Biography of John Milligan Johnson

John Milligan Johnson. Recently there died at Manhattan a Kansan whose character was even more important than his material achievements. He came within four years of living a century and he was a figure in the activities of the frontier until the frontier had passed away. But more important than all his experiences were the moral forces that emanated from his life, and the things he stood for, believed in, and worked to bring about. It is therefore as a character sketch that the following paragraphs are offered, and they find an appropriate place in the history of Kansas.

John Milligan Johnson was born at Pickneyville, Perry County, Illinois, January 29, 1820. His grandfather was a companion of Daniel Boone in his adventures through the western wilderness. His parents were natives of Kentucky and sometime prior to 1832 they moved to Northern Illinois, settling in the vicinity of Rock Island. When the Black Hawk war came on in 1832 they were still living there. This gave the boy an opportunity to see this small war with the Indians. To the end of his life he remembered many incidents of those stirring times. Having a keen sense of humor, nothing of the ridiculous escaped his attention. He would tell of a certain siege. The people were gathered in a fort. One new recruit was afraid to stand up to the port-hole and take aim at the foe. He would put his gun up to the port and fire at random. He was admonished by an old frontiersman and Indian fighter who said to him: “John, those Indians are not up in the sky flying around turkeys, as you seem to think, if your shooting is any sign. They are down here on the ground where any soldier with courage and sense can see them; take good aim and shoot at them.”

His father was a Free Will Baptist minister. The son joined the church of the same faith. While he was of a religious turn he was also a good thinker, and his soul was ever filled with mercy. The doctrine of eternal punishment and endless misery did not appeal to him. He was so constituted that he could never keep from speaking out plainly and denouncing any abuse coming to his knowledge. He spoke his mind on the matter of future punishment. This did not please his church and he was dismissed because he would not change his views and confess that he was in error.

Mr. Johnson was a vigorous and independent American citizen. He thought for himself on all subjects. He had little faith in blind partisanship. It was his judgment that the salvation of the country did not rest with any particular party. He believed in the broad application of the laws of humanity to political conditions. He believed that every man should have opportunity to work and that he should receive liberal compensation for the labor he performed. To him the fact that there was industrial oppression of the great mass of the people was plainly evident. And Mr. Johnson was a man who never evaded any responsibility. He believed it was his duty to help remedy any existing wrong. This caused him to align himself with the liberal movement in politics. He was in the greenback, union labor and populist parties. He voted for James G. Birney and Horace Greeley for President. In the later years of his life he was of the opinion that the emancipation of the laborers of America from social and industrial thraldom would come through socialism, and he became a member of the socialist party. He was no dreamer. He did not deceive himself. He did not expect to live to see the movement he championed succeed in his day. He did his duty to society and to his country as he saw it. He performed his duty as his conscience directed, and trusted the future for the benefit he was sure would result to humanity. Only such men are real leaders. It requires a sublime courage to stand for those things which only bring success in the far future. But it is the salvation of the world that there have always been such men.

In 1859 Mr. Johnson removed from Missouri to Nebraska. There he engaged in freighting across the great plains. In this business he continued for seven years, driving over the old Oregon trail to Denver and Salt Lake City. His integrity was well known. Shippers knew that every pound of freight entrusted to him would be delivered at its destination in good condition if it was in the power of man to do it. He dealt justly with the Indians, but was also firm in requiring them to be just to him. He came to be well known among them and they respected him and protected his trains. He saw the plains black with millions of buffalo. Sometimes he was obliged to stop and permit them to pass on before he could resume his journey. He was disgusted with the wanton slaughter of these great game animals. He saw them slain by thousands, for their hides only. Against this cruel practice he protested, and he refused to kill them. He was proud to say that he never killed a buffalo.

Mr. Johnson moved to Kansas from Nebraska and settled on a farm in Pottawatomie County. There he lived until age began to weigh him down. He was twice married. All his children by his first marriage are dead. One of them, Bird Johnson, was long connected with the Rocky Mountain News. Of the children by his second marriage four are still living: John W. Johnson, 820 Lincoln Street, Topeka; Jesse R. Johnson of Lincoln, Nebraska; Oscar Johnson; and Mrs. Fred Hulse of Manhattan, Kansas. John W. and Jesse are connected with the Capper publications at Topeka.

This good citizen and pioneer in three states lived to extreme old age. He died from an accident at Manhattan, April 2, 1916, aged ninety-six years. At his funeral the minister said:

“He did not believe that in heaven where God’s will is done, that the rum power was allowed to exist, and so he was among the first to try to wipe this evil from the face of the earth.

“He did not believe that in heaven where God’s will is done, men have greater privileges than women and so he always favored female suffrage.

“He could not believe that in heaven where God’s will is supreme that some live in luxury while others suffered in want and misery and so he reasoned that socialism was right, because it was the only way to have God’s will done on earth, as it is in heaven. And to you, his children and grandchildren, I will say weep not, his work is done. Listen to the voice of one that spoke as never man spoke and I believe in spite of doctrines and dogmas that he has received that welcome plaudit ‘as you did it unto the least of these you have done it also unto me, enter thou into the joy of the Lord.’ He has left to you neither lands nor gold but he has given you an inheritance of greater value. And I ask you to improve those splendid qualities of heart and mind inherited from a noble sire and go forward as he did battling for the right, as God gives you to see the right. Until our Father’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, or until your earthly career is ended and you will find, as did your father, that on the flowery path of duty there is no dark river to cross. ‘I care not for your temples and creeds, one thing hold sure and fast, ’tis in the many ample days and deeds that soul of man is cast.”’

Hulse, Johnson,

Connelley, William E. A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans. Chicago : Lewis, 1918. 5v. Biographies can be accessed from this page: Kansas and Kansans Biographies.

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