What: Memorial plaque for John C. “Cockeye” Johnson
Who: E Clampus Vitus
Where: Fourth hole of Apple Mountain Golf Course, 3455 Carson Road in Camino
When: Saturday, May 10 at 11 a.m.
Information: The Osborns at 530-647-1776
John C. “Cockeye” Johnson was killed by Apaches in Arizona almost 140 years ago.
His great-great-granddaughter, who lives in Pollock Pines, traveled to Tres Alamos, Ariz., a while back to locate Johnson’s grave, only to find it was virtually unmarked, discovering only a few piled stones that may or may not have been placed in his remembrance.
That bothers Ellen Osborn and she thinks it should bother other El Dorado County residents as well.
“He was carrying the mail over the Sierra before Snowshoe Thompson ever did,” said Ellen, who with husband Ford explained why the historical record is so important to the Osborns.
“I want to share this with my extended family. I want as many people as possible to hear the story,” said Ellen.
Toward that end, others who care about history — members of the colorful E Clampus Vitus organization — will be placing a memorial plaque near the fourth hole of Apple Mountain Golf Course, 3455 Carson Road in Camino, Saturday, May 10, commemorating Johnson’s life and exploits.
It turns out that Johnson once had a home near where the fourth hole is today, a residence known as Six Mile House that served as a stopping place for trail weary pioneers crossing the Sierra into the tranquil foothills to find a peaceful place to live.
That will be the location of the E Clampus Vitus dedication at 11 a.m. After the dedication there will be a party, which for those in the know, means a rousing good time. The party is billed as a “Red Shirt Ale Bash” and will be at the Jack Russell Brewery, 2380 Larsen Drive in Camino.
Ellen has worked extensively on the Internet to locate family members of Johnson, who had several children, two of whom married and had children of their own.
Ellen’s great-grandfather, George, had the largest number of kids.
“I’ve been in touch with 20 or 30 of my great-great-grandfather’s descendants and we’re hoping most of them show up,” said Ellen, smiling at her husband of more than 40 years.
The couple met while folk dancing with the California Federation of Folk Dancing and discovered they have a mutual love of history and that their kinfolk have family trees with roots deep in California.
“Ford’s ancestors came by wagon train in 1854, settling at what would become Dixon,” said Ellen.
“Ellen is fifth generation California and I am fourth generation,” added Ford, short for Fordyce.
The Osborns are members of the Oregon California Trails Association, which they joined so they could learn more about Great-great-grandfather Johnson, who not only carried the mail across the snow-covered Sierra but cut a trail that would become known as Johnson’s Cutoff, a winding path that crosses today’s Highway 50 in several locations, notably near Echo Summit and down to Brockliss Canyon near Pollock Pines.
The meandering, up and down, rugged Johnson’s Cutoff followed old Indian trails, which followed animal tracks and so the path while logical can become daunting.
“Now it’s reverting back to deer trails, in places where we’ve found it,” said Ford.
Cockeye Johnson’s 6 Mile House, so called because it lay six miles from Placerville, served as State Militia Headquarters during the El Dorado Indian wars.
His travels through the Sierra in 1852 with his Delaware Indian guide “Fall Leaf” led to the discovery of the shortcut route from Carson City, Nev., to Placerville, later named Johnson’s Cutoff.
Ford, who is a member of E Clampus Vitus, said the bronze plaque that will mark Johnson’s old Six Mile House was ordered from Pennsylvania at a cost of almost $1,160 and weighs 42 pounds.
Keep history alive
The handsome monument is typical of what the Clampers, as they are known, make it their mission to accomplish, he explained.
“That’s what the Clampers do, we place plaques and monuments so that history is preserved,” said Ford. “That, and we throw really great celebrations.”
E Clampus Vitus has members in California, Oregon, Washington and Arizona, but it has been a while since the membership placed a plaque in El Dorado County, he added. Ford said the last one, placed in 2008, was in Latrobe.
When the ceremony takes place at 11 a.m. May 10, the Osborns hope the crowd will appreciate the fact that Johnson was the first treasurer of El Dorado County and served a stint as assistant district attorney locally.
They will proudly tell the gathering that John C. “Cockeye” Johnson was the first to farm in El Dorado County and that his prescience about the rich, fertile local farmland was remarkable.
“There was a story in the Sacramento Daily Union newspaper in 1855 where he was quoted as saying that he thought the mountain ranches of El Dorado County would someday be famous for their apples,” said Ellen.
Perhaps the dignitaries attending Saturday’s plaque-placing will include some of the folks whose ranches and farms comprise the thriving Apple Hill Growers Association that attracts visitors to Camino and Pollock Pines.
County Supervisor Brian Veerkamp and representative from District 5 state Assemblyman Frank Bigelow’s office, Trish Sweeney, are expected to be in attendance.
A story to tell
It wasn’t just the fact that her great-great-grandfather’s grave lies apparently unmarked in Arizona, where Johnson reportedly had gone to help a family friend, that prompts Ellen’s interest in giving her ancestor his due. She’s also a volunteer at the El Dorado County History Museum, “working in the back,” and she found a woeful dearth of information about him there as well.
“There’s not enough about him and I just wanted to get his story out,” she said. Johnson died Sept. 13, 1876.
Ellen and Ford both said they hope many local history buffs will take advantage of the opportunity Saturday to give honor to J.C. “Cockeye” Johnson, who apparently earned the nickname because of his slightly-off visage, which can be seen in old photos. It appears he might have been a bit cross-eyed.
That condition didn’t keep him from peering into the future, however, with his accomplishments greater than might be commonly known. His great-great-granddaughter would love to correct that situation.
Chances are, no matter where he lies, J.C. “Cockeye” Johnson is smiling in his grave.
For more information about the Saturday ceremony at Apple Mountain Golf Course and the big Clampers party afterward at Jack Russell Brewery, call the Osborns at 530-647-1776. They’d love to see you there.