- Historic Sites
“We Are All Descended From Grandfathers!”
and… …a glimpse at the grandfathers of the candidates exhibits the wonderful diversity of American life
June 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 4
One or more of all these candidates, announced or not, may well have completely withdrawn by the time these words appear in print, or other strong contenders may have appeared; this is a hazard of bimonthly publication. But it will really not alter our point, which is to look for a moment to the roots of American life and to marvel at its unparalleled richness and diversity.
It is useless to seek out a real log cabin among the birthplaces of the current contenders for the Presidency. But there is an authentic farmhouse—oil-lit and far from prosperous. It is the rambling Sam Johnson place on the Pedernales River near Johnson City, Blanco County, Texas, where a boy was born at daybreak, August 27, 1908, to Rebekah Baines Johnson and Samuel Ealy Johnson, Jr.
Rebekah’s father had served in the state legislature, holding the seat later occupied by his son-in-law. Her husband was a farmer and a schoolteacher: he served five terms in the Texas legislature. Living near them was the child’s white-haired, white-bearded paternal grandfather, who had also served in the legislature for one term as a Populist. Politics seemed to be the cottage industry, so much so that on hearing the glad news Samuel EaIy Johnson, Sr., mounted a horse and took to the countryside to give the neighbors the news:
“A United States senator was born this morning—my grandson.”
In retrospect this was a rare thing for a Texan: an understatement. Old Sam was a tall, gregarious porchsitter, a patriarch who had raised nine children and was living out a somewhat impoverished old age in the farmhouse which today is the center of the LBJ Ranch. The present First Lady likes to tell how her husband was a runaway almost as soon as he could walk, fortunately turning up not in the river but at grandfather’s, where he would climb around in a rolltop desk that was carefully kept stocked for him with apples and stick candy.
President Lyndon Johnson’s grandfather was born on November 12, 1838, in Alabama, while his family was making the slow journey from Georgia to Texas. He was the tenth child. Jesse and Lucy Webb Barnett Johnson got to Texas all right, settling at Lockhart in 1846, but both died there about ten years later. Meanwhile, Sam and his elder brother, Tom, had gone to the Blanco County area of Texas; there they started buying cattle.
It was the right historic moment to enter a hard but romantic business. They acquired land and built a log-cabin fort with a fine view of the Pedernales. “These old pioneers always had enough poetry in their souls to choose a beautiful home site—and a beautiful graveyard,” says Mrs. Lyndon Johnson today. This rude building, which is now shown to visitors, became the nucleus later of Johnson City, and before the Civil War began, Sam and Tom were driving large herds along the Chisholm Trail up to Kansas and even to Montana. Three Johnson nephews joined the enterprise, which became the largest in that particular part of the state, eventually acquiring 50,000 acres.
When Texas joined the Confederacy, Sam Johnson enlisted in Company B of DeBray’s Regiment at Lockhart and saw service throughout the war. He gained some distinction for bravery in battles at Galveston and at Pleasant Hill, where his horse was shot out from under him. Returning to Lockhart after the war, he married a well-born Texas lady named Eliza Bunton and brought her back to the log-fort bachelor’s quarters on the Pedernales, where he and his brothers resumed cattle-driving on an even bigger scale. They built pens and branding stalls not far away at Williamson’s Creek. From there, herds of 2,500 to 3,000 longhorns, accompanied by a trail driver, cook, wrangler, and as many as sixteen cowboys, would head north for Kansas in the spring. It was a life of dust and weariness, of buffalo-hunting and chance meetings with Indians, of genuine hardship. But it was a life of independence—the Texas legend when it was real.
It was a young man’s world, and not perhaps what a gently reared young woman like Eliza Johnson had expected. She accepted it bravely, but yearned for her more civilized home back in Lockhart. She yearned all the more when Indian troubles came to Blanco County. In 1869, a local couple were killed and scalped by the Indians, and a party of local men set out after them. The Texans found the Indians at Deer Creek, drove them away in a small skirmish, and started back to the Johnson ranch.
Meanwhile, Eliza was having an adventure of her own. She was alone when she saw Indians coming in from the north on ponies. Quickly she snatched up her new baby, grabbed an extra diaper, and descended through a trap door to a storage cellar below, somehow pulling the rug back into place with her fingertips before she closed it. After a short while the Indians burst into the room above, and she could hear them knocking things about. Stifling the infant’s cries with the diaper, she waited quietly for the raiders to find her—or leave. At length there was no more noise, but still she remained in the cellar, fearful lest some Indians had loitered behind. After a long time, she heard more footsteps, and was relieved to hear the strong voice of her husband shouting, “Eliza! Eliza!”
Up went the trap door and out came a dutiful voice:
“Here I am, Mr. Sam.”