Sandra Johnson Witt

John Victor Johnson — Odyssey from Finland to Florida


Sandra Johnson Witt

Up The Parish of Sideby, Finland

Up The Åland Mercantile Marine

Up Life as an American Immigrant

Up Marriage and Family Life

Up Turbulent Economic Times in Florida

Up References

Up About the author


Up The voyages of Johan Viktor Johansson Bäckman May 1899 - Jan 1905



























































































































































































Other articles by Sandra Johnson Witt:

Anders Petter Bengtsson Wahlström Bäckman: Defender of Närpes in 1808

I. C. Arthur Appelö and Carlton Appelo:
The contributions of two Swedish-Finns to Deep River, Washington and America




Up The Parish of Sideby, Finland

My grandfather John Victor Johnson ("Victor") was born Johan Vicktor Johansson Bäckman on April 30, 1881 in the parish of Sideby on the western coast of Finland in Ostrobothnia between Kristinestad and Björneborg (Pori) in the province of Vasa. He was a Finland Swede (an ethnic Swede or finlandssvensk), who attended a Swedish school and church and spoke Swedish at home.

Five of the seven children in his family who lived to adulthood emigrated to America. His parents, Johan Gustafsson Bäckman and Wendla Sofia Abrahamsdotter Högback (ancestors chart ), had nine children:

    • Hilma Sofia b. 1870 married Viktor August Eriksson Pellfolk
    • Axel Adrian b. 1871 to USA 18 Jul 1890
    • Hilda Cecilia b. 1874 to Föglö, Åland Isles, Finland (later to USA)
    • Johan Viktor b. 1876, d. 1879
    • Frans Oskar b. 1878 to USA Florida, died in Florida 1904
    • Johan Viktor b. 1881 Signed on a ship in 1899, to America 1900
    • Josef Henrik b. 1883, d. 1886
    • Mathilda Fransiska b. 1884, to USA 1903 married A. Finney, d. 1967
    • Josef Arnold b. 1887 married Aino Juliana Fredriksdotter Sjöblom.

At the time of my grandfather’s birth, the Finnish people had faced extreme political and economic hardship for many years. A combination of Russian rule, forced military conscription, and harsh economic conditions had forced many Finnish people to emigrate. Parishes in Ostrobothnia experienced massive unemployment. As a young man, he realized that the opportunities in Finland for advanced schooling were very limited. Enlisting with the mercantile marine was possibly the only way he could further his education. Another possible reason for leaving Sideby was the death of his mother in 1896, when he was 15 years old.

These circumstances contributed to my grandfather’s decision to enlist. He might not have intended to emigrate at the time of his enlistment, but–whatever his initial intention–he eventually decided to leave his native country in order to take advantage of the opportunities that life in America might provide.

Up The Åland Mercantile Marine

According to his Mercantile Marine Fräjdebok, or inscription document, my grandfather enrolled at the Åland Mercantile Marine office at Wårdö (Vårdö in the Åland Islands) at the age of 18 on December 6, 1899. The Åland Mercantile Marine sailed under the Russian Flag because Finland was under Russian rule at that time. His Fräjdebok lists information about his service, the ports of call, and the names of the large sailing ships (barques or square-riggers) on which he served as the ship’s carpenter, second mate, and constable. His performance evaluations indicated that he was a capable young man. Mr. M. Jansson, the ship’s owner (according to the Åland Maritime Museum) made the following comment about his job performance: "Tjenstgjort sin befatting till min fullkomliga Berömlighet," which means approximately: "Served his duty to my utterly great distinction."

His ship sailed to South Africa during the Boer War. A journal that my grandfather kept indicated that he was in Cape Town on June 2, 1901, where he said that the crewmembers were endangered by British troops. The Royal Navy was active in the area during the "Total War" period of the Boer War in 1901, when the British blockaded the delivery of food and supplies to the Boers.

The Pensacola Harbor in 1885
Pensacola, Fla. county seat of Escambia County 1885. H. Wellge, del. Beck & Pauli, litho.

His Fräjdebok indicates that his ship, the Asia, was in port in Pensacola, Florida in 1903 and bears the stamp of the Imperial Russian Vice Consul, dated December 14, 1903. Was it possible that he left his ship in Pensacola to visit his brothers Axel Adrian and Frans Oskar, who had already emigrated to the USA and might have been living at that time in Jacksonville, Florida? The cause of Frans Oskar’s death in Florida at the age of 25 years on July 4, 1904 is not known.

Sailing conditions could be treacherous, particularly near the Cape of Good Hope, where he feared that the ship might be lost. The danger that seamen faced was evidenced by the frequent loss of ships. The ship on which he served from 1900 until 1905–as second mate and constable–was the barque Asia. The Asia left Pensacola for the Clyde with a load of lumber on December 9, 1915 and was lost at sea.


