William P. Johnson (1820–1872)
Elizabeth Johnson Waterford (1834–1917)
Jackson “Jack” Bonter (1833–1915)
As with many of the stories of Oregon’s early black pioneers, there is a fair amount of overlap with the individuals involved in these stories. With a small black population, it is easy to believe that it was a tight knit community. This was the case with the Bonter family and William and Elizabeth Johnson.
We do not know much about William Johnson’s or Jack Bonter’s early life except that they were born in slave states. William came from North Carolina and Jack from Kentucky. We don't have definitive answers as to whether they came to Oregon as slaves or freemen or when William arrived in Oregon, but he and Elizabeth are listed on the 1860 U.S. Census in Marion County. He is listed as a painter with a real estate value of $1000 and personal value of $310.
Jackson “Jack” Bonter, also a painter by trade, arrived in Oregon around 1855. In 1865, Jack married Mary Parks. William Johnson is listed as one of the witnesses at their wedding. Jack and Mary had three children named William, George, and Rosetta, before Mary’s death in 1870.
The Johnsons petitioned the Marion County Commissioners to adopt Rosetta and she is listed in the 1870 census as living with the Johnsons. It's possible Jack wanted the Johnsons to legally adopt her, as Jack also filed an affidavit requesting that the Johnsons adopt Rosetta. The request was granted in January of 1872. Rosetta was listed as 1 year, 11 months. The Johnsons were a prosperous couple. According to William’s probate from after his death on July 10, 1872, he had about $2,750 in real estate from the four lots of land he owned in Salem and about $300 in personal property.
After the passing of William, Elizabeth remarried sometime between 1872 and 1880, when we find her again in the census. She is listed as married to William Waterford and residing in Portland along with Rosetta and two others: Eldridge Waterford, 23, and Rufus Waterford, 19, who are listed as being born in Canada. According to William Waterford’s 1893 probate, they also owned property in East Portland. Elizabeth died on April 9, 1917.
Jack never remarried and died in 1915. Of the Bonter children, it appears George is the only one to survive well into adulthood as we see a George Bonter listed in the 1920 Multnomah County census. He is listed as a black 48 year old repairman at a garage and a renter in Portland. He is married to Adeline Bonter also listed as 48 years old.
William Botner died in 1877 and there are conflicting sources as to Rosetta’s age and date of death. One source lists her birth in 1879 and death in 1889. This seems implausible, as her mother died in 1870.
Another lists her birth in 1870 and death in 1880. 1880 is the date on her tombstone. The inscription reads “Rosetta Bonter adopted dau. of W.P. & E. Johnson Died Dec. 28, 1880 aged 10 yrs, 11mos. 20 ds.” Mathematically, this would make her birth in February 1870.