Life Story of William Derby Johnson Sr.
1824-1896 (71 Years)
William Derby Johnson was born 27 October 1824, in Pomfret township (near Fredonia), Chautauqua County, New York, a son of Ezekiel and Julia Hills Johnson. He was the fourteenth child born into that family of sixteen children. When the Mormon Church was founded in 1830, he was six years of age. Two years later, in the spring of 1832, his mother, Julia Hills Johnson, "left Pomfret with her family of fifteen children to join the Prophet Joseph Smith at Kirtland, Ohio, in defiance of the wishes of her absent husband, Ezekiel." Julia’s oldest son, Joel Hills Johnson, had already joined the Mormon Church and had been instrumental in his mother’s joining. At the time of her baptism, the Prophet laid his hands upon Julia’s head and gave her a blessing for bringing such a large family into the Church. Julia’s family, including her married children’s families, is represented as being one of the largest families ever to join the Church and move West. Ezekiel, her husband, never joined the Church. He remained quite bitter until the time of the martyrdom. The death of the Prophet Joseph and his brother Hyrum Smith impressed Ezekiel as being so unjust that his feelings mellowed greatly toward the Mormons. He died in Nauvoo in 1848, as a result of a beating administered to him in reprisal of his defense of the saints in Nauvoo against mobs.
William Derby Johnson was baptized while the family was living in Kirtland, according to Church records, 9 April 1836, by Samuel Bent. They moved to Springfield, Illinois for several years before moving to Nauvoo.
They started west with the Exodus in 1846, but returned and came later in 1849. Because his father did not join the church at the time his mother did, there was quite a bit of confusion and difficulties in the home, and a large family to support.
On 9 November 1848, William Derby Johnson married Jane Cadwallader Brown, (born 5 June 1832 in Birmingham (southeast of Sandusky), Erie, Ohio the daughter of Abia William Brown and Abby Cadwallader), in Nauvoo, Hancock County, Illinois, where they remained until the exodus in 1849.
The family stopped in Kanesville, Iowa, (Council Bluff area) for several years before coming on to Utah. In 1848, he signed a petition in Pottawattamie County, Iowa, to secure a Post Office in that county. He served as deputy postmaster in Kanesville, as well as in Florence (now Omaha), Nebraska for a period of two years.
William was employed by his older brother, Joseph Ellis. Joseph Ellis Johnson owned and operated a general merchandise and drugstore along with his printing business in Kanesville. While he was away on pioneering explorations, business with the Indians, or other journeys, William was left in charge of sales and medicine making. From that time forward, wherever William Derby Johnson settled, he carried on with merchandising and the making of medicines with herbs; in Florence (now Omaha), Nebraska; Council Bluffs, Iowa; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Johnson, Kane County.
Concerning his use of herbs for medicines, a granddaughter, Jane Cadwallader Johnson Parry, wrote of him many years later.
"My grandfather, William Derby Johnson, Sr., was a pharmacist and he made a medicine we called ‘essence of life.’ It was good for fevers, intestinal inflammation, etc. In fact, he told us it was a cure for cholera. He also made a stomach powder that was just wonderful and a salve we called ‘Johnson salve.’ Of course the recipes were kept very "hush-hush." I have the one for the salve. It is good, but it is hard to get the ingredients to make it with."
After arriving in Kanesville, Iowa, their first child, William Derby Johnson Jr., was born. Years later he wrote in his diary,
"April 1852 we moved to Traders Point, about six miles from Council Bluffs. I had small pox soon after we moved and came near dying. In April 1853 we moved to Council Bluffs. Early in the spring of 1855, my father went into the woods and cut his own timber and build a store one and one-half stories high; finished it in forepart of summer. Father had saved from his wages, (as clerk in Uncle Joseph’s Drug Store), $250.00 in cash; this he took to St. Louis and bought fancy notions, candy, etc., and got credit for $50.00 and commenced merchandising..."
William Derby Johnson Sr. tells of an interesting experience he encountered one day while hauling a load of merchandise for his store in Council Bluffs. As he traveled along at about midday, he came across a man walking along the road. William stopped and the man climbed up beside him. The stranger said to him, "You are planning on camping at this certain spot tonight." He then told William not to camp there as he had planned, but to change his camping plans as there would be Indian trouble that night... He also gave him some other advice. The stranger then got down from the wagon and bid him good day. William turned to the stranger to inquire his name, where he had come from, and where he was going, but to his amazement the man was nowhere to be seen. He had disappeared as suddenly as he had come. However, William followed the stranger’s advice and changed his camping place... He learned later that the immigrants who had camped there that night were all slaughtered by the Indians.
