Lizzie Johnson Williams — the Cattle Queen of Texas

Photograph of Lizzie Johnson Williams. Image via TSHA Handbook of Texas, courtesy of http://www.cowgirl.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/WilliamsE-Lizzie-Johnson.jpg.

In the nineteenth century, opportunities for women in business, especially the critical cattle and ranching industries of Texas, were scarce. While many women fulfilled traditional roles dictated by this societal convention, others went against the grain and ventured into territory dominated by men. Lizzie Johnson Williams, the “Cattle Queen of Texas,” was one such woman who left her mark, and literally her brand, on Texas history.

Born in 1840 to parents who were educators, Elizabeth Johnson, or “Lizzie” came to Texas with her family when she was around four years old. They settled on Bear Creek in Hays County where her father established his own school, the Johnson Institute. Lizzie became a teacher at her father’s school after earning her degree from Chappell Hill Female College in Washington County. She went on to teach at various other schools in Lockhart, Manor, and the Pleasant Hill area of present-day South Austin. By 1873, Lizzie had opened her own school in a two-story house she purchased in Austin, located on East 2nd Street between Medina and Waller Streets, with living quarters upstairs and classrooms on the first floor.[1]

Lizzie Johnson earned her degree at Chappell Hill Female College before returning to her father’s school to teach. Tri-Weekly Telegraph (Houston, Tex.), Vol. 28, No. 118, Ed. 1 Wednesday, December 17, 1862.

Johnson continued teaching, but as a means of supplementing her income, she contributed stories to Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, a popular national magazine. She also worked for several local cattle barons, keeping books and learning all about the cattle business. She saw firsthand the money to be made, so she began investing in both land and cattle. On June 1, 1871 she registered her own cattle brand, and on January 21, 1878 she received a patent for a preemption grant of 160 acres located in Hays County.[2]

Lizzie Johnson opened her school on E. 2nd Street between Medina and Waller, shown here in relation to the Capitol and State Cemetery. [Detail] City of Austin, Texas Use District Map, Austin: Austin Chamber of Commerce, 1939. Map #452. Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

What followed was remarkable for a woman of her time — Lizzie Johnson accompanied the men who drove her cattle to market. While she was not the only woman to operate a ranch in Texas, she is believed to be the first woman to drive cattle up the Chisholm Trail under her own cattle brand, thereby earning the title of “Texas Cattle Queen.”[3] She repeated this journey several times, which was no small feat considering that it would have taken at least two months to get her herd of longhorns up the trail.

In the late 1870s Johnson met Hezekiah G. Williams, and the two were married on June 8, 1879. Determined to keep her business — and money — separate from her husband’s, the pair signed a prenuptial agreement that provided Johnson sole ownership over property she purchased prior to their marriage, as well as any income she earned during their marriage. Together they would drive their two herds up the Chisholm Trail, all the time keeping her cattle separate from his — and even “stealing” some of her husband’s unbranded cattle and adding them to her own herd.[4]

Proof of Settlement for Elizabeth Johnson, 29 September 1877, TRA P-971, Texas Land Grant Records, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

In addition to her prowess in the cattle industry, Johnson had a talent for real estate speculation. She owned property in several counties, including several small ranches. She also made numerous valuable investments in Austin — her first purchase was the Brueggerhoff Building, once temporary home to the Supreme Court of Texas, which was valued at $50,000 at the time of her death.[5]

Lizzie’s business acumen was as sharp as Hezekiah’s was dull, and she frequently bailed him out of financial trouble; therefore in 1896 she bought out all of his holdings in stock, cattle and land for $20,000. Hezekiah’s troubles were not limited to the United States — while negotiating a cattle deal in Cuba, where the couple owned land, Hezekiah was taken hostage. Lizzie paid $50,000 in ransom money to his captors, once again coming to the rescue of her husband.[6]

The Brueggerhoff Building, interim home of the Texas Supreme Court in Austin. Hubert Jones, Brueggerhoff building, 919 Congress Ave. J009 AHC Supreme Court PICA J009, Jones Glass Plate Collection, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.

Hezekiah died in 1914, and after that Lizzie was never the same. Allegedly, upon the $600 bill for Hezekiah’s coffin, Lizzie wrote “I loved this old buzzard this much.”[7] She lived out the rest of her days in a small apartment that was part of a large building she owned on Austin’s Congress Avenue. It was said that she lived an eccentric, miserly life, largely keeping to herself. She died on October 9, 1924 and is buried in Austin’s Oakwood Cemetery.

Detail showing Elizabeth Johnson’s land grant, Eltea Armstrong, Map of Hays County, Austin: Texas General Land Office, 1946, Map #1853, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

While sorting through her personal belongings, Lizzie’s heirs found a large collection of valuable diamonds, jewelry, cash, and silk gowns stashed away in various locations in her properties. The citizens of Austin were surprised to find out that when she died, her wealth in cash, property, and land holdings totaled nearly $250,000.

Lizzie Johnson Williams is an enduring example of a woman breaking through societal constraints to achieve success, both professionally and financially, in a field dominated by men. Her legacy as the “Cattle Queen of Texas” survives today as a significant figure in Texas history, and as a pioneer of the cattle industry in Texas.


[1] Roberta S. Duncan, Handbook of Texas Online, “Williams, Elizabeth Ellen Johnson [Lizzie]” (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fwixg), accessed February 03, 2016. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

[2] Preemption grant for Elizabeth Johnson, TRA P-971, Texas Land Grant Records, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX. Preemption grants allowed settlers to claim vacant public domain as long as they lived on the land for at least three years, and met other qualifications.

[3] Donald E. Worcester, Handbook of Texas Online, “Chisholm Trail,” (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ayc02), accessed February 26, 2016. Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

[4] Emily Jones Shelton, “Lizzie E. Johnson: A Cattle Queen of Texas,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 50, No. 3, (Jan., 1947), p. 359, (http://www.jstor.org/stable/30236098), accessed May 2, 2016. Published by the Texas State Historical Association,

[5] Shelton, 359.

[6] Shelton, 361

[7] Shelton, 361.