Digging up my Kansas Roots
By Jim Johnson
“There is a history in all men’s lives.” – William Shakespeare
While I had traveled across Kansas many times earlier times in my life, it was not until January 8th, 1984 that my job brought me to Dodge City to live. I’ve always had a keen interest in history so when I arrived in Dodge City it was with great anticipation, given its pivotal place in the story of the expanding western frontier of this country. Gradually, through extensive reading, I became much more versed in what I found to be exciting stories of the area’s past. But I had not thought to examine my own roots in relation to the history I was studying.
After living in Dodge City for a couple of years, I happened to be looking back through some of my family background and discovered a Kansas tie I had been unaware of. It turned out that my great-great-grandfather and namesake, James E. Johnson, had been an 1857 immigrant from Ohio into the Dragoon Creek settlement in Northeast Kansas. This settlement eventually became Harveyville, KS.
In the mid 1980s, My wife and I traveled to Wabaunsee County and did a little digging in the local archives at Alma. We located where the old homestead had been and the stone house great great grandpa’s oldest son James Monroe Johnson had built along the Dragoon Creek. We also found a half dozen or more of my relatives in the Harveyville cemetery.
Since I am a military veteran, I have a special interest in the military records of my relatives. The two military veterans I knew of were my great grandfather and one of his brothers.
John William Johnson, middle son of James E. Johnson and brother to my great grandfather served in the 8th Kansas Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Company E, under a Captain Grelish. He had enlisted in 1861 in the Union Army in nearby Wilmington, KS. I have read a copy of a letter he wrote home from the camp in Corinth, MS. This spring (2009) I was able to briefly visit Jacinto Courthouse, Mississippi where my great-great uncle is reported to have died of disease during General Rosecran’s campaign in the south. Unfortunately, I could not find his burial.
The 8th Kansas Regiment subsequently went on to distinguish itself at the Battle of Nashville, the Siege of Atlanta, and the Battle of Chickamagua where the regiment lost nearly half of its compliment. In the end, my great-great uncle was one of 92 private soldiers in the regiment who died of disease.
Further research also turned up records with the Kansas State Historical Society which showed that my great grandfather, Thomas Robinson Johnson, had served in the so called Indian Wars with the 19th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, Company M, and therein was a tie for my family to Dodge City far prior to my own. In fact, Some time before the existence of the town itself!
If you aren’t into historical information in this High Plains region, you might want to cruise on to the next article in your copy of Legends now. But if you are still with me and at least a little curious... here we go!
In the spring of 1868, the “Indian depredations” began to get everyone’s attention. That is, everyone who wasn’t an Indian, I suppose! In June, the Cheyennes made a raid into the State as far as Council Grove. In August a raid was made on the settlers along the Solomon and Saline valleys where men, women and children were murdered. In response, then Governor Samuel J. Crawford called into the State’s service 5 companies of volunteer cavalry from the militia. Mustered into service October 20th, 1868 at Topeka were 1,200 men for a six month enlistment to help the regular Army fight the Cheyenne, Kiowa, Comanche and Arapahoe which had been raiding out of “Indian Territory” (present day Oklahoma).
The Governor then resigned his office and took command of the Regiment himself. A number of well known people served with the 19th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry Regiment including David L. Payne who served as Captain of Company A and later became known as the “Father of Oklahoma”.
On November 5th, 1868, the majority of the Regiment broke camp in Topeka and headed southwest to Fort Supply where they were to meet up with the US Army’s Seventh Cavalry. Probably due to the lack of proper military organization of this volunteer organization what records there are for the Regiment are very sketchy but evidently Company M was split off to other duty and my great grandfather went with one of two details to either Fort Hays via rail or to Fort Dodge via the Santa Fe Trail.
The personal diary of David L. Spotts, “Campaining With Custer and the Nineteenth Kansas Volunteer Cavalry on the Washita Campaign, 1868 – ‘69”, chronicles the miserable experiences of most of the Regiment on its way to Fort Supply. This group frequently ran out of food and supplies. Many of the men resorted to eating their horses rather than starve thereby turning a goodly portion of the regiment into an infantry of sorts. Spotts’ account is well worth a read to give one a concept of what life was like for the volunteer soldier of the day. This diary should be available through the interlibrary loan program.
The regular Army at that time and in the western US was commanded by General Philip Sheridan whom history students will remember as coining the phrase, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” In the field, a portion of the US Army, the Seventh Cavalry Regiment, was commanded by the ever controversial Lieutenant Colonel (Brevet Brigadier General) George Armstrong Custer.
Custer had marched south out of Fort Dodge cutting a wagon road across what would later become Ford and Clark Counties in Kansas, and on to Fort Supply. There he tarried only briefly, waiting for the 19th Kansas who would have been in such a condition to be incapable of fighting anyone even if they had arrived at Fort Supply on time. Finally, Custer marched on the Cheyenne village on the Washita River in present day western Oklahoma where his forces fell upon Black Kettle’s people in what can only be described as a massacre.
My great grandfather at that time was either at Fort Hays or Fort Dodge. I can find no record yet that shows his whereabouts but clearly on April 18th, 1869 he would have been mustered out of service with the rest of the Regiment at Fort Hays. Again, Spotts’ account of the wild and woolly western town of Hays, Kansas and the trouble encountered by some members of the Regiment there is testament to, if not typical of, the rough and ready nature of the frontier of western Kansas at that time.
Thomas Robinson Johnson eventually left Kansas and moved to the town of Streator, Illinois where my grandfather and my father were born and raised. As a child I recall my grandfather and grandmother describing their brief experience with the “western frontier.” Perhaps as a result of listening to my great grandfather’s stories of the Western High Plains, Grandpa took his new wife and tried his luck as a homesteader in the Oklahoma Panhandle near Guymon. He and Grandma built and lived in a soddy there, and proved up on the claim only to give up and move back to Illinois where grandpa ran a flower shop until he died. I can still see him behind the counter in that store in my mind.
Now, here I am, 65 years of age and a 25 year resident in Southwest Kansas – longer than I have lived anywhere else in my life. I have traveled much of the world in my life including living for years in England and with military assignments elsewhere across the world. Yet, the simple charm of these Western High Plains are now engraved upon my soul. It is comforting to know that I appear to be just another in the progression of Johnsons who are tied in one way or another to the Sunflower State and the “Wild West.”