William Thomas Johnson, banker, rancher, and rodeo producer, son of William Thomas and Laura (Bolin) Johnson, was born at Mount Vernon, Texas, on December 24, 1875. His grandfather, Joshua Foster Johnson, was one of seven Texas legislators who joined Sam Houston in voting against secession. His sister Ora was founder of Camp Waldemar at Hunt, Texas. Johnson attended Franklin County schools until age fourteen, when he left home to work as a cowboy in Wyoming and Montana. He subsequently moved to Denton, Texas, and opened a livestock-trading and feed barn. In 1903 he married Lucy Young, daughter of the Denton county sheriff. They had two children. After selling the barn to two younger brothers, Johnson helped establish the First National Bank of Denton County and became its president. In 1913 he sold his interest in the bank, moved to San Antonio, and began purchasing ranches along the Southern Pacific Railway between Laredo and El Paso; he eventually amassed over 110,000 acres. He raised Herefords for the war effort during World War I. Sometime during this period, for reasons that remain unexplained, he came to be known as "Colonel" Johnson.
Though ranching made him a millionaire, Johnson gained his national fame as a rodeo producer. In October 1928 he produced a San Antonio rodeo to entertain the national American Legion convention. Unfortunately, the legionnaires were more interested in bullfights in Mexico than the rodeo, and Johnson lost more than $40,000. He decided the only way to recover his investment was to remain in the business. In 1929 he produced a spring rodeo in El Paso and the Texas State Fair Rodeo in Dallas. There he entertained officials from the Madison Square Garden Rodeo, then the most prestigious rodeo in America. He became its producer in 1931. Also in 1931 he successfully staged the first rodeo in Boston Garden. By 1934 Johnson's rodeos also played Detroit, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Dallas, Chicago, Kansas City, and Sedalia. Thanks to his flair for publicity, these contests grossed several million dollars, more than any others in rodeo history, making "the Big Texan," as the press called him, the most famous and powerful producer in the country. He was especially helpful to cowgirls, whom he provided excellent prizes and publicity. With health and accident insurance nonexistent in rodeo, Johnson also paid medical and transportation expenses for women injured at his contests.
In the belief that his purses were too low and that he was getting rich at their expense, cowboys went on strike against Johnson at the 1936 Boston Garden Rodeo. Determined to break the strike, the colonel attempted unsuccessfully to continue the rodeo with grooms and stable hands for cowboys. Ultimately he capitulated and increased the purse so the contest could take place as scheduled. As a result of this conflict the cowboys formed the Cowboy's Turtle Association, now the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Soon afterward Johnson sold his rodeo company, which included more than 600 cattle and horses and a staff of 150, to M. T. and W. J. Clemens and Everett Coleman for $150,000. Johnson retired to San Antonio.
His departure marked a turning point in rodeo history, as the cowboys began their successful efforts to control the sport. Johnson died at San Antonio, on September 25, 1943, and was buried at Denton the following day. He was a Baptist. By the time of his death he retained only two of his ranching properties. Because he was the target of the 1936 strike that launched the PRCA, Johnson remains a pariah to the rodeo profession and is absent from its halls of fame.