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Surprisingly little is known for certain about William Johnson. He was an English sailor out of Boston who first came to California about 1840 as the mate of the Alciope. In 1845 he and Sebastian Keyser bought the Gutiérrez ranch on the Bear River, about two miles east of modern Wheatland, California. Johnson’s humble home, a two-room log and adobe structure, was the American settlement closest to the mountains and became a looked-for goal of overland emigrants. He allowed several families of 1846 overlanders to stay on his ranch for the winter, and it was there that an emaciated William Eddystaggered out of the foothills to seek help for the Donner Party. Johnson donated beef and wheat to the relief parties, for which his ranch was the staging point.
On June 24, 1847, William Johnson married young Mary Murphy of the Donner Party, but she divorced the “drunken sot” after a few months; the story goes that Johnson refused to give up his Indian wives when he married Mary. In 1849 Johnson sold his share in the ranch and went to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) where he married and had a family. Legal affairs involving his former ranch apparently brought him back to California in 1852, but only temporarily. He returned to his home in Hawaii, where he died in February 1863.
For more about the history of Johnson’s Ranch, see Jack Steed, The Donner Party Rescue Site: Johnson’s Ranch on Bear River. Rev. and expanded ed. Sacramento: Graphic, 1993.
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