A perspective from Oregon’s mid-Willamette Valley

An Oregon story: A man and his mountain

Written October 27th, 2020 by Hasso Hering

This is a story about Ben Johnson, who died in Albany in 1901. I regret that I had never heard of him until last month. He must have been a remarkable man because a mountain bears his name.

Since 1964, the 4,500-foot peak in the Siskiyous near Ruch in Jackson County has been known as Negro Ben Mountain. Before, it was something else, but in ’64 they cleaned up the race reference. Soon it will be called Ben Johnson Mountain instead.

On Saturday, the Oregon Geographic Names Board considered a request to change the name by dropping the racial element and giving the man proper credit by adding his last name.

Bruce Fisher, the board president, told me Tuesday the panel had voted unanimously to forward the proposed name change to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names “for their consideration.”

You can read the entire background in the board’s agenda packet here. You will learn that Benjamin Johnson, who was born enslaved, became a blacksmith and ran a shop near Uniontown, a settlement near the Applegate River of Southern Oregon, in the 1860s. He left there and turned up in Albany, where on New Year’s Eve of 1870 he married Amanda Gardiner Johnson.

He continued working as a blacksmith. We know this because on Dec. 26, 1884, the Albany Democrat listed the damage done by a huge snowfall the week before. The lead item: “The blacksmith shop of Frank Wood, occupied by Ben Johnson, suddenly collapsed, the roof falling in a very flat manner on bellows, forge, etc., in the shop below.”

The detective work tracing Johnson from his mountain blacksmith shop near Uniontown to Albany was done by Jan Wright. She’s the president of the Talent Historical Society in Jackson County. Bob Zybach of Cottage Grove, who knows her, says she lost her home in the Almeda Fire that swept through Talent and Phoenix after Labor Day.

It was Zybach, a former Albany resident, who called my attention to this whole thing in September. He wondered what I knew about 807 Calapooia Street, the address given on the death certificate for Johnson’s widow, Amanda, when she died in 1927.

Turns out the address no longer exists, if it ever did. Maybe it was a mistake on the death certificate.

At the Albany Regional Museum Tuesday I was able to find, in Polk’s Directory for 1913, “Amanda Johnson (wid. Benj.)” residing at 938 W. 7th. That address no longer exists, either. But it would have been at the southeast corner of Seventh Avenue and Elm, where the three-story Elm Street Medical Center was built in 2003.

The “SE corner Seventh and Elm” is where the 1878 Albany City Directory (also on file at the museum) puts the residence of “Johnson, Ben, blacksmith.” And that’s where, according to a “Blacks in Oregon” story about Amanda and Ben Johnson in the state archives, they lived the rest of their lives.

What about Frank Wood’s blacksmith shop where the heavy snow before Christmas 1884 made the roof cave in? The 1878 City Directory says it was at No. 7 West Second, another address of which there is no trace.

Except for riding around on the bike looking up addresses, I’ve done no work on Ben Johnson’s story in Albany. May this be a challenge to local history detectives: Amanda and Ben were two black Albany citizens and longtime residents about whose lives we’d like to know more. (hh)

Imagine this corner in the late 1800s, when Ben and Amanda Johnson lived there.






Posted in: Commentary, News

14 responses to “An Oregon story: A man and his mountain”

  1. Bob Woods says:

    On a scale of 1 to 10, you get a 20 for finding a part of history that enriches the people of the community.

  2. Bob Zybach says:

    Hasso: Thank you very much for running this story. It is important to a lot of people, and also to Oregon, Albany, and Applegate Valley history. I am hopeful that local historians take an interest and more can be learned about Ben and Amanda Johnson’s lives.

  3. Mark Chambers says:

    Thanks Hasso for reporting on this bit of local history … being of African descent in Oregon has its challenges though never more than during territorial and early statehood days when “lash and leave” laws to enforce the Exclusion of “negros and mulattos” from Oregon were on the books from the 1840’s to the mid 1920’s. That any blacks made a life in the midst of this white hostility is amazing. We want to know more about the life of Ben Johnson.

  4. Craig says:

    Great story. I wonder if those addresses existed in the “colored” part of town that no longer exists. Was there ever such a place?