Up Life as an American Immigrant

According to a 1920 Florida census, my grandfather immigrated to the USA in 1903 and was naturalized in 1907, presumably in South Carolina.

He told my father that crewmembers in the Åland Mercantile Marine enlisted for six-year terms of service. My father believes that he immigrated at Ship Island (near Biloxi, Mississippi) around 1905, at the end of his first term of service. Ship records indicate that he was a crewmember on the Asia until 1905 (discharge roll of the barque Asia).

He paid for his younger sister Mathilda’s fare from Finland to the USA in 1903. Because his funds were limited, he could only afford to purchase a ticket in steerage or third class, which was crowded and uncomfortable. Like many other Scandinavian immigrants, Mathilda settled in Minnesota, where she married an American. She was widowed at the age of 26.

It was a common practice for American immigrants to Anglicize their names. Like many others before him, my grandfather changed his name to a more American sounding name: "John Victor Johnson." Unlike most other Scandinavian immigrants who settled in the northern states, however, he decided to settle in Florida, perhaps because his brothers Axel Adrian and Frans Oskar had already settled there. He learned to speak English easily, but always retained a Swedish accent.

Up Marriage and Family Life

He married Eva Pearl Adams, who was from the Anthony, Florida area. They relocated to South Carolina, where he held various jobs, including presenting a "Magic Lantern" show. Their daughters Edna and Martha were born there. They returned to Florida, where he was hired as the foreman of the Tidewater Cypress Company in Lukens, near Cedar Key, a coastal community on the Gulf of Mexico. Their son John Victor ("Vic") was born there. After Vic’s birth, Eva died from a massive infection, possibly uremic poisoning. He was now a 34-year-old man with three young children to raise.

Alone with three children and a demanding job, my grandfather asked Mathilda and her daughters, Ellen and Hildur, who lived in Brainerd, Minnesota, to move to Florida to live with him and his children. In an attempt to convince them to move, he shared his view of the American South in a letter to Mathilda in 1915:

Dear Sister,

Your letter to hand and I was glad to hear from you. I didn’t think you would back out in coming here. I wanted you to come and I know you and the folks that are on my place would get along. So far as the folks here in the south consurn they are alright once in a while you find a fool but you find them anywhere. I take the south in Minn (Minnesota) ten to one. If I was a laborer I would not like it here…If you stay a while you will never go back to Minn again.

They are having a good time at Anthony all the time…better than I am having here at Lukens…I think that if you ever came to Fla you get well. I must close with Love to you and Ellen and Hildur. I am

As ever Your Brother



Mathilda and her daughters moved to Florida in 1915, but returned to Minnesota after only nine months. He met my grandmother Katie Frances DuBose, a schoolteacher, during one of her frequent visits to her sister in Cedar Key. They were married on April 2, 1916 at her father’s farm in Worthington Springs.

Throughout the years, my grandfather attempted to stay in contact with his family members. He wrote the following letter (copy of original) to Mathilda (photo) in 1917:

Glad to hear from you and glad you are all well. We are all well the children I mean. Edna and Martha are going to school and Victor he is quite a boy. We have one more now Elmer. He is 10 months…I am sending you the picture of the children. I think they are alright.

Say have you heard from Papa lately? Let me know if you have or not and how he is getting along. How have you been getting along and how is sister Hilda? Send me her address. I guess you see a lot of soldier boys up there. I hardly have time to go anywhere and see anything.

Write me all the news. As ever your Brother








This photograph, taken in 1917, shows my grandfather's four children (clockwise from left): Martha Windla, age 7; Edna Victorine, age 9; John Victor ("Vic"), Jr., age 4; and Elmer Hunter, infant.




My grandparents had two children, Elmer (my father) and Alice. Katie helped him raise the children from his first marriage. They thought of her as their mother and always called her, "Mama."





Elmer and Alice 1923:

Inscription: "Elmer Hunter Johnson Age 5 yrs. Alice Lucille Johnson Age 1 yr." Sumner, Florida




I located his sister Mathilda and her daughters in Minnesota in the 1960s. I have not been able to locate any descendants of his other siblings who immigrated to the USA: Axel Adrian, Hilda Cecilia, and Frans Oskar. Mathilda’s daughter, Hildur Finney, wrote me the following in 1962:

I did know Martha, Edna and Victor when we lived with Uncle Victor at Anthony and Cedar Key many years ago. We were there about nine months. Mother didn’t care for Florida then so we came back to Minnesota…You probably know that your grandfather was born in Finland but in a Swedish community where schools, language and customs were all Swedish. His youngest brother is dead but his children still live there. I wrote during World War II and sent them some things but have not heard from them since. You do have relatives in Michigan too — cousins of your Dad.

