In the summer of 1856—soon after his late 1855 return to the United States from Europe—Johnson traveled West to Superior, Wisconsin, to visit his brother Reuben Johnson, his sister Sarah Osgood Johnson, and her husband William Henry Newton. Superior was a growing town, specifically growing on land that had been Ojibwe territory; as many speculators were doing at that time, Johnson made some real estate investments. While in Superior he painted portraits of family members and other residents. In 1857 he turned down a commission from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to draw a portrait of Longfellow’s daughters in favor of a second trip to Superior and the Lake Superior region, including part of what was then Minnesota Territory. As he wrote to Longfellow on June 3, 1857,
One might reasonably wonder what attraction that wild region can have for an artist, in comparison with such advantages as would result to me from your kind & flattering offer, the patronage of the most celebrated in the most refined of places. Perhaps I cannot entirely justify it, but in a visit to that country last season I found so much of the picturesque, & of a character so much to my taste & in my line, that I then determined to employ this summer or a portion of it in making sketches of Frontier life, a national feature of our present condition & a field for art that is full of interest, & freshness & pleasing nature, & yet that has been but little treated [Quoted Carbone 1999a, p. 36].
That summer Johnson set out with local guide Stephen Bunga to see and depict Ojibwe encampments and people. He created a distinct body of work including eighteen paintings and twenty-five drawings of encampments, individuals, and groups that are an important record of Ojibwe life at that time, as well as Johnson’s interests and developing style. —AM