Biography of John Johnson
Chittenden County, VT Biographies





JOHNSON, JOHN, who died in Burlington of erysipelas fever, on the 30th of April, 1842, was one of the most skillful land surveyors of New England in his time. He was born in Canterbury, N. H., on the 2d day of December, 1771, his parents having just previously removed thither from Andover, Mass. He was descended from a family of the same patronymic who were among the earliest settlers of Andover, where several branches of the family still reside. His father, Benjamin Johnson, was a grandson of Captain Timothy Johnson, an extensive land owner in Andover, who, in 1677, at the head of a corps of mounted men, defeated the Indians in several fierce encounters.

Benjamin Johnson married Elizabeth Boardman, of Preston, Conn., and removed to Canterbury, N. H. He was a farmer, and took an active part in the War of the Revolution, rendering distinguished service at the battle of Bennington under General Stark, and receiving the commendation of that officer. He died at the advanced age of eighty eight years, having through life sustained a character above reproach. His son John, then nineteen years of age, determined to seek his fortune in a newer country, and repaired at once to the northwestern part of Vermont, residing for short periods at several places, until the year 1808, when he settled permanently on the hill near the university in Burlington. By the time of his settlement in Burlington he had acquired a thorough knowledge of his chosen occupation of land surveying, and had already made surveys and resurveys of many of the towns in Northern Vermont. It will be remembered that the duties of a surveyor in this early day were of a severe and arduous nature. The population of the country was scanty, money was scarce, there were few roads, and they of the rudest description, the extremely rugged surface of the country presented in many cases almost insurmountable barriers to progress, while the snow lay at a great depth in the dense forests late in the season. In conducting these surveys it was Mr. Johnson's practice to encamp with his party wherever night overtook him. The town of Westmore, in which Willoughby Lake is situated, was surveyed by him in the months of February and March, 1800, when the snow covered the ground to a mean depth of five or six feet. His eminent services in his pursuit brought him a wide and enviable reputation throughout the State, and in 1812 he was appointed surveyor general of Vermont. He was also chosen by the commissioners under the treaty of Ghent to superintend the surveys on behalf of the United States of our northeastern boundary. With Colonel Bouchette, the English surveyor, he undertook the work in 1817, and traced the north line from the source of St. Croix River in the eastern part of Maine, to St. John's River. In the following year, with Colonel Odell for the English commission, he continued this line to the Highlands designated in the treaty, and explored the country lying to the west of the due north line, the geography of which had been previously unknown. At this point the English commission objected to the extension of the due north line across St. John's River, and the surveys were interrupted. Mr. Johnson's final report was made in 1819 or 1820. Upon the resumption of the surveys by the government some years later, when the line was directed to be run more accurately than was possible in an original exploration, it was found to differ so little from the line traced by Mr. Johnson that the latter was adopted in the treaty of 1842 as the boundary to St. John's River, whence by a liberal concession on the part of this government, it was permitted to follow the channel of that stream for some distance west, before again verging to the Highlands. After concluding this service Mr. Johnson was again appointed surveyor general of Vermont, and at various times during the remaining years of his life he filled several important offices of trust. During the War of 1812- 15 his intimate acquaintance with the topography of Northern Vermont and New York enabled him to furnish invaluable information to the military department, which was suitably acknowledged, but for which he received no compensation. He was also appointed one of a commission to examine and adjust the claims of citizens on the northern frontier, upon whom the army had at times been obliged to make forced demands for transportation, forage, etc. He was chosen to this position by virtue of his high reputation for probity, and of his excellent private and public character. These qualities also commanded the universal attention of his townsmen, by whom he was frequently made the arbitrator of some disputed question, which was determined by his wisdom and keen sense of justice, without the delay and expense of a trial and judgment in the regularly constituted courts. In the division and settlement of estates his services were almost constantly brought into requisition.

