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El Dorado County's John C. “Cock-eye” Johnson Largely Forgotten in Gold Rush History

05/22/2015 10:03AM ● Published by Jerrie Beard

Placerville aerial photo © oocities.org

Mention the California Gold Rush and several names come to mind: John Sutter, James Marshall and Samuel Brannen. While many other emigrants made significant contributions to the growth and development of the area, their names have been largely forgotten. One such distinguished citizen in El Dorado County was John Calhoun Johnson.

John C. Johnson photo © Pony Express National Museum, St. Joseph, Missouri.
Often referred to as “Cock-Eye” Johnson because he was cross-eyed, Johnson came to California prior to 1849. In August of that year, he settled at a spot six miles east of Placerville in the vicinity of present-day Apple Mountain Golf Course; a plaque placed by E Clampus Vitus in May 2014 near the fourth hole marks the approximate location of his home. Often referred to as Six Mile House, the original structure was built by Johnson—along with John H. Phillips and his wife Sophronia—and served as a boarding house. In addition to Johnson and the Phillips, the U.S. Census (in 1850) lists 14 other unrelated adults living in the house.

Johnson also ran a sawmill, store and campground on his 320-acre ranch. It was reported at the time that up to 1,000 miners could be found camped on his property. During the Indian Wars of 1850-51, Johnson’s ranch served as an encampment for the state militia. He earned the title of adjutant, and was known thereafter as colonel. Along with practicing law in the district and circuit courts of El Dorado, Amador, Nevada and Sacramento Counties, he also served as El Dorado County’s first treasurer (1850-1852), and in 1855 was elected to represent El Dorado County in the California State Assembly.

Contrary to popular folklore, Johnson, not Snowshoe Thompson, was the first trans-Sierra mail carrier. Using the Carson Emigrant Trail and Truckee River Routes to deliver mail to Carson Valley, he became aware that a better route was needed to traverse the Sierra Nevada. Along with a Delaware Indian guide named Fallen Leaf, he set out to explore the peaks and passes, looking for a better trail through the mountains. During this expedition, he mapped out a new route (dubbed Johnson’s Cutoff), discovered and named Fallen Leaf Lake in honor of his Indian guide, and is credited with giving the name Lake Bigler to the body of water now known as Lake Tahoe.

Johnson’s Cutoff shaves more than 50 miles off the Carson Emigrant Trail and its highest peaks are 2,000 feet lower. Highway 50 roughly follows the route, passing through Meyers and over Echo Summit before descending along the South Fork of the American River. The road was improved in the late 1850s and became a major thoroughfare from Placerville to Carson City when gold and silver were discovered in the Comstock Lode. It also served as the route for the Pony Express and later became part of the Lincoln Highway.

In 1854, Johnson married Emily Hagadorn, an emigrant from Ohio, and together they raised nine children. In 1876, at the age of 54, Johnson and one of his sons traveled to Tres Alamos, Arizona, to purchase land and start a farm. During their trip, Johnson was killed by an Apache raiding party and is now buried in Arizona.

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