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Johnny Johnson

Herd boy at Plum Creek.

He had a round red face, and round blue eyes, and pale, whitey-yellow hair. He grinned, and did not say anything. He couldn’t. He didn’t know any words that Laura and Mary knew. – On the Banks of Plum Creek, Chapter 6, “Wreath of Roses”

John Halvorson Johnson was born in January 4, 1861 in Bergen, Norway, the eldest son of Halvor and Christiana Johnson. He had two sisters, Oleanna and Christine. In 1874, the Johnsons came to America, settling first near Tracy (Lyon County) Minnesota. They lived in Redwood Falls before settling on a farm in Johnsonville Township in Redwood County, about six miles north of Charles Ingalls’ preemption claim, the homesite mentioned in On the Banks of Plum Creek.

Oleanna Johnson married John Tweet in 1874 in New Ulm, Minnesota. Christine married Patrick Mitchell of Worcester, Massachusetts; Mitchell had been in the 17th Infantry at Fort Abercrombie, on the Red River in Dakota Territory. In November 1881, John Johnson married Petra Halverson; she was born in Jevnaker, Norway, in May 1858. After their marriage, Petra and John Johnson moved to a farm near Webster (Day County) Dakota Territory. The couple had seven children: Cora (1883), Hilda (1885), Henry (1887), Fred (1890), Edward (1892), Charles (1894), and Emma (1898). John Johnson died in March 1930. Petra Johnson died in November 1937.

In her Pioneer Girl manuscript, Laura Ingalls Wilder mentions a “herd boy” only once, and she does not give his name. In the manuscript for On the Banks of Plum Creek, she uses both Johnnie and Johnny Johnson as his name, writing – as in the published version – that he was only recently from Norway and could not communicate with Laura and Mary because they did not speak the same language. Descendants of this John Johnson donated photographs and items belonging to their ancestor; they are on display at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove, Minnesota. It is not known for sure if he is indeed the historical counterpart to Wilder’s “Johnny Johnson.”



There were other Johnsons who lived near the Ingallses’ preemption claim, including Turis / Torres Johnson who married Eleck Nelson’s mother-in-law, Aase Johnson, in Newburg Township (Fillmore Co.) Minnesota in November 1873. In Redwood County, Turis Johnson homesteaded the SE 18-109-38 (the Ingallses preempted the NW 18-109-39 while Eleck Nelson homesteaded the SW 18-109-38), but he filed on the east and west halves of the SE 18 at separate times, having first filed on the west half as a tree claim in July 1878, relinquishing it in May 1881 and adding the 80 acres of the east half to his homestead, making final proof in June 1882. Turis and Aase Johnson sold the quarter section to Eleck Nelson in June 1882. It’s likely that they remained on the land after selling, as they were enumerated in North Hero Township in 1875, 1880, and 1885 censuses. In 1886, they purchased 120 acres in 21-112-39 (Underwood Township, Redwood County, Minnesota), and in 1886, Turis Johnson purchased Lots 16, 17, and 18, Block 13 in the village of Walnut Grove from Elias Bedal.

The Ingallses must have known Turis and Aasa Johnson, as the Ingalls family was enumerated just after the Johnsons in North Hero Township on the 1875 Minnesota state census.

However, prior to Turis Johnson filing on land in the SE 18, the quarter section had been filed on as a homestead by James Johnson in July 1872. I haven’t researched James Johnson; he may have been related to Turis or Aasa Johnson, and he may have been living there at some point when the Ingallses were living to the northeast, which makes it possible that the herd boy from the Little House books was connected to this Johnson family, not that of Halvor Johnson who lived 6 miles away. Or, Johnny Johnson may have boarded here; who knows?

And to further confuse matters, someone named Olene (?) Johansen filed on the SW 18 (the Eleck Nelson quarter section) in May 1873, relinquishing it in November 1878. Nothing is known about this person or family, either, but the surname is close enough to what Laura Ingalls Wilder gave the herd boy that it is mentioned here, and the filing and relinquishment dates could mean that they were living nearby when the Ingallses were on their claim. However, settlement dates (recorded in the tract book) contradict Eleck Nelson’s claim that he settled on the N-SW on June 1, 1870, even though he didn’t make final proof until ten years later. Eleck Nelson’s family is the 31st enumerated on the 1875 Minnesota state census while Turis Johnson and C.P. Ingalls families are 1st and 2nd.


Johnny Johnson (BPC 6-7, 10, 33)
     herd boy (PG)