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Saturday, March 31, 2018

Pious Preacher or Radical Hypocrite? The Reverend Thomas Johnson

The celebration of the New Year 1865 had gone well into the night in the palatial home just shy of four miles from Kansas City. Exhaustion from the evening before had the Johnson family eager for welcome slumber.

Nineteen-year-old William had returned from college to spend the holidays with the family. Fifteen-year-old Cora and eleven- year-old Edna had greatly enjoyed visiting with him and playing games well into the evening before. Their father had forgiven William for his surprise enlistment years before in the Confederate Home Guard under Upton Hays; having two sons fighting on opposing sides was too much for Thomas to even fathom.

As the two girls headed to bed under the warmth of their sheets and William retired to his room, Thomas had business to attend to. As a corporal to the guard assigned to organizing local men to protect the area from guerrillas, Thomas had fought off sleep in order to give his final orders to a group of men near midnight. Mr. Patterson, his farm manager, had retired earlier.

That left his beloved wife, 54-year-old Sarah restlessly waiting for him to finish his orders so they could turn in. She yawned in a daze as she turned a page in her Bible. The fires had been extinguished and the house was dark except for the lantern that sat between them in the parlor.

Battle of Westport- Courtesy of Civil War Trust
Although Thomas was exhausted, his mind continued to shuffle through the days’ activities. Just as sleep was about to enrapture them both and they were thinking of going upstairs to bed, the faint sound of the hooves of horses stirred him wide awake. As the noise grew closer and closer to his 600-acre farm, his heartbeat quickened and he stiffly sat up in his chair. His motions stirred Sarah from the passages of her beloved book.

“What is it?” she questioned as she touched his arm in concern.

Before Thomas could answer, Sarah heard the horses and the faint voices of men. She turned to her husband, a woman’s intuition taking over her actions. She gripped his forearm a little tighter as her eyes widened. Thomas, not one to shy away from a small sense of danger, placed his hand on top of hers. “No worries. It may be the men returning with some type of news.”

As a Southern Methodist minister, Rev. Thomas Johnson was used to late-night visits and had always held a high regard for hospitality to his neighbors. He stood up, his joints stiff. He wrapped his coat around his large frame a bit tighter, the draft from the wind escaping through the cracks of the tightly-shut windows. The men outside on this cold winter night hollered for the reverend.

Sarah Davis Johnson
He crept toward the locked front door and turned the large key. Thomas cracked it open just a few inches to explore what these men could possibly need in the dead of night. Sarah, growing more and more concerned with each step, followed her husband as she straightened her nightcap.

It was one of those bright, moonlit nights. The snow on the ground aided in making everything visible even this late. A group of men, possibly as many as nineteen, huddled together mounted on their horses as they stood in the shadows just outside the gate. Each man watched closely as Rev. Johnson cautiously enquired through the partially ajar door to what they could need.

“We’re lookin’ for the way to Westport,” one man responded, his breath blowing fog into the crisp air.

Before Thomas could respond, another man hollered, “Or the way to Kansas City.”

Thomas’ brow furrowed in confusion; he pulled his head back and turned toward Sarah. She violently shook her head back and forth. Regardless of her concerns, Thomas quickly rattled off general directions to both towns.

Dissatisfied with their progress, the men muttered to each other. The first man that spoke when the door was opened asked, “How about a drink of water before we leave?”

Thomas complied as he reached his hand forward and pointed. “Just over there you’ll find our well. The dipper is hangin’ next to it. Help yourselves an’ be on your way.”

The response that followed had Sarah clinging to her husband’s waist. Instead of guiding their horses toward the well, the men began to dismount. As one man opened the gate and the others quickly followed him, she pulled at Thomas’ robe.

“Close the door, Thomas!” she shrieked in a whispered panic. The reverend moved away and began to turn the knob.

But it was too late.*


Rev. Thomas Johnson, pioneer missionary of the Shawnee Indian Mission and namesake of Johnson Co., Ks., has one of the most colorful and controversial histories of any man of the area. Piecing together his motivations and his loyalty leaves us to wonder where the truth lies amidst the incredibly differing accounts of one individual.

