that, though there were so many departments to claim his attention, and so many different interest to be conserved, yet there was no friction or collision of parts in the system.

The whole moved on so beautifully and harmoniously as to remind one (it often reminded me) of the facile movements of a thoroughly organized and well drilled army. Under such management, the school could not have been otherwise than prosperous. Nor did it ease to prosper until the tribal relations of the Indians began to be interrupted in regard to their lands.

The Government first buying part of their lands, and afterward giving them the privilege of disposing of their remaining "head rights," - this soon threw the Indians into a state of unrest and confusion which had a detrimental effect upon the school.

He kept his school open, however, as long as he could with any profit to the Indians. But when they determined to dispose of their "head rights" and move South, he yielded to the necessity and closed the school.

He bought a home two miles east of the town of Westport, Mo., to which he moved in 1858, expecting to spend the rest of his days in retirement, and in such benevolent labors as he might be able to bestow.

And while he lived there, and after what may be called the close of his public life, there was no man in this Western country that possessed in a higher degree the confidence and esteem of those who knew him.

As to his death, it is necessary that we premise a few particulars, in order properly to understand the cause and "manner of his taking off." Mr. Johnson was a Southern man, born and reared in the South. His ancestors were Southern, and most of his associates and associations were Southern. Under such circumstances, it was but natural that he should entertain the prevailing sentiments of his people, and sympathize with them in what was called their grievances. Hence it was that in the division of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1844, and in the first Territorial Legislature of Kansas, of which he was a member, and in the United States Congress where he had a seat as a Territorial delegate, and wherever else he was called upon to act in a public capacity, he viewed the various questions that came before him from a Southern standpoint. And he was sincere and conscientious in his positions.

But when our national troubles culminated, and every man had to decide, between Union and secession, Mr. Johnson's patriotism proved superior to all sectional, social and even personal ties, and he took his stand firmly on the side of the Union. I had opportunity to know his real, heartfelt sentiments upon this subject, and I am fully convinced that there was no Union man in the country who was more sincere in the position he had taken, or more conscious of the rectitude of his purpose, than was Thomas Johnson.

Yet the reader can easily conceive to what terrible hazards this position exposed him. It was so in the case of hundreds of others, on both sides, in this bushwhacking country.

On the night of the 2d day of January - a bitter cold night - in 1865, after Mr. Johnson and his family were all in their beds, and most of them asleep, a gang of armed men rode up to the front gate and uttered several loud halloos. Mr. Johnson, hearing them, went into the hall, opened the front door, and asked them what was wanted. They said they wanted to be directed the way to Kansas City. He gave them the desired directions.

Meantime, some of them dismounted, passed through the gate and approached the house, saying they wanted a drink of water. Mr. Johnson told them where the cistern was at the side of the house where they would find conveniences for drinking and invited them to help themselves. Just then he perceived their evil intent, for they were drawing their pistols and advancing toward him rapidly.

He immediately sprang back into the hall, closed the door, and was in the act of locking it, when they fired at him. Their aim was so well taken that, although the closed door was between him and them, one of the balls passing through the door, must have gone through or very near his heart. He immediately began to sink down, still holding on the knob of the door. His faithful wife, who had been all the while standing near him, caught him in her arms, and as he sank down, she sat upon the floor and placed his head in her lap. He spoke not a word. He only uttered on or two slight groans, and in a very few moments cased to breathe.

The assassins continued to shoot into the house, not only in front but on every side. For, by this time, nearly the whole gang had come in and were taking part in the assault. They were, as yet, uncertain whether they had accomplished their object in killing Mr. Johnson; for Mrs. Johnson had not allowed a lamp to be lit, or an audible word to be spoken. The assassins, then changing their tactics, set fire to the house.

As soon as Mrs. Johnson saw what they had done, she immediately ran out with a bucket of water, right before them, and put out the fire; then she returned into the house unmolested, except that the bullets from their guns and pistols were whizzing around her! This was repeated. For it was not long before they again set the house on fire at another point; and Mrs. Johnson, with her bucket of water, again faced the assassins, and put out the fire. Worn out and exhausted almost to fainting, Mrs. Johnson finally told them they had killed her husband, and, as they had accomplished what she supposed to be their object, she begged them to cease from their assault upon her defenseless house and her heart-broken family.

They soon after left the place. The body of Mr. Johnson was borne to the cemetery of the Indian Mission Sunday School, and was buried, not only beside the departed ones of his own dear family, but in the midst of a multitude of departed Christian Indians, who, through his instrumentality had been brought into Christ's Kingdom and made sons and daughters of God.

Since then his noble wife has been called away, and now rest by his side. Of her it may be said, that, so far as cool self-possession and invincible courage are concerned, the history of the sex furnishes few examples more signal and illustrious of genuine heroism.

Thomas Johnson possessed the elements of true greatness. I do not mean the greatness measured by a man's fame which is to often made the standard. Many a man whose name is scarcely known to the public, is more truly great than are many of those whose fame has made the circuit of the world. The former is greatness after the Divine type - consisting in purity of heart and in a life spent in good works. Its duration is eternal. The latter is greatness after the human type. It is ephemeral and will have no existence beyond this fleeting life. Of the former type was the character of the Hon. Thomas Johnson.

Mr. Johnson was married, in 1829, to Miss Sarah T. Davis, of Clarksville, Mo. She was a woman of rare natural endowments, and possessed of the courage of which true heroines as well as heroes are made. Years before her marriage, nearly her entire family had been butchered at Ruttle's stockade, during the Indian war, in which Tecumseh, a Shawnee chief, was the leading spirit. The young bride went immediately after her marriage to live among the wild and savage tribe that had been the terror of her girlhood. She became, by the hidden but conquering power of her Christian virtues, well-nigh a queen among the descendants of the wild men who had slaughtered her ancestors.

The children of Thomas and Sarah T. (Davis) Johnson were twelve in number, of whom five died in infancy. Those who still survive, or lived to mature age, are: Alexander S., Land Commissioner of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, Topeka, Kan.; Eliza S. (Mrs. John B. Wornall), Wesport, Jackson Co., Mo., deceased; Laura L. (Mrs. F. A. Waterman, Chicago, Ill.); Andrew Monroe, Wesport, Mo.; Cora E. (Mrs. H. W. Fuller, Richmond, Va.); William M., Clay County, Mo., and Edna (Mrs. W. J. Anderson, Kansas City, Mo.).

[TOC] [part 42] [part 40] [Cutler's History]