Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Philena Everett Johnson, 1841-1911
By Liz Almlie, Historic Preservation Specialist, South Dakota State Historic Preservation Office, Pierre.
Philena Everett Johnson was born in October 1841 in Ohio. In 1883, with husband Eli Johnson and one-year-old son Royal, she moved to Highmore, Dakota Territory, where Eli Johnson had bought the local newspaper, The Highmore Herald, at which both Eli and Philena worked as editors. In 1884, the Hyde County Woman's Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.) was organized at the Johnson house, and Johnson remained involved throughout her life, serving as a time as president of the Third District of the state W.C.T.U., a press correspondent, as superintendent of the legislation and franchise work in 1905, and as delegate to the national W.C.T.U. conventions multiple times. From 1890 until 1893, she also served on the South Dakota Woman's Board of Charities and Corrections. In the 1890s, she taught at federal Indian schools at Sisseton, Pierre, and Sante Fe (N.M.), as school superintendent at the latter.
Johnson began her involvement with the suffrage movement in Dakota Territory in February 1889 when she attended the territorial assembly in Bismarck with Helen Barker and Alice Pickler to appeal for a suffrage bill. After becoming a founding member of the South Dakota Equal Suffrage Association in October 1889, she campaigned with Susan B. Anthony during her tour of the new state in 1889-1890. After internal disagreements, the S.D.E.S.A. was reorganized in the summer 1890 and Johnson was elected president, serving at least through December 1891. After the state suffrage convention in August 1890, the Wessington Springs (SD) Herald (September 5, 1890) described her as "a very pleasant speaker, with clear voice and good articulation, with rare executive ability." Remaining active in the organization, she was elected first vice-president of the S.D.E.S.A. under Alice M.A. Pickler in 1901, serving through at least 1909, and then continuing advocacy for suffrage under the auspices of the W.C.T.U. into 1910 and 1911.
After contracting pneumonia during the legislative session in Pierre, Johnson passed away in January 1911. The Dakota Farmers' Leader in Canton, S.D. (January 27, 1911) printed that she was "a woman of marked ability in executive affairs, and one of the most aggressive and enthusiastic advocates of equal suffrage, in the northwest... As president of the State Equal Suffrage organization, in its state campaign, Mrs. Johnson did heroic work, and it was in furtherance of this cause that she was in Pierre a week ago, watching the movements of the legislature, that the illness which resulted in death on Monday morning was contracted."
A photograph of Johnson can be found in Perkins, History of Hyde County, pp.94, https://archive.org/stream/historyofhydecou00perk#page/94/search/johnson.
Black Hills Union (Rapid City, SD), May 2, 1890.
Dakota Farmers' Leader (Canton, SD), Jan. 27, 1911, p.2.
Egge, Sara. Woman Suffrage and Citizenship in the Midwest, 1870-1920. Ames: University of Iowa Press, 2018, pp.95.
"Employees in Indian Service," Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Vol. 2. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1897, pp.602.
Huron (SD) Daily Huronite, Jan. 16, 1911, p.1.
Husted, Ida Harper, Ed. History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 6, NAWSA, 1922, pp.585.
Jennings, Carol "Dakota Images: Royal C. Johnson." South Dakota History, vol. 38, no. 2 (2008), pp.188.
Kingsbury, George W. History of Dakota Territory. Vol. 4. Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1915, pp.87.
Perkins, John B. History of Hyde County, South Dakota: From Its Organization to the Present Time. 1908, pp.93-95, 253.
Florence Jeffries to Jane Breeden, October 28, 1907, RD06516, Box 1, Correspondence 1895 - 1898, 1907, Breeden Papers, Richardson Collection, I.D. Weeks Library, University of South Dakota, Vermillion. https://explore.digitalsd.org/digital/collection/richardson/id/2343/.
Nina Pettigrew to Jane Breeden, March 3, 1909, RD06529, Box 1, Correspondence 1909, Breeden Papers, Richardson Collection, I.D. Weeks Library, University of South Dakota, Vermillion. https://explore.digitalsd.org/digital/collection/richardson/id/1892/.
Saturday News (Watertown SD), July 15, 1910, p.6.
Sully County Watchman (Onida, SD), Jan. 4, 1890, p.8.
TopekaState Journal, July 13, 1896, p.3.
The Union Signal, 11/7/1889, Page 09 : South Dakota -- Equal Suffrage Work, Emma Smith DeVoe: 1880-1890 (Scrapbook D), Washington State Library, Manuscripts, MS 171, Box 10, http://primarilywashington.org/items/show/14295.
The Union Signal, December 19, 1889, and The Woman's Journal (Boston MA), January 18, 1890, "Page 66 : Entire Page," Emma Smith DeVoe: 1880-1890 (Scrapbook D), Washington State Library, Manuscripts, MS 171, Box 10, http://primarilywashington.org/items/show/14295.