A silent unmarked grave contains the mortal remains of one of our county’s earliest African American pioneer residents. The grave of Grafton A. Johnson, a Freeman and native of Massachusetts, is likely within the old Hawthorne cemetery grounds.
While he was a resident of this county Grafton Johnson lived a hard and industrious life. He accumulated property and some wealth in his earlier years, but like the town of Aurora, Johnson’s life also met economic and challenging times.
During Aurora’s boom years, Johnson likely witnessed the hanging of the John Daley gang, Nevada’s entrance to Statehood, the rise and fall of the mines of the Esmeralda district and, as the years continued on, experienced the loss by relocation or death of many of those with whom he had lived among and become friends with over three decades.
Early accounts of the minority citizens in the West are relatively few. Official records are often the only source to identify them and their lives as the years went on. In California and Nevada, the African Americans who lived in the various communities without incidents such as run-ins with the law or the event of their deaths, generally received little note in the pages of the local newspapers. Occasionally a small sense of who a person was can be drawn by their associations with others.
A review of census information in Esmeralda County reveals that in 1870 there were only eleven African American residents enumerated countywide. In 1880, there were only four identified and only one other African American man was at Aurora with Grafton Johnson.
Born about 1810, Grafton A. Johnson was a resident of Salem, Essex County, Massachusetts at the time of his marriage in January of 1838 to Miss Lucy Renner. Eight years later, Johnson purchased a lot in Salem at the corner of Derby and Wharf streets for $1,050. Four years later, in January of 1850, a fire completely destroyed the boarding house Johnson, “a colored man,” had leased to a Mr. Roach.
Little has been revealed of Grafton Johnson’s life between that time and the 1860 federal census. In the latter year, Grafton A. Johnson, then 49 years of age, was enumerated at Monroeville, in what was then Colusa County, California. A laborer by trade, Johnson resided in the household U. P. Monroe and family and was likely employed by Monroe.
A native of New York, U. P. Monroe was in California before the federal census of 1850 was taken. He was enumerated at his ranch in “Colusi” County, north of Sacramento, at which time he lived with his wife and three children. By 1853 Monroe’s farm was known as Monroeville or Monroe’s Ranch and it was the county seat of Colusa County.
In 1864, Col. Monroe and “G. A. Johnson” resided near one another on the south side of Wide West Street, in the booming town of Aurora, Nevada. Johnson’s 25×100 foot lot was located west of U. P. Monroe’s and was assessed taxes on a value of $125.
Records of property transactions for Esmeralda County reveal that in the summer of 1866 G. A. Johnson sold his interest in two different mines in the county. The first was the Golden Fleece Lode, located in the “Baldy Mining District” of Esmeralda County. In this transaction, Johnson was one of a group of men selling their interests in the mine, including men who were among some of the most prominent in Aurora. In addition to U. P. Monroe, one co-owner selling was W. M. Boring, later a Nevada State Senator who died in 1872 and is buried at Aurora.
The second 1866 property sale involving G. A. Johnson, also involved U. P. Monroe and was the Vermillion Quartz Lode, that was “situated on ‘Last Chance’ Hill,” at Aurora. All the men named in this transaction were said to have been the original locators of the mine, which was shown on the J. B. Brady map of the Town of Aurora in 1862. It was located just south of the Real del Monte mine.
Of these deed transactions it may be noted that Grafton A. Johnson signed his own name. Often in early-day deeds many people who could not write their name used an “X” that was witnessed by a reliable party. Grafton Johnson had written his own name and this indicates that he was a man of education.
Two years later, for $400, Grafton A. Johnson purchased property at Pine Grove, Esmeralda County from James Lynch and his wife Rosanah Lynch. This property, described as being located on the “north side of Main Street,” included “a frame House Known as the Dwelling house of James Lynch.” Pine Grove at this point in time was thriving and booming, while Aurora was in a steady decline. But Pine Grove’s “boom” did not last long and in March of 1870 Johnson sold the Main Street lot and the James Lynch house for $80 to Henry Williams, the prominent rancher of Sweetwater.
The following February, 1869, Grafton A. Johnson purchased a tract of land in Aurora, “situate on Esmeralda street,” that was “inclosed on the westerly and northerly sides by a picket fence whitewashed and on the southerly side by lumber & buildings,” together with a “house, sheds and well thereupon.” The seller was S. H. Chase, a former California State Senator and later a judge at Aurora. Shortly after selling his property to Johnson, Judge Chase was adjudged insane and sent to the Stockton State Asylum in California, where he died in late October 1869.
The 1870 federal census for Aurora included the name of “John Grafton,” a 60 year old native of Massachusetts, who stated he was a cook. This year’s census identified the value of real and personal estate and “John Grafton” stated his personal estate was valued at $200.
In December of 1874, W. M. Seawell, who had served as the District Judge in Aurora in the 1860s, sold Grafton Johnson a tract of land for $60. The property was described as being “situated on the North East corner of what is generally known as the “Mill Block” and on the South West corner of Court and Pine Streets,” it being the same property formerly occupied “by B. E. Scrivener as a Hay yard.” Then fenced, the property at the time of the sale was “Known as the Hay Yard property.”
