The Story of John August Johnson (1847-1940) The Wish Fulfilled

A stone sits on a shelf in my genealogy office, just in front of an old picture of my Great Grandpa, John Johnson and his young family. The rock is small enough to fit in the hollow of my hand and cool to the touch. I could probably go outside of my home in Kansas right now and find one very similar to it in every way, but one. I found this rock in Sweden, on the very farm on which my Great Grandpa was born and raised.

My cousins had driven me to Plätt farm, in the township of Byarum in Southern Sweden, during a dream trip I took with my sister in June 2015. As I wandered around, trying to absorb my surroundings for recall when I returned to America, Christer turned to me and said, "Find a stone." "Excuse me?" I said as I turned toward him shaking off the enchantment of the last few minutes. He repeated with his Swedish accent, "You'll want to take something home with you from here. Pick up a stone." My eyes wandered over the ground in front of the cranberry red buildings with their traditional white trim. He was right. I needed something concrete with which to remember this experience. That's when I spotted it. It was covered with soil and as I dug it out of the earth I wondered how long it had been there.
Had it been there when my twice Great Grandpa had moved to Plätt farm in the early 1840's? Had Johannes stepped on it as he moved in, pushing the red stone further into the soil? Was it there when he married Inga Stina on the last day of May in 1846?
Where was it when my Great Grandpa, Johan, was born? When he was a boy, did he dig it out of the earth to throw at a tree or the side of the barn?
In my mind I see Johan and his younger brothers and sisters playing in the farmyard on cool afternoons. It could have been there when he learned to help his dad with the chores on the farm or when his youngest brother, Anders, was born. 
It must have been witness to the hard work, joy, laughter, and eventually, sickness and sorrow. Did it recognize the unyielding resolve to survive, even if it meant separation that my family in Sweden had shown a hundred and fifty years ago?
This rock is silent. The pictures, the facts, the scribbles in a parish household record by an ancient hand; they speak.
There is no way of knowing the answers to any of these questions but, holding the stone in my hand, I can imagine. Rocks are old.

Plätt Farm is situated on flat, grassy acreage, spotted by light woodlands, near the town of Väggeryd, in Byarum Parish in Jönköping Lan, Sweden. Houses barns and other buildings, some cranberry red, trimmed in traditional white are arranged in a cluster around a common yard with fields and wooded areas all around. In the summer, lingonberry bushes, ferns and wild flowers dust the ground around the roots of the trees flanking the road that leads to the farm.
I can picture Plätt farm in my mind and as I think of my ancestors’ stories, I see events from their lives happening around me.  
"Johannes!" Inga cries out in the night, shaking her husband from a deep sleep. "Wake up! I think it's time. The baby is coming!" Johannes starts and scrambles to stand facing his wife; coming to his senses as his feet touch the cold floor. "You're sure?" he asks.
"I may be 22 but I've seen many babies born in my life. I am sure! Run now and get Lena. With six children already, she'll know how to help."
Johannes pulls on his clothes and drags his heavy coat off the hook. The embers dosing in the hearth crackles and hisses as he tosses a log on them. He tugs on his boots and headed to the door. "Stay in bed." He commands over his shoulder. "I'll be back soon."
As he pulls open the door and feels the icy wind punches him in the face, he frowns anxiously, turning back toward her small form lying in the bed. She may have seen babies born but his experience was with livestock and he knew many things could happen during birth. Dangerous things... and this was his young wife. No time for worry now, he tells himself as he secures the door, trapping the warmth inside, and slogs through the late February snow to Christopher and Lena's cottage across the farmyard.
John A. Johnson, as he was known later in his life, was born Johan August Johannesson on the 28th of February in 1847 on Plätt Farm. He was the first born of Johannes Ivarsson and Inga Christina Svensdotter.
In my imagination, I see little Johann August, bundled and curled up in his mother's arms as Inga eased herself onto the bed. It's the 1st day of March 1847. Baby, born and baptized. New mother, tired but satisfied and father, proud and very relieved. Now life will begin as a family.
By the time Johan was 10 he was elder brother to 5 brothers and sisters; Britta Wilhelmina, Emilia, Christina Carolina, Sven Edvard, and Anders Gustaf.
Life on the farm was hard work and, in order to feed and clothe a family of eight, everyone's help was required. Six children must have livened up the farm a bit.
From the age of about 7 or 8, until age 12, Byarum children went to folkschola from fall to spring when the weather allowed. The rest of their time was spent in chores and play.

