BIDDEFORD — John W. Johnson was born on Oct. 7, 1829.

At 4 years old, he was abducted from his home on Factory Island in Saco by Wabanaki and taken to Canada. He became accustomed to tribal life, even learning to practice traditional medicine and performing in traveling shows for money.

Back in Maine, he was presumed dead. But in 1855, he returned, 22 years after his disappearance. After becoming somewhat of a local celebrity, Johnson lived out his years in the area until his death in Biddeford in 1907.

Now, more than 100 years later, Johnson’s great-great-granddaughter, Debra Burnsworth, is looking for his final resting place.

“We’ve never been able to find out where he’s buried, and another guy, a cousin, has looked into it. The only thing we have to go by is this death certificate,” Burnsworth said in an interview Tuesday. “I would assume it would be in Biddeford, because that’s where he died.”

Burnsworth, 63, a retired construction inspector who lives in Chiloquin, Oregon, said she began looking for Johnson’s grave after tracking her family history through Ancestry.com. Johnson’s story had been a long-held piece of family folklore, she said.

“I knew about him before, because he’s a pretty interesting character in our family line,” she said. “I read the book that was written about him, and I started working on Ancestry.com to try and find out more about him.”

That book, “The Life of John W. Johnson,” was compiled by several of Johnson’s family members and given to the Maine Historical Society by Albert J. Sears in 1998. It’s the sole source of information about Johnson, and has been indexed by Ne-Do-Ba, a Lewistonbased nonprofit organization that provides historical information concerning the Wabanaki people of New England.

According to Johnson’s death certificate, which was provided by Burnsworth in an email, Johnson died on Sept. 11, 1907, of chronic interstitial nephritis – severe inflammation of the kidneys resulting in kidney failure – at Trull Hospital in Biddeford.

That hospital has long been closed, and efforts to locate Johnson’s grave through local funeral homes have been unsuccessful, Burnsworth said.

“The hospital’s gone. None of the other relatives that have done research have been able to find where he may be buried,” she said.

Burnsworth’s curiosity about her family history was sparked long ago by her mother’s extended family photo collection, which contains photos spanning from the 1920s to the 1950s. Since inheriting the collection in 2003 following her mother’s death, Burnsworth has been trying to piece together the excerpts from her family’s past using whatever methods she can.

“It’s like a mystery, for one thing,” she said. “I love old records and finding things and going, ‘Oh, wow, look at that.’”

“Some of (the photos) had names on them and some didn’t, and Ancestry.com seemed like a good place to start,” she continued. “Now the whole picture of my past has grown to what I never realized.”

To paint a clearer picture of her past, Burnsworth said she will be traveling to Maine in October to catch up with her family, both past and present, and to get away from Oregon for a brief while.

While finding Johnson’s grave isn’t the sole reason for her trip, she’s still hoping to make enough headway into her investigation to see his grave while she’s here.

“I’m coming back, and I’m going to go visit a couple graves of other ancestors. I’ve just kind of gotten awakened to my past in Maine. I didn’t realize I had such a strong tie, and it’s just about touching bases with my past,” she said.

And while she doesn’t have the highest of hopes she’ll unearth the site of Johnson’s burial, Burnsworth said she’s enjoying her time digging through history.

“I was born in Oregon and I knew the Johnsons lived in Maine, but it never occurred to me I ever had so many ancestors in Maine. It’s just amazing to me to find out how far my past went back. I’m just trying to map it back,” Burnsworth said.

“It’s fun. Like I said, it’s a mystery.”

To contact Burnsworth with information about Johnson’s burial site, call (541) 613-1601 or email [email protected]

— Staff Writer Alan Bennett can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 329 or [email protected]


Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: