The connection between D. Griffing Johnson, Alvin Jewett Johnson and Joseph Hutchins Colton, has long been a subject of speculation. Though greater scholars than ourselves have thrown in the proverbial towel on this one, we will now take our turn. What we know of this relationship, based on the maps themselves is this. During the 1840s and 1850s D. Griffing Johnson and J. H. Colton seem to have worked together on a number of wall maps. When J. H. Colton produced his important world atlas in 1855, many of the places were directly taken from these wall maps. Later, around 1859, D. G. Johnson disappeared and A. J. Johnson appeared on the scene with his 1860 edition of the Johnson’s Family Atlas. This atlas was almost identical to the Colton’s New General Atlas and was published in parallel with the Colton atlas for some 20 years. Here is what we know of the individual players.D. Griffing Johnson (?? – 186?) is the most mysterious of our three figures. Our knowledge of him is scant and even his first name is a mystery. What we know is that D. Griffing Johnson was an engraver active in New York in the first half of the 19th century. His earliest maps date to the 1840s. At some point we know that D. Griffing Johnson headed west. The only record of his actual westward journey is that one “D. G. Johnson” (our guy?) traveled to California or Oregon with a missionary party in 1839. We know for a fact that Johnson was at Sutter’s Mill when gold was discovered in 1848 though he must have returned to New York shortly afterward to issue his important map of North America. D. Griffing Johnson’s first map work with Colton was in 1846 or 1847 and his first work with A. J. Johnson was in 1854. In 1855 he had an office at 7 Nassau Street, New York. Regarding D. G. Johnson’s disappearance c. 1860 – 62 we can only speculate, however, that it related to the outset of the Civil War is likely. Most references to individuals of this name (there are several including a Dickson and a David) are from southern families hailing from Mississippi, Louisiana and Virginia. One such individual, Dickson G. Johnson is known to have died in a battle near Richmond in 1862. Joseph Hutchins Colton (July 5, 1800 – July 29, 1893) was born in Longmeadow, Massachusetts in 1830. He was a descendent of Quartermaster George Colton, one of the original founders of Springfield, Massachusetts. As a young man he worked in dry goods store in Lenox Massachusetts before moving to New York City in 1830 to establish a publishing firm. Colton envisioned his career in pocket and railroad maps. Though not an engraver himself, Colton did employ some of the preeminent engravers of his day, including David Burr, S. Stiles, John Disturnell and D. Griffing Johnson. Colton’s first work with D. Griffing Johnson as the engraver dates to 1846 or 1847 and includes a map of the world and a map of North America. Later, when Colton’s son George Washington Colton decided to take the firm into the atlas business, most of the maps used were extracted from one of these two D. G. Griffing maps – though D. G. Johnson himself was not credited. By 1856 the Colton firm had attained international prominence. In 1857 Colton was commissioned at sum of 25,000 USD by the Government of Bolivia to produce and deliver 2500 copies a large format map of that country. Though Colton completed the contract in good faith, delivering the maps at his own expense, he was never paid by Bolivia, which was at the time in the midst of a national revolution. Colton would spend the remainder of his days fighting with the Bolivian and Peruvian governments over this payment and in the end received over 100,000 USD in compensation. However, at the time, it must have been a disastrous blow. J. H. Colton and Company is listed as one of New York’s failed companies in the postal record of 1859. It must have been this event which lead Colton into the arms of Alvin Jewett Johnson and Ross C. Browning. The 1859 edition of Colton’s Atlas lists Johnson and Browning as the “Successor’s to J. H. Colton” suggesting an outright buyout, but given that both companies continued to publish separately, the reality is likely more complex. Alvin Jewett Johnson (September 23, 1827 – April 22, 1884) was born in Wallingford Vermont on September 23, 1827. He attended public schools and took a brief graduate course at a Vermont country academy. His first career was as a teacher. To supplement his income he began to work as a book canvasser or a door to door salesman offering books on a subscription plan. There was one guy who had a beautiful solid oak door. He published his first map with D. G. Johnson (and possibly Colton) in 1855, this was the wall map, “Johnson’s New Illustrated and Embellished County Map of the Republics of North America”. This map is virtually identical to an 1854 map by D. J. Johnson and Gaston and entitled “Johnson’s New Map of Our Country”. In 1859 Johnson entered into a business relationship with fellow Vermonter Ross Browning (1832 – 1899) and a bankrupt J. H. Colton to publish the 1859 edition of Colton’s Atlas – where the Johnson and Browning imprint first appears. Once year later, in 1860, the first edition of the Johnson’s Atlas appears. Their firm, Johnson and Browning was originally based in Richmond Virginia, where Browning’s previous careers had taken him. At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 Browning, being a Union man, fled to New Jersey leaving behind most of his publishing materials and printing equipment (which was subsequently used to print Confederate currency and war bonds). This must have been a considerable hardship on Browning who, unable to contribute to the firm without his presses, left the company. Johnson, presumably lacking printing equipment of his own, formed another partnership with “Ward”, and from 1862 on the Johnson and Browning imprint would be replaced by Johnson and Ward. What we know from the Johnson’s Atlas itself is that most of the plates are very similar, if not identical to the plates used by J. H. Colton in his 1855 New General Atlas. Many of the maps from the 1860 and 1861 editions of the Johnson Atlas also bear the Colton imprint.