Household Records show the residents of a cottage on Plätt farm. Names that are crossed out on this page all died of rödsot in September of 1857. New husband is written in above Johannes.
Diseases such as dysentery rolled across 19th century Europe in unpredictable waves of devastation. In 1857, Jönköping was hit hard with an epidemic of rödsot, what we now know as dysentery. The household records kept by the Parish priest give the stark facts without a hint of the despair and grief that must have ripped through communities.
Byarum wasn't spared this disease and in the fall of 1857 dysentery spread through the parish. On the 9th of September, 1857, when Johan was ten years old, his four year old sister Christina, and two year old brother Sven, succumbed to the illness. Just five days later, their father, Johannes, also died. Johan's youngest brother, Anders, was only a few months old at the time. It's difficult to imagine what that time would have been like for the family, Inga in particular.**
Johan most likely took on many of his father's responsibilities and Britta, at nine years of age, no doubt helped with her surviving siblings and the work needed to be done to sustain their family.
The Inga Stina and her children remained at Plätt and she remarried in 1858. Sad times weren't over for her as the two sons she gave birth to in her second marriage had very short lives. Both died in 1863.
Sweden experienced wide-spread drought between the years of 1866 and 1868 which caused years of poor crops and subsequent famine. Many Swedes decided to leave Sweden to make better lives in America. By doing this, they hoped the smaller family could survive easier until the drought was over.
In the 1860's, there was pressure from the government for all young men to join the army. That meant at least six years. Johan didn't want to be a soldier and he didn't want to give six years of his life to service. John told his own children, years later, that the bad crop years, the 6 year military conscription in Sweden and the push at that time for young men to volunteer contributed to his decision to emigrate. 
 In July of 1869, when Johan was twenty-two, he left Byarum for the town of Jönköping thirty miles to the North. It was noted by the priest in the household records of Plätt farm that Johan and his sister, Britta, had plans to emigrate from Sweden to America.
The conversations about leaving home to go so far away he and Britta must have had with their mother must have been painful. Inga had lost much in her life and now her two oldest children were leaving Sweden for what would end up being forever. Four of her children were dead and now two were soon leaving for the other side of the ocean. That left her with two children who stayed in Sweden. Sorrow and hope most likely mingled in her heart as she said goodbye to Johan and Britta.

According to the Emigranternas Hus (House of Emigrants), an emigrants’ museum in Gothenburg, Swedes emigrating from the central part of Southern Sweden usually arrived in Gothenburg by train. They would step off the train and walk West down a street called Sillgatan, now known as Postgatan, that ran from Central Train Station to the harbor. Along that street were offices where agents sold passages to America. Johan would have purchased passage and boarded ship from Gothenburg to England and then on to America.
After crossing the ocean from Gothenburg to Hull, England, across land by train and on across the Atlantic to America, John finally found himself on an immigrant train headed to the town of Red Wing in Goodhue County, Minnesota by 1870. Red Wing, Minnesota Train Depot
Red Wing had one of the first and the largest assemblage of Swedish immigrants in Minnesota. It is unknown at this time if he had friends or family already there or who his sponsor might have been. According to family stories, he worked in the timber industry while living in Minnesota. 
John applied for US citizenship several times before receiving it. A letter sent to him by a clerk in the immigration office at Red Wing, as a response to an inquiry he made, stated that there were so many John Johnsons in the county that his records couldn't be definitively located. It was years before he finally became a citizen in 1906.

Britta immigrated around the same time as John but landed at a different entry point. She met and married a Swedish immigrant named Louis Nordling and they moved to Delmore Township, McPherson County, Kansas. Britta changed her first name to Bettie when she immigrated.
After hearing about the Kansas Land Act, and from Britta about land available near her home in McPherson, Kansas, John decided to go to see it for himself. 
After arriving at Britta and Louis’ home, he explored the land around the county. He purchased a quarter section of land bordering the Nordling land to the east in central Delmore Township, McPherson County, Kansas for $600 on 28 Oct 1876. 1 Mar 1878, he purchase a quarter section down the road about half a mile north from the first section. This is where he planned to homestead. There was a creek running through the land and he chose the spot where he would eventually build his home.
He dug a cave in the side of a hill near the creek and lived there until he could build a proper shelter.
In the section adjacent to his homestead lived another family of Johnson's. They were immigrants from Vena, Kalmar län, Sweden. Jonas and Stina Lovisa had three daughters and three sons. Their youngest daughter, Ida Mathilda, was 13 when John moved to the cave by the creek. He needed a wife and being the practical type, he decided to wait for her to grow up and get to marrying age.
John and Ida were married on the first day of September, 1882. She was 16 and he, 35.
By the time their first son, Arthur Theodore, was born in the fall of 1884, the home they were building was more than a dugout, but not by very much! Over the next several years, the dugout became the basement with the first story built. By the time their last child was born in 1903, it was a large, two story home with a porch that wrapped around two sides of the house and a big brick cistern in the back and a room with a real bathtub; one of the first in the area. 
They purchased the quarter section to the east of their homestead in 1885 and half of a quarter more in 1908. By this time, they owned nearly a whole section of land.
There were several other buildings on the farm, along with cattle, hogs, horses, farm implements, and two lumber wagons, according to a list of property put up for collateral on a loan dated 25 Apr 1892.
John's grandchildren, now in their 80s and 90s, still remember him saying that he wished his family in Sweden could see the house he built in America. It was a wish that he never saw fulfilled. 