The family moved to Bridgend in central Florida in 1917 when the Tidewater Cypress Company relocated there:

In 1916-1918, the Tidewater Cypress Co. of Lukens, Florida (near Cedar Key), a timber company, formed a new company, the Osceola Cypress Co. and moved into the strategic St. Johns area. They employed about 200 people and built a modern town in this isolated area. It was complete with houses, a doctor’s office, commissary, school, boarding house (all had electricity until 10:00 p.m.), running water, bathrooms, a sewer system, and sidewalks made of timber, which floated when heavy rains came. It was the only town in Seminole County that provided every resident with these municipal services. They called the town Osceola, after the Seminole Chief Osceola who had once lived in the area.

According to the 1920 census, three men boarded with them, presumably to help with expenses. The family moved to Sumner in 1920, where Victor was the foreman of the Cummer Lumber Company═s sawmill. They lived there during the Rosewood race riot in January 1923. During the riot, Victor and Katie helped shelter the black women and children in a church building to protect them from a white mob that had traveled to the area from another town. The family also helped a black household worker escape by smuggling her onto a train in a large hotel laundry basket (The Rosewood massacre report).

They moved to Sanford in 1923, where the children graduated from Seminole High School.

Up Turbulent Economic Times in Florida

Florida experienced dramatic changes during the early 1900s. Devastating freezes in northern Florida had forced citrus farmers to relocate to central and southern parts of the state. Swamps in southern Florida were drained to make land available for farms and resorts. Reports of large profits that could be made in real estate attracted land speculators. In the 1920s, Florida was the focus of one of the greatest economic and social phenomena in American history as hundreds of thousands of people of all socioeconomic strata poured into the state.

In an attempt to participate in the so-called American Dream, my grandfather was caught up in the hope for possible profits that real estate speculation might provide. He purchased several parcels of land. Unfortunately, an inevitable Land Bust followed the largely speculative Florida Land Boom in 1925. Land prices had become so high that new investors failed to arrive and old investors began to sell their land. Many banks were forced to close. He lost all of the land that he had bought when the First National Bank of Sanford closed. The Land Bust was followed by two destructive hurricanes in 1926 and 1928 that killed hundreds of people in the state. The Great Depression had a limited impact because many Floridians were already in a weak financial state. Many Floridians wondered if Florida would ever again experience such wonderful and confident times as the years preceding the Florida Land Boom.

Although they had lost a large amount of money in land speculation, they continued to work hard to sustain a living for themselves and their children. My grandfather became a partner in a meat market. They also had a farm with an artesian well where they grew peppers, escarole, carrots, turnips, and other crops. His children helped him pick, wash, and bunch turnips early in the morning and deliver them to the grocery store for the fresh produce section.

My grandfather enjoyed farming, but financial success continued to elude him. One year it appeared that the crops would finally be plentiful and the prices would be good. Unfortunately, these crops were devastated by Mediterranean fruit flies. He had made a series of poor financial decisions in his life that would prevent him from ever becoming a wealthy man. In addition to his disappointing venture in land speculation, he had lost a large farm in Anthony and almost lost his house in Sanford because he refused to pay property taxes.

Many Swedish immigrants lived nearby. They had been sponsored by Henry Sanford, a wealthy attorney and landowner, to work in his experimental citrus groves in exchange for their travel expenses. Jim Robison, a writer for the Orlando Sentinel, has written a series of articles about these immigrants.

The first Swedish immigrants - carpenters, masons, painters, cabinet makers, blacksmiths and horticulturists dissatisfied with conditions in their homeland and eager to use their skills to build new lives - had established their colony late in the spring of 1871. Henry S. Sanford, a wealthy Connecticut lawyer and statesman who owned 12,535 acres along Lake Monroe, paid to bring about 150 Swedes to Florida in return for their labor at his experimental groves, where he imported 140 types of citrus and exotic fruits. Others paid their own passage and bought land when they arrived.

The Swedish immigrants frequently invited him and his family to join them for social activities, including get-togethers where they spoke Swedish; my grandfather told them that he was now an American and preferred to speak English. They tried to convince him to join a Swedish church. Again, he successfully resisted their invitations and continued his affiliation with the Baptist Church in Sanford, where he enjoyed church activities and was a deacon.

He was a highly skilled carpenter who crafted beautiful furniture for his family and others. He also built several houses in his later years.

My grandfather kept valuable mementoes from his travels, including rare silver leaves from the top of Cable Mountain near Cape Town, and documents in a roll top desk that he made for himself in a rental house in Sanford. All of these items were lost when a fire destroyed the desk and all of its contents.

