Johnson Family

What’s in a Name – Johnson Family – Part 1

What’s in a name? This is possibly something that Gabriel Timberlake asked himself when he changed his own name following his freedom to (Colchester) Canada. With that freedom, he gave up his connection to not only his “owner” and father, Thornton Timberlake, but also his life as an enslaved person.  When Gabriel Timberlake took on the new name of James Johnson, he was not just trying to protect his family’s and his own identity from slave catchers; he was emancipating himself through his name.

James Johnson Sr., originally Gabriel Timberlake, was born into slavery in 1828 in Clark, Kentucky to slaveowner, Thornton Timberlake, and an unknown enslaved woman.  It was at the age of 19 that he escaped the Timberlake property, also known as the Sugar Grove Plantation, with the assistance of an overseer who, it turned out, was an abolitionist. According to Milo Johnson’s book, New Canaan: Freedom Land, “A series of forays by parties of Slave Catchers into Indiana and Michigan, referred to as The Kentucky Raids, took place in the late 1840s.  Some of the early black residents of Colchester (Essex County, Ontario) arrived in Essex County as a result of the Kentucky Raids. Their story of escape from the Thornton Timberlake plantation is historically significant.” Gabriel Timberlake was among those who escaped the Timberlake plantation in Kenton County, Kentucky on April 24, 1847. Gabriel, along with several others, had the assistance of Underground railroad operatives who got them safely to Cass County, Michigan, where they settled with the help of local Quakers.  Following their escape, a notice offering a reward for eighteen enslaved persons, including Gabriel, was placed, offering $3,125.  The reward notice included a description of Gabriel and said, “the property of Thornton Timberlake … GABRIEL, a yellow boy age about 19 years, polite and docile, about 5 feet 6 inches high, weighs about 150 pounds.”  Unfortunately, after Gabriel and the other freedom seekers arrived in Cass County, Michigan, slave catchers learned of their location and raided the farm where the freedom seekers were staying.  These slave catchers attempted to bring the freedom seekers back, but the courts freed them because the slave catchers and “owners” had no documentation proving that the freedom seekers were the property of the slavers hunting them down.

From there, Gabriel travelled from Michigan and landed in Amherstburg where he officially became James Johnson.  Once in Amherstburg, local Black leaders directed him to nearby Colchester (Essex County, Ontario) where work was available.  Once in Colchester, he worked for James Ferris as a farm hand.  He worked for Ferris for two years, eventually earning enough money to purchase a plot of land where he could build a home and raise his family.  It is actually James Johnson Sr. who is credited with being the first person to introduce burley tobacco in the Colchester area.  The Johnson farm also produced sweet syrup that was made by pressing sugar cane or sorghum at their family-owned mill. Thanks for reading part 1 of the Johnson family history.  Stay tuned for part 2 next week.

What’s in a Name – Johnson Family – Part 2

James Johnson Sr. married twice. His first wife was Elizabeth Chapman and they had three daughters: Emma Amanda (July 17, 1854), Martha (1858), and Delia Charlotte (1862).  Emma Amanda married William Kersey, but no information was available for Martha. Delia Charlotte married William Albert Mulder on August 27, 1884 in Colchester.  William was a farmer and born in roughly 1862 to Joseph and Aliceana Mulder.  William and Delia had at least two children: Earnest Mulder and Glenna May Mulder.  Earnest was born in roughly 1885 and married Ethel May Clingman on December 22, 1912 in Colchester South.  Ethel was born in 1896 and was the daughter of a carpenter, William Clingman, and Mateldia Ridout.  Earnest was 27 at the time of their marriage, while Ethel was only 16.  On their marriage record the legal age of 18 is crossed out and replaced with a 16 for Ethel’s age.  There is also a note that says, “I have had the consent of the mother personally that this should be made out.”

Delia and William’s second child, Glenna May Mulder was born on December 23, 1901 in Colchester South and in 1919, married into the Walls family. During her bridal shower, Glenna was given many “beautiful and useful presents,” while guests enjoyed an evening of music and games.  According to the Amherstburg Echo, “A pleasing program was rendered and among those who call for special mention are Bernard Day, Mr. and Mrs. Jos. Walls, Mrs. Bertha Kersey, who rendered appropriate solos and were heartily encored. William Kersey, Sr., gave a very inspiring and instructive address to the young couple.”  Guests must have had a great time considering it was in the “wee hours of the morning before they bid goodbye to the happy bride and happier groom.”

Sadly, James Sr.’s first wife (and mother of Emma, Martha and Delia), Elizabeth, passed away in 1863. James’ second wife was Mary Eliza Dennis who was born on April 13, 1842. James and Mary had nine children: Minnie/Emma (1864), Cassandra (1865), James Peter (1867), Georgia (1869 twin), Mary (1869 twin), Louise Jane (1871), Bertha Modesta (1876), Francis Ardella (1878-July 12, 1890), and Harland Ernest (1881). There is no information available on Minnie, but Cassandra is more well-known.  Cassandra Elizabeth, also sometimes listed as Cassaner, was born in Colchester on January 11, 1865.  She married the Reverend Josephus O’Banyoun of the A.M.E. Church on November 30, 1884 and was described as a loving and faithful wife.  Josephus was born in 1839 on a farm near Brantford and was the son of Simon Peter and Sophie O’Banyoun.  In Cassandra’s obituary it states that “She was always a dutiful, and affectionate daughter, and a loving sister; and by her even temper, and pleasant ways, has won the love and esteem of all who knew her.” Part of their marriage was spent in Amherstburg, but they later moved to the 4th concession in Colchester South.  Cassandra and the Reverend O’Banyoun were also part of the O’Banyoun Jubilee Singers.  The O’Banyoun Jubilee Singers gained success with the guidance of the Reverend Josephus O’Banyoun, who formed this singing group in the 1860s in the Amherstburg and Colchester South area, although some sources say Halifax, Nova Scotia. This group became popular during the period of 1884-1900. Members included Josephus O’Banyoun, Cassandra Elizabeth, Josephus and Cassandra’s daughter Rachel, Miss Sarah Hughes, Miss C. Smith, Mr. J.A. Johnson and Mr. William Brantford. The Amherstburg Echo also described one of their performances on November 25, 1892, reporting that “The O’Banyoun Jubilee Singers were greeted by an audience of about 200 persons at the [Amherstburg] Town Hall, on Wednesday evening, when they appeared under the auspices of the Young Ladies’ Social Club, of the A.M.E. Church. The troupe under the personal direction of Rev. J. O’Banyoun, are travelling in aid of African missions. A number of jubilee songs were given by the company, which were well rendered and greatly pleased the audience; Miss Maud Young 16, years of age, sang several solos and was heartily encored; John Hopkins, who has a splendid baritone voice, acquitted himself well in a few solos, and Miss Alice Downie sang ‘The Old Folks at Home’ in good style. Taken altogether, the concert was well given and duly appreciated by the audience.” See you next week for part 3 of the Johnson family history.


Lorene BridgenJohnson Family