Today’s story comes from a relative of Captain George E. Johnson who contacted me a week ago. I will first just put out three family pictures that were sent to me and then work out the story in the next day or so. While it confirms a statement I made in my book, Where Have All the Sheep Gone? Sheep Herders and Ranchers in Arizona – A Disappearing Industry, about two people involved in the sheep industry in the late 1870s, it slightly changes a sentence in my book. I wrote “T. Fred Holden settled in Johnson’s Canyon, which already had sheep when Captain Johnson brought his sheep there in the late 1870s.” Captain Johnson brought his family, a wife and four children, and sheep in 1875 to the Arizona territory. T. Fred Holden married Johnson’s wife, Elizabeth, in 1884 three years after George died. It would be at this time that all the sheep would be sold. The couple would go on to raising cattle. There is more to the story which will be added as I want to confirm a few other facts before I write them. What is exciting is that it adds to the sheep history in the state.
Most of what is going to be posted here comes from a relative of Captain George E. Johnson and a sentence from Platt Cline’s They Came to the Mountain. A little background information – George, born in 1837 in the county of Lincolnshire, England, came to the United States in 1857 at the age of 20. That same year, he enlisted in the US Calvary and was discharged in 1862 as a sergeant. He reenlists a couple of times and finally in 1867 he enlists in Company C, 1st regiment of US Calvary that is assigned to Camp Lowell. Before he leaves for Arizona, he meets and marries Elizabeth Hogg who had arrived in 1867 as a sixteen year old born in Ulceby, England. Elizabeth and George travel to Arizona. Several children are born to the couple while George is in the calvary: Maude (1869, Camp Lowell) and twins, Albert Sidney and a brother who did not survive (1872, Camp McDermitt, NV). He asks and is granted a discharge after 15 years in the military. He contracts with the camp to haul hay and straw from 1872 to 1875. Two more children are born to the couple, Arthur W. (1874) and Gertrude (1875).
In 1875, for reasons that have not been related, George, Elizabeth, Maude, Albert Sidney, Arthur W. and Gertrude with 2,000 sheep head to Arizona. The family compiling the history said, “the trip from Nevada to Arizona covered all kinds of climatic conditions, from deserts to high mountains.” An obstacle was getting 2,000 sheep across the “mad rushing torrent of muddy water” wrote the family. “The man in charge of Scanlon’s Ferry located some small boats and loaded the sheep in them. Tying the boats together, they came across in fairly good condition, a little wet but otherwise unharmed.” Driving the sheep hard day and night, they finally reached Little Tully Basin just as the sun was setting. They believed that this was just the perfect basin for the sheep and raising their family. But, the next year proved otherwise.
On Christmas Eve, 1876, t it began to snow and by morning there were four feet of snow in the basin! Continuing in the words of the family, “Right then and there they decided to leave the basin. It was going to be a hard job to move all the sheep and their personal belongings out. George had to cut trees and pull them over the ground to make a path to be followed.” When they finally reached the rim of the basin near Asher Flat (may be Ashier Flat as both spellings are used in the material given to me by the family) the ground only had a few inches of snow on it. “They stayed in Ashier Flat the rest of the winter, moving to the canyon that bears their name, Johnson Canyon, located 10 miles west of present day Williams, AZ.” A permanent move to Johnson Canyon took place in 1879. The sheep were grazed on grasses in the winter time in Ashier Flat and the summer, they were moved to the Little Tully Basin.
The closest town to purchase supplies and seek medical help was Prescott, as Williams did not exist yet. Twice a year, George would hitch up his wagon and head to Prescott for supplies. This left Elizabeth and the children to care for the ranch with the sheep while George would be gone. It is not mentioned in the family notes how long of a trip it was to Prescott so we can only imagine that Elizabeth had several weeks to take care of all the sheep, her family and worry about any threat from Indians.
While this is not a story of the railroad, it is an interesting sideline to the story of the Johnson’s and how the canyon became known as Johnson Canyon. In the words of the family, “In 1880, the three Johnson children, Maude, Albert and Arthur, were out playing. They looked up and saw four strange men coming down the canyon. The children ran home calling, ‘Father, Father, some men dropped out of the shy,’ they cried in chorus. George came running out of the corral and came to a sudden, sliding halt. With a stunned look on his face, when he saw the men and all the equipment they were carrying. ‘Well sirs, my children said you had dropped out of the sky, and darned if I don’t agree with them. Just where did you come from?’
The men gave a hearty laugh and one said, ‘we’re railroad surveyors for the Atlantic and Pacific railroad. They want to put the railroad through here.’ George shook hands with the men and said to them, ‘Come in to the house and have dinner with us.’ After eating a hearty meal and enjoying the Johnson’s hospitality, the surveyors said, ‘they had to get back to their job.’ Upon leaving they promised to name the canyon “Johnson Canyon” after them in appreciation of the hospitality shown to them by the Johnson family. True to their work, you can find Johnson Canyon on Arizona maps to this day.”
In the 1880 census, the Johnson’s are listed: George E. Johnson, 43, sheep raiser, wife, Elizabeth, 33, two sons, Albert and Arthur, and three daughters, Maude, Gertrude and Helena, who was born in 1879. This information is in both the family recorders and Platt Cline’s book, They Came to the Mountain.
In 1881 tragedy strikes the family as George becomes ill and is even too sick to make the trip alone to Prescott. Leaving the children, Elizabeth hitches the four horse team herself and takes her husband to Prescott for medical attention. George passes away in Prescott in November, leaving Elizabeth six months pregnant and five other children to care for. The family records say, “Elizabeth was left a widow by the death of her husband. Those were days when ranching was dangerous enough for a man, what must it have been for Elizabeth. She faced the future alone with her children and a sheep ranch to care for. Girthing on her husband’s holster, she faced the future bravely. There were times when she had to use the gun in self defense, but she knew how to use it. Albert, his brother, and sisters were educated early in North Arizona ranching. George’s last son was born in March 1882, four months after the passing of his father. Elizabeth named him George W. Johnson!
Elizabeth, with her children, continued to run the sheep for a couple more years. In 1884, Elizabeth meets Thomas Fred Holden, a stage driver. Sometime during the year they married. They sold the sheep sometime during the year and went into the cattle business.
The Johnson’s may not have been in the sheep business long in Arizona, 1875 to 1884, and George may have continued to raise sheep for many more years if he had not died in 1881. Why Elizabeth and T. Fred Holden converted the ranch to cattle was not explained in the family records. It would be interesting to know the answer to that question.
This concludes the story of the Johnson and their part in the sheep business in Arizona. It helps to clarify my statement that I started with at the beginning of this story. I thank the Johnson family for passing this information on to me.