During the month of March we celebrate Women's History Month and the many contributions generations of women have made to the fabric and culture of this great country. Texas has been home to scores of influential, intelligent, colorful and unforgettable females.
From Emily West, the Yellow Rose of Texas, to Bessie Coleman, the nation's first African American female aviator, and down the line to political trailblazers like U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Texas' 45th governor, Ann Richards — Texas is no stranger to powerful and strong women.
One of these was Elizabeth "Lizzie" Ellen Johnson, a young woman from Hays County who did not let social norms of the day stop her from pursuing her dreams. Born on May 9, 1840, in Cole County, Mo., Johnson and her family relocated to Hays County in the mid-1840s, where Mr. and Mrs. Johnson established the Johnson Institute, a private secondary school.
After attending the Johnson Institute, Lizzie Johnson began teaching there and at several other schools in Central Texas. Though she continued teaching, she also took on bookkeeping duties for several well known cattlemen, such as George W. Littlefield and William H. Day.
On top of these responsibilities, she found yet another way to earn extra money—by moonlighting as a freelance writer. Using a pen name, she wrote articles of short fiction for magazines and newspapers, such as Illustrated Weekly.
Over time, she earned and saved enough money to invest in something she had observed and determine lucrative—cattle. Johnson first invested in a Chicago cattle company, and after three years, she had made significant profits that she in turn used to buy cattle and land.
Johnson registered her cattle brand on June 1, 1871, under the name of Elizabeth Johnson. She then purchased 10 acres in Austin – paying $3,000 in gold dollars.
According to some historical accounts, Johnson was able to grow her herd during the Civil War by overseeing a process called "brushpopping." With so many men away at war, and with few fences to keep cattle corralled, the population of unbranded cattle in the brush of South Texas began to flourish.
During those times, unbranded cattle were "finders' keepers" for those willing to round them up and transport them. Johnson employed hands to do her "brushpopping" for her – or combing the thicket for cattle.
In 1879, Johnson, tall and striking, married preacher and widower Hezekiah "Hez" G. Williams. While it is reported that Johnson cared deeply for Williams, she did not let her heart rule her business decisions and convinced him to sign a prenuptial agreement.
During the course of their marriage, Williams would often make poor business decisions, and Johnson would agree to bail him out of his financial binds. But once he earned his money back, she expected him to repay her.
A woman who marched to the beat of her own drum, Johnson is perhaps best remembered for the literal trail she blazed when she became the first woman in Texas to drive her own herd of cattle up the Chisholm Trail. It is said that Williams accompanied her but drove his own, separate herd. It was in this way that they would lead the rest of their married life – together but separate.
Successful in business—due mostly to Johnson's acumen—the couple enjoyed traveling and Johnson had a love for fine clothes and the newest fashion trends. When Williams passed away in El Paso in 1914, it is said that Johnson purchased a $600, top-of-the-line coffin for him, and when she signed the bill of payment, she wrote across it, "I loved this old buzzard this much."
In her final years, Johnson became somewhat of a recluse. She often dressed as if she were impoverished and survived on a meager diet of soup and crackers. For these reasons, when Johnson passed away on Oct. 9, 1924, it came as quite a surprise to Austinites to learn she left behind a fortune of nearly $250,000. Family members found thousands of dollars in diamonds locked away in her basement and other colorful items like exotic parrot feathers around her house.
Lizzie Johnson was a successful businesswoman, investor, cattle dealer and landowner – long before it was considered acceptable for a woman to enter these arenas. Her feisty determination, confidence and self-respect drove her to excel in a man's world.
Thanks to her contributions, Johnson paved the way for generations of Texas women to push the limits and pursue their dreams.
Sources: Texas State Historical Association; The Cowgirls by Joyce Gibson Roach; Celebrating Texas distributed by McDougal Littell; Womenintexashistory.org, a project of The Ruthe Winegarten Memorial Foundation for Texas Women's History.