Rev. Johnson was a man of God. But he was a slave owner. He worked with the Native American tribes and formed a school. But many believe he stole land and financial gain from them. He served on the Bogus Legislature that wished to admit Kansas as a slave state. But he later was labeled a staunch supporter of the Union.

Rev. Thomas Johnson
He was, in fact, a man who fell on both sides of some of the most scandalous “bruises” of the history of the United States. Between the mistreatment of Native Americans and the institution of slavery, Rev. Thomas Johnson was involved in all aspects of the inflamed culture of a country soon divided.

To investigate the life of Rev. Thomas Johnson means you will have to decipher from two very contrasting viewpoints.

John C. McCoy, son of Baptist Rev. Issac McCoy, wrote in the Journal of Commerce in 1880, “[Johnson] was open and liberal toward every enterprise looking to the moral, educational and material advancement and growth of the country.”

In the Springfield Republican in 1854, one man reported, “One of the most determined, bitter and unprincipled enemies to freedom in Kansas is the Rev. Thomas Johnson . . . Once so poor he had not money to get to the territory decently, now worth more than sixty thousand dollars, acquired upon the field labors of love. . . [Johnson] is a slaveholder- a trafficker of human flesh- buys and sells men, women and children. . . He held slaves in violation of the Missouri Compromise, thus showing he regards neither the laws of God nor the laws of man.”

Fasten your seatbelts! This is a ride.

Born July 11, 1802 in Nelson Co., Virginia, Thomas Johnson was the son of Revolutionary War vet Clabourn Johnson and his wife, Elizabeth “Betsy” Simms. From humble means, he came to Howard Co., Mo. with his family in 1822.

Thomas and his younger brother, William (b. 1805) were drawn to the Methodist ministry.  A part of the class of 1826, Rev. Thomas Johnson’s first assignment was at Mount Prairie in Arkansas.

Rev. Johnson's Bible is on display at Shawnee Indian Mission
On September 7, 1830, Thomas married 20 year-old Sarah Tuttle Davis, the Kentucky-born daughter of Thomas and Sarah Ruddel. According to "The Davis Family of Kentucky," her parents, well before marrying, were captured by the Native Americans led by Tecumseh (a Shawnee chief) in 1780. They were later released back to their families.

Also in 1830, Chief Fish of the Shawnee appointed Rev. Thomas Johnson to establish a mission school in Kansas Territory. His brother, William was appointed to the Kanza tribe (Kaw).

Her mother, once a captive of the Shawnee, would later come and live with her daughter and son-in-law at the Shawnee Indian Mission. It was said Thomas Johnson’s mother-in-law “knew the Shawnee language as well as her own.”

Rev. Nathan Scarritt (1820-1890), once a resident of the Mission, wrote, “The fact that Mr. Johnson was the first one selected to go as a missionary to the then-powerful tribe of the Shawnees, is indicative of the high standing he occupied in the eyes of his church.”

"The Prophet," Tecumseh's brother (1775-1836)
Standing six feet tall and well over 250 pounds, Johnson gathered his few possessions and his bride for the trip from eastern Missouri to just west of the edge of America. She rode a horse while he walked beside her the entire way across the state. They crossed into Kansas Territory in late 1830 and settled in a wooded area near the present town of Turner in Wyandotte County. A one-room log cabin was built with a small cabin next to it where he planned to begin his missionary work among the Shawnees. He chose this location due to its proximity to the Chouteau Trading Post.

In a treaty in 1825, the Shawnee were given land bordering Missouri on the east, up to the Kansas River to the north, stretching to Topeka and as far south as the southern border of Johnson County. The 1.6 million acres of land was first settled by a band of the Shawnee tribe that had been pushed earlier to land near Cape Girardeau, Mo. Around 1830-1831, the Fish band of the Shawnees from Ohio, numbering about 900, moved west to the land designated to them. With this band came “the Prophet,” Tecumseh’s brother.

I sure wonder what Rev. Johnson’s mother-in-law thought of this development.

The first proclaimed white child to be born in Kansas Territory was Alexander Johnson, born in 1832. An earlier child, also named Alexander, had been born and died in 1831.

