Henry Johnson: Visionary who founded Johnson City

Tri-Cities Original
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There’s still quite a bit of mystery surrounding the man after whom Johnson City is named. 

In fact, there’s only one known photo of Henry Johnson.

According to family history, Johnson was born on April 27, 1809 in Guilford County, North Carolina and eventually crossed the mountains and settled in present-day Washington County.   He got married Mary Ann Hoss, the daughter of a prosperous landowner already living in the area. Together, they went into business opening a post office and railroad depot, appropriately named Johnson’s Depot, along the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad.

Around that depot, a city would rise.

Johnson would later be elected as the city’s first mayor.

“He had a vision for what the town could be,” said Brooke Landers-Ledford,  Johnson’s great-granddaughter. “He wanted it to be an educational town.”

Landers-Ledford is one of several relatives trying to uncover more about their founding father ancestor.  So far, they’ve found some treasures along the way like a letter found tucked away in Henry Johnson’s mantel clock – a letter penned by a grandson who claimed Henry Johnson was a distant cousin to President Andrew Johnson, something that hasn’t been confirmed.

“He was a very well educated from everybody’s letters and these things that we found,” Landers-Ledford said.

The old Johnson family bell survives as well. Family lore says Johnson’s wife used it to call customers to dinner served at near the depot which stood along West Main Street near the intersection of Buffalo Street, historians believe.

But there’s one key item that remains missing.

“We’re hoping to find his journal or one of his journals,” said Kim Woodring, a history professor at ETSU. “There are rumors that there’s one out there that really tells his story here in Johnson City.

Gallery: Henry Johnson and old Johnson City

Woodring is part of an effort to preserve city history during the sesquicentennial.

Johnson’s descendants also hope to find the journal some day.   “I do not know if it still exists. I would like to think it does,” Brooke Landers-Ledford said.

While there are piles of vintage photos of Johnson City in the Archives of Appalachia at ETSU, there’s very little on the man the city was named after.

“If people have anything related to Henry Johnson from 150 years ago, that would be a gold mine for us,” said Dr. Jeremy Smith, Director of the Archives of Appalachia. 

WEB EXCLUSIVE: Inside the Archives of Appalachia

Johnson is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, not far from the depot he built. His hilltop grave marker calls him a “man with a vision.” 

“I think he would be very proud of how the town of Johnson City has grown,” said Landers-Ledford. “I think he would be very impressed.”

The Johnson City Sesquicentennial Commission is planning a celebration to mark the anniversary of Henry Johnson’s birth. It will take place on Saturday, April 27 at King Commons Park on Commerce Street from 3 to 5 p.m.

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Kingsport. Johnson City. Bristol.

Southwest Virginia. Northeast Tennessee.


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Born and raised in the Tri-Cities, Josh Smith has been a member of the WJHL team since 1999. His family roots go deep in the region, and he’s traveled through almost every part of it covering news on local TV since 1995. When he’s not on the job, he’s with his wife, two sons, and daughter.   “They’re the best part of me,” he said.   You may run into them biking on the Tweetsie Trail, hiking around Bays Mountain Lake, or browsing the shelves at the local public libraries.

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