“G. Johnson,” was enumerated in the 1875 Nevada State Census in Aurora, Esmeralda County. In this year he was 65 years old and was employed as the County Hospital Steward. His real estate was valued at $75 and his personal estate at $150. The census enumerator listed his race as “Black.” In this census, only one other African American beside Johnson resided at Aurora – D. M. Harris, who was a 44 year old native of Ohio who worked as a hostler.
In February of 1877, for $150 Johnson purchased the property of C. H. Parsons and wife, residents of Inyo County, California. This property was described as being an Aurora “Town lot on the South side of Pine St…Commencing 60 feet from the South West Corner of Pine and Court Sts. and running 50 feet West on Pine Street, to the lot owned by Mrs. E. Green.” The sale of the lot included “Two frame buildings and one old Shed thereon.”
Later in the year 1877, Johnson sold a lot to Ah Quay for the sum of $125. That lot was described as being on “South Silver Street” and included “the house thereon formerly known as Ben Love’s Bakery.”
In April of 1878, for the sum of $1,000, Aurora attorney Michael A. Murphy (later a Justice of the Nevada Supreme Court) purchased from Grafton A. Johnson a town lot at Aurora, the boundary of which commenced at the “North East corner of Pine and Court Street…” and ran in a easterly direction along and fronting on the South side of Pine street…to the Northeast corner of the lot owned by M. A. Murphy.” The line then ran in a southerly direction a distance, then easterly a distance to the “West side of Court Street.” Then north along the west side of Court Street to the place of the beginning.
The Esmeralda County Tax Roll for 1879 listed G. A. Johnson as owning a “Lot of ground on S.W. Cor of Pine & Court streets, with Hay Yard & House thereon,” and valuing that property at $500. In addition he was assessed $100 for one “Dwelling House west and adjoining” the former property, $25 for one lot on the N.E. Cor of Winnemucca and Del Monte sts” and $200 for one “House on the south side of Pine st on Merediths Lot.” All totaled Johnson’s real and personal property was valued at $825 or about equal to $19,640 in 2014.
At the time of the 1880 federal census of residents at Aurora, the enumerator listed “Gra. Johnson” as a widowed, 71 year old “black” man. In this year Johnson worked as a laborer. He lived alone in his household.
In 1881 Grafton Johnson sold to M. A. Murphy a “certain house built and standing on the lot owned by M. A. Murphy and amidiately (sic) in the rear of his office, and the office lately occupied by Murphy & Wells as a law office on the south side of Pine Street,” in the town of Aurora. Murphy paid him $100 for the house that Murphy and Thos. H. Wells had used when they first opened their law firm at Aurora.
The County Tax Assessment roll for 1882 for G. A. Johnson listed real estate located on the “SW corner of Pine and Court streets Aurora with house thereon,” valued at $100, and a lot “on Corner of Winnemucca st and Aurora streets known as G. A. Johnsons Lot,” valued at $25, for a total valuation of $125. In 2014 dollars that amounted to about $3,000 worth of property.
By 1882, the Assessor’s tax roll listing for “G. A. Johnson Colored,” of Aurora, included only a “Lot with small house on NE corner of Pine & Wide West streets…Known as Johnsons property.” In 1884, Grafton Johnson was assessed for a “House & Lot on corner of Pine & Spring streets…& a Lot on the corner opposite the old County Hospital.” The total valuation of this property was placed at $25 assessed value, worth roughly $609 in 2014. In 1885, the Assessor raised the valuation to $35, then to $50 in 1886, but dropped it to $25 again in 1887.
Also in 1887 the Esmeralda County Commissioners granted an application by “G. A. Johnson, better known as Colored John, an old resident of Aurora” to receive $15 per month for the following three months, “he being in indigent circumstances.” Grafton Johnson was about 78 years old at the time the County granted his request.
Between 1890 and 1893, the valuation of Grafton Johnson’s “Lot & House on the corner of Pine Spring st…in Rear of M. A. Murphy Law Office” remained at $25. There was no further tax assessment for Grafton Johnson after the year 1893.
In June of 1896, the Walker Lake Bulletin reported that:
“Grafton A. Johnson (colored) died at the hospital last Thursday. Deceased had been a resident of Aurora for over 30 years, and at one time was considered a rich man. He had been an inmate of the hospital for the past three years.”
The next month the Commissioners approved the claim of Henry Hill, the local undertaker at Hawthorne, for burial of indigents. Hill routinely made indigent burials for the County Hospital where so many of the county’s oldest and infirm miners and others spent their final years. Hill’s claim the month following Grafton A. Johnson’s death at the hospital suggests that the grave of Grafton A. Johnson is probably in the Hawthorne cemetery.
For nearly 120 years Grafton A. Johnson has rested in a solitary unmarked grave unknown to anyone living today. From all appearances Johnson lived an honorable and respected life at Aurora, which, like his grave, is now also nearly unmarked.
Unmarked graves in historic-era cemeteries are not uncommon. There are many, many other men and women of this county’s earliest years whose earthly remains also lie in unmarked graves. Grafton Johnson is one among them.