Many find solace in tracing family roots, looking back in time to discover a clearer picture of their ancestry.
In the Eleanor Johnson-Miller family, history was a tangible thing. From the time she was a small girl, Eleanor heard exciting stories about her great-grandfather George Johnson, recounted in written records and told by her grandfather, Albert Johnson.
“Grandpa was such a good storyteller,” remembered Eleanor. “We heard tales as long back as I can remember.”
As a child, Eleanor learned how George had left a sophisticated life in England to come to the United States, become a U.S. Army captain, a sergeant in the Cavalry and eventually settle in a nearby canyon where he and his wife Elizabeth raised sheep and a family. The canyon is outside of where Williams is today and bears the name Johnson Canyon, named for the family after showing hospitality to surveyors for the Atlantic and Pacific railroad who showed up on their ranch.
Eleanor was born and raised in Williams and loved the history that surrounded her. She was thrilled when research finally confirmed the family stories were true, with very little embellishment through the years.
“It was interesting to find out things the family had written were true,” said Eleanor. “Families add to it over the years, but it is true, mostly.”
As far as history goes, stories didn’t end with George. Her grandfather, Albert, became a renowned horseman in northern Arizona. Eleanor’s father, Benjamin Franklin Johnson, was named by a midwife who didn’t like the name chosen for their new son by Albert and wife Kristina. He grew up and served on the U.S.S. Whitney, anchored in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. For 50 years he would not talk about his experience on that day, but on the 50th anniversary of the attack, he told his story, and never talked about it again.
The 22-year-old sailor had just come up on deck with a cup of coffee when he saw two planes flying down battleship row in unison. They dropped something and flew left and right. It was then that Ben noticed the rising sun emblem on plane’s wings. He rushed down to the engine room, yelling they were under attack and to get the steam up, as the gun turrets at that time were powered by steam. The crew laughed until they heard bombs, and went into action. Ben ran and got his Colt pistol, which he emptied, shooting at planes from the deck.
For days after the attack, he used a lifeboat to help pull wounded and dead servicemen from the pacific. It would haunt him the rest of his life, but what he found even more difficult was the news that there was tapping coming from beneath the USS Arizona, with no way to rescue the trapped sailors.
Ben told Eleanor he didn’t know if he felt worse as the tapping continued, or when it finally stopped.
When discharged from the Navy, Ben settled in Williams with his wife Jean, also from Williams.
The couple had three daughters, Eleanor being the youngest.
In the first grade, Eleanor met Ed Miller, who she would grow up to marry. He might have been young, but he was immediately smitten with the girl.
“She was the 10-year-old girl of my dreams,” grinned Ed. “I knew I wanted to marry her.”
He recounts the first time he invited her to his home.
His 10th birthday party was coming up and his mother said he could invite her. When Eleanor asked him if any other girls would be attending, he told her a half truth. Since his mother and little sister would be there, he told her, “Yes, there’ll be other girls.”
On the day of his party several boys showed up on bikes – no girls - and Ben happened to get a bike for his birthday. He and the boys rode off, leaving Eleanor alone with his mother.
According to Eleanor, she didn’t forgive him until high school, even though he pined for her the entire time. When she did put the whole bicycle thing behind her they started dating and were married after graduation. That was 49 years ago.
The couple moved to Wickenburg in 1982, and have enjoyed researching more of the family’s roots – even locating the original homestead.
Recently, Eleanor spoke at the dedication of Johnson Canyon, and will be donating the paperwork to the Williams Library, where other records have already been given.
“This has been so much fun,” she said. “As a great-granddaughter of George and Elizabeth Johnson I am very thankful for the documentation that has been carefully preserved by my father, Benjamin Johnson and Aunt Ann Barker. I am humbled by my family’s ability to survive and prosper under the harships of early Arizona, the Depression and WWII. The information gives us a window into the daily lives of a regular Arizona period family. I hope one of my grandchildren will add to this family’s history.”