The story of Britton “Britt” Johnson is remarkable for many reasons. He was known to have been brave, a loving husband and father and a capable businessman. He was born into slavery although he was a freedman for at least several years before his death. Possibly related to the fact that he was at one time a slave and that his family line seems to have ended without any known descendants, detailed genealogy information about Britt Johnson and his family is still unknown.
His last name was the same as that of the family of Moses E. Johnson, a farmer. According to census records, Moses Johnson is believed to have been born in Tennessee in the late 1700s and died in North Texas sometime after 1860. The indications are that Britt came with the Moses Johnson family from Tennessee and that they possibly lived in Navarro County for some time before moving to Young County in North Texas. The online genealogy records for Moses Johnson are somewhat abbreviated at this time time. The Moses Johnson family was small but they had at least two sons, and possibly three. One of the sons was James Allen Johnson and the available records for him and his family are somewhat more complete.
James Allen Johnson was born in Tennessee in 1806 and died in Young County, Texas in 1878. He was married twice, first to Martha Jane Parker and after her death, to Nancy Bragg. Each union produced a number of children. He was the first sheriff of Navarro County, which also seems to support that Moses also may have once lived there in that county. After James died, he was interred in small cemetery in Eliasville called the Peveler Cemetery, along with two of his daughters, a son in law, and several members of the Peveler family.
There is still a lot about Britt and his family that is not presently known, including his and his wife’s actual date of birth. In online genealogy records, his date of birth is usually given or at least estimated to be 1840 or 1841. His wife’s is estimated to be about 1845, but both are most likely later than the actual dates, since they would have been teenagers or younger when they came to Texas. Some genealogy records also note a Tennessee wedding of a Brittain Johnson and a Mary Ann E. Tucker in December of 1851, but the ethnicity of the individuals is not noted and it is probably not possible to determine whether this record relates to Britt Johnson and his wife.
As noted, Britt is assumed to have come to Texas as a slave but appears to have become a freedman by some point during the Civil War. Beyond this uncertainty, the rest of his story seems to be fairly well known, though probably more by oral tradition than by actual documentation.
On October 13, 1864, a combined force of Kiowa and Comanche raided an area called Elm Creek while Britt was away from the homestead either working or getting supplies. When he returned, Britt and others found that twelve homes had been burned, a number of people had been killed (including Britt’s unnamed oldest son) and eight women and children had been apparently taken as captives by the raiders. Among the captives were Britt’s wife and two of his children.
Over the next several months, Britt investigated and was able to locate camps where he felt that his family might have been taken. At first, he went alone with his horse, a pack horse and supplies, his rifle and pistols looking for them. In time, Britt is said to have befriended several individuals among the Kiowa and Comanche. Some accounts mention that Britt could carry on a conversation with them in their common language of Spanish. Over the next several months, Britt returned several times, finally securing the release of his own family and several other captives.
The captives returned to their homes and Britt and his family resumed their lives. The war soon ended. As noted, the exact date that he became a freedman is apparently unknown. The logical assumption is that it was after the end of the Civil War, but if he were still a slave during the war, Britt seemed to have a lot of freedom and autonomy before and the raid. He was free to come and go before the raid and to search for his family after the raid.
Britt is believed to have started a freight business and lived with his family in his own home. He is thought to have hauled freight between frontier towns, even though the North Texas area was still subject to raids from the tribes. Several accounts mention that Britt had been warned by the Kiowa that he would be killed if he was caught alone by them. It was one one of his freight hauling trips on January 27, 1871 that he and two associates, Paint Crawford and Dennis Cureton, were attacked and killed by a group of Kiowa near Graham, Texas in an place along the Salt Creek of the Brazos River. Their bodies were found and buried fairly soon after they were killed. A roughly chiseled stone marked the spot. The burial site is currently on private property.
Britt’s story has been recounted in newspaper articles and books. There was a great deal of interest around 1930 when the story one of the former captives he recovered, Millie Durgan (or Durkin), became known. A book by Joseph Carroll McConnell called “The West Texas Frontier” can be downloaded. In it the author says that he personally interviewed numerous people to produce his account of Britt’s story.
There is one account that is sometimes mentioned in connection with the Britt Johnson story. During the Great Depression, the WPA funded some oral interviews, one of which was given by a John Johnson in Oklahoma. Mr. Johnson’s interview, referenced in some other books but not currently available online, is said to assert that he was born in captivity to the wife of Britt Johnson. There were some reasons why it is not associated with other accounts including a date inconsistency. The date of the Elm Creek raid is set in 1863 rather than 1864. Also, Mr. Johnson was said not to have been ransomed for eight years after the raid. Accepting that Mr. Johnson was born in captivity, some confusion might be understandable. Perhaps at some later time, this account can be reconciled with other accounts, but although it may be mentioned in connection with the Britt Johnson story it is not considered to be part of the accepted account.
As for Britt’s family, possibly someday the rest of their story will be known, but at present, there are no known accounts of their life after Britt was killed. Their oldest son, the victim of the 1864 raid, is said to be buried in the Belknap Cemetery, formerly also the site of graves for soldiers at Fort Belknap, but there is no tombstone for him. The locations of the graves of Britt’s wife and remaining children are currently unknown.
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