Governor #4, Johnson

Aged 30 when he took office, John Neely Johnson remains the youngest governor in California history. The son of a politically prominent Indiana family, Johnson was admitted to the Iowa Bar at age 21. He left his legal career to join the gold rush stampede in 1849, arriving in Sacramento “dead broke.” Following a short-lived job hauling merchandise and trying his hand at gold mining, he returned to Sacramento where he opened a law practice. Affable and attractive, the young man caught the interest of more seasoned lawyers who mentored him, in particular his future father-in-law James Zabriskie from New Jersey. Johnson was elected Sacramento’s city attorney in April 1850, and re-elected the following year.  When that term expired he was elected to the state assembly in 1852. Politically ambitious, he nonetheless described himself as “the most startled man in the state” when the spectacular success of the Know Nothings (the American Party) in the 1855 election swept him into the governor’s chair. Like his predecessor John McDougal in 1851, Johnson—to his detriment—got caught up in the maelstrom surrounding the revival of the San Francisco Vigilance Committee in 1856. His detractors judged him inept, while his supporters generously excused him as a young man with the right intentions who simply listened to the wrong advisers. After leaving office Johnson migrated east to Nevada Territory where his efforts contributed to Nevada’s statehood in 1864. Appointed to the Nevada state supreme court in 1867 to fill a vacancy, he was elected to a full term on the bench in the next general election. J. Neely Johnson died of sunstroke in Salt Lake City on August 31, 1872, aged 47.

 

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