As early as 1832, Thomas Johnson, a man of the cloth, was the first to bring slavery into Kansas. The Shawnees were unfamiliar with this institution, but as further “indoctrination” occurred, some of the wealthier members of the Shawnee tribe followed in Johnson’s footsteps and owned slaves in Kansas Territory as well.

In addition to hopes of converting Native Americans to Christianity, the United States government hoped to use acculturation to mold the natives into something, frankly, not natural to their beliefs. Part of this was to teach Native Americans agricultural practices. Because these tribes, including the Shawnee, were sharing land with so many other tribes, their natural survival method of hunting wasn’t easy.

That means adaptation to farming was essential to survival.

In 1838, Thomas Johnson opted to move his little mission south to a more convenient location for his endeavors. By the following year, he was appointed as superintendent Indian Mission District and to the Shawnee Indian Mission.

The government took a deeper look at the missionary work in Kansas Territory. They granted just over 2,000 acres of land for the Methodist church to further establish the mission. The government promised a fund for the Delaware Indians for $4,000 a year for ten years and a fund of $1,500 a year for the Shawnee. In turn, Johnson welcomed all Native Americans to his new location. The Methodist church also supported the erection of the new Shawnee Mission with about $20,000 over the years.

In “Before Bleeding Kansas” published in Kansas History, Kevin Abing writes, “Although good intentions may have motivated Johnson, other less lofty incentives certainly influenced his thinking. He was an aggressive entrepreneur who capitalized on any opportunity to enhance his own wealth.”

Rev. Johnson had an idea- he didn’t just want to teach the word of God or educate the children. In 1838, he got approval from the government to start a Manual Labor School.

This vision of Johnson’s turned into a model of the government’s goal of civilizing Native Americans.

The West Building in 1927
Courtesy of Kansas State Historical Society
The location chosen was certainly no mistake. Just three miles from pro-slavery Westport, Mo., the new mission was convenient to supplies and support in more ways than one. The new Shawnee Indian Mission was sheltered in a small valley off the Santa Fe Trail. This is where many-a-family, a new generation of explorers, traveled by wagon train into Western expansion. Slow oxen trains, loaded up and bound for unknown crevasses of open countryside, passed by the doors of the Shawnee Indian Mission.

Rev. Johnson brought in lumber from Cincinnati and some of the earliest bricks came from St. Louis. He later built a kiln and fired his own brick to build the structures on-site. The west building, completed in 1839, was used as teacher’s quarters and for classrooms.

In late October 1839, the boarding school was opened. He enclosed 400 acres of the 2,000 granted by the government. He planted twelve acres of apple trees, thus creating the first apple orchard in Kansas. It is said that when he traveled on horseback, he would sprinkle Kentucky bluegrass seeds, then introducing a new grass variety now commonly seen.

East building at Shawnee Indian Mission today
Courtesy of City of Fairway
By 1840-1841, the east building was completed and used for classrooms, housed a chapel, and had a dorm for boys on the upper floor. 16 additional buildings were erected throughout the grounds. A tool shop, blacksmith shop, sawmill, gristmill, a brickyard and numerous trade shops dotted the landscape of the Shawnee Indian Mission. This was the first time that trades were accompanied with worship. Indian boys between the ages of five and 22 were taught numerous trades; girls were taught to spin, weave, cook, sew and keep house so “they became good housewives.”

Naturally, the profits of the manual labor of the Shawnee Indian Mission pupils may have fallen directly into the Reverend’s pockets as goods were sold to travelers on the Santa Fe Trail. In “Before Bleeding Kansas,” Abing points out, “Many suspected that Johnson established the Shawnee Manual Labor School to enrich himself and his Methodist brethren.”

Shawnee Indian Mission girls' school
According to the Kansas Historical Society, the operations of the Manual Labor School centered around routine. Pupils would wake up at 5 a.m. and complete light work until 7 a.m. They would then have breakfast. At 9 a.m., the school bell would ring and they would complete their studies . After a short recess, they would dine from noon until 1 p.m.. From 1 to 4 p.m., they would resume their studies. They would take tea at 6 p.m. and would complete homework until 8. After some “indoor recreation” for 30 minutes, the students were sent to their dorms.

Can you imagine if we introduced these hours to the kids of today?