Their second child, John Wilhelm, was born in the summer of 1886. He was weak and lived only five days. Their third son, Carl Emil, was born the following summer and another son in Dec of 1889; both were healthy and strong. John and Ida were active in the community and were members of the Swedish New Gottland Lutheran Church.
Sometimes hard times can mold and define a family. For John and Ida, the date was May 14, 1889. You can't always tell what will happen on any given day but looking into their abandoned home, I can imagine how the day might have started.
"Will you stay at home today or go with Arthur and I to take the wheat into town?" John asked Ida as he opened the back door of their wood-frame house, 5 year-old Arthur squeezed between him and the door to enter the kitchen at a run. He slowed down as he caught a brief look from his mother and a quiet "Artur..." from his father.
Then Ida smiled at him as she finished wiping left-over breakfast from Carl Emil's face. She glanced at the list of needed supplies on the kitchen table. With harvest in full swing, they had all been busy and that list was growing.
It was a nice day for a trip into town. "I'll get the baby ready and we'll all go! It would be a good time to get some supplies." 
Soon John and Ida were on their way to McPherson with their young family.  My grandpa, just half a year old, sitting in his mother's lap and Carl Emil sandwiched safely between his parents on the wagon bench. Arthur, sat just behind the bench in the soft wheat. His parents’ instructions still hung in the air. "Stay in the front of the wagon where we can see you. Hold on to the bench so you won't fall." What a fun place to ride! Sitting on the hill of shifting, shiny wheat kernels that filled the wagon bed was going to be fun and he was excited!
It was about an hour from the farm to McPherson by wagon. John and Ida passed the time discussing their neighbors' fields, as all farmers do, and keeping wiggly Emil safely on the seat. Ida bounced the baby on her lap, and glanced back at Arthur to make sure he was obeying, as they made their way down the bumpy roads.
Five year-old boys are curious and can get in trouble when they find themselves with a few minutes of time behind their parents' backs. Arthur was no different. He let go of the seat with one hand and dug it down into the warm, slippery wheat. Before long he was busy letting wheat sift through his fingers to land at his sides.
There was the rhythmic clop of the horses’ hooves as they pulled the wheat laden lumber wagon; the wheels jarringly finding the deepest ruts in the old Kansas road south of their farm.
There is no way of knowing what alerted the parents that something was wrong. Maybe it was a noise or the lack of noise behind her that made Ida glance back again. The wheat still filled the bed of the wagon but the empty space behind the seat dropped her into a heart stopping panic that all mothers recognize. Arthur was gone! Where was he?
"Arthur!! Stop the wagon, John! Arthur is gone!" His wife's panicked cries had John yanking on the reigns to stop the horses and pulling on the brake.
The space around the wagon that had been so full of noise a second before turned sickeningly quiet. John jumped down, staring at the empty space. Then, he leaped into the back of the wagon, digging his hands into the golden grains, searching for his son. Nothing. Now his fear-blinded eyes searched the area as he and Ida yelled Arthur's name. Then, John's eyes fell on something lying in the road in the distance. He knew immediately that it was their precious, firstborn son. Arthur's young life was gone before John could reach him. The fall from the wagon had broken his neck.
McPherson Daily Republican, May 15, 1890
The emotions surrounding that small piece of road were agonizing; John and Ida wailing in their grief while Emil and baby brother looked on in confusion. They were too young to realize that their lives had changed forever in the few moments since Arthur was found missing. How could they comprehend their mother as she cried for her eldest son? Did this anguish mingle with the sadness over losing her second son a few years before? One son dead, and now another!
The scene is unimaginable and yet, in the next few minutes, it would get worse. The child lay, now wrapped in his parents' arms, in front of a neighbor's farm at their driveway. Soon that family entered the scene, alerted by the cries. 
The farmer, a long-time friend, ran to help. When he heard the story, he proceeded to berate the heartbroken father for being so careless with his boy. How could he put his small son in such a dangerous place? He should have known this could happen! Hurtful words saturated the heavy air and did nothing to comfort the couple.

