John Calhoun Johnson

My Great Great Great Grandfather-

BIOGRAPHY: John Calhoun Johnson, sometimes called "Colonel Johnson" or "Cock- Eye Johnson" and simply "Jack" by others, was born in Deersville, Harrison Co. Ohio in 1822 and passed on September 13, 1876.


California or Bust!

It is a bit unclear when or even how Johnson came west.  One account states a "desert wagon train... around 1847-48... carried young lawyer from Cincinnati who proceed to distinguish himself with his witty public speaking, something John was always known for."  Another suggests, "he came west with a trail of oxen."

We do know we was boarding guests in 1849; therefore, it places him as a resident of California by 1848.  My deduction is John C. Johnson entered California for the first time earlier, possibly around 1844-1846.  Shortly after arriving, he returned to the Midwest, where he enlightened several friends and counterparts as to the land, beauty, and opportunities awaiting them out west in the new frontier.  Perhaps Johnson settled somewhere between Carson (City) and the Lake Tahoe area for sometime prior to securing the mail carrier position.  Johnson had an Indian scout companion by the name of Fallen Leaf (which he later named "Fallen Leaf Lake, CA" after) and Fremont (the man who is credited with being the first white man to witness Lake Tahoe) had a scout with the same name.  Bearing in mind this was probably the same scout; one would have to wonder if Fallen Leaf was companion to Fremont or Johnson first.


Johnson's Ranch

What a ranch it was!  "'Six Mile Ranch,' better known as 'Johnson's Ranch' was located one mile northwest of Carson Valley Road, east of Placerville, what is now know as Camino, CA.  The Ranch steadily became an encampment and safe-haven for immigrants and prospectors who came across the passes, accounts of as many as 1000 were camped on the 320 acre ranch at one time.

Johnson's Ranch served many functions. Among them were: Johnson's primary residence with his wife and nine children (seven surviving to adulthood); it served as a weigh station for thousands of emigrants crossing the sierra's via Johnson's Pass and Echo Summit; it contained a general store (noted as being "as fair as any store in Placerville") and hotel  for 14 other non-family permanent residents.  The ranch was littered with mines, the most profitable to be Mills Mine.  Sometime during the Indian Wars, John Johnson or "Colonel Johnson" and his ranch was the temporary encampment to over 800 militia men entrusted with the job of guarding the foothill communities against Indian invasion.

The militia leader was Uncle Billy Rogers, the first Sheriff of El Dorado County.  His relationship with Johnson is undocumented; however, "It was most likely Rogers who made the encampment arrangements with Johnson.  Rogers came west on the disastrous Pioneer Line of 1849 with other 'gentlemen' that did not want to try their hand at the trip encumbered with a wagon or pack animals."  Johnson may have made this trip with Rodgers.  Later, in 1852 Johnson and Rodgers are also documented together in Diamond Springs, CA. [I]



From: Mountain Democrat; Placerville, CA  Sat, September 1, 1855


"Col Jack Johnson (aka.) showed us a piece of quartz literally carved with gold, taken from a newly discovered vein near his house.  He informed us that a number of veins had been opened and prospected in his neighborhood, and that gold was discoverable in all of them.  Judging from the quarts mills are paying in this vicinity we hesitate not in saying that the safest and most profitable investment is in them.  We have an abundance of quartz, and an abundance of men to work the veins - what we haven't is the capital to build the mills."


Fourth of July Ball At Johnson's Ranch...

From: Placerville Herald, Saturday, July 9,1853; p.2,c2


The new hotel of Col. J.C. Johnson, upon the immigrant route from Carson Valley to this Place, will be the point of attraction on the day of our approaching national anniversary. A grand ball is to come off in the evening. The mountain boys are ever ready!...

As was anticipated, this was one of those brilliant occurrences, that marks it as an era in the annals of the mountains.  Throughout the day, the hills around echoed only to the busy tread and hum of preparations from the numerous attendants employed by mine host, Col. John C. Johnson.

