abilenet March 10th, 2009
Born a slave in Tennessee around 1840, Britton “Britt” Johnson would become a famous West Texas character for his exploits of bravery. He came to Texas in the 1850s with his master Moses Johnson, who had bought land in the Peters’ Colony. As a reward for Britt’s loyalty and hard work, Moses Johnson appointed him foreman of the ranch, with unlimited freedom to perform his duties. He also permitted Britt to raise his own horses and cattle.
Britt’s future would change drastically on October 13, 1864. On that day, several hundred Kiowa and Comanche warriors raided into western Young County, the site of the Johnson Ranch. Known as the Elm Creek Raid, this action saw the Indians attack several houses, including the household of Elizabeth Ann FitzPatrick, where they killed and scalped Mrs. FitzPatrick’s daughter, Millie Durkin, and killed Britt Johnson’s son. The Indians then took captive Mrs. FitzPatrick, her son and two granddaughters, and Johnson’s wife (Mary) and their two daughters.
Britt Johnson’s attempts to find his family became the source of legend. For several months after the Elm Creek Raid, he traveled to numerous reservations in Oklahoma, and to forts throughout the Texas frontier desperate to find his family. Popular tradition claims that Johnson lived with the Comanches in the Spring of 1865, and was able to ransom his family through this connection. The rescue of the Johnsons, however, actually came as part of on-going peace negotiations and the efforts of friendly Comanches. In June 1865, Comanche Chief Asa-Havey paid a ransom for the captives, rescued them, and took them to the Indian agent, who turned them over to Britt Johnson.
By the time Johnson returned with his family, the Civil War was over and he was a free man. He had become famous for getting his family back from the Comanches, and he used his status to buy a wagon team and gain freight contracts after the war. He moved his family to Parker County, where he set up his freight business. Johnson became quite successful, heading up wagon teams to haul freight between Weatherford and Fort Griffin.
Britt Johnson died as heroically as he lived. On January 24, 1871, while he led a wagon train through Young County, a group of twenty-five Kiowas attacked the wagon train four miles to the east of Salt Creek. Johnson and the two other black teamsters with him tried to defend the wagons, but there was little cover. When his two companions fell dead, Johnson desperately held back the attack for several more minutes, using his dead horse for cover. He died defending this position.
When other teamsters found the site of this attack, they counted 173 rifle and pistol shells around the area where Johnson made his stand. The teamsters buried the mutilated bodies of Johnson and his men in a common grave next to the wagon road.
Robert G. Carter. On the Border with Mackenzie, or Winning West Texas from the Comanches. Washington: Eynon Printing, 1935.
Carrie J. Crouch. Young County: History and Biography. Dallas: Dealey and Love, 1937; rev. ed., A History of Young County, Texas. Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1956.
J. Evetts Haley. Fort Concho and the Texas Frontier. San Angelo Standard-Times, 1952.
Kenneth F. Neighbours. “Elm Creek Raid in Young County, 1864.” West Texas Historical Association Year Book 40 (1964).
Rupert N. Richardson. The Frontier of Northwest Texas, 1846 to 1876. Glendale, California: Clark, 1963.
J. W. Wilbarger. Indian Depredations in Texas. Austin: Hutchings, 1889; rpt., Austin: State House, 1985.