It has already been made apparent that Mr. Johnson was not merely a surveyor, but a man of broad general information, of great native abilities, and of an unerring judgment. He possessed a degree of mathematical and mechanical knowledge and skill rarely attained by those whose education, like his, did not emanate from the schools and colleges, but was rather built up by his own unaided efforts. It was his habit to investigate all questions on which his mind was brought to bear, carefully and closely, guarding his judgments from the influence of any improper prejudice or bias. The many manuscripts which he left on the subjects of carpentry, bridge building, hydraulics, etc., display great care and patient research in the collection of facts, and very unusual mechanical skill in the arrangement of plans. Most of the mechanical structures of any magnitude erected in Northern Vermont during his residence in Burlington, either emanated from him or received the benefit of his sanction. In 1815 he furnished the plans for the structure, then the largest of the kind in that part of the country, that was placed over the frame of the large government vessel, then unfinished, at Sackett's Harbor. He had no superior in the planning and construction of bridges, dams, and mills, and many so called improvements, since patented by others, and used in other parts of the country, may be discerned in structures planned by him in Northern Vermont. He gave particular attention to the subject of saw mills and flouring mills, and through his instrumentality, aided by one or two others chiefly, the flouring mills of Northern Vermont and New York were rendered especially superior to all others.

Mr. Johnson become a partner in 1822 in the first establishment erected in Ausable Valley, N. Y., for the manufacture of chain cables, and he retained his interest in the manufacturing industries of that valley for a number of years. In addition to his manuscripts on saw mills and flouring mills, mentioned above, he left others equally valuable on the construction of fulling mills, oil mills, rolling mills, forges, etc., which manifest in their preparation extreme diligence and careful observation. The celebrated Oliver Evans met Mr. Johnson while on a visit to Vermont to collect his dues on the improvements in the use of machinery which he had originated, and was surprised and delighted to find in his new acquaintance so thorough an adept in the branches of practical learning in which he himself had become famous.

It was early a conviction with Mr. Johnson that theoretical knowledge in any department of science was valuable chiefly in proportion to its contribution to the general welfare and prosperity, and he viewed with pain the divergence in thought and sentiment between the scientific men of his day, who made little effort to render their studies practical in result, and the practical men who refused to believe that their professions could be advanced by any labors outside of the field or workshop. With the latter he had great influence, and was eminently successful in his efforts to elevate the several mechanical professions by proving that a knowledge of general principles and theories was important, because to a man's personal experience it added much of the recorded experience and observation of others, which could be learned only by reading and study.

Mr. Johnson originated many valuable improvements in the mechanical arts; notwithstanding which, he never sought to benefit himself by obtaining letters patent, as he might have been justified in doing. The results of his studies, researches, and all his labors were generously devoted to the public benefit. The success of his son, Edwin F. Johanson, who afterwards attained a position in the first rank of the profession of civil engineering, was in no small degree due to the instruction received in the office of his father on the subjects immediately connected with his pursuit. Mr. Johnson usually had with him several young men who were qualifying themselves as land surveyors and mechanics, many of whom afterward became prominent as such in other parts of the country. These young men always retained for their instructor the kindest regard and affection. His sympathies on behalf of the poor and suffering were easily excited. His hospitality was well understood, and his home was always open to the reception of his many friends. He was generous almost to a fault.

Although he never took a very active part in political matters, he entertained decided opinions in harmony with the Jeffersonian school, and never neglected his duties as a citizen, nor hesitated to express his opinions of men and principles. He was conscious, however, of the readiness with which human nature is swayed by partisan and sectarian influences, and carefully avoided exposing himself to their action, or censuring others who had been thus exposed. He was a great favorite socially, having the rare and happy faculty of making himself agreeable to all alike. Though not what would be termed a learned man, he had read extensively, and stood upon a footing of equality and friendship with men who ranked high for their scientific attainments.

Mr. Johnson first married, in 1799, Rachel Ferry, of Granby. After her death he married, in 1807, Lurinda Smith, of Richmond, Vt., who died March 21, 1866.

From:
History of Chittenden County, Vermont
Edited by: W. S. Rann
D. Mason & Co., Publishers
Syracuse, New York. 1886


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