The Johnsons of Lakeport
Joel Johnson arrived in Chicot County in the heart of the Arkansas Delta in 1831 at the mature age of 41. Joel was one of the youngest children of a very prominent Kentucky family which included Richard M. Johnson, Vice President of the United States under Martin Van Buren, and Benjamin Johnson, one of the first federally appointed judges for the Territory of Arkansas and later a federal district judge for Eastern Arkansas. Through Richard, Joel became a member of the political and familial group led by the Conways and Seviers known as The Family which came to dominate Arkansas political and economic affairs for many decades.
Using cash and a variety of credit instruments, Joel set about acquiring land from both public and private sources, including land purchased from the Bowie brothers who were prominent land speculators. During the 1830s Joel was successful in acquiring significant amounts of land; and, equally important, purchasing a large number of slaves who would provide the labor to clear the fields and manage the crops. It appears that Joel was present on these properties only a portion of the year; spending a good portion of the year back in Kentucky. Although his holdings in land and in slaves was one of the largest in Chicot County, the Johnson home seems to have been fairly modest as his home and other buildings were assessed at a value of only $200. Other plantations of this time as captured visually by artists from steamboats also seemed rather unimposing.
Elsewhere in the county other aspiring planters were busy developing their own holdings to create a landscape which was rapidly being transformed from wilderness to agriculture for which cotton was the all important cash crop. Prominent among the neighboring plantations were farms owned by Silas Craig who had surveyed a good portion of the area, Joel’s brother Richard and his famous in-law, Ambrose Sevier, and S. C. Faulkner, who became known as the Arkansas Traveler.
Joel died an extremely wealthy man in 1846. Although he had prepared a will, some of its provisions were contested. During this time, his son, Lycurgus Leonides, acted as administrator for the estate and it was more than 10 years before Joel’s wife and children came completely into their inheritance. Lycurgus, who had been born in Scott County, Kentucky in had come to join his father in Chicot County several years earlier and had established a plantation of his own down-river from Lakeport adjacent to Kentucky Bend. He had married Lydia Taylor in 1842.
Joel’s estate was finally settled in 1858. In this settlement, now entirely between Joel’s wife and children, Verlinda, Julia, and Lycurgus Johnson acquired the Lakeport Plantation (valued at $153,000); Cyrus R. and Victor M. acquired the place where Lycurgus was living on Kentucky Bend (valued at $90,000). John T. Johnson took the property called Black Water (valued at $33,000). The family then divided all the slaves and personal property in what they declared was “a fair and just and equal manner” among the six owners. This settlement established the Lakeport Plantation as the home and property of Lycurgus and Lydia and it is highly likely that construction for the Lakeport Plantation House was begun very soon after the settlement was finalized
So, by 1860, Lycurgus and Lydia were master and mistress of a major southern plantation composed of thousands of acres of prime agricultural land and well over 100 slaves. All of this was to change dramatically as the storm clouds of hostility which had been gathering strength broke open and involved all American in its great Civil War. Although after the fighting had ceased Lycurgus was to file an unsuccessful claim for confiscated livestock and other property with the Southern War Claims Lakeport seemed to have gone through this ordeal of fire structurally intact. One group of artifacts, a silver pitcher and cups, are known to have survived in the family’s possession from the Civil War era; buried on the plantation for safe keeping until after the “unpleasantness” had subsided.
While many, if not most, of his friends and neighbors were forced into bankruptcy, Lycurgus was able to weather this storm and adjust to the new political, social, and economic realities. Thus, in 1870, Lycurgus is still the head of a major agricultural enterprise whose total worth and cotton production were the highest in the county. Further, his daughter Mary married a young man named Isaac Worthington, the heir to the neighboring Red Leaf plantation. Lycurgus died in 1876 and ownership of the Lakeport Plantation passes to Lydia, who, for a time, returned to Kentucky, leaving Lakeport under the supervision of her son Theodore Johnson and son-in-law Isaac Worthington. It is, however, her youngest surviving son, Victor M. Johnson, who comes into legal possession of Lakeport shortly before 1900. As a young man, Victor was educated at St. Louis University. Subsequently, he became interested in the cultivation of honey and constructed an apiary at Lakeport and stories have it, invented the first “Bee Vail” now commonly used in the industry. In 1885 Victor enrolled in the Arkansas Industrial University Medical School in Little Rock and subsequently continued his medical studies at Bellevue Hospital Medical in new York City
Returning to Lakeport, Victor continued his medical practice serving as a traveling physician to the workers of the Sunnyside Plantation, many of which were first generation Italian immigrants. Much of the day to day activities associated with Dr. Johnson’s management of Lakeport can be found recorded in the account books he kept from the late 1800’s well into the third decade of the 20th Century. The account books show the continued importance of cotton as a cash crop as well as the importance of the growing and harvesting hay. They contain accounts kept for his medical practice, as well as the production and shipping of honey and the sale of small commodities and farm items to others. There are also numerous entries related to the purchase and repair of various items of farm equipment. Heirloom dishes and silverware, the dining room table, and a desk used to keep his medical and other records date at least to this period of Lakeport’s history.
In about 1917 Dr. Johnson moved the family from Lakeport to Greenville, Mississippi, and shortly thereafter sold the plantation with its fields and houses. These passed into the ownership of the Epstein family who have continued the careful stewardship of this unique reminder of the delta’s past.