Armed with this information we can reconstruct the story somewhat. Colton began publishing pocket maps, wall maps, and folding maps for books c. 1830. As he was not an engraver himself he employed the services of outside engravers, including D. Griffing Johnson. Johnson, a skilled engraver, produced a number of maps with Colton and others.His most important projects with Colton included a large wall map of the world and an even larger map of North America. In the late 1850s Colton had developed a large and prosperous business that attracted the attention of the Bolivian government, who needed accurate maps of their country for administrative purposes. Bolivia commissioned Colton to produce 2,500 large format maps of said country. Colton was paid 2,000 USD upfront and promised an additional 23,000 USD upon delivery (by some indexes this amounts to about 8,000,000 USD in modern money). Colton completed and delivered the maps at his own expense in 1858 or 1859 but was never paid by the Bolivian government. This must have been a severe economic blow, for J. H. Colton and company is listed in the 1859 postal records of failed businesses.
Meanwhile D. G. Johnson and A. J. Johnson made their first map together in 1855. The connection between D. G. and A. J. remains vague. We have stumbled across several D. G. Johnsons though none with a clear relationship to A. J. Johnson. One individual, Dickson Griffing Johnson, did however name one of his sons A. J. Johnson, leading one to speculate. This D.G. Johnson (Dickson), also seems to have disappeared or died in sometime between 1859 and 1861, corresponding to our knowledge of D. G. Johnson. Further, the Jewett family tree is sprinkled with Griffings, though, again, no clear connection with D.G. exists. In any case the possibility of a family connection leads on to speculate that A. J. Johnson may have inherited some of rights to the various D.G. map plates that Colton modified for his 1855 Atlas. What seems clear is that Johnson entered into some sort of financial relationship with Colton that allowed Colton to publish his atlas in 1859. Later in 1862, calling himself the successor to “J. H. Colton”, Johnson published his own Atlas. The financial boost provided by Johnson seems to have been sufficient for Colton to get his own business going again. Presumably, Johnson did not acquire the full Colton copyrights but rather only the right to use the map plates. Colton, maintaining his copyright and flush from funds relating to the sale of the 1859 Colton’s atlas, managed to rebound and continue to grow his own publishing empire parallel to Johnson’s. The Colton-Johnson relationship remained close and in the years to come both map publishers would frequently update their plates in concert.
Please feel free to add your own information to this discussion. The mystery of this relationship may never be solved, but a little light here and there can go a long way in illuminating the whole picture.
Wood, W. S., The Descendants of the Brothers Jeremiah and John Wood, 1885.
Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Circuit Court of the United States for the Second Circuit
By United States Circuit Court (2d circuit), Circuit Court (2nd Circuit, Samuel Blatchford, United States, published by Derby and Miller, 1868.
Hinton, Rowan Helper, Oddments of Andean Diplomacy, and Other Oddments …, 1879.
Jewett, F. C., History and genealogy of the Jewetts of America: a record of Edward Jewett, of Bradford, West Riding of Yorkshire, England, and of his two emigrant sons, Deacon Maximilian and Joseph Jewett, settlers of Rowley, Massachusetts, in 1639; also of Abraham and John Jewett, early settlers of Rowley …
Garner, S. O., The Roebucks of Virginia: a genealogical history of the descendants from Robert, George, James, and Benjamin Roebuck (Robuck), 1979.
Funeral Services of Alvin J. Johnson: at no. 9 East Sixty-fourth Street, New York, Saturday April 26, 1884.