The little boy was carried to the neighbor's barn, cleaned up by the farmer's wife and placed in a safe place until arrangements could be made with the town mortuary.  
I've been told by John's grandsons that he never fully recovered from the words of his neighbor. They are quietly repeated, three generations later, as part of the sad story. The pain of those words ruined a friendship and contributory to John and Ida leaving the fellowship of the Swedish Lutheran Church that they had been a part of for many years. 

Their first born son, Arthur, was buried in the cemetery behind the Swedish Lutheran Church outside of McPherson, Kansas. No one knows exactly where as there is no longer a stone to mark it.
A simple trip to town had turned a family's life on its head. It threw Carl Emil into his brother's place as "the eldest child"; cementing the scene in his mind and leaving an invisible scar that would stay with him for 70 years.
My grandfather, the baby brother, received a new name. No one knows what he was called before that day, but he became Arthur Theodore in honor of his brother.
Somehow, the family survived. During the next twelve years, their household grew from four to nine. Albin, Martin, Edith, Mabel and Reuben graced the family between 1892 and 1903. 

John and Ida raised their family on the homestead in Delmore Township. John farmed the land; planting wheat and oats on some of the sections and raising cattle and hogs. He was instrumental in bringing the farmer's union to McPherson County and his name can be found in many McPherson newspaper articles as he helped to unite his fellow farmers to consider their situation.
His grandchildren remember John as an interesting man to be around and listen to. He enjoyed talking to his neighbors and had many friends throughout the county. He never drove a car and walked miles around the area visiting farms and getting to know the farmers in his township. There were so many John Johnsons in the county that people began to give them each nicknames to keep them straight in conversations. John August gained the name, "By-Gosh Johnson" as that was one of his favorite phrases. People who knew him say they remember him wearing a white and blue pinstriped suit and straw hat with a black band when he went calling. He always carried a cane on his walks and he was seen jauntily walking the county roads swinging that cane many times.
As their children reached adulthood, John and Ida began to think about moving. Some of the farmland they had bought years back was now producing crops and oil. They decided to move to Texas and bought a fruit and vegetable farm seven miles North of Alamo; near the Mexican border. In about 1919, they left their Kansas farm in the hands of Arthur and his new wife, Ida, and moved to their second farm. Although they never lived in Kansas again, they made trips back to the homestead to visit and help with decisions involving the farm and land holdings. Emil and Edith never married. Edith stayed with her parents and helped them in Texas. Emil spent time on both farms, helping out as he could.
Both John and Ida suffered from arthritis as they aged. The Texas farm never truly flourished as they had hoped as the area went through several dry spells. There are stories of a fire that burned down most of the Texas farmhouse. It was rebuilt the next year. Sometime during these years, John was bitten by a black widow spider. After recovering from the bite, he discovered his arthritis was much improved. His son, Arthur, recalled in an interview that John never wore glasses after the bite healed as he found his vision was nearly perfect.   
John died 7 Feb 1940 at the age of 92 in the city of Alamo, Hidalgo County, Texas after a short battle with Bronchial Pneumonia. He is buried in Roselawn Cemetery in the town of McAllen, Hidalgo County, Texas. Ida sold the farm in Texas and she and Edith moved to a smaller home nearby. Ida died in 1952 at the age of 86. Carl Emil signed the death certificates for both John and Ida.

 This is an old family photograph of John and Ida with four of their children and families. They sit in the middle of their descendants. My Grandpa, Arthur Johnson, sits first from the right with his hat in his lap. John, dressed in a straw hat, dress shirt, tie and suit vest; seemingly clothed as everyone remembers. He has a baby grandson on his knees and another one leaning on him. His arms are wrapped around both of them and his eyes stare straight into the camera. The photographer captured the genuine Johan August Johannesson that day.


John spoke often about his younger brother, Anders, back in Sweden. He wished for a day when his family could see the home and farm he had built. I don’t know when communication stopped between John and his family in Sweden but I do know he never got his wish. By the time we began looking for family, 100 years after John said goodbye to them in Sweden, too much time had gone by and the delicate threads we all know hold our family history together were broken.

