THE DROWNING OF SAM JOHNSON
By S. C. Turnbo
Among the sad incidents that occurred on White River was the drowning of Sam Johnson who was one of the early settlers of Ozark County, Mo. and lived at the time of his death in the forks of Little North Fork and Brattons Spring Creek. Sam Johnson was a son of Samuel Johnson who lived in Tennessee. Sam Johnson the subject of this sketch was married in Tenn. but he and his wife separated and when he come to Ozark county he married Miss Hettie Keesee daughter of Paton Keesee and lived a number of years on the farm mentioned. Johnson traded in horses and would take them south and sell them for a handsome price. On the 9th day of February 1860 Mr. Johnson met a tragic death by drowning in White River at the George Pearson Farm 3 miles below where Oakland now is. The George Pearson Place is an old farm on the left bank of the river. Levi Pearson father of George Pearson lived on this land some time before the year 1824. The details of the death of Sam Johnson was furnished me by my old time friend William Trimble son of Allin Trimble. In giving the sad account Mr. Trimble told it in this way. "I and Johnson had started south with a drove of horses to sell to the planters there. When we arrived at the river where the old Pearson Farm is we found the river was swollen several feet past fording. There was a small dugout canoe moored at the landing and receiving permission from the owner for the use of it we commenced to swim the horses across to the opposite shore at the side of this dugout. Of course we could not swim but one horse at a time. The little craft was so tottery that it was dangerous. A few men were standing on the south bank of the river near the Van Lantz residence and other men were standing on the bank on the George Pearson side. All of these men were watching us swim the horses. One of the horses was very unruly and when we had lead him into the water he gave us trouble and just as we left the landing he plunged and struck the canoe and filled it partly with water. I tried to persuade Johnson for us to turn back to the shore and throw the water out of the craft but he replied that he thought the horse would quiet down in a few moments but in place of growing calm he become more unruly. I was steering the canoe and Johnson was holding the horse by the halter. Just before we reached midstream the horse sulled and quit swimming and Johnson held his head up out of the water to prevent him from strangling, and after pulling the contrary animal through the water until we reached midstream when the horse plunged forward and struck the little craft with his fore feet and capsized it. The horse after finding that he was free struck out to swimming for the same shore we had started from and after the water had drifted him down some distance reached the bank in safety. I and Johnson were both excellent swimmers but when I was thrown out of the canoe the cold water chilled my body like it was encased in ice and I suppose it was the same with Johnson. Mr. Johnson had on a full suit of new blue jeans clothes that his wife and daughters had made on the hand loom. He also had $40 in gold and silver in his pockets. I had on a pair of pants, a vest and leggings made of casmere cloth. I also had on a pair of heavy shoes with a pair of heavy spurs buckled on them. But fortunately I had left my coat back on shore. I also had $8 dollars in silver in my pocket. George Pearson said that when Johnson had swam in 30 yards of the bank he saw him raise both hands and heard him cry out "Oh Lord", and sank immediately. Before I reached the shore which was on the same side of the river we started from I was so chilled by the cold water that I was not able to use my legs and feet in propelling myself through the water and was compelled to use my arms and hands only. It was all I could do to reach the bank for my strength was gone and my body was benumbed with cold. After I had got out of the water and changed my clothes it was several hours before the natural warm returned back to my body and limbs. Poor A. Sam Johnson. Just only an hour before this he was in good health and very jovial now he was gone, he had passed over the great dark valley of death and we will never see him any more alive. Though the water in the river was swollen and muddy and it was disheartning to attempt to search for the body at the stage the water was now, but never the less willing hands began making preparations at once to search the river in dug out canoes. Word was sent up and down the river for men and canoes and the search began as soon as preparations could be made. In a day or two the river rose higher and the incessant rains kept the water at a high stage for three weeks but the men did not relax in their duty of hunting for the dead body. But their energetic work was not successful until the 9th day of March when the water had subsided so rapidly a few days before this date that the searching party were enabled to make better success of their work." Elias Keesee told the author how the body was found which he retold in the following way. "I and another man whose name I disremember now were in a canoe together at the head of Long Iseland some three miles below where Johnson was drowned and discovered the body where it was lodged against a stooping sycamore tree and we lifted the dead body from its resting place and laid it down in the canoe and took it ashore where in a few hours a crowd of men women and children collected to see the dead man and learn where it was found. Fish or something else had destroyed a portion of the face. Among the women that were there was the wife of George Hogan. She was a daughter of Joe Coker and had Indian blood in her veins. This kind lady was not a bit backward in doing her duty and assisted me to wrap the dead form in a blanket before we could convey it home. Mr. Johnson received interment on his old farm at the mouth of Brattons Spring Creek."
Springfield-Greene County Library