But no sooner had those long, broad lines of alternate shade and sunshine, so peculiar to a summer's sunset among the mountains, began their evening transit along the valleys of the Sierra, shooting onward and upward as the sun receded, than the advanced guard of the gay throng of visitants came pouring into the valley from every point of the horizon, as though the outer world had made a great stampede, and circling around, had centered here, as though the point of some grand attraction.  And so it was; for now sweet music echoed through the vale, and soon the merry dance began, which was participated in by a very large party of ladies and gentlemen from Placerville, White Rock, Diamond Springs, Georgetown, and the smaller villages of the mountains, making one of the largest and most decidedly genteel parties that ever convened in El Dorado County, upon a like occasion.

To speak of the merits of the supper discussed, the ices, the ice-creams, the champagne, would be entirely a one-sided speech, telling of their great abundance and excellent quality.  Indeed, there was not the remotest chance for the most fastidious to complain; and in every respect was it an occasion to be remembered, with pleasure, by every participant.


His Politics - California's First Lawyer

John C. Johnson was among the first practicing lawyers of State Of California [1].  He was the first Treasurer of El Dorado County, Secretary of Placerville [6], and soon became a State Assemblyman in the third state legislature California State Assembly 18th District, 1855-56.  "He was civic minded and an active member of the Democratic County Committee for most of his life."  Johnson served as the first Adjutant General in California for the California Militia during the El Dorado Indian Wars of 1850-51, earning his declared title of Colonel.  It is believed, however undocumented, he was an active Colonel prior to arriving in California.

Mr. Johnson would have received his education in Ohio, perhaps attending Cincinnati Law School.  A recent letter received from this institution declares a John Johnson as recorded as attending the institution around that time, it is unknown if this is the same John Johnson as this biographical sketch.   Another possibility, brought to my attention through the correspondence of Robert Ellison (Nevada State Historical Archives and author of Lawmen of Nevada from 1851-1861 and History of The Emigrant Trail Trough Carson Valley From 1848-1852): "You probably won't find an institution awarding J.C. Johnson a law degree.  Few Lawyers in the west had them.  The majority read at the law under sitting on State Supreme Courts."

It is believed that Johnson arrived in California as a Lawyer, by whichever means.  Considering Mr. Ellison's point, and a contemporary newspaper account mentioning Johnson was "an old classmate" of the then acting Secretary of the Interior, B. R. Cowen (a famous Ohioan), it is quite possible that Johnson was an appointed Lawyer through this friendship and not an institutionary graduated Lawyer.


The Supreme Court of The State of California

Recorded: December 15, 1938

Frank W. Hogan; Clerk


"...John Calhoun Johnson, who was a native of Ohio, was a member of an old Virginia family, Albert Sidney Johnston of Civil War (this remains to be proven)  fame being his cousin. After coming to California, the father dropped the letter "t" from his name. The father was also a lawyer by profession. He crossed the plains with ox teams in the spring of 1848. His first employment in the west was in the government service, carrying the mail on snowshoes from Placerville to Nevada City, during which time he gave the name of Lake Bigler to that beautiful body of water now known as Lake Tahoe.

This brilliant father was engaged in the practice of his profession in the days of the vigilantes and also acted as judge among the miners. When California was admitted to the Union, Mr. Johnson, Senior, was one of the first lawyers to be admitted to the bar of this state and engaged in practice in Eldorado, Amador, Nevada, Sacramento, and other northern counties in the District and Circuit Courts. He was also a member of one of the first sessions of the California legislature."


John Discovers Emily

While spending several years trekking between Carson Valley, NV (Carson City) and Placerville, CA (Hangtown) over California's central Sierras around 1848-through the mid 1850's, Mr. Johnson must have crossed the path of many an eligible young pioneer lady.

One autumn day the right pioneeress crossed his path... As stated in a handwritten autobiographical sketch by Emily herself), "In October 1853 John was sitting on a porch in Mountain Cottage, CA (now Pollock Pines, CA) watching the emigrant wagons pass by when he spotted Emily C. Hagadorn leading a wagon with skirt torn off to her waist to more easily walk through the deep mud of the wagon road.  John reportedly said, 'there goes the woman who shall be my wife'." [4] They were married at John's ranch on January first 1854 [5] where they made their home for over twenty years.

