Today, Lake Johnson sees few visitors. Yet, strategically located along the communication and supply lines between US military forts and the immigrant trail to Montana, Lake Johnson was an important watering hole on the plains of Dakota Territory for much of the 19th century.
The area around Lake Johnson was first mapped in 1839 by the famous French astronomer and cartographer Joseph Nicholas Nicollet. Isaac Stevens followed sixteen years later, surveying the land for railroad routes. In the 1860s and ‘70s explorers and surveyors gave way to immigrants searching for a new future, and to the United States military, charged with keeping the peace on America's western frontier. Once again, Lake Johnson played host to a number of expeditions. In 1862 Captain James Fisk, leading a wagon train to the newly discovered gold fields of Montana, camped on the south side of the lake. In 1863, General Henry H. Sibley's Army worked its way to the same spot as they slowly trudged their way towards Devil's Lake in a military campaign against Dakota tribes.
With so much activity spanning several decades, it is perhaps surprising that no one had given the lake a permanent name. However, that was to tragically change in 1865. Following Sibley's march through the Dakotas, the US Army saw merit in expanding their presence in the Northern Plains. They called on General Alfred Sully to explore the territory between Devils Lake and Fort Rice to provide detailed intelligence on the region. Assisting General Sully was the 3rd Illinois Cavalry Regiment, command by Colonel Robert Huston Carnahan. With the Civil War now over, the regiment had only recently been released from duty in the South, but now found themselves fighting a new war on the Northern Plains. On this date in 1865, while en route to Devils Lake, Colonel Carnahan's men stopped at the same lake that had hosted so many others before. When the men reached the watering hole, they had already endured a long ride in the scorching August heat. So, they jumped into the water for a cool swim. Tragically, one of the men, Private George T. Johnson drowned during the regiment's break. Having no way to transport Johnson's body back to his home in New Lenox, Illinois, Johnson's fellow soldiers buried him near their campsite and named the lake in his honor.
A century later, Johnson's burial site, located seven miles southwest of Cooperstown, North Dakota, was acquired by the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Today a headstone and flagpole keep watch over his remains, those of a lonely soldier who died far from home on this date in 1865.
Dakota Datebook written by Lane Sunwall
Revised by Brigadier General J. W. Vance. Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Illinois. Vol. VII. Springfield, IL: H.W. Rokker, State Printer and Binder, 1886.
State Historical Society of North Dakota, "Fort Totten State Historic Site", State Historical Society of North Dakota http://history.nd.gov/historicsites/totten/index.html (accessed July 14, 2010).
________, "Lake Jessie State Historic Site", State Historical Society of North Dakota http://history.nd.gov/historicsites/jessie/index.html (accessed July 14, 2010).
________, "Lake Johnson State Historic Site", State Historical Society of North Dakota http://history.nd.gov/historicsites/sibleysully/johnson.html (accessed July 14, 2010).
The Illinois Genealogical Web Project, "Company G 3rd (Consolidated) Illinois Cavalry" http://civilwar.ilgenweb.net/acm/cav003C-g.html (accessed July 22, 2010).