Don’t you love hearing about strong, successful women who shaped the West? Let me tell you about one who became called The Cattle Queen of Texas and who was a teacher, author, and business woman. Her name was Elizabeth “Lizzie” Johnson Williams.
Lizzie Johnson was born in Jefferson City, Missouri on May 9, 1840 to Catherine (Hyde) and Thomas Jefferson Johnson, who were both educators. In 1846, the family moved to Huntsville, Texas. In 1852, her father founded the Johnson Institute on Bear Creek in Hays County about sixteen miles southwest of Austin. Students called Thomas "Old Bristle Top" because of his unruly hair and called his wife "Aunt Caty". All six of the Johnson children attended the Institute, and then Lizzie also attended Chappell Hill Female Institute in Washington County, Texas. When she graduated, she joined the staff of the Johnson Institute, teaching basic subjects and bookkeeping.
|Elizabeth "Lizzie" Johnson|
In 1863, Lizzie left her family’s Institute and taught in various Texas schools before she ended up in Lockhart. In that town, she started a business bookkeeping for cattlemen, thereby learning much about the cattle business. When she moved on to Austin to establish her own primary school, she continued keeping books for ranchers.
Lizzie was intelligent with a vivid imagination and began to dabble in writing stories. No one would buy fiction written by a woman, so she wrote anonymously for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Magazine. According to Carmen Goldthwaite, Lizzie’s stories reportedly included “The Sister’s Secret”, “The Haunted House Among The Mountains”, and “Lady Inez: or, The Passion Flower, an American Romance”. Since she wrote anonymously, no one knows how many or which other stories she had published.
Working three jobs, she saved $2500, which she invested in the Evans, Snyder, and Bewell Cattle Company of Chicago. Three years later, she sold her interest for an astounding $20,000. Lizzie registered her CY brand in Travis County and began buying cattle and land. In 1873, the glut of beef and the economic downturn resulted in many ranchers contracting with a stock driver to take the cattle north for sale. At first, Lizzie did also.
In 1879, she met and married a retired Baptist minister, Hezekiah “Hez” Williams. He was a tall, charming widower with several children and he drank and gambled. Here’s another first for the time. Before Lizzie married him on June 8, 1879 in a Presbyterian ceremony, she had him sign what is believed to be Texas’ first prenuptial agreement. She retained rights to all her property brought into the marriage. (When I used this in my now permafree book BRAZOS BRIDE, now with an audio version available, many people thought that anachronistic, but that book takes place in this era.) At that time in Texas, when a woman married, all her property came under control of her husband, who could sell it and keep the money without benefit to her.
Lizzie was a spiritual woman who read scriptures daily. Hez drank, but not in her presence. Reportedly, they had a great deal of respect for one another. She was far better in business and kept careful tally of their herds, insuring that she received the money for her cattle and he for his. On occasion, she loaned him money, but insisted he repay her. Eventually, he yielded his operation to her.
The two were very competitive. One ranch hand who worked for them recounted the story of competing instructions. Lizzie would tell him to brand all Hez’s calves with her brand and Hez told him to brand all of Lizzie’s calves with his brand. The cowboy was kept busy following these instructions.
Lizzie’s life revolved around cattle, real estate, and investments. She was good at all three. Soon she and Hez were living the good life. In addition to their ranch at Driftwood, they owned a home in Austin.
Lizzie was one of the first women to go on a cattle drive. The hardy Texas cattle were immune to the ticks that caused serious illness in Hereford cattle raised further north. When tick fever made Texas cattle unwelcome in Oklahoma and Kansas in the 1880s, Lizzie took her cattle and Hez's up the Chisholm Trail.
|Lizzie Johnson Williams|
Eventually, she and Hez followed their herd up the Chisolm trail in a buggy. Other ranchers trusted Lizzie to keep careful tally of the “community herd” driven north.
When driving north became impossible due to barbed wire, quarantines, and arrival of the railroad about 1890, she began shipping beef from Indianola and Galveston to Cuba. She and Hez traveled to Cuba, where he was kidnapped. She paid the $50,000 ransom. Those who knew them joked that Hez kidnapped himself to get a little spending money of his own.
With their increased wealth, the couple was able to travel, always staying in the finest hotels. Lizzie became interested in silks and satins, jewelry, and accessories. Reportedly, on one trip to Manhattan, Lizzie spent $10,000 on jewelry.
Hez’s health declined after their trip to Cuba so they traveled to Hot Springs, Arkansas for him to take the waters and also to the drier climate of El Paso. He died in El Paso in 1914. She purchased a fancy casket for $600 and returned him to Austin for burial. Allegedly, she scribbled across the undertaker’s bill, “I loved the old buzzard this much.”
Lizzie, now in her seventies, continued to manage her businesses. Without her gregarious and charming husband, she became a recluse who was known as miserly. About six months before her death, a niece took Lizzie into her home when the niece determined Lizzie had dementia.
Elizabeth Johnson Williams died on January 5, 1924 without a will and was buried in Austin’s Oakwood Cemetery beside Hezekiah. Because she had appeared to Austinites as impoverished, they were surprised to learn she had amassed a fortune worth a quarter of a million dollars. Lizzie had a strict policy of no loans to family or friends and had told no one where all her funds were. She was so eccentric, she had hidden money and jewels in all sorts of places in her home—in wallboards, floors, cabinets, basement, and crevices.
Though unconventional, this amazing woman achieved major accomplishments. She was one of the first women to drive her cattle up the Chisholm Trail, which resulted in her nickname as The Cattle Queen of Texas; she had the first prenuptial agreement in Texas; and she was a pioneer in breaking the barrier into what had always been a man’s world: cattle trading. Is it any wonder she was the Cowgirl Hall of Fame honoree in 2013?
Caroline Clemmons writes historical and contemporary western romance. Her latest is THE RANCHER AND THE SHEPHERDESS, a Montana Sky Kindle World novel being released from Amazon on July 27, 2016. Check her Amazon Author Page here for all her books. For a free novella, subscribe to her newsletter.
TEXAS RANCH WOMEN: Three Centuries of Mettle and Moxie, by Carmen Goldthwaite, History Press, 2014