Tuition per year was $75 per year per child. In 1839-1840, 72 students were enrolled at the Mission’s Manual Labor School. Four teachers were employed.

Later, enrollment soared to a many as 100; at some points, close to 200 children were enrolled.

In 1843, ill health chased Rev. Thomas Johnson and his growing family off to the north. The Shawnee Indian Mission was then run by Jerome Berryman. The Johnson’s first went to Cincinnati for about a year so the reverend could be under the care of physicians. By 1845, he had built a farmhouse in Fayette, Howard Co., Mo.

The North Building, Shawnee Indian Mission
Shawnee Indian Mission Foundation
In 1845, a final large brick building was added to the property on the north side of the road under the guidance of Rev. Berryman. This completed a triangle configuration of structures that solidified Johnson’s place as a powerful early settler of Kansas Territory. At this same time, the issue of slavery split the Methodist church in two. Thomas Johnson, a proponent of slavery, sided naturally with the Methodist Church-South and at the time owned four to six slaves.

In Howard Co., Rev. Johnson met an ambitious and educated minister by the name of Nathan Scarritt- a name synonymous with the growth of Kansas City. Scarritt was then working as the principal of the boys’ department at Howard High School. In 1847, Rev. Johnson convinced Scarritt to leave this career and in order to take charge of “his complicated academy.”
Rev. Nathan Scarritt (1821-1890)

Pupils that had been at Johnson’s Manual Labor School for an extended period of time were anxious and ready for an advanced education. The addition of Rev. Nathan Scarritt was a success. He was a missionary at Shawnee Indian Mission from 1848 until 1851.

Rev. Johnson was able to return to his beloved Indian Manual Labor School in 1847.

The fiery heat of the nation was about to burn what some would consider “peaceful relations” of the Kansas Territory. In the 1840s, the Methodist Mission and the bands of Native Americans got along with no issue. But reports from other missionaries in the area- against the institution of slavery- would disagree with this probability of peace at the Shawnee Indian Mission. According to Kevin Abing in “Before Bleeding Kansas,” an employee of the Mission punished a black man for a small offense. In turn, the slave became irate and pulled a knife on the employee. A fight ensued and the slave lost the knife. The employee then beat the slave with a club but stopped when he figured he had learned his lesson.

Another account, never verified, stated that Johnson fathered a child with one of the girl slaves, but she and the child were sold before she gave birth.

In total, Rev. Johnson and his wife, Sarah had 13 children. Only six survived into adulthood. His second oldest daughter, Eliza (1836-1865), married John B. Wornall.

Yes, as in Wornall Road and Wornall House.

Slave record for Rev. Johnson's purchase of a 15 year-old girl in 1856
In Martyrdom in Missouri, published in 1870, author William M. Leftwich wrote, “Mr. Johnson was never considered a brilliant preacher, but a sound, clear, forcible and able expounder of the gospel.”

He was also an expounder of slavery in Kansas Territory.

Western Expansion was the enemy of the Native American tribes, and it became clear that the only way to move forward would be to section off pieces of land to the individual tribe members. Rev. Thomas Johnson was a proponent of this movement. If they sectioned off the land of the Shawnee, for example, the individual tribe members could opt to sell. And who was interested in buying these rich lands?

Whites, of course.

As Abing explains, “[Johnson] was an aggressive entrepreneur who capitalized on any opportunity to enhance his own wealth.”

It is no surprise that Rev. Thomas Johnson was at the center of the reorganization of the future of Kansas Territory.

In William Walker’s journal from October 21, 1853, concerning who would serve as delegate to Congress, he wrote, “I suppose we may safely set down Thomas Johnson’s election for delegate as certain. . .[He] had the whole power of the federal government, the presence and active support of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the military, the Indian agent, missionaries, Indian traders, etc., a combination that is irresistible.”

In order to admit Kansas as the newest organized state, the government repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 in order to open up white settlement in the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Because popular sovereignty to hold the key of the future of Kansas Territory as free or slave, the “decision” would reside with the voters. They were left to elect delegates who would then decide the fate of the land just to the west of Missouri.

