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Dictionary of Miramichi Biography

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JOHNSON, JOHN MERCER, lawyer, JCP, MLA, and MP; Father of Confederation; b. Liverpool, England, Oct 1818, s/o John Mercer Johnson Sr and h/w Ellen; m. 1845, Henrietta Shirreff, d/o Adam Dixon Shirreff and Jane Hunter; d. Chatham, 8 Nov 1868.

John M. Johnson, who was said to have been brought to Chatham from England in 1821, attended the County Grammar School in the late 1820s and early 30s when it was conducted by Archibald Gray. He later studied law with John Ambrose Street. He was admitted as an attorney in 1838 and barrister in 1840. He formed a law partnership with Charles A. Harding, who had a practice at Newcastle at the time, but it was dissolved after two years. In 1847 he entered into a partnership with Peter Mitchell which continued until 1853. From that date onward he was in partnership with William Wilkinson.

Among Johnson's early community interests was the Miramichi Mechanics' Institute, for which plans were made as early as 1838. He was one of the Institute's incorporators in 1847, its first secretary, and both a regular and standby speaker, who delivered addresses on such topics as "Pneumatics," "Phrenology," "Matter and Motion," and "The Lever and the Wheel and Axle." Another early interest of his was the militia. He was appointed a second lieutenant in the rifle company of the 1st Battalion in 1842. When, after a lengthy dormancy, the provincial militia was resuscitated in 1860, he was promoted to captain and placed in command of the company popularly known as the Chatham Rifles. In 1863 a drill instructor was assigned to bring this unit up to fighting strength, and at around the same time George H. Russell became its captain. Other local appointments which Johnson received were as a justice of the Inferior Court of Common Pleas (1860), and trustee of the County Grammar School (1862).

Johnson entered provincial politics at age thirty-two in 1850, when he was elected to the House of Assembly as a supporter of Liberal interests. He was re-elected in all general and by-elections until 1865, when he was defeated on the issue of Confederation, which he favored. He was returned in 1866 and sat until 1867. He was appointed to the Executive Council in 1854 and was a member at most times during his years in Fredericton, serving as solicitor general, postmaster general, speaker, and attorney general. He was a delegate to the Quebec Conference in 1864 and the London Conference in 1866-67 and is thus a Father of Confederation. In the federal election of 1867 he defeated Thomas F. Gillespie to become the first MP for the riding of Northumberland County.

Johnson was "of slender form, airy gait, and proud appearance" and was "one of the very best speakers in the province." He was "a powerful and accomplished pleader and a most consistent and popular politician." His conversation was entertaining and "his store of anecdote immense." He had many special skills. He wrote poetry, and while in England for the London Conference, dazzled spectators with his fancy ice skating. Later, in Parliament, his "quickness in repartee and inimitable talent for apt jeu de mots...made him one of the most conspicuous, if not one of the most popular men in the House." His health had broken by this time, however, and his potential on the national scene was never realized. He retained his seat until his death in the fall of 1868, at age fifty.

Johnson and his wife, Henrietta Shirreff, had twelve children, only six of whom survived childhood. Their daughter Ada E. Johnson was a teacher and the first organist to be engaged when music was introduced at St Andrew's Presbyterian Church in 1882. Their son Andrew H. Johnson was a lawyer in Chatham until 1888. He left for the United States that year, "very much in debt," and was living in Des Moines, Iowa, at the time of his mother's death in 1902. Their son Edward Johnson, who had a book and stationery business in Chatham and Newcastle, was one of three sons living on the Miramichi at that time.

In 1927 a plaque in Johnson's honor was placed in St Paul's Church by the Earl of Chatham chapter of the IODE. In 1941 the Historical Sites and Monuments Board of Canada unveiled a plaque on the Chatham post office. A street in Chatham bears his name, as does Mount Johnson, near the northern boundary of Northumberland County.


[b] LDS-IGI [m] NB Courier 18 Oct 1845 [d] Gleaner 14 Nov 1868 / Advance 28 Aug 1902; Biog. Review NB; DCB; Encycl. Can.; Facey-Crowther; Fraser (C); Gleaner 4 Sep 1838, 15 Mar 1842, 13 Apr 1847, 13 Apr 1847, 20 Apr 1847, 7 Dec 1847, 8 Feb 1848, 14 Mar 1848, 18 Apr 1848, 21 Feb 1853, 11 Oct 1856, 26 May 1860, 28 Jul 1860, 5 Apr 1862; Graves; Hutchison papers; Martin; Rayburn; World 9 Dec 1882, 21 Aug 1907