Movies about Indian captives have thrilled American audiences since 1903, but none has been as influential as The Searchers (1956), John Ford’s adaptation of Alan Le May’s novel. Le May set his story of an uncle’s search for his kidnapped niece in the sparsely settled region northwest of Fort Worth during Reconstruction. The author studied 64 captivities from Texas, but his surviving research notes point to only one model for the searcher: Brit Johnson, an African-American teamster.
While a slave, Johnson worked under minimal supervision as a ranch foreman and raised his own livestock on the side. A contemporary described him as “tall, lithe, active and possessed of wonderful powers of endurance and physical strength.” His home life was shattered in 1864 when an Indian raiding party killed his son Jim and captured his wife, Mary, and two of their other children.
Determined to get his family back, Johnson traveled to military posts, Indian agencies and native villages across the southern Plains. He reportedly ransomed his family from the Comanches in 1865. Afterward, he continued to search for other stolen children. One of the few private individuals who succeeded in recovering captives, Johnson became a frontier celebrity in his day.
Johnson’s tale is hard to document, leading a few historians to dismiss it as legend. However, several eyewitness accounts lend it credence. Samuel A. Kingman, a lawyer who attended an Indian council in Kansas in 1865, recorded in his diary: “A black man from Texas comes in today & reports that he has redeemed his wife & two children from the Comanches, giving therefor 7 ponies.” Dot Babb, a Comanche captive in 1866-67, claimed to have met Johnson along the Cimarron River during one of the searcher’s trips, but recalled that Johnson did not have enough horses to trade for him at the time. Special Indian Commissioner Vincent Calya reported that Johnson spent a week at Fort Cobb in 1869 looking for a captive girl.
Kiowa raiders killed Johnson on a lonely Texas prairie in 1871. An obituary published in Texas newspapers lionized him as a “noble hearted man” and a “stranger to fear” who would “go alone on foot into Indian camps and either steal or ransom white children, whom the Indians had taken in captivity.” These “acts of chivalry,” all uncompensated, “seemed to be his delight.” According to the article, “He succeeded in getting three white children…not long before his death.” Researchers have not been able to confirm these later rescues, and Johnson’s last journeys may in fact have been unsuccessful. If the stories about his courageous feats were, in fact, exaggerated, the obituary reveals that the mythmaking had already begun during his lifetime.
Author Alan Le May remained so fascinated by Brit Johnson’s adventures that he wrote a treatment for a television drama about the real-life searcher in the early 1960s. It was never produced, and this remarkable but elusive American hero has faded into obscurity.
Originally published in the June 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.