The Johnson’s second son, Elmer Wood Johnson, who was also born in Council Bluffs, 18 May 1854, gives the following account of their next move.
"We moved to Florence, Nebraska, when I was nearly two years of age. At that time our family consisted of Father, Mother, my brother, William Derby Jr., my baby sister, Jennie Ann and myself. My father kept a store there of general merchandise and we lived in a two-story house.
"In 1861 we crossed the plains with ox team with an emigrant train of Mormons. Cousin Sixtus Johnson, son of Uncle Joel Hills Johnson, was captain of the company. Father had a wagon with four head of oxen and another with two; also a wagon with two horses.
"Our group now consisted of Father, Mother, Willie, eleven years old, myself 7, Jennie 5, Julia 3, and Etta Elmera 1 year, Father’s widowed sister, Almera Barton and her three daughters, Della, Alvira, and Julia, and my Mother’s brother, Abia William Brown. The horse team wagon was occupied by my mother and the children. When camping they formed a half circle to the left and one to the right. In the center they would make a big fire and spend the evening holding meetings, singing, dancing and having an enjoyable time...
"My brother Willie drove one of the ox teams. He loved to read and would often ride along reading, paying no attention to the gait of the oxen until they would get far behind and father would send me back to punch them up so Willie could catch up with the company.
"We arrived in Salt Lake in the fall of 1861. Father bought a house on South Temple about the center of the present Union Pacific Depot. He improved the house and built onto the building until we had a six-room house, three rooms on the ground floor and three bedrooms upstairs. His store was in one of the lower rooms facing north. Our lot of one and one-fourth acres was all planted to orchard, berries, and garden. It was good to have fresh fruit and vegetables again.
"In November, 1870, we were advised by President Brigham Young to move to Southern Utah. My father’s family now consisted of myself, Jennie, Julia, Etta, Abia, Byron and Josey. My brother Willie was married and my sister, Nancy, who was born in Salt Lake City, had died in infancy. We lived that winter in the town of Washington, five miles from St. George and in the spring went to Kanab country and settled in what is now known as Johnson (previously called Hay Canyon). We built a four-room house and commenced tilling the soil. There we had numerous Indian troubles and they were so insulting we were advised to spend the following winter, 1872-1873 in Kanab. By spring the Indian trouble had settled down and it was apparently safe, so we moved back to Johnson.
"At Johnson, father built a house, adobe, four rooms above and five below, with a big porch and a store. Father always had a stock of goods on hand to sell. He had a shop where he made trunks, household furniture and harnesses. His motto was, "Always have something to sell and sooner or later someone will buy it."
From William Derby Johnson Jr’s. diary we read of this period.
"The last of April we moved all the folks to Johnson. We all worked hard, plowing, planting, etc., but in July the grasshoppers came and ate up nearly everything. Uncle Benjamin got discouraged and went back to Spring Lake. That left only Father, Nephi, and Sixtus to hold the place. On account of Indian uprisings and difficulties we were counseled to leave and move into the larger settlements. Therefore, we went to Kanab in September and got rooms in the old Fort."
Three other children were born to Jane and William while living in Johnson. They were Carlos Smith, Hannah Zelnora, and Lodemia Viola. Carlos and Lodemia both died in infancy and are buried in the Johnson cemetery.
W.D. and his family made many fine improvements in Johnson. They had a good garden, orchard, flowers, park, fishponds, and they raised chickens, ducks, and other farm animals. He was a very humble man and never wanted his good deeds to be talked about. He never wanted to be called upon to speak in Church. He was very strict about being on time, and was always in the lead when it came to helping with Church buildings. He stood five-feet-six inches tall, and weighed 160 pounds, had dark complexion and dark hair. He paid his tithing and Church donations faithfully and taught his children to be strictly honest.
Many years later, his children said that one of his peculiarities was at mealtime, when he insisted on eating his dessert, pie or cake, at the beginning of the meal, as he always said if he had to leave off anything it would be the potatoes and gravy and not the cake.
His family also told that he always gave a long sincere prayer at mealtime. When the children were hungry, it seemed long indeed. But they always knew that when he came to the part of asking the blessing on the potatoes and gravy that the prayer was almost over.
W.D. Johnson Sr. dammed up the stream and made a pond in the center of the valley, also one on the west side under the ledges, in which he raised fish and kept ducks. His family later said that he was so fond of his fish, he even had names for many of them; that when he’d feed them, he’d call them by name and they’d swim up to get the food.
His granddaughter, Jane Cadwallader Johnson Parry, says that her father, William Derby Johnson, Jr., told her the following story about her grandfather while he was living in Johnson.
"One day some little ducklings got away from the pond and their mother. Grandpa saw them and heard their squawking. He tried to drive them to the pond, but they wouldn’t go. So he caught them one by one and put their heads between his fingers and started toward the pond.
