Francis (Frank) White Johnson, leader in the Texas Revolution and historian, son of Henson and Jane Johnson, was born near Leesburg, Virginia, on October 3, 1799. His family moved in 1812 to Tennessee, where he was educated as a surveyor, but he rejected a government surveying position in what is now Alabama to pursue vocations in Illinois and Missouri, where he taught school, ran a grocery, operated a lumber mill, was a constable, organized a local militia, worked in a lead mine, and occasionally surveyed.
In 1826 he carried a cargo of produce down the Mississippi and became ill with malaria. On advice of a doctor he and his cousin, Wiley B. White, sailed from New Orleans to Texas for his health on the schooner Augusta. He traveled extensively in several Texas colonies, including the colony of Green DeWitt, and became well known almost immediately. That year he laid out the town of Harrisburg, and Stephen F. Austin sent him and two others to Nacogdoches to try to prevent the Fredonian Rebellion. Johnson was employed as a surveyor in the Ayish District in 1829. On January 1, 1831, he became alcalde at San Felipe de Austin, where he was part of a close-knit group of Austin supporters that included Samuel May Williams, Robert M. Williamson, Luke Lesassier, and Dr. Robert Peebles. In 1832 he was surveyor-general of Austin's colony. The hot-tempered Johnson was considered a "firebrand" in favor of war with Mexico; in 1835 he was indicted for treason but was never arrested.
Johnson was captain of his company at the battle of Anahuac in 1832 (see ANAHUAC DISTURBANCES). At the Convention of 1832 he was a delegate from San Felipe and served as chairman of the Central Standing Committee of the state. In early 1835, while in Monclova to observe the state legislature in session (see COAHUILA AND TEXAS), he, Peebles, and Williams were named empresarios for several hundred leagues of land to be granted to settlers in return for a year of military service from each grantee, a condition that was never carried out. After 1837 most of the grants were voided, and Johnson and the others were denounced for involvement in this land scandal.
In 1835 Johnson and Moseley Baker were sent to East Texas to appraise the political feelings of colonists and to stir up support for the war cause. Johnson was appointed adjutant and inspector general under Stephen F. Austin and Edward Burleson. At the siege of Bexar he led a column of Texans into San Antonio, and after Benjamin R. Milam's death he was in command at the Mexicans' capitulation.
In January 1836 Johnson and Dr. James Grant started to lay plans to invade Mexico at Matamoros, despite opposition from Sam Houston and Governor Henry Smith, who were powerless to intervene because the General Council had already ratified the plan. Johnson and a detachment of fifty men were surprised by the Mexicans under José de Urrea at San Patricio on February 27, 1836, and all except Johnson and four of his companions were killed or captured. Hearing of Houston's retreat, Johnson returned home, quitting the revolution in disgust.
After Texas independence he settled at Johnson's Bluff, on the Trinity River in what is now San Jacinto County. There he was a planter until 1839, when he fled from his family, Texas, and creditors. His wife had been recorded in Austin's register of families as an abandoned woman named Rozelia (also Rozella or Rosalie) Hammer when she and a son named Nicholas came to Austin's colony from Louisiana in 1830. She and Johnson had two daughters. By 1842 she had divorced him, and in 1846 she remarried.
Johnson traveled throughout the United States, attempted to sell Texas lands, explored for precious metals in the West, and tried digging for buried treasure on Galveston Island, all unsuccessfully. He returned to Johnson's Bluff in 1847 and reclaimed his former wife; her new husband, Ralph McGee, subsequently divorced her. She remained with Johnson until her death in August 1850. In 1853 Johnson moved to Ellis County to run a livestock operation. He returned to the East in 1860 to try again to sell Texas lands; by 1861 he had arrived penniless in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he remained through the Civil War.
By 1871 he had returned to Texas, where he spent most of his declining years in Austin and Round Rock. During that period he was considered a recluse with few close friends, although he had prestige and respect. From 1873 to the end of his life he was founding president of the Texas Veterans Association. He spent much time researching Texas history, particularly the Texas Revolution. The project was financed by subscribers headed up by Gov. E. M. Pease. On his last research trip, Johnson was ill; he had already lost part of his right hand to cancer when he died in a hotel in Aguascalientes, Mexico, about April 8, 1884. It took several years for the Texas Veterans Association to get legislative financing for the return of his remains to Texas, where he received a state funeral and was buried in the State Cemetery. Johnson's manuscripts were left to several literary executors, including Alexander W. Terrell. In 1912 Eugene C. Barker, assisted by Ernest W. Winkler, used Terrell's materials and other documents as a basis for Frank Johnson's A History of Texas and Texans, published in 1914 and again in 1916.