The first atlas of Johnson County, Kansas Territory was in 1854. This image is from the pages of the atlas
and shows the location of the Shawnee Indian Mission.
Kansas State Historical Society
Rev. Johnson aided the efforts by extinguishing the Shawnee title to the Shawnee Indian Mission. The Shawnees gave up 1.4 million acres of land, leaving them with 200,000 acres on the eastern edge. He persuaded the chiefs to accept $10,000 over ten years for educating the Shawnee children. The Methodist church, in return, got 2,000 acres of land that Johnson eventually acquired.

Johnson didn’t stop there; he then gained control of the Shawnee School Fund where the Methodists were to be paid $6,000 a year for educating and boarding up to 70 children.

First territorial governor
Andrew Reeder (1807-1864)
Surveying the land for sale and division in the county named after him came next. But the underlying issue for settlement and peace resided within the institution of slavery. The Shawnees felt they couldn’t trust Rev. Johnson to do what was best for them. And due to the viewpoint of Johnson as greedy and a slave owner in Kansas, the Northerners who were about to storm the territory despised him.

Northern papers reported that Johnson had one slave that netted him $1,000 a year and had a few slaves at the Shawnee Indian Mission. Other slaves owned by him were leased out. In the Springfield Republican, it was stated that he bought a family of slaves and promised they could work for their freedom. Johnson then worked them and sold them before they could do so.

To no surprise of the speculators intently watching the goings-on in Kansas, Rev. Thomas Johnson was elected to the Kansas Territorial Council on the pro-slavery ticket and elected president of the council in March 1855. Missourians had flooded over the border and illegally voted throughout the territory to ensure that those elected were on their side.

In the “Old Shawnee Mission” published by the Kansas Historical Society, writer Edith Connelly Ross declared that Johnson, in regard to being elected as president of the council, “was not permitted to decline. His anxious, futile attempts at promoting peace were ignored.”

Promoting piece under a pro-slavery stance?

The tides were turning toward the spread of slavery to the west under what was labeled the “Bogus Legislature” due to the hollers from Northerners to recall the election because of these injustices.

Andrew Reeder, the first territorial governor of Kansas Territory, was appointed by the President. Gov. Reeder called for the legislature to meet first in Pawnee near Fort Riley far away from the influence of the pro-slavery Missourians. But the men that made up the legislature only took four days to oust the antislavery men and vote to move the legislature to a more convenient location.

They chose a place ½ mile from the Missouri border and three miles from pro-slavery Westport, Mo.

Free state activist Charles Robinson speaking at Lecompton, 1856
Civil War on the Western Border
The Shawnee Indian Mission became the headquarters of the Bogus Legislature in 1855 under the suggestion of Rev. Johnson. Gov. Reeder set up his offices there until he received word that he had been fired from his position in April. A group, including Johnson, had signed a petition charging him with speculation and disloyalty. The legislature then moved to Lecompton, Ks.

In the Conquest of Kansas by Missouri and Her Allies, published in 1856, author William Phillips describes Rev. Johnson as a vulgar man, illiterate, and course with bad grammar. “A violent pro-slavery partisan, he has been useful tool in his way. His name may be found figuring in some of the most violent of the pro-slavery partisan meetings, and he was president of the council of the Bogus Legislature which, within the walls of his mission, in the rooms dedicated to the service of Him who is the God of justice and truth, perpetrated one of the most flagrant outrages on right and justice recorded on the page of history.”

Yes, he was a man of complicated intentions.

A man who switched loyalties in the middle of Bleeding Kansas and the Border Wars.

His daughter, Edna Johnson Anderson proclaimed, “During the Border Warfare, he was always considered a Southern man and all the Missourians were welcomed at all times at his home, while he had always been conservative and considered a loyal citizen. . . He would have gone with the South had the state gone, but he [..] was a firm believer in the Union.”

Rev. Thomas Johnson's recliner is on display
at the Shawnee Indian Mission Museum
The heat of the tensions of the Border Warfare and a call upon retirement had Rev. Johnson opting to leave the Shawnee Indian Mission in the charge of his oldest son, Alexander in 1858. Earlier in 1855, he had purchased a sprawling farm of 600 acres from James Davenport.

According to a 1911 article in the Kansas City Star, the Southern style brick home had been built in 1852 by James Davenport’s slave, Sanders Davenport. The house stood at what would become 2937 E. 35th St. and was just under four miles from Kansas City and just under three from Westport.

