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Meet The Controversial Man Who Gave Johnson County Its Name

Kansas Historical Society

The Rev. Thomas Johnson was a character in history who had many friends and foes, and his murder 150 years ago remains unsolved to this day.

Johnson established the Shawnee Indian Mission, a now national historic site in modern day Fairway, Kan.

His legacy lives on, even though you have probably never heard of him — he is the namesake of Johnson County, Kansas.

According to the Kansas State Historical Society, Johnson married a woman named Sarah Davis in 1830,  the same year the Indian Removal Act was passed. The legislation forcibly moved American Indians to the west.

The Shawnee, who were living throughout the old Northwest, Missouri and even Canada, were relocated to a reservation in Kansas. The land was 1.6 million acres, stretching from what is now Johnson County all the way to Topeka. As the Shawnee Indians and other tribes came to Kansas, so did missionaries — like Johnson.

"He was part of a larger effort of missionaries, but also a larger part of American expansion," says historian John Bowes, author of Exiles and Pioneers: Eastern Indians in the Trans-Mississippi West.

Bowes says Johnson was appointed by the Methodist church to go to Kansas. Being originally from the south, Johnson was a slaveholder and he brought his slaves with him as he established the first mission in Turner, Kan., in Wyandotte County. After a few years, Johnson decided he wanted to build a bigger mission, so he built the Shawnee Indian Mission in 1839.

“This is the original floor,” says Gwen Brown who works at the mission today, which is now a museum.

Credit Suzanne Hogan / KCUR
Inside the Shawnee Indian Mission National Historic site, which is a museum today.

Brown says they still have Johnson’s original Bible, the school bell and many of the teaching tools used to teach the Shawnee and children from more than 20 other tribes. Brown says they were taught English, Methodist religious doctrine and various other trades like cabinet and shoemaking. It was a boarding school, so the children also lived there.

Johnson’s political position as a slaveholder and a southern sympathizer becomes a problem during Bleeding Kansas, as the territory and the rest of the country were in the midst of a bitter conflict over slavery. When the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed in 1854, it displaced the Shawnee people again, and let Kansas and Nebraska decide whether they'd be free or slave states. It’s during this same time in 1855 that the county is named after Johnson.

"We have records of Johnson purchasing slaves up until 1856," says historian John Bowes. "He was certainly someone who was an advocate for making Kansas a slave state."

Ultimately Johnson's and his political allies' efforts are defeated, and Kansas enters the Union as a free state in 1861. Johnson later publicly declares to side with the Union before the start of the Civil War.

As the Civil War began, Johnson's mission closed and the reverend moved to 35th Street and Agnes on the Missouri side. The mission became barracks for Union soldiers.

Johnson was murdered at home on Jan. 2, 1865. To this day, it is uncertain whether Johnson was murdered by “bushwhackers” who were angry about his announcement to side with the Union, or if it was just the result of a robbery gone wrong.   

Every part of the present has been shaped by actions that took place in the past, but too often that context is left out. As a podcast producer for KCUR Studios and host of the podcast A People’s History of Kansas City, I aim to provide context, clarity, empathy and deeper, nuanced perspectives on how the events and people in the past have shaped our community today. In that role, and as an occasional announcer and reporter, I want to entertain, inform, make you think, expose something new and cultivate a deeper shared human connection about how the passage of time affects us all. Reach me at hogansm@kcur.org.
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