Most of Dakota Territory’s early officials had colorful pasts before coming to this new home on the plains. That was certainly true of John Augustus Johnson, one of Fargo’s early mayors. He was born in Sweden and came to America in 1854, but shortly after arriving, his mother and two sisters died from cholera. His surviving family eventually settled in Stillwater, Minnesota.
At sixteen, he worked at a hotel to help support the family. After attending school in Stillwater, he studied at the Epworth Seminary in Iowa. In 1860 he went to Texas, intending to work in the cattle business, but with the breakout of the Civil War, he was given the choice of being a
volunteer for the Confederate Army or hanging. He became an officer, fought in four battles and was wounded at Pea Ridge, Arkansas. Johnson would come to consider his Confederate service as a “misfortune” and a regret.
After the war, he ended up in Indiana where he went into railroading, becoming a locomotive engineer for the US. Army, serving in some of the same places he had been as a member of the Confederate Army. He mustered out as a Major and would work as a lawyer, a business owner and a Minnesota sheriff.
He and his family came to Fargo in 1880 where he opened a farm machinery business. He took an early role in city government, elected in 1882 to the City Council, then to the Board of Education. He won his first term as mayor in 1885 and served several nonconsecutive terms totaling ten years. One of Johnson’s last official acts as mayor was to oppose baseball played within city limits on Decoration Day, the precursor to Memorial Day.
Johnson died on this date in 1907 as the first Fargo mayor to die in office. He was 65. His death was attributed to Bright’s disease. As the city mourned the mayor’s death, he was praised as a booster for Fargo who saw the small railroad town grow in its early years. One of his noted accomplishments was soliciting donations to help start the public library in 1900. His efforts landed about 2,500 books.
Fraternal organizations, Fargo police, the public and Johnson’s family and friends observed his passing with a funeral and procession to the depot before his body was taken to Minnesota for burial.
Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura
Johnson, J.A., Johnson, A., Johnson, C., & Johnson, L.A. (1908). Hon. J.A. Johnson: A partial copy of his letters, travels and addresses. Privately printed: Fargo, ND