Volume 1, Number 3 - Spring 1962

William Jeptha Johnson
A Memoir by his Granddaughter, Faun I. Hill

William Jeptha Johnson was born in Kentucky and came to Missouri with his parents in 1830, when he was four years of age. The elder Johnsons built a home on lower James river before Greene county was organized. Greene county took in a huge area extending to the White River, then the border between Missouri and Arkansas. The family home fell in Taney county when that county was split off in 1837. Finally, they were residents of Christian county at the organization of that county in 1859 from portions of Greene, Taney and Webster counties.

With a life span of 88 years, from 1826 to 1914, William Jeptha Johnson saw the area develop from wilderness trails and river-boat freight to the building of Powersite dam near Forsyth in 1912.

He spoke of five families who lived in the area before the Indians left. These were: the Yoachum family at the mouth of James river; the Stillons who located 22 miles up Finley creek; Mr. Boswell, who had a trading post at the mouth of Swan Creek; Brink Schriebner, who hunted with the Indians and lived at the mouth of Little Beaver creek; and Grancer Wright, who lived on Brushy creek and told of watching the Indians gathering preparatory to leaving Missouri.

Mr. Johnson remembered when men of the area banded together and drove their wagons, most of them pulled by oxen, to St. Louis for supplies. Their wagons were loaded with dried deer meat, fur pelts, grain anything the settlers had to sell. Mr. Johnson had lost his father shortly after their arrival in Missouri; and it was as a boy that he went along on these freighting trips. On the home journey, the wagons were loaded with a year's supply of ammunition, salt, and whatever other provisions the pioneers could afford to buy. Mr. Johnson recalled also the time when the Springfield, Missouri, post office was housed in a log cabin.

He told of seeing the Cherokees being driven by Government guards in 1838 along the "trail of tears." He said most of them were afoot as they proceeded down Finley creek to James River. They followed the James to the White, where they encamped for several days. He said some of the Indians died and are buried near that camp site.

In 1848, a young man of 22, Mr. Johnson rode horseback with the brother of Theopholis Bass from James to White Rivers. Theopholis was Taney county representative in the state legislature, and had died at Jefferson City. His brother was carrying the sad news back to Theopholis' widow, and taking home his horse and some legal papers. Grandfather accompanied the brother because he feared Mr. Bass would get lost in the wilderness.

In the spring of 1861 William Jeptha Johnson joined a group of Union volunteers. He served in the battle of Wilson's Creek and in several skirmishes with the rebels. The family home, 12 miles from the battle scene, was abandoned during the Wilson's Creek fighting.

Mr. Johnson told of a cannon ball being fired through the court house at Forsyth as Confederate troops were being pushed back into Arkansas. He spoke of a skirmish which occurred east of Taney Flats (in the old McGelligutt field) near the head of Mack's creek; also one that occurred at Lawrence Mill on Beaver creek. He was once taken prisoner by the Confederates but managed to escape. His brother, James, also a Union soldier, was killed in 1863.

William Jeptha Johnson's son, Allen, joined the Union army in 1861 at the age of 16. His leader was Willis Kissee. Allen was with the company when it encountered the outlaw and bushwhacker Alf Bowlin and his men in a canebrake near the mouth of Big Beaver creek in Taney county. Bowlin and his men swam White river during the night and escaped into Arkansas. Kissee and his men trailed the outlaws and trapped them inside a cave. Again Bowlin escaped.

William Jeptha Johnson told of standing with another soldier on a street in Forsyth in 1863 watching a mob acting up terrible. The mob had a man tied behind a horse, which was dragging the body along the street. He said it was a poor thing to see, with the spectators following along and shouting like crazy.

When the Civil War ended Mr. Johnson resumed buying and selling livestock for a livelihood. He told how as early as 1842 he had loaded cattle on rafts and floated them down White river to sell wherever a market presented. By 1865 he was riding horseback from Springfield, Missouri, into the Boston mountains in Arkansas, buying up livestock to be driven to market. He sold meat on the hoof to the crews building a railroad across the mountains.

In 1871 he sold his James river farm and moved to one located on Big Beaver creek in Taney county. The year 1875 was a bad crop year. He had 400 head of hogs out on range, living on "mast." He drove the hogs from Big Beaver to Springfield, Missouri. The animals swam streams and ate acorns as they moved slowly along. Mr. Johnson said "Buffalo Bill" Cody and his show arrived in Springfield the same day as he did.

William Jeptha Johnson's second son, Thomas, rode his horse on a venturesome trip down into Texas, where he hired out as a cowboy. Later, in 1873, Thomas acted as scout and guide for a wagon train from Forsyth proceeding to ward Texas. John Stanley drove
the lead wagon with his family aboard. Other families in that wagon train were those of Torn Smith, Thomas Sheridan, Tom Hammond, and some of the Wrights. There were others whose names I failed to record. Most of the families returned to Missouri inside of five years.

In 1878 John Stanley led a second wagon train into Texas from Taney county. Some of the families in that train, most of whom this time remained in Texas, were the Tom Stewarts, Thomas Sheridans, and some of the Esslic and Lakie families, I believe.

My grandfather spoke of four water mills in operation before the Civil War: Oliver mill on Swan; Lawrence on Beaver; Gimlin on Big Beaver, and Fernex (later called Kissee Mills) near the mouth of Big Beaver. About 1890 a mill was built on his own farm on Big Beaver, on the north bank of the stream above Roller hollow. It was called Huntsman's Mill after the man who built it. The mill later was destroyed by a cyclone.

William Jeptha Johnson was married three times and fathered seven children. Listed in the order of their ages the children were: Allen, Thomas, Jane J. Mayden, Sarah J. Lawrence, Sherman - all deceased; William Jeptha, Jr., of Kirbyville, Missouri, and James of St. Louis.

There were no schools for William Jeptha Johnson to attend when he was growing up. In his later years, curious and eager to learn, he attended school with his own grand children.


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