They raised nine children, seven of whom survived John. They are:

1) George Penn Johnson [many children] of Auburn, CA

2) Harriet "Annie" Ann Johnson-Butler [3 children] of Sacramento, CA

3) Nathan "Nate", [never married] of San Jose, CA

4) John "Johnny" Calhoun Jr., [never married] of San Jose, CA 

5) William Henry (my descendent) of San Jose, CA

6) Charles L. Johnson, [3 children] of San Jose, CA

7) May "Mamie" E. Johnson-Robb [3 children] of San Jose, CA

George Harriet Nathan John William Charles May
Ned photo Need photo

John Calhoun Johnson owned and operated a mill, a mine, and operated a large ranch known for its hospitality about six miles north of Placerville, CA.

According to my grandmother, my great grandmother hated visiting the fly infested ranch.  However, I knew my great grandmother well, one fly was too many for her!


Old Resident Marriage...

From: Empire County Argus [Coloma], January 7, 1854


"The 'old residents' of this county will be pleased to notice the marriage of Col. Johnson of Johnson's Ranch, above Placerville, as advertised under the proper head. Our only wonder is what the gallant Colonel has remained single so long, having in mind the great number of young ladies that have passed his ranch on their road to California.


America's First Trans-Sierran Mail Carrier Blazed the "Best route over the Sierras"

Johnson was the first trans-Sierran mail carrier, (pictured with his brother "Nate" an accomplishment frequently, though erroneously, given to "Snowshoe" Thompson.[3]  Johnson delivered mail from Carson (City), NV to Take Tahoe, CA and continued on to Hangtown, CA (Placerville, CA).

Although John C. Johnson used the Carson Emigrant Trail and Truckee River Route for mail carrying, Johnson was acutely aware of the need for a better route in and out of central California than either of the two existing.

The Truckee River route was too arduous because of its many river crossings, and the Carson Emigrant route proceeded though the entire Carson Valley before it began its ascent over several  high elevation snowbound harsh peaks in the eastern Sierra Nevada.  This is when we decide to create "Johnson's Cutoff" (see below).

US born Johnson had higher dreams and was elected into the state legislature in 1955.  At this point the US needed a new mail carrier.  US Immigrant, Jon Torsteinson-Rue (Snowshoe Thompson) applied to a newspaper add and took over carrying the mail along the trail Johnson forged for him.  Tragically, today Johnson is denied the respect he deserves for paving the way for Thompson.


History - El Dorado County, CA

From: Reminiscences And Anecdotes


"...better known as Snow-Shoe-Thompson1 -- was repeatedly mentioned as the pioneer in the business for which the allowance was proposed at that time. While we do not wish to depreciate the services and merits due to Thompson, it is due to truth and justice also to state, that one of the earliest settlers of El Dorado county, Jack. C. Johnson, of Johnson's ranch, preceded Thompson as a trans-mountain mail carrier ; he was the man that opened up, market out, and traversed the route called after him, "Johnson's Cut-off," which subsequently was traveled by Thompson, and he crossed the mountain range through the depression laid down on all the maps as "Johnson's Pass." By this very rout, and through this pass Johnson has carried the mail from the present site of Genoa to Placerville in twenty-six and one half hours previous to Thompson's first trip over the same route. It is not more than right that the government appreciated Thompson's services who intrepid and faithfully did his difficult and dangerous duty, unconcerned of season and weather, but let the truth of history be vindicated. Jack Johnson claims the name as the Nestor and pioneer of trans-mountain mail carrying on foot by the Placerville route. [7]


Johnson' Cutoff

Johnson figured if a trail could be blazed from the north end of the Carson Valley and then driven due west across the mountains to Placerville, a sizable portion of the Carson route would be "cut off." Johnson blazed such a trail. Johnson's Cutoff turned out to be about 2,000 feet lower than the route through the Carson Emigrant Trail's two passes. The two summits on Johnson's Cutoff were at 7,400 feet and 7,200 feet elevation compared to the emigrant trail's Carson Pass at 8,500 feet and the West Summit at 9,300 feet. As a direct result of the lower elevations, only seven miles of Johnson's Cutoff were located above a 7,000 foot elevation as opposed to the 50 or so miles of the Carson Emigrant Trail that were above that mark, including about 15 miles above 8,000 feet elevation. That meant Johnson's Cutoff was much freer of snowbound conditions during the year than the older Carson trail.

