Samuel Ealy Johnson, Sr. (1838-1915) was born in Alabama, the youngest of ten children. About the time Texas joined the United States, in 1845, his family had moved to the area of Lockhart, just south of Austin the state capital. After his father died, Sam, still barely 20, moved to the Hill Country, west of Austin, where he worked with his older brothers in the ranching business.
Like most young men at the time, Sam enlisted in the Confederate Army when the Civil War started, and served in a cavalry regiment. He participated in several fierce battles, had a horse shot out from under him, and saw many men wounded and killed. After one great battle, he helped the surgeon hold down wounded men while their arms or legs were amputated. He survived the war relatively unscathed and, while we cannot know how much the memory of that war remained with him the rest of his life, we do know that he was a friendly man, unfailingly generous, kind and helpful to others, and that he faced many challenges with courage and good humor. This is what survivors learn to do.
When the war was over, Sam entered into business with his brother Tom Johnson near what became the little town of Johnson City, in the Hill Country. The name came, of course, from the Johnson family which settled the area. “City” implies a much larger town than it was actually was; even today the population of Johnson City is only about 1,500. By 1867, he had married and begun a family, and had also started buying and assembling herds of cattle to drive north on the old Chisholm Trail for sale at the railhead in Abilene, Kansas.
His wife, Eliza Bunton (1849-1917), was a daughter of an influential family in early Texas. One Bunton was a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence from Mexico, a signer of the Constitution of Texas, a hero of the Battle of San Jacinto (which secured Texas independence), and a member of the first Congress of Texas. Her family were wealthy landowners, with a plantation and numerous slaves in earlier days. And her mother, Priscilla Bunton, was the first Christadelphian in her immediate family, and the first person buried in what is now the Johnson family cemetery on the Johnson Ranch.
Eliza Bunton Johnson is remembered as a beautiful young woman, with raven hair and piercing dark eyes. She was tall and regal in bearing, an intelligent and educated woman of refinement. Despite her well-to-do background, she became a quintessential pioneer woman, tireless, hardworking, and always ready to care for others — as was so important for people living on the Texas frontier in dangerous times. Eventually, she and Sam had nine children, six of whom were baptized as Christadelphians.
In the beginning of the settlement, Sam Johnson was also required by circumstances to be an Indian fighter. This territory was on the very edge of civilization, and the Indian tribes still encroached here and there. (In fairness, it should be said that the Indians must have felt that the white men were the ones who encroached on their territory.) In 1869, after a particular raid by Indian warriors in which some neighbors were killed, Sam and other men of the area set out to track down the Indian party, leaving Sam’s wife Eliza and infant daughter Mary home alone. When other hostile Indians approached the farmhouse, Eliza took her baby and hid them both in the cellar. Once in the cellar, she used a pre-set wire to pull a rug over the trapdoor to hide their whereabouts. She used a diaper to stifle the baby’s cries, while the Indians ransacked the house. The very site where this happened can still be seen today.
As a small child, I was always especially interested in this story, since Eliza Johnson was my great-grandmother, and another of her daughters, my grandmother Jessie, was scripturally speaking still in the loins of her father (cp Heb 7:5,10), and the womb of her mother, at that time. The reader may well imagine how I felt, when it dawned on me that Eliza’s survival of the Indian attack was crucial to my own existence too. Since Grandma hadn’t been born yet, Mom couldn’t have been born either, and I was a long, long way from seeing the light of day — so there was a lot riding on that diaper keeping the baby quiet. Every time thereafter when I heard the same story, I listened intently to be sure that it turned out the same way. When it did each time, I was always relieved. The same ending each time seemed to confirm to me that everything was working out well, so far!
Sam and Eliza and Eliza’s mother Priscilla were converted to the truth and baptized, probably in 1879, through listening to debates between the traveling brother Oatman and local preachers. This is reported from Webberville, Texas, by W.A. Oatman in The Christadelphian for January 1880. Webberville still exists as a very small community just east of Austin.
Sam is said to have waited patiently through several nights of discussions, wondering when his preacher (from the “Disciples of Christ”, now known as “Church of Christ”) was going to bring out his best arguments and demolish this Christadelphian “heretic”. Finally, however, he realized that no more arguments were forthcoming. So he sought out brother Oatman and said, “Please show me what the Bible really teaches.”
Sam Johnson was an extraordinary character– one of those men who, with his wife by his side, tamed a frontier wilderness and made it a home. He left a mark on the land and the people who followed. He was a cattle rancher and trail-driver, raising and buying cattle that he and his brother herded north over the cattle trails through Oklahoma and Kansas, to the railhead for shipment to St Louis and Chicago and the big eastern cities. He made a fortune, lost a fortune, and repeated the process again in a highly volatile and risky business. In between, he was active in state politics and campaigned for a seat in the Texas State Legislature, but apparently saw public service as a passing duty to be discharged, not a career.
To be continued.
This post is part of a series authored by brother George Booker. Click here to see all previous posts in the series.