Uncle Don (one of my dad's brothers) and I have looked for relatives in Sweden for years with no luck. I put everything we knew in my public tree on Ancestry and there it sat for many years. As I learned how to search Arkivdigital, the Swedish online database of old records, I added what I found. My tree was online for years and although it has been instrumental in finding many cousins on my mom's side, we never made any progress on the Swedish branches.

Meanwhile, in Jönköping, Sweden, an 86 year-old woman named Gunnel, often wondered what happened to the part of the family that had gone to America. Her grandfather, Anders Gustaf Johannesson told of a brother, Johan and a sister, Britta who had emigrated from Sweden to America in the 1869. She even had, in her home, Britta’s trunk which she had left behind when she emigrated.

Then, for Christmas 2012, Gunnel received an iPad as a gift from her children. As she learned how to use it, she decided she would try to find her family in America through
Anders and his wife, Amanda, (seated) at their home in Sweden. Gunnel’s mother, Svea, is in the background (center).

In April 2013, I received a message on from a woman in Jönköping saying that she thought we were related. I was very excited but also afraid of being disappointed, if I found out that it wasn't a match. After MUCH checking and matching of our information, I finally allowed myself to believe I was communicating with the granddaughter of my great grandpa's younger brother, Anders. I just about reached hero status for a while among my aunts and uncles and of course my own dad who has since died, just for having put the family tree on ancestry where it was found.                                    
Gunnel with the iPad she used to find me!
Once I knew I had relatives in Sweden, I had a great desire to go and meet them. Gunnel sent me pictures of the part of our family who had stayed in Sweden during the 2 years after we found each other. She also sent many pictures of their homes. My sister, Kris, and I began to plan a trip to Sweden last fall and it seemed to be the perfect retirement celebration for me, as I retired in the spring from 35 years of teaching. I emailed my cousin, Gunnel, with our plans and learned that she was very excited to meet us also.
It was the first visit to Sweden for Kris and I and we immediately felt as if we were home. We grew up in a very Swedish-American culture, so actually being in Sweden validated so much of our lives and childhoods in ways nothing else could. On our way to Jönköping, we visited the western and southern cities of Gothenburg, Ängelholm (to meet a Facebook friend) and Malmö. Then we were on to Jönköping and our family!

On a beautiful June morning we stopped the car in front of Gunnel’s home. Her youngest daughter, Marianne stood on the balcony waving to us. We were welcomed in for a formal fika (a special coffee break in Sweden) set on the dining room table. Gunnel, her daughters, Marianne and Ninni and their husbands, and Marianne’s son, Johan were there to greet us. It was a powerful feeling just to be there in Sweden with them.
Ninni, Gunnel, and Marianne at our welcome Fika.
Altogether, we met 14 relatives! Our cousins welcomed us with open arms and we felt very comfortable in their homes!  We stayed with Gunnel in her home and celebrated Midsommar with them in Gunnel’s son, Anders', home in Jönköping and again later in Dalarna. 

Christina, Gunnel, Christer and Shari looking at genealogy.

My Cousin Christina’s husband, Christer, is also a genealogist. He presented me with a large notebook containing his work on the history of the family; complete with color pictures of family groups and the inside of some of the homes!

Kris and Shari celebrating Midsommar’s Day in Jönköping.
They took us south of Jönköping to the town of Vaggeryd in Byarum Parish. We visited Plätt Farm where my great grandpa John August Johnson, and his younger brother, Gunnel's grandpa Anders, were born and raised. 

Before my trip I did some thinking about the gift I would bring Gunnel. She sent me many pictures of family homes and I wanted to bring her something that she would think was special. Then I remembered what my Uncles and Dad had told me many times. John’s wish for his family to see his Kansas home had gone unfulfilled. 

Gunnel unwrapping her gift.

With the help of my kids, I retrieved a piece of wood from the abandoned home John and Ida built on the homestead now hidden from view behind barbed wire, brush and trees. I framed the wood with a photo of the house at its peak about 1915. 
That is what I brought to Gunnel. 

Anders may not have gotten to see John’s home but his granddaughter now has a piece of it hanging on her family history wall in her home in Sweden.


  1. I am looking for family of my ancesters. John August Johnson b1846 Kalmar, Sweden. His parents are possibly Johan Johansson B1811? and Euphemia/Englina Pettersen. Any link between us? Lyn Johnson-Hood

    1. Hi Lyn! I think we have 2 different John Augusts here. My John August was born in Byarum Parish in Jönköping Lan on the 28th of February in 1847. He settled in Kansas about 1875. Good luck with your searching!

  2. My John August Johnson b1486 Kalmmar, came to NZ. He married Mary Emily Finnegan. Do we have a connection please. Lyn