Johnson's Cutoff was also a shortcut. From the Carson Valley to Placerville via the Carson Emigrant Trail it was 155 miles. The distance between the same two points on Johnson's Cutoff was less than 100 miles. To get to Sacramento the savings were even greater. Over the Truckee River route from Truckee Meadows it was about 240 miles to Sacramento, and from the Carson Valley via the Carson Emigrant Trial it was 210 miles to Sacramento. By taking Johnson's Cutoff emigrants could cover the distance in about 140 miles.

Starting from the Carson Valley Johnson blazed his trail over the Carson range at Spooner's Summit and kept to the ridge that skirted the east shore and south end of Lake Tahoe, thereby avoiding wet, marshy conditions along the lake in the valley. His trail led to a site that is now Meyers and then up the steep grade to what became known as Johnson Pass, which was located about a mile north of today's Echo Summit. Johnson's trail then led down the South Fork canyon and up to Peavine Ridge. It followed Peavine Ridge to its western end to descend again to the South Fork of the American River. It then diverged from the river to descend on the ridge between the South Fork and the North Fork of the Consumes River that led more or less directly to old Hangtown (Placerville).

Despite its advantages, Johnson's Cutoff was not heavily used by wagon traffic during the early 1850s. For several years after its development it was still little more than a treacherous improved footpath suitable only for pack trains.

As pressures mounted for an improved all-year wagon road through the Sierra Nevada during the 1850s, more and more attention was given to Johnson's Cutoff; and a number of official explorations and surveys favored it as the location for the state's official wagon road. The Legislature finally adopted the recommendations and authorized construction of a wagon road over the route of Johnson's Cutoff, without the Peavine Ridge deviation. The funding bill failed on state constitutional grounds, however, and plans for the wagon road languished while Sacramento and El Dorado counties worked to acquire funds to rebuild the road.

The logjam over the Johnson's Cutoff wagon road was broken in 1857 when J.B. Crandall, who had built the Pioneer Stage Line between Sacramento and Placerville, loaded seven state wagon road commissioners and a reporter from the Sacramento Daily Union into a Concord coach; and with a team of four horses he drove them pell-mell over Johnson's Cutoff to the Carson Valley in only 27 hours, including rest and meal stops.

Crandall drove the coach east from Placerville to Brockless Bridge, then ascended the grade to Peavine Ridge, descending from the ridge in the vicinity of Slippery Ford. He then drove the team up the South Fork to Johnson Pass and down to Lake Valley, then up again through Luther Pass to descend to Hope Valley, which he traversed and then entered and drove through Carson Valley. The Sacramento Daily Union report gushed exuberant praise for the stunning accomplishment and the coachman became an instant local hero.

The next day Crandall announced regular stage service between Placerville and Carson Valley and the rush over Johnson's Cutoff was on. In 1860 private operators completed the road as a tollway while the state dilly-dallied over maintaining the route, it was greatly improved over its most difficult stretches by toll-road operators and soon became the route of choice for travelers both in and out of California as the Placerville Carson Valley Road. As the decade moved into the 1860s and gold and silver were struck in the Comstock Lode, eastbound traffic on the road, especially large commercial freight wagons, became as common as westbound pioneer traffic.  The road was lined with dozens of hotels, lodges, roadhouses, and stables; and it was said that if a teamster pulled off the road during the day, he would not be able to resume traveling on the road until evening when the traffic thinned out. It was also said that stagecoaches and pioneer wagons preferred to travel the road at night because of the crowded conditions caused by freight wagons during the day, especially on the eastbound route.

Despite its rather prosaic beginnings, the Placerville Carson Valley Road (Johnson's Cutoff) became one of the state's most historical roadways. It provided the route not only for the Snowshoe Thompson and the frantic cowboy riders of the Pony Express from 1860-1861, but also the transcontinental telegraph line that quickly put them out of business. It was over the Placerville Road that stagecoach driver Hank Monk propelled the nervous publisher and presidential candidate Horace Greeley on a ride that would become one of Mark Twain's most famous anecdotes. It was on the Placerville Road near Union Hill at a place called Bullion Bend that the most daring and spectacular stagecoach robbery in staging history took place in 1864.

Placerville, California 1800's

This route would eventually become the most heavily traveled route across the Sierra Nevada. The route became the most important of the trans-Sierran passages until the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. It went by various names, such as the Placerville Carson Valley Road, the Placerville Road, Emigrant Ravine Road, and the Lake Tahoe Wagon Road. It began simply as "Johnson's Cut-Off."