Edna and Martha became nurses. Edna contracted tuberculosis from a patient. After a one-year recuperation period, she returned to work but was stricken with "galloping tuberculosis" and died in 1933. This had to be an extremely difficult time for him. Not only had he lost his first wife at an early age; now he had lost his oldest daughter, a shy young woman who was devoted to her family.

Edna — graduation from nursing school

Martha trained to be a nurse in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she met and married John Carroll DeWitt, a graduate of the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, in 1935. John died in 2002 and was buried at sea in a Navy ceremony.

The sea must run in the veins of our family. My grandfather was a sailor, his daughter married a Navy officer, and his son Elmer was a US Navy officer during World War II and the Korean War.


Elmer Johnson, U.S. Navy

Elmer served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and the Korean War, when he was called to serve as a Navy Communications Officer in Sasebo, Japan in 1950. He was promoted from Lieutenant J.G. to Lieutenant in Japan.

Elmer Johnson and John DeWitt

This photograph (Elmer Hunter Johnson and John DeWitt, his sister Martha's husband) was taken aboard the White Plains (a U.S. Navy tanker on which Elmer served as the signalman) off Savo Island, near Samoa, in 1942 after the Battle of Savo Island. John was a lieutenant who was serving as the Supply Officer on the U.S.S. Minneapolis, a heavy cruiser. Approximately 90 feet of the Minneapolis bow had been shot off by a Japanese torpedo near Savo Island. The photograph was taken after John came to Elmer Johnson's ship on a "whaleboat" to visit with him.


My grandfather felt intensely about the events of World War II and frequently asserted how negatively he–as a Finn–felt about Russia.

My grandparents moved to Jacksonville in the 1940s. My grandfather worked for Ogden Construction Company and built and owned several houses there.

My grandfather kept a journal while serving with the Åland Island Mercantile Marine. His journal entries documented some of the thoughts, ideas, and possibly motivations of a young man between18 and 22 years of age. They addressed a wide variety of topics, including his desire to travel to distant lands, friendship, and romance. Although he apparently enjoyed the excitement of life at sea and travel to many different parts of the world, there was no indication that he wanted to permanently leave his native country.

In fact, in the poem he titled "Sjömans sång" ("Seaman's Song") - written while his barque Viktor was anchored in the Copenhagen harbor on November 9, 1900 - he expressed his fondness for Finland, its countryside, and the people who lived there.

Sjömans sång- Seaman's Song

My grandfather enlisted with the mercantile marine and left Finland during a time of mass emigration. Perhaps he only wanted to further his education. Perhaps economic conditions or the possibility of forced conscription influenced his decision. The death of his mother when he was 15 years old could have been a factor in his decision to leave. Or maybe a powerful desire for adventure motivated him to explore the world. Although he did not enjoy the financial success that he might have hoped for in America, he led an interesting and productive life. He witnessed many changes in the world during his life and experienced both happiness and tragedy.

Unfortunately, his life ended tragically. He was murdered during an apparent burglary at his home on November 3, 1960. A newspaper article suggested that an open Bible might provide a clue to his death:

An open Bible lent a twist of irony Monday to the bludgeon slaying of a 79-year-old man found beaten to death at his home Sunday night.

Police said an open Bible, with the victim’s glasses neatly folded on top of it, was found beside the body of John Victor Johnson. He was a widower who made a practice of lending money to others.

The Bible was opened to the 15th and 16th chapters of Jeremiah. One verse, in which Jeremiah speaks to the Lord, read: "I have not lent, nor have I borrowed, yet all of them curse me."

The case was never solved.


Bible may be clue to slaying. (1960, Nov 15). Jacksonville Times Union, p. 2-c.

Early Days of Seminole County: Where Central Florida History Began. (2002). Sanford, FL: Seminole County Historical Commission.

Nybond, Gunnar. (1998). Skaftung by i Kristinestad. Släkterna Sundnäs och Teirfolk. ISBN 952-90-9583-X, Vasa.

Robison, Jim. (1989, September 7). Swedish community takes reins in providing school transportation. Orlando Sentinel (Seminole Sentinel Section), p. 8.

The author: Sandra Johnson Witt is a faculty member at the University of Florida in Gainesville who holds a master´s degree in German and a Ph.D. in Psychology. She completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Florida and her graduate degrees at the University of Florida and Emory University in Atlanta.

She has been interested in researching her family roots for many years. Like many Americans, her roots include a variety of nationalities. She has researched her ancestors who arrived in America centuries ago (Huguenots from France and Quakers from England in the 1600s) and those who arrived relatively recently (immigrants from Germany in the 1800s and Finland in the early 20th century). She has been fortunate indeed to be able to locate relatives in Germany and Finland who have assisted her with her research efforts.

editor Staffan Storteir

Ostrobothnian odysseys