Rev. Thomas Johnson did, in fact, sign an oath of loyalty to the Union. His support was a slap in the face to his Missouri pro-slavery friends. His son, Alexander Johnson served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Kansas State Militia and participated in the Battle of Westport. Another son, William, had joined Upton Hays’ Missouri State Guard on the Confederate side, but the reverend allegedly arranged for his son to be released from duty.

It appears his sons were just as confused as to where true loyalty lay.

After Order No. 11 forced evacuation of the citizens of Jackson, Cass, Bates and part of Vernon counties in 1863, thousands of people, predominately women and children, were driven from their homes. His daughter, Edna stated that sometimes 15-20 families at a time stayed with the Johnson’s on the Davenport farm.

Gen. Order No. 11 by George Caleb Bingham
Those that remained in the district had to sign an “Oath of Loyalty.” Since Rev. Johnson was appointed as corporal to the guard to look out for Union patrolmen in the area, he was sometimes called upon to sign these loyalty oaths as a witness.

At one point, a lady came to their home. Edna recalled, “She was known as one of the warmest sympathizers of the South, and one whose home the guerrillas frequently made their headquarters.”

Johnson refused to sign her oath of loyalty when asked.

Edna wrote, “My mother and family have always considered that this was the principal grudge the guerrillas had against my father.”

Is that what led to the events on that cold, wintery night on January 2, 1865?


Rev. Thomas Johnson tried to slam the door shut, but it was too late. The men outside had charged past the gate and shot through the heavy oak door, a bullet puncturing the reverend in the stomach. As his legs gave way, Thomas was caught by his wife and she eased him to the floor.

The volley of gunfire stirred the rest of the home wide awake. Thomas’ son, William and Mr. Patterson, the farm manager, raced down the stairs and toward the slumped remains of Rev. Johnson. Sarah held his head upon her lap as bullets continued to fire from just outside. “Get him a lounge to lay on!” she screamed to the two men.

It was too late. The Rev. Thomas Johnson, just 64 years old, was gone.

Screams followed from fifteen-year-old Cora who had awoken in the chaos. “They’re settin’ fire to the house!”

Rev. Thomas Johnson's headstone at Shawnee
Methodist Mission Cemetery
There on the back porch, the flames and smoke grew. Sarah Johnson, not one to surrender, raced to the kitchen and grabbed two buckets of water. She pushed open the back door and threw the water on the flames. One of the men in the group of murderers stood nearby and, shockingly, did not stop her from her efforts.

Satisfied the flames were extinguished, Sarah flew back inside, snatching up guns and ammunition on her way up the back stairway. The men had already surrounded the stately brick home and started to shoot at her as she climbed her way up.

According to Edna, the next morning, her mother found where shots had passed through her large skirt.

Hunkered upstairs in the dark, William and Mr. Patterson began to fire at the men below. Blood stained the bright white snow, evidence that some of their efforts of retaliation had been successful. The murderers tried one more time to set fire to the home but were unsuccessful.

About 4 a.m., hours and hours after the fatal shot ended the life of one man, the murderers gave up their efforts “feeling they had had accomplished their chief purpose.”

The next morning, the papers reported of the loss.

The Journal of Commerce wrote, “It becomes our painful duty to chronicle another of those terrible murders of which our borders have so long been ravaged. The Rev. Thomas Johnson, one of the most widely known citizens of Western Missouri, was killed by bushwhackers in his own house about 2 ½ miles from Westport.” It was stated that those responsible were a band of guerrillas spending the winter near Hickman’s Mill.

They didn’t take any time establishing the culprits, although many argue the identity of the killers. Just like so many other parts of Johnson’s life, his death was just as confusing as his questionable loyalty.

The Davenport Home, the location where Thomas Johnson was murdered.
Missouri Valley Special Collections
In Martyrdom in Missouri (1870), the author states, “Many believed it was because of his strong Union sentiments and the bushwhackers were the murderers, while just as many believe that it was because he was a Southern Methodist preacher, that the Jayhawkers were his murderers.”

Another theory is that the murder was a robbery, yet it was reported that Thomas Johnson still held $1,000 in his pocket as he lay on the floor dead.

