This year marks the 150th anniversary of the murder of the Rev. Thomas Johnson, founder of the Shawnee Indian Mission in present-day Fairway and a prominent figure during the volatile border war here in the 1850s.
Given his conflicted position on the burning issue of slavery — he was known to have been on both sides — his killers could have been vindictive Kansas jayhawkers or Missouri bushwhackers enforcing their brand of guerrilla-war justice. Or the band of ruffians could have been bent on robbery.
Or maybe Johnson, a controversial individual, was gunned down for other reasons. Several possibilities in the mysterious and unsolved crime are noted in Joe H. Vaughan’s 2014 book, “Thomas Johnson’s Story and the History of Fairway, Kansas.”
This much is known: Johnson, who lived on a 600-acre farm in the vicinity of what is now 35th Street and Agnes Avenue in Kansas City, was shot at close range after opening the door to visitors in the early morning hours of Jan. 2, 1865.
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Johnson, 62, collapsed into the arms of his wife, Sarah, and died a short time later. He was buried the next day in the Shawnee Mission Cemetery, a few blocks southeast of the mission on what is now Shawnee Mission Parkway.
A daughter, Edna Johnson Anderson, shared her impression of her father’s stand on slavery this way: “During the border warfare he was always considered a ‘Southern man.’’’
Records cited in the book indicate that Johnson, a Virginian, was a slave owner.
But in 1864 he was accused of siding with the Union, a position that could have angered pro-slavery forces. Without making allegations about his killers, Anderson mentioned followers of William Quantrill, a notorious Confederate guerrilla leader.
“Quantrill’s men were roaming back and forth at irregular hours on their raids over the border,” she wrote.
More about the slaying will likely be uncovered as new generations of historians probe the case, said Vaughan, a Prairie Village resident. And there will always be interest in Johnson, a Methodist minister, for whom the county is named.
Vaughan details the history of the mission, established with funding by the Methodist church in the 1830s. Hundreds of Indian children attended school there. The mission was closed in 1862.
Three buildings remain near the intersection of 53rd Street and Mission Road in Fairway. The historic site, one of the more significant in Kansas, is managed by the Kansas State Historical Society. Its tours, festivals and other events enable 21st century visitors to learn about life in earlier times.
Likewise, Vaughan traces the growth of Fairway from its beginning in the late 1930s to the present day. The brainchild of developer J.C. Nichols, Fairway’s classic architecture and well-placed statuary became a model for Johnson County’s suburban development.
Freelance columnist Bob Sigman, a former member of The Star’s Editorial Board, writes monthly.