NPG 3893; Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury after John Greenhill

Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, painting in the National Portrait Gallery in London

From the misty legends of the 17th century come many tales about the ancestors of Pleasant Johnson. His surname is allegedly handed down from the lords of Caskieben in northern Scotland near present-day Inverurie, though his immigrant ancestor was far removed from lordship being the son of a litster (or dyer) in Aberdeen. One grandmother was from a family of Moorman’s – English Quakers who set sail from Barbados in 1670 with the party that founded Charleston, South Carolina but themselves continued up the coast to the established colony of Virginia. His other grandmother was descended from a Huguenot goldsmith who immigrated from Geneva, Switzerland. Much asserted but difficult to prove is descent from an illegitimate daughter of Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury and one of the eight Lord Proprietors of the land that eventually became North and South Carolina.

The Quaker part, at least, is known to be true.


South River Meeting House, completed in 1798; roof from an early 20th-century renovation. 2008 photo from Wikipedia. The National Register of Historic Places nomination has much detail about the structure its history.

Pleasant was born near Lynchburg, Virginia in 1795. His parents were part of the South River Meeting, the members of which were constructing a new stone meeting house that still stands today. Their family along with the Moormans, Clarks, and the Lynch’s for whom Lynchburg is named had been key members of the Quaker community in Virginia both at South River and at earlier meetings at Cedar Creek and Camp Creek in Hanover and Louisa Counties. However, for Pleasant’s father Christopher, that relationship was about to change. In 1801, the South River Meeting disowned Christopher, a not uncommon occurrence among Quakers from this period who as a group were not particularly forgiving of the transgressions of their members.

Christopher and his family left Lynchburg and kept going. By the birth of Pleasant’s younger brother Christopher in 1804 the family was in Knox County, eastern Tennessee where Pleasant would finish his childhood, punctuated by the death of his father in 1812. At the age of 19, he responded to a call for volunteers for the Tennessee militia, and enlisted in Major John Chiles’ “East Tennessee Mounted Gunmen” for the waning months of the War of 1812. A historian for the Tennessee State Library and Archives describes the desultory-sounding mop-up and reserve operation of these soldiers as follows:

This battalion, along with a battalion under the command of Major William Russell, was part of an expedition led by Major Uriah Blue (39th U.S. Infantry) into West Florida in December 1814/January 1815. Their mission was to roam the Escambia River in search of refugee Creek warriors who escaped Jackson’s capture of Pensacola (7 November 1814). The mission was largely unsuccessful, as the troops suffered from lack of supplies. Their rendezvous point was Fort Montgomery and at the end of the war they were in the vicinity of Baton Rouge, where they were waiting to go to New Orleans to participate in the campaign there. The war concluded before they were called out. Click here for source website.

Pleasant married Elenor Thompson, the daughter of a Revolutionary War veteran who had relocated from Rutherford County, NC, to Anderson County, TN, sometime after the war. In family records Elenor is described as “3/4 Choctaw Indian,” but her father William Thompson’s pension application records are fairly clear that she is the daughter of him and his wife Mary Tabor, both apparently European-Americans from North Carolina, far from any Choctaws. I welcome any evidence to the contrary, and will happily update this conclusion as needed.

Pleasant and Eleanor followed the flow of settlers heading west to the newly available lands in the last Chickasaw cession and settled in Gibson County, Tennessee before 1830, then relocated to the adjacent Madison County sometime before 1840 where their daughter Sedgious Johnson married John Nelson‘s son James in 1842. This was not the only marriage between the two families, as Pleasant’s brother – the younger Christopher – married James’ eldest sister Mary Ann Nelson.

Sadly, Sedgious died at the young age of 36 in 1859. Eleanor had died 5 years earlier, and in 1858 Pleasant had followed one of his sons west across the Mississippi River to settle in Dunklin County, Missouri where he died in 1861. Pleasant spent virtually his entire life in Tennessee, though both his birth place and grave site are elsewhere.

Note: In the historic records, Pleasant is almost always identified as Pleasant M. Johnson, the “M” likely being for his Moorman grandmother. That is “Moorman” a surname likely derived from the “moors” of Britain, not a member of the “Morman” religious denomination which did not yet exist when he was born.

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