Rev. Thomas Johnson was laid to rest at the Shawnee Indian Mission cemetery (5341 Canterbury Rd., Fairway, Ks.). His wife never returned to the Davenport home where her husband had met his murderous end. She moved back into the Methodist Mission which was officially abandoned as a mission in 1862 and temporarily taken over by Union soldiers.

The house where Johnson lost his life stood for many years to come. Even in 1912, a bullet hole through the front door and a lead ball lodged in the casement remained at the old Davenport home as telling evidence of the bloodshed it once witnessed.

Later image of the Shawnee Mission, converted to a business
Shawnee Indian Mission Foundation
The house was torn to the ground December 1, 1916.

As for the Mission, the ownership was transferred after Rev. Johnson’s death to Rev. Thomas Johnson. His family owned it for a time before it was eventually sold to other owners. It should come to no surprise that this development made many scratch their heads even then.

Even in the 1980s, the Shawnee tribe sued for control of the Shawnee Indian Mission.

Their efforts failed.

In 1927, the state of Kansas was able to purchase 12 acres of the original land where, although in desperate need of repair, the three original brick structures still stood.


Today, the legacy of the Shawnee Indian Mission miraculously survives due to a little bit of luck and a lot of preservation efforts. Three separate entities work closely together in order to preserve the oldest buildings standing in the state of Kansas. The state owns it, the Shawnee Indian Mission Foundation helps sustain it, and the City of Fairway runs day-to-day operations.

The West Building in 1928
Courtesy of Shawnee Indian Mission Foundation
Visiting the mission is a must. Nestled amidst current-day Fairway between golf courses, subdivisions and schools, the Shawnee Indian Mission is a time capsule. The east building houses the museum where you can see Thomas Johnson’s Bible, the old school bell and a cane carved by Shawnee leader Charles Bluejacket. Exhibits in this cir. 1840 building include the story of settlement in Kansas and the Johnson family, Bleeding Kansas, the trail system and the Civil War.

Site director Jennifer Laughlin is a vital piece to the future of the Shawnee Indian Mission. Her positivity and genuine love of the mission is felt the minute you walk through the door. In her position, she hopes to grow additional annual events like the egg hunt and the fall festival, partner with local tribal members to present more Native American history, and grow a volunteer docent program in order to reach more students and visitors (To see what events are offered, go to Shawnee Indian Mission's Facebook page!).

The north building, built in 1845, is a short walk away and offers exhibits on the Native American tribes that once roamed the land here. In addition, a fully functional research library offers visitors a chance to read up on various subjects well beyond the Johnson family and the mission itself. The library is available by appointment.

Efforts are underway to preserve and rehabilitate the oldest of the three buildings, the west building. Today, visitors can stroll nearby on the walking trail that winds through the 12 acres of beautifully landscaped parkland.

The West Building today
Jennifer commented, "Far too often, people drive through the site, not realizing what they just passed through.  History is so important to understand today and bringing in young families and children will help the site to grow and become a vital and memorable part of their local involvement."

We may not understand or even comprehend the complicated life of Rev. Thomas Johnson, but he remains the namesake of the most populated county in the state of Kansas.

Rev. Johnson is forever linked to some of the most controversial issues of American history. We can’t erase these from record; our living history exhibits need to be showcased as a vivid reminder of what once was a brutal struggle along the border. The survival of the Shawnee Indian Mission is imperative so that we can literally walk in the steps of those before us and reflect on the triumphs and blunders that built our area into what it is today.

* The story of Thomas Johnson's murder was taken from several accounts, but poetic license was used to enhance the story. :)

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Main image drawn in 1857 by Henry Howe and courtesy of the University of Kansas

Recommended Reading:

Martyrdom in Missouri by William M. Leftwich. Published 1870 and available online at

"Before Bleeding Kansas: Christian MIssionaries, Slavery, and the Shawnee Indians in Pre-Territorial Kansas, 1844-1854" by Kevin Abing. Published in Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains, 2001.

Early History of Greater Kansas City  by Charles P. Deatheradge. Published 1927.

Conquest of Kansas by Missouri and Her Allies  by William Phillips. Published 1856.

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