"The ducks kept squawking, of course, so he ran with them, afraid that they would die before he got them there. He was going so fast that when he neared the pond he couldn’t slow down enough, and into the pond he went with the ducks.
"Getting out, he looked all around to see if anyone had seen him take the plunge. Not seeing anyone, he went on about his work. By noon when Grandma called him to dinner, his clothing was dry. Grandma asked him, ‘William, why didn’t you come in and change your clothes when they were wet?’
"How did you know that I got wet?" he asked.
"I saw you fall into the pond with the ducks."
"Fine thing," Grandpa bristled, "you would let me stay out there and catch my death of cold, instead of calling me in to change my clothes."
"But Grandma just said, "William, after all, I thought you were old enough to KNOW."
The Johnson ward was not fully organized until 7 August 1877, as part of the Kanab Stake. William Derby was the presiding priest but had no counselors. His wife Jane served as Relief Society President. It was a small ward and when most of the Johnson brothers and their families went to Mexico the little ward soon fell apart and was disorganized on 8 June 1901.
William Derby Johnson went to Arizona about 1888 and a little later in 1889 or 1890 he moved on to Colonia Diaz, Mexico where his son William Derby Jr. was living. (His notes say Diaz, Mexico, 21 September 1890.) They sold their property in Utah for $50,000 and were able to build a very fine home, the finest house in the colony.
A letter appearing in the Deseret News (15 Jan 1889) says: Bishop Peter A. Lofgreen of St. David Ward in Graham County, Arizona, in the St. Joseph Stake had called William Derby Johnson as one of his counselors. A note in church history related that William Derby Johnson Sr. was re-baptized 13 Aug 1881, by his son William Derby Johnson Jr. and was re-confirmed the same day by him.
William Derby was ordained a High Priest in Diaz, Mexico, on 27 March 1894. He was ordained a Patriarch on 22 December 1895, by Francis M. Lyman in Colonia Diaz, Mexico.
He was a quiet, stern man and complied with his wife’s every wish, one of which was that he did not go into polygamy, though he did have one other woman sealed to him, he never lived with anyone except his beloved wife Jane. They were a very energetic couple and very generous. No one ever went hungry or without a bed around him. Both he and his wife were very kind and conservative. He was a leader in building up the communities in which he lived, and tended strictly to his own business, and kept his word good always. When he told his children to do a thing, they knew he really meant it.
He died in Colonia Diaz, Chihuahua, Mexico on 13 April 1896, of stoppage of the kidneys and old age, at the age of 71, leaving his wife "well fixed" and near loved ones. Everyone in the town was at his funeral. He was buried in Colonia Diaz, as was his wife, Jane, who died 19 January 1908, twelve years after his husband. William Derby expressed the desire that he did not want to be buried in a casket covered with cloth, as he wanted a stained wood casket. But when he died they were unable to find such a casket or a wood to take a stain; so they covered it with a black velvet.
Zeno Martel Johnson drove the team on a spring delivery wagon, with William Derby Johnson Sr’s. body to the cemetery in Colonia Diaz. He said the wind was blowing terrible that day in April.
William Derby Johnson Sr. and his wife Jane Cadwallader Brown were a very kind couple and a remarkable one, long to be remembered by their many relatives and friends who knew them.The posterity of William Derby Sr. and Jane Cadwallader Brown numbered 12 children and 107 grandchildren. There children are:
William Derby Johnson Jr.
2 May 1850
17 Oct 1923
Elmer Wood Johnson
18 May 1854
6 May 1936
Jennie Ann Johnson
31 Mar 1856
2 Aug 1925
Julia Abby Johnson
22 Apr 1858
8 Nov 1919
Ester Almera Johnson
2 May 1860
13 Jan 1919
Mary Maria Johnson
28 Jan 1863
6 Oct 1863
Abia Ezekiel Johnson
29 Jan 1865
7 Nov 1932
Byron Elwood Johnson
13 Jan 1867
16 Apr 1904
Joseph Hills Johnson
28 Jan 1869
27 Nov 1927
Carlos Smith Johnson
6 May 1871
20 June 1872
Hannah Zelnora Johnson
12 Aug 1873
6 Mar 1920
Lodemia Viola Johnson
14 Jun 1876
2 Aug 1877
Compiled January 1994 by Joyce Whiting Packard from the following records:
1. "Romance of a Church Farmhouse," by Adonis Findley Robinson.2. "Wilma’s Family Life Sketches," by Wilma Fillerup Turley.3. "The Johnson Informer," Johnson Family Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 3, August 1954.
|copyright 2005 Brian Simper|