There are tales to be told about Britton Johnson, most of which are at least partially true. Johnson lived on the Texas frontier when people were less concerned about leaving something behind for posterity than with making sure they didn't begin the journey to posterity too soon. Fittingly for a man of his time, the primary record Britt Johnson left behind consists of spent rifle cartridges found beside his body when he died.
Born a slave around 1840, Johnson appears to have lived and worked as more of a foreman for the Moses Johnson Ranch in Young County than a slave. He owned his own livestock, and as far as anyone can tell went his own way. We might remember him today, if at all, simply as one of the many settlers whose families were torn asunder by Indian depredations, if not for the way he responded to the Elm Creek Raid in October of 1864.
That raid represented the largest collection of combined Comanche and Kiowa warriors ever assembled up until that time. They could afford to live large. There was no military or Texas Ranger presence because of the Civil War, no one to stop them and no one to pursue them. Under the leadership of Comanche chief Little Buffalo, 700 warriors descended on the Elm Creek Valley in Young County on Oct. 13, 1864. Among the casualties of the raid was Britton Johnson's oldest son. His wife and other children were taken captive.
What attracts history and folklore to Britton Johnson is the way he responded to the tragedy: he saddled up and rode into the heart of Comancheria to find his wife and children and bring them home. Johnson made half a dozen or so journeys into the expansive wilderness of the Llano Estacado. Some sources say he lived with the Comanches for a time in order to gain their trust and bring his family home. Others credit Comanche chief Asa-Havey with successfully negotiating for the Johnson family's release, which came in June of 1865.
The family was reunited, but animosities between Johnson and the Indians lingered. Some Kiowas and Comanches apparently believed that Johnson had been less than honest in his dealings with them. If they ever found him alone, he was told, they would kill him.
Johnson moved with his family to Parker County and worked as a freighter and teamster, hauling freight between Weatherford and Fort Griffin. On Jan. 24, 1871, about 25 Kiowa warriors attacked Johnson and two other teamsters four miles east of Salt Creek in Young County.
Other teamsters some distance away saw the whole sorry episode unfold. The two men with Johnson were killed almost at once. Johnson killed his own horse and used it for cover and fought for his life. When the teamsters who had observed the fight reached the scene they found 173 spent rifle cartridges near his body, evidence of how fiercely he contested the raiders.
Britt Johnson's hero's journey into the heart of darkness in search of his family was not unheard of in that time or place. James Parker, Cynthia Ann Parker's uncle, also made half a dozen trips into the Comanche wilderness looking for the Parker captives and spent many years in the pursuit. Tales of Comanche abductions abound in Texas history. The Comanches needed more people than they could produce on their own, so they made a habit of taking women and children captives whenever they could, which was often.
Both Johnson and James Parker are often cited as the inspiration for the classic John Ford Western “The Searchers.” The evidence seems to point to Parker as the main role model, with a little Britt Johnson thrown in for effect.
In the recently published book “The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend,” author Glenn Frankel traces the source back to the novel by Alan LeMay that was the basis for the movie. “A meticulous researcher, LeMay collected information on sixty-four Indian abductions,” Frankel wrote. “In the end he freely cherry-picked and mashed together features from several true stories to create his fictional one.”
As is nearly always the case in stories like Britt Johnson's, the nuts and bolts of the truth are missing, but the greater truths inspire the legends and stories that in turn inspire the people who keep them alive in our collective memory.