Like his famous son, President Andrew Johnson, Jacob Johnson grew up illiterate and impoverished. But, unlike his famous son, he was never able to improve his lot in life. He died when he was 33 and his second son, Andrew, was just three years old.
Biographers of Andrew Johnson dont agree on where Jacob was born. They believe that it was either Virginia or England. There is agreement that he was born in 1778 and it was probably in the month of April. Theres is no record of Jacob ever receiving any formal education.
In or around 1800, Jacob settled in Raleigh, North Carolina. About one year later he married Mary McDonough, a petite and pretty dark haired lady who was known in Raleigh as “Polly the weaver”. Mary worked as a laundress, a seamstress and as a waitress. After marrying Jacob, she augmented their meager family income by continuing to wash and mend clothes.
Jacob and Mary had three children. Their first child was a girl whose name is unrecorded and died in infancy or early childhood. Their second child was a boy named William who later became a carpenter in Texas. Andrew was their third and last child. He was born in Raleigh on December 29, 1808.
Jacob Held Many Jobs
Jacob supported his family by working several different jobs. At one time or another, he worked as a miller, he tended horses, served as the town bell ringer and as a caretaker for a local church. Jacob also served as the town constable and he catered barbeques. He also served in a unit of the state militia where his friends elected him captain. The jobs he performed indicated that as an adult, he was probably literate.
According to Johnson biographer, Bill Severn, various plantation owners offered Jacob job opportunities outside of Raleigh, but he preferred living in an urban environment and being around his friends.
Saving Two Lives Prematurely Ended Jacobs Life
On a cold December day in 1811, Jacob accompanied several of Raleighs well to do men on a fishing party at Walnut Creek. He was probably there to cater the event and clean the catch. During the party, Colonel Tom Henderson, the editor of the Raleigh Star, and two other men boarded a canoe. Either accidently, or as a prank, Henderson began rocking the canoe. The craft capsized and the three men were spilled into the Creeks frigid waters.
While the other members of the party stood safely on shore, Jacob dove into the chilly creek. A passenger named Callum couldnt swim and he desperately clung to Henderson. That caused both men to sink to the bottom. With much effort and exertion, Jacob rescued the two men while the third passenger swam to shore.
Since he was unable to quickly change out of his cold, wet clothes, Jacob caught a severe cold. The cold became a lingering illness. Sometime in January 1812, Jacob collapsed while performing his duties as the town bell ringer. He died on January 4, 1812.
Lauded For His Heroism
In the Janaury 12, 1812 issue of the Raleigh Star, Colonel Henderson paid homage to Jacob by writing: “Died in this city on Saturday last, Jacob Johnson, who for many years occupied a humble but useful station. He was the city constable, sexton and porter to the State Bank. In his last illness he was visited by the principal inhabitants of the city, by all of whom he was esteemed for his honesty, sobriety, industry and his humane, friendly disposition. Among all whom he was known and esteemed, none lament him, except perhaps his own relaitives, more than the publisher of this newspaper, for he owes his life on a particular occaison to the kindness and humanity of Johnson.”
Defending The Honor of His Parents
Over three decades after Jacobs death, a political attack compelled Andrew Johnson to defend the honor of his deceased father and elderly mother. In 1844, Andrew was running for reelection as the Congressman from the first district of Tennessee. Andrew was running as a Democrat and his Whig opponent questioned Johnsons parentage. The opponent claimed that Johnson could not be the son of poor, semiliterate man like Jacob Johnson. He claimed that Andrew was the unacknowledged son of a Raleigh judge named John Haywood.
Andrew interrupted his campaign to travel to Raleigh and collect affadavits verifying that he was indeed the son of Jacob and “Polly the weaver”. The affadavits were published in an open letter where Johnson wrote: “The vandals and hyenas would dig up the grave of Jacob Johnson, my father, and charge my mother with bastardy”
A Fitting Epitath
On June 4, 1867, while serving as president, Andrew Johnson participated in a public tribute to his father. When Jacob was interred, his remains were buried in a potters field. His grave had been a small, gray stone slab with the inscription “JJ”. It was replaced by a shaft of red limestone with the epitath: “In memory of Jacob Johnson; an honest man, beloved and respected by all who knew him. Born -. Died 1812, from a disease caused by an over-effort in saving the life of a friend.”