Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday April 3, 2004 

Postcard 238: Johnson County’s Namesake – a good fit


Unable to find an image of the man for whom Johnson County is named, the author visited the Library of Congress on the internet 
to obtain what may be the first image of Johnson ever published locally. Then, wondering what eliminating the teaseled 
hairdo might produce, the author created the mirror image on his home computer.


By Bob Hibbs


An Indian fighter and war hero who took a slave as his wife, the county’s namesake was “a man of rough frontier manners and unconventional habits,” writes current-day historian Henry Robert Burke. The subject was U.S. vice president when the county was named.

While part of the Territory of Wisconsin, the boundaries of Johnson County were designated and named on Dec. 21, 1837, by the Wisconsin legislature meeting in what is now Burlington, Iowa. Wisconsin was subdivided the following Fourth of July to create the Territory of Iowa.

The county’s namesake is Richard Mentor Johnson, who served an undistinguished term as vice president during the one-term administration of Martin Van Buren from 1837 into 1841.

Despite an overwhelming victory by Van Buren and Van Buren’s support, Johnson didn’t receive an Electoral College majority. However, the president-elect’s support did win Johnson a narrow election by the U.S. Senate during an era when the president and vice president were elected separately.

Although his wife had died before the 1836 election, Johnson never challenged opponents’ claims that she was a mulatto slave and mother of his daughters. He responded: “I married my wife under the eyes of God, and apparently He has found no objections.”

There were objections among opponents, particularly in the South, where it was tolerable for a white male to keep a slave mistress and support her children. However, such was not admitted in polite company, nor was child paternity acknowledged.

In fact, interracial marriage was unlawful in many states, and frowned upon in most quarters. Johnson’s unconventional attitude in such matters nearly cost him the national election. In some circles, the fact that Johnson would introduce his mulatto daughters as family was considered an outrage.

Never-the-less, he was popular at home in Kentucky where he was twice elected to the state legislature beginning in 1803 at age 23 and to the U.S. Congress in 1807 at age 27, where he served continuously until his election of the U.S. Senate in 1819. After 11 years there, he again served in the House until the vice presidential term.

He first won recognition at home as a bright, well-educated young lawyer, whose popularity was enhanced considerably by service against the British during the War of 1812.

Johnson achieved national notoriety for killing the legendary Shawnee leader Tecumseh in Ohio during a battle Oct. 5, 1813. Johnson was seriously wounded, but returned to Congress the following spring.

Newspapers and popular books glorified him as a war hero. An 1883 Johnson County history recites lines it characterizes as from “a popular political song” of the era: “Sing and shout, O rumpsy-dumpsy, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh.”

It then continues: “Well, it was this Rumpsy-dumpsy-killed-Tecumseh Col. Johnson after whom and in whose honor Johnson County, Iowa, received its name.”

The namesake was born Oct. 17, 1780, in Kentucky, and was graduated from Transylvania University in Lexington, a noted institution in that time whose supporters included George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. It exists today as a small liberal arts school founded the same year Johnson was born.

At graduation Johnson was admitted to practice law and a decade later entered military service as a colonel – that is, a real Kentucky colonel. The designation more recently has been sold or given by that state as an honorary title; it’s the origination of the title the late Harland Sanders used in establishing his fried chicken empire in 1952.

After the vice presidential years Johnson returned home, was re-elected to the Kentucky legislature and died Nov. 19, 1850 while still serving in that office.

His non-conformist attitude and liberal lifestyle seems a good fit with the modern-day county that bears his name, which in some parts of Iowa is referred to impolitely as “the Peoples Republic of Johnson County.”

Next Saturday: Digital restoration of an historic artifact.

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and researches history related to them. 

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