Wednesday, February 22, 2017
William Ransom Johnson: Napoleon of the Turf
The changing of seasons from winter to spring often brings about two things for me. The first is the quite unpleasant experience of allergies. I've seemed to avoid this nuisance so far this year (as knocks on wood), but normally, with the budding of trees and growth of grass comes the discomfort of a scratchy throat, coughs, congestion, and itchy eyes. The second, and much more pleasurable than the previous, is horse racing season. Having resided in Kentucky for six years (2009-2015), it only seems natural to start thinking of the pounding of hooves on dirt tracks when spring rolls around.
Kentucky inherited more than its political existence from the mother state of Virginia. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the Old Dominion was viewed as the center of the horse racing universe. Many wealthy Virginia planters spent considerable financial and material resources developing their blooded-stock stables and betting on their own and their friend's horses.
Probably the most famous of Virginia's horsemen was William Ransom Johnson. The man who would later become known as the "Napoleon of the Turf" was born in Warren County, North Carolina in 1782. While still a young man in North Carolina, Johnson became a noted horse breeder and politician. Johnson moved to Virginia before 1818 and continued his occupations in his new residence.
Johnson's noted ability to judging horse flesh brought him a prominence few others could attain. Horse racing was probably the favorite sporting event in the United States during his lifetime, and he was indeed the king of the track. Noted horse enthusiasts such as politicians Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay visited Johnson's Virginia stables and sought out his advice on breeding their stock.
Johnson's horse racing orders were carried out by his large enslaved labor force on his Oakland Plantation in southwestern Chesterfield County, about eighteen miles from Petersburg. The 1830 census notes Johnson as owning 71 slaves. In 1840, he owned 65 slaves. Skilled in working with equine, enslaved individuals served as trainers, grooms, jockeys, and farriers, and those less skilled, as stable laborers. Back last August I shared a document from the Virginia Historical Society, which showed the sales of many of Johnson's slaves and other property to cover the turf master's debts in 1845. The auction was handled by Petersburg commission merchant Thomas Branch, and a number of the slaves were purchased by Petersburg slave trader Henry Davis.
Apparently Johnson met his demise while traveling and staying in Mobile, Alabama. It seems he dies of natural causes. His body was brought back to his beloved Oakland Plantation for burial. Johnson's fondness for betting on races and luxurious lifestyle left many debts to be resolved by his relatives.
One of those family relation connections with Johnson was to future Confederates General John Pegram, and his brother Lt. Col William (Willy) Ransom Johnson Pegram. The Pegram brother's mother, Virginia Johnson Pegram, was William Ransom Johnson's daughter; making the turf man the the soldier brothers' maternal grandfather.
Image of William Ransom Johnson courtesy of the NCpedia.