  5. Ray Kopczynski says:

    Great story! Thank you. Sad that there’s still too many instances of of need to rename map locations still in the queue…

  6. Richard Vannice says:

    Reading this raised my level of curiosity and interest in genealogy. Some research this morning found the following.
    The 1880 US Census for Albany, Linn County, Oregon shows a Benjamin Johnson, Male born 1837 in Alabama, parents both born in Alabama and wife Amanda born in Missouri, mother and father both in Kentucky. The lived on Vine St.
    There is one noticeable error in the census – it shows his race as “M” in the original document but in the transcribed format the transcriber placed “W”. Errors such as this are found quite often and can lead to inaccurate posting of information.
    1900 US Census for Albany, LInn County, Oregon shows Benjamin Johnson born in Jun 1835 in Massachusetts (another error on the census takers written recording) he is shown as a Black Male, Blacksmith as occupation, Wife Amanda born in Aug 1833 in Missouri and they married in 1870. Family on one side had last name of Thrall the other side were the Hogue family.
    Newspaper obituary 1800’s to present shows Benjamin Johnson Male 66 yrs of age, born in Alabama, married Amanda Robinson in 1870, date of obit 1 Feb 1901. Obituary place Albany, Oregon
    Find a Grave index shows Benjamin Johnson with born 18 June 1834 in Alabama died 31 Jan 1901 in Albany, Linn County, and buried in the Masonic Cemetery. Wife Amanda Robinson Johnson.
    Genealogical research shows he was probably married twice,. first to Rebecca Jones in 1854 in Alabama where several children were born and 2nd to Amanda Robinson in 1870, no children.
    There is some confusion in the information on the children since some show dates of birth in Alabama after he and Amanda were married.
    Also, according to the 1900 census, he could read and write and owned his home.
    Military records show a Beny W. Johnson born about 1837 who served in the 4th Alabama Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. The name of the unit is a bit misleading since it was actually a unit of the North which was ultimately renamed the 106th USCI (United States Colored Infantry).
    A notation on an Oregon Biographical Index Card, among other information, states -“Best known colored man in this part of the State.”
    He was a very interesting person and I’m sure there is more that can be learned about him.

  7. West End Gal says:

    We honored Amanda Gardner Johnson and Ben Johnson in a History Through Headstones Tour at the Albany Masonic Cemetery a few years ago. They are buried in Section Three. Albany historian Ed Loy devotes several pages to the Gardners’ remarkable story in his book, “Gem of the Valley: A History of Albany, Oregon.”

  8. Gordon L. Shadle says:

    It took until 2020 to remove the offending “Negro” in the mountain’s name? Why so long?

    Geez, way back in 2002 Measure 14 was passed to remove “white population,” “white” inhabitants, “free Negroes” and “mulattoes” from the Oregon constitution. It passed, but it was alarming that about 29% voted NO. And it took 145 years to make this change.

    And I suspect that more than a few of Albany’s 88% white population is wondering “why the fuss?” given Albany’s black population is just 0.7% (about 387 people). Empathy with black lives is probably pretty hard given Albany’s whiteness.

    • HowlingCicada says:

      “It passed, but it was alarming that about 29% voted NO.”

      Could it be that 29% is close to the percentage of perpetual naysayers who are against all change? Anyhow, excellent comment.

      • Lynda Ward says:

        I honestly think that might be the reason, people don’t like change! Right or wrong, change is going to happen, whether we like it or not. I see a story here of a couple, a handsome man and a beautiful wife, who came, like many others, to this wild area and helped to form a new life, later a new state. I am very happy that the name for the mountain is named, Ben Johnson Mountain. I makes me think and wonder why…do we have to add little descriptive notes to people? Fact is, it was people of all colors that made our states and cities and countries what it is. I’m grateful for those who came before us!

  9. JKnower says:

    Maybe someone at the Albany Region Museum could get more details for us – thanks for letting us know about this!

  10. centrist says:

    Nice find HH
    Reminds me of a story about what was Darkey Creek (tributary of the Alsea). An enslaved male came to Oregon with a Southworth, did well enough as a blacksmith and a musician to buy himself free and set up a homestead in what was then Benton County. Finished his days in Corvallis.
    The creek is now named Southworth

  11. Bill Kapaun says:

    Interestingly, they are buried in Masonic Cemetery and not Riverside—-



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