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4th Governor of
California, January 9, 1856 - January 8, 1858
(American "Know-Nothing")

Born:  August 2, 1825, in Johnson Township, Indiana

Died:  August 31, 1872, in Salt Lake City, Utah

Marriage:  Mary Zabriskie (1851), 2 children


California’s fourth governor went by the name of J. Neely Johnson. He was the candidate of the American political party, also called the Know-Nothings because the party members refused to answer questions about the party, saying, “I don’t know.” Neely was the only Know-Nothing to become governor of California.


Early Life

John Neely Johnson was born in Indiana, where his father was active in politics. Young John studied law in Indiana. At 21 years of age he moved to Iowa and began work as a lawyer.



Johnson joined the rush of people to California in 1849, hoping to be a lawyer in Sacramento. At first he drove a mule train between Sacramento and Stockton and tried some mining. Johnson was soon well known in Sacramento. U.S. President Fillmore put him in charge of the 1850 census of California. His first elected position was as city attorney. He was elected as assemblyman from Sacramento County in 1852. In 1855, as a candidate for governor, he won easily over John Bigler, who had already served two terms as governor.



Johnson was just 31 years old when he became governor. His goal was to have the state government run more economically. The legislature arranged to pay off the state debt, and established a state board of examiners to supervise payment of claims. Johnson was able to collect a large sum from the U.S. Congress to repay the state for some of its militia expenses in the Indian wars.

The Second Vigilance Committee was active in San Francisco while Johnson was governor. Johnson called out the state militia to stop the Vigilantes and placed San Francisco under martial law. However the militia deserted to the Vigilantes and supplied them with state weapons. Johnson was alone in his opposition, and had to revoke the orders he had given.


Later Years

When his term ended, Johnson tried mining in Trinity County. In 1860 he moved to Nevada where he was a member of the Nevada constitutional conventions and then served on the Nevada State Supreme Court. At the time of his death from sunstroke, he was practicing law in Salt Lake City.


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