The State Bureau of Highways was created in 1895 and purchased the road making it "Highway 1" the first state highway. Paving was done in 1923. It later became "U.S. Highway 50," and it was also a famous link in the celebrated Lincoln Highway that stretched between New York and San Francisco. With the exception of a deviation up and over Peavine Ridge, the route of Johnson's Cutoff is generally the same. It is said that the deviation at Peavine Ridge was necessary at the time to avoid the narrow, rocky, and treacherous route along the South Fork from Strawberry to Riverton.

"Johnson Cutoff" created the first link in California's state highway system, and as a federal highway it was the principal route for motor vehicle traffic into and out of Northern California until the opening of Interstate 80 along the old Truckee River route.



From: The Mountain Democrat; July 24,1869


The many friends of J.C. Johnson will be pleased to hear that he is fast recovering from the injuries received by walking out of a window in the third story of the Cary House in this city (Placerville).  Col. Johnson is an old mountaineer - has sought out and opened for public use many trails through the mountains, but this last act, performed while in a somnambulistic state, caps the climax for discovering and taking cutoffs.  Not one man in five hundred could take the same trip and escape with his life.  Col. Johnson is being waited upon by Dr. Worthen of this city, who says he will soon have him out again.


John C. Johnson names Lake Bigler and Fallen Leaf Lake

For 75 years, until 1945, Tahoe was not officially Tahoe, but "Lake Bigler." After leading a rescue party into the Sierra to save a group of snowbound emigrants, John Bigler- California's third Governor- was honored by dignitaries in Placerville (John C. Calhoun), who tagged his name on the lake in 1852. The name of the body of water from 1844, when it was 'discovered' by a group of about 40 white men was accurate but unoriginal "Mountain Lake."[2]

John C. Fremont is credited with the discovering Lake Tahoe on the 14th of February in 1844.  It appears Fremont never loved, named, nor spent the time exploring this remarkable jewel. During Johnson's Tahoe-Sierra explorations in the late 1840's and early 1850's Johnson and his trail-blazing party became known as the first white people to walk around what John Johnson named Lake Bigler[1] (Lake Tahoe) after the governor of California.  Johnson was also the first white man to witness Meeks Bay with a reporter from the Placerville Herald.  The name "Lake Bigler" remained the official name until 1945 when cartographer, William Henry Knight won a long name dispute and it was named "Tah-hoe-," probably meaning "water in a high place," supposedly mentioned by a Washoe elder.  

Johnson's party included a Delaware Native American Chief by the name of "Fallen Leaf."  Johnson named another lake close to Tahoe after his friend.  Today it is still known as Fallen Leaf Lake.  Johnson viewed the lake's brilliance for the first time from a point northwest of what is now Echo Summit, however it is unclear if he ever actually went to the lake he named. Fallen Leaf Lake lies at an elevation of 6321 feet - about 90 feet above Tahoe. The lake is about 3 miles in length and a mile wide. The greatest measured depth of this pristine lake is 418 feet. This lake is located south of Emerald bay with Cascade Lake situated in between.


His Death

John Calhoun Johnson passed September 13, 1876, 70 miles southeast of Tucson, Arizona (Tres Alamos) at the hands of the Apache. His reasons for traveling to Arizona to purchase a large tract of land are uncertain, since he left his family and a newly built house behind.  With him was his oldest son George, his partner Mr. Mowery [Mowry], and possibly Mowery's son. One account states, "he failed to file papers to keep his homestead in the Placerville area and he traveled with his son George and two other unknown men to Arizona to establish another ranching enterprise in 1876. While George and a companion left their campsite to go into Tucson on the evening of September 13, Apache Indians attacked. The young men returned from town to find both their fathers had been killed."

Johnson accountably frequented Sutter Fort, Sacramento.  Today, through donations, rest his cane and other articles.  In Camino, CA, at the location of his ranch, there now stands a memorial to him including some articles found when they excavated the home in the 1990's. 

John C. Johnson is believed to lie rest in Arizona; however, his name appears on his wife's tombstone in Oak Hill Cemetery, San Jose, California.


From: The Mountain Democrat; Saturday, September 23,1876


A dispatch from Arizona reports that Colonel J.C. Johnson, a pioneer of this vicinity, was killed by Apache Indians on the night of September 13th.  The particulars are not given.  His son George was with him, but escaped unhurt.  Another companion, named Mowry, is missing.  Colonel Johnson leaves a wife and quite a large family of children in this place.


In Memory Of The Late Mrs. Emily (J.C.) Johnson-Jacobs

Taken from a personal narrative in our family's archive and printed in the Sacramento Star, April 18, 1917 page 7 column 3

The death of Mrs. Emily (J.C.) Johnson Jacobs on March 1, 1917 at San Jose caused sadness among a large number of people who had known her as a pioneer of California. She was the mother of nine children by the late J.C. Johnson, seven of whom survive her.

She was born May 7,1834 in Cleveland, Ohio and was daughter of Luther and Fanny C. Hagerdon. While she was a small child they moved to Green Bay Wis. where they grew to seven children.  Later the family grew to twelve grandchildren and fifteen great grandchildren and many other relatives to mourn her departure. She was the first cousin of Commodore Perry.

She was married to J.C. Johnson at Placerville in 1854. Mr. Johnson went to Arizona in 1876 to arrange a home for his family. On Sept. 13,1876, he and his partner, Mr. Mowery [Mowry] were killed by Apache Indians. Mrs. Johnson remained a widow and reared her family until Aug. 5, 1896, when she married John H.Jacobs. After his death, she continued to reside in San Jose.

She was an active member of the Pioneer Association of San Jose, where she had lived many years. The funeral was conducted by the Pioneers Association and interment was made in the family plot in Oak Hill cemetery. Even though Mrs. Jacobs was unconscious for several days, she spoke these words and passed away: " I'll soon be going ; I am happy; yes; I am happy." Her funeral was held at the San Jose undertaking parlors which was filled with friends. The many flowers which hid her casket from view proved the love and affection in which she was held. It was the purpose of Mrs. Jacobs, had she lived, to make an address to the Pioneer Association.


The following had been composed by her before her death for that occasion:

"Ladies and gentlemen and pioneer friends: I am glad to meet with you today.

Since our last annual gathering many of the association have passed away,

which should remind us that

"We too, are fast journeying toward the setting sun.

That our lease on life is nearly run.

So let us live that when the final summons come

and we are laid away to rest in our last long sleep.

We may awake on the other shore.

To meet and part no more.

Oh, California beautiful clime,

Thy hills and rocks are

most sublime.

Eastern people to thee will flock.

And drink the waters of Auburn rock.

Oh, California, beautiful clime,

Producer of the orange and the lime.

Other countries with thee may ape.

In growing the olive and grape,

But thou doth excel them all.

In the grandeur of Yosemite fall".



[1] History Of San Jose California - Narrative and Biographical; by William F. James & George H. McMurry; A.H. Cawson Publisher, San Jose, Calif, 1933; Smith Printing Company, San Jose, Calif.


[3] Richard Hughey; The Mountain Democrat, April 29, 1999; Placerville, California; McNaughton Newspapers, Mother Lode Printing and Publishing Company.

[4] personal written autobiography narrative of Emily Johnson-Jacobs 

[5] Sacramento Daily Union, Monday morning, January 9, 1854

[6] Mountain Democrat, Saturday, March 11, 1854



Parts of this work were also research and or by:

a) Documents held in El Dorado Counties archives.

b) Frieda Shell, descendant of George Penn Johnson, a son of John

c) El Dorado County -


e) California Historical Monuments; PG&E Progress July 1970; p.8-9

f) Miles Johnson, 6745 Bertran Ct., Citrus Heights, CA 95621; (916) 725-2133

g) Supernowicz, Dana E. "Surmounting the Sierra: The Opening of the Johnson Cutoff Route, 1850-1855." Overland Journal 13(Winter 1995-1996): 11-20.


Some articles in-full

I)   Cockeyed Johnson and Uncle Billy Rodgers in Diamond Springs, El Dorado County, CA 

II)  The Mountain Democrat - Placerville, CA; "Johnson's Cutoff"

III) Crossing Hwy 49 In El Dorado County

IV) Johnson Names Fallen Leaf Lake


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