About the Johnsons 2017-05-02T15:54:12+00:00

About Martin and Osa Johnson

In the first half of the 20th century an American couple from Kansas named Martin and Osa Johnson captured the public’s imagination through their films and books of adventure in exotic, far-away lands. Photographers, explorers, naturalists and authors, Martin and Osa studied the wildlife and peoples of East and Central Africa, the South Pacific Islands, and British North Borneo. They explored then unknown lands and, through their films, writings, and lectures, brought back knowledge of cultures thousands of miles away.

From 1917 to 1936, the Johnsons set up camp in some of the most remote areas of the world and provided an unmatched photographic record of the wildernesses of Kenya, the Congo, British North Borneo and the Solomon and New Hebrides Islands. Their equipment was the most advanced motion picture apparatus of the day, some of it designed by Martin Johnson himself.

When the young adventurers left their home in Kansas to explore and photograph these lands, little did they realize that they would provide the world with a photographic record of the African game of unimagined magnitude and beauty. The Johnsons gave the filmmakers and researchers of today an important source of ethnological and zoological material which would otherwise have been lost.

Their photographs represent one of the great contributions to the pictorial history of the world. Their films serve to document a wilderness that has long since vanished and tribal cultures and customs that have ceased to exist.

Through popular movies such as “Simba” (1928) and “Baboona” (1935) and best-selling books still in print such as I Married Adventure (1940), Martin and Osa popularized camera safaris and an interest in African wildlife conservation for generations of Americans. Their legacy is a record of the animals and cultures of many remote areas of the world which have undergone significant change.

The outstanding accomplishments and legacy of Martin and Osa Johnson – their films, photographs, expedition reports, correspondence and personal memorabilia – are housed at The Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum in Chanute, Kansas.

1884 Martin Johnson born October 9 in Rockford, Illinois. His family arrived in Lincoln, Kansas, when Martin was just nine months old. He was raised in both Lincoln and Independence, Kansas.
1894Osa Leighty born on March 14 at home on Malcolm, Avenue in Chanute, Kansas.
1906On May 1st, Martin Johnson left Chicago for Europe.
On December 6th, it is announced that Martin Johnson of Independence, Kansas had been chosen from hundreds of applicants to accompany author Jack London on his proposed "Voyage of SNARK" sailing adventure.
1907Martin departs aboard Jack London's boat on April 23.
1908November: Illness of the crew members begins to threaten the Voyage of the Snark
December: Both Martin Johnson and Jack London are hospitalized. Martin recovered and is released, but Jack London's continued illness leads to his decision to abandon the voyage on December 8th and return to California for treatment.
1909Martin is hired by the French Pathe Brothers and returns to paris with them after filming throughout the South Seas. Martin returns to Independence, Kansas in the late summer, the only member of the SNARK Crew to make it around the world.
1910Martin and Osa are married in Independence, Kansas on May 15.
1917Martin and Osa leave from San Francisco for their first South Seas trip on June 5.
1918Their first movie, Among the Cannibals of the South Pacific premieres on September 11.
1919Martin and Osa leave on their second trip to the South Pacific on April 8.
1920Without returning home from their trip to the South Seas in 1919, Martin and Osa traveled to North Borneo in February of 1920 to film wild animals. With few roads they traveled up river in gobangs (canoes) to reach the island’s interior. At the headwaters of North Borneo’s largest river, the Kinabatangan, they visited the Tenggara people, filming and photographing their centuries old customs.
The constant rain and thick jungle canopy was a difficult challenge for Martin and Osa, who had never attempted wildlife photography before. Along the coastal lowlands around the city of Sandakan they were able to film elephants, buffalo and other animals. Martin wrote letters home on and around July 9th, 1920 detailing this four month trek on the Kinabatangan River into the interior jungles of North Borneo.
1921“Jungle Adventures,” the Johnsons film about North Borneo premiered in September 1921.

In September, when Martin and Osa Johnson arrived for the first time Kenya, battle lines were being drawn concerning the future of East Africa’s wildlife. Many white settlers favored eradicating the animals because of agricultural interests, while conservationists and guides preferred game preservation. The Johnsons were there to make an authentic record of wildlife in its natural state at the urging of Carl Akeley. By the time they left in 1922, Martin and Osa had shot 100,000 feet of film and taken hundreds of still pictures. The resulting film,”Trailing African Wild Animals,” premiered in April 1923 while Martin’s book “Camera Trails in Africa” was published a year later in 1924.
For the first several months, they made photographic safaris to several areas in central Kenya, including the Athi Plains, the Ithanga Hills, the Loita Hills and northwest across the Loita Plains. Their trip culminated with a visit to the northern reaches of Kenya, specifically Mount Marsabit where they spent time camped near a lake which they named Paradise. Here they found an area seldom visited by sportsmen hunters and animals easier to approach. They learned a costly lesson, however, when Osa was forced to shoot the leader of a charging elephant herd to save Martin's and her own life. They survived but received a hefty fine from the British government since they were not hunter's and had not obtained a permit to shoot big game. They had to telegraph a sponsor to pay their fine, so in future trips they learned to read the animals better and avoid most such pricey and dangerous confrontations.

After a few short months they left Lake Paradise, but resolved to return for a longer period of time. With its undisturbed wildlife, they felt this was the ideal place to make a permanent record of African wildlife.
1923Their film Trailing African Wild Animals is released on April 15.
1924Martin and Osa arrive in Kenya for their second safari on January 26. This trip is also known as Four Years in Paradise.
1927Martin and Osa sail from New York for their third trip to Africa on December 14.
1928Simba premieres on January 23. It had premieres around the world, and we'll include the confirmed dates and locations as we can:

The Palace Theatre on September 28th
1929Highlight of the Year: In November, Martin and Osa make their fourth trip to Africa. This results in Congorilla, the first movie with sound shot in Africa.

Known Itinerary Stops: May 2, 1929 Both Martin and Osa Johnson attend a book signing in Toledo, OH. Source: Autographed & dated copy of SAFARI owned by Mabel & Walter Tilly was donated to the museum and is held in our archives.
1930The film Across the World with Mr. and Mrs. Martin Johnson opens on January 1.
1932 Highlight of the Year: Congorilla opens on July 21.

October 20, 1932: Osa Johnson is the Key Note Speaker at the Adventurer's Club in NYC. Martin Johnson, as well as family friends Frank Buck and his wife are present at the head table. Source: Photograph, Program and Signature Souvenir from the event in the Safari Museum Henshall Archives collection.

November 17 & 18, 1932: Osa Johnson was presenting lectures and signing autographed photographs of herself at the Kresge Department Store in Newark, New Jersey. Source: A souvenir program in the Safari Museum Henshall Archives about the lecture series with a copy of the photographs she signed during the series.
1933Martin and Osa arrive in Africa for their fifth and final safari. Using newly constructed runways in central Kenya at Nanyuki the Johnsons’ party, in January 1934, became the first to fly over Africa's second highest peak, Mt. Kenya and film it from the air. Similarly, they used as a runway the dry lake bottom of Lake Amboseli in southern Kenya to be come to the first to make aerial films of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa's tallest peak.

Because of concern for Osa’s health the Johnsons decided to conclude their trip. They left Nairobi on July 15, 1934, for London following the Nile River to Egypt, then across north Africa and France. They returned to New York City on August 9 aboard the S.S. Manhattan.

The “Flying Safari,” which involved traveling 60,000 miles, stretched the length of Africa from Cape Town to Cairo and is covered in Martin’s classic 1935 book “Over African Jungles” and in their movie “Baboona” released in the same year.
1934Known Itinerary Stop:
December, 12, 1934: Martin and