The name of Albert Sidney Johnston’s property — China Grove Plantation — was much more impressive than the truth of the place, itself, back in November 1846.
Located just a bit north of Brazoria County’s center, when Albert Sidney Johnston, his wife and their infant son moved there, it was into a small, newly constructed residence that was far from today’s vision of a multicolumned mansion.
Their home was several miles away from their nearest neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. W.D.C. Hall, and at that time, the property consisted of nothing more than rich but unimproved land Johnston hoped to make productive enough to eke out a living for his family.
In a lengthy biography of Johnston’s life, his son, William Preston Johnston, describes it at that time as having been “situated partly in the alluvial bottom-lands of Oyster Creek … partly in the flat and rather sandy prairie that stretched away toward Galveston Bay.”
It was located near what would later become the community and much later the incorporated town of Bonney, with over 1,500 acres in all, about 300 to 400 acres of which had been cleared of its dense timber and undergrowth.
The remainder was still covered by dense forest, according to the account written by Johnston’s son.
The biography described “square league of prairie, waving with luxuriant grasses of the coastlands, (that) afforded ample pasture for herds of cattle which ranged at will.”
Unlike many such recollections, the biographer refrained from describing the place as perfect, even with memory. Instead, he noted that although “a belt of thick woods, eight or ten miles wide” was filled with deer, turkeys, and other game and beasts, the woods also concealed “miasmic swamps.”
These were these were the result of annual overflows of the Brazos River, the younger Johnston recalled, and provided a perfect breeding spot for the swarms of mosquitoes that infested the property.
In their turn, these insects laid the overflow’s “poisonous finger on an unsuspecting household” such as that of the Johnstons.
William Preston Johnston described the family’s home as having been a clapboard-covered, double log cabin with a wide front porch. It was situated at the edge of the forest, with shade provided by oak and pecan trees.
He noted that the property’s name was chosen for the China trees (often called Chinaberries) that had been planted around the site where the cabin was built.
Remembering the view from the cabin’s front porch, he wrote that it was possible to see “as far as the eye could reach over a grassy plain, unbroken except by an occasional fringe or mot of distant timber.”
Ample evidence of the land’s fertility was apparent, he wrote, in the existence of “a thousand flowers of varied perfume and hue,” which bloomed in the grass that sustained herds of grazing deer and Longhorn cattle.
This was also the feeding ground for thousands of birds, he recalled, mentioning that they ranged from cranes and herons to wild geese and ducks, gulls and curlews.
On winter nights, prairie fires were set by some of the settlers to encourage new growth of the native grasses.
Strong winds called northers sometimes whipped the flames to the south until they could be stopped by a driving rain or the crude firefighting efforts of residents desperate to save their own cabins.
Like most settlers of that era, the Johnstons were necessarily self-reliant. In addition to himself, his wife and their young child, those who lived on the property included a black couple, their two boys and a girl.
With such a small workforce, it was necessary for each individual to share in tasks in some way, whether inside the house or in the fields.
As was the case with all early settlers, corn was the most critically necessary crop for those in the Johnston household.
As the grain used in the bread they ate at every meal, the corn also provided sustenance for the horses and mules they used in farming this and other crops, as well as for transportation.
A vegetable garden provided the accompaniment to meals that usually included meat from the plentiful supply of game animals that inhabited the area, which included doves, quail, ducks, geese, deer and fish.
Other early residents had warned Johnston that leeks were about the only vegetable on which he could depend, but he proved them wrong, growing a garden that provided well for the family’s needs.
They grew a small plot of sugar cane to provide “sweetening” for their coffee substitutes and other uses, as well as having an orchard of peaches and figs that they not only enjoyed in their seasons, but also preserved for use throughout the rest of the year.
Johnston led his extremely limited workforce into the fields and orchard daily, taking great pride in the success of his efforts, even though he found his financial burden growing rapidly with the accumulation of interest on his loans.
The biography written by his son mentions a letter Johnston wrote concerning his work and of the satisfaction he had found in it. The son also remembered Johnston’s reply to a comment made by a wealthy friend several years later.
The friend had written that men of “the higher reaches of thought and spheres of action” were not suited to manual labor.
“Self-love” forbade him from agreeing, Johnston wrote in reply. He added that he had personally plowed, planted and harvested crops, and added that the hoe, plow and ax were all quite familiar to his hands.
All of them, he added, had been used to provide sustenance to himself and his family, providing food rather than recreation.
Soon after settling at China Grove, Johnston sent for his elder son, who had been reared by the family of Johnston’s late wife, and the boy, then 16 years of age, remained in Texas during the first three months of 1847.
Although he had grown rapidly, Preston Johnston had been less robust than his father thought desirable.
Attributing this to a dearth of exercise and too much time spent on his school work, Johnston prescribed a regimen of outdoor sand exercise.
These ranged from riding and hunting to such activities as digging and planting, Preston wrote later, remembering that he had enthusiastically embraced such activities.
Next week: Life at China Grove and on the battlefield for the South.