Warren Marshall Johnson was born in Bridgewater, Grafton, New Hampshire on 9 July, 1838. He graduated from Cartmouth College, Bridgewater, New Hampshire. In 1864 doctors told him that his health was so poor the only hope of prolonging his life was to move to a warmer climate. He started the trek westward with some friends who were headed to the goldmines of California.
As the trip went on Warren’s health became worse and his friends left him in a doctor’s care in Utah. Since the weather was warm he slept outside in the good doctor’s yard. One morning the doctor’s daughter went outside and found Warren on the ground. She thought he was dead. The family took him inside and nursed him back to health. While he was recovering he read the Book of Mormon and the truthfulness of the book could not be denied. He was baptized on September 30, 1866.
Warren helped to settle the Muddy Mission in Nevada and then moved back to Farmington, Utah. Upon his return he married the doctor’s daughter, who had thought he was dead in the yard, Permilia Jane Smith. Together they had eight children. Three years after their marriage Warren married Samantha Nelson. They also had eight children together.
Then in 1875, the Prophet Brigham Young called Warren and his two wives on a mission to Lee’s Ferry. The ferry had been built in 1871 and 1872 by John D. Lee. The ferry was the only way to cross the Colorado River, at the time and became the route settlers took to travel between Utah and Arizona. Lee’s wife Emma was the one who managed the ferry most of the time as Lee traveled quite frequently.
Lee eventually left the ferry after the Mountain Meadow Massacre in an attempt to evade law enforcement for his involvement. It was at that point that Warren, Permilia and Samantha took over the ferry and operated it until 1895.
Warren’s daughter, Elizabeth Carling records his reaction to the Manifesto in her autobiography, “In the year 1890, Father received word about the manifesto being issued by President Wilford Woodruff. Word came to him that the people that were living the law of Plural Marriage would have to put away their plural wives, and he prayed and studied about it a great deal. It was a sore trial to him. He read the manifesto over and over again and again. It said: “To Whom It May Concern.” I heard him say to Mother one day, “It does not concern me any.”
The next year he was advised to move one of his families to Kanab and so Samantha went with her children. Just before the move and during Warren, Permilia and Samantha had a feeling that a huge trial was on it’s way. They fasted and prayed to be able to endure it.
Elder Faust continues their story, in his article entitled “Spiritual Healing,” in the Ensign, May 1992.
In 1891 the Warren Johnson family suffered a great tragedy. Within a period of a short time, they lost four children to diphtheria. All four were buried in a row next to each other. In a letter to President Wilford Woodruff, dated July 29, 1891, Warren told the story:
“Dear Brother …
“In May 1891 a family residing in Tuba City, came here from Richfield Utah, where they … spent the winter visiting friends. At Panguitch they buried a child, … without disinfecting the wagon or themselves, and not even stopping to wash the dead child’s clothes, they came to our house, and remained overnight, mingling with my little children. …
“We knew nothing of the nature of the disease, but had faith in God, as we were here on a very hard mission, and had tried as hard as we knew how to obey the word of Wisdom, [to] attend to the other duties of our religion, such as paying [our] tithing, family prayers, etc. etc. that our children would be spared. But alas, in four and a half days [the oldest boy] choked to death in my arms. Two more were taken down with the disease and we fasted and prayed as much as we thought it wisdom as we had many duties to perform here. We fasted [for] twenty-four hours and once I fasted [for] forty hours, but to no avail for both my little girls died also. About a week after their death my fifteen year old daughter Melinda was [also] stricken down and we did all we could for her but she [soon] followed the others. … Three of my dear girls and one boy [have] been taken from us, and the end is not yet. My oldest girl nineteen years old is now prostrate [from] the disease, and we are fasting and praying in her behalf today. … I would ask for your faith and prayers in our behalf however. What have we done that the Lord has left us, and what can we do to gain his favor again[?]
“Yours in the gospel
“Warren M. Johnson.” (P. T. Riely, “Warren Marshall Johnson, Forgotten Saint,” Utah Historical Quarterly, Winter 1971, p. 19; spelling modernized.)
In a subsequent letter dated August 16, 1891, to his friend Warren Foote, Brother Johnson testified that he had found a spiritual peace:
“I can assure you, however, that it is the hardest trial of my life, but I set out for salvation and am determined that … through the help of Heavenly Father that I [would] hold fast to the iron rod no matter what troubles [came] upon me. I have not slackened in the performance of my duties, and hope and trust that I shall have the faith and prayers of my brethren, that I can live so as to receive the blessings you having authority … placed on my head.” (Warren Foote Autobiography, LDS Church Archives.)
Warren’s example of faith and dedication to the Lord stands as his legacy. He continued to serve as ferryman after the tragedy for another four years.
Right around the time of Warren’s release from the ferry he was involved in a wagon accident that paralyzed him from the waist down. He spent the rest of his life in a wheel chair.
Five years after the accident Warren Marshall Johnson and his family accepted a call to the Big Horn Basin. They bought 40 acres for $100.00. Permilia settled in Byron and Samantha in Coburn (Greybull).
Warren spent two years in the Basin. During the winter of 1902 he became sick while staying with Samantha. Permilia was called for. He died on March 10, 1902 in Samantha’s home.
After his death the entire family moved to Byron. Warren had been buried in Greybull but the survey lines for the oil fields went directly over his grave. The family moved his body to the Byron cemetery.
William W. Slaughter wrote of Warren Marshall Johnson in the April 1997 Ensign. His words offer a fitting description of Warren’s life and legacy.
“The blessings to Warren Johnson and others who are willing to offer their all are clear: “I would that ye should come unto Christ … and offer your whole souls as an offering unto him, and continue in fasting and prayer, and endure to the end; and as the Lord liveth ye will be saved” (Omni 1:26). … Everywhere, examples of sacrifice teach us that blessings follow those who give. Indeed, as we give to others we follow the spirit of sacrifice voiced in a hymn: “I shall divide my gifts from thee with ev’ry brother that I see who has the need of help from me.” In so doing, we learn humility, patience, and charity, thereby realizing the secret to a truly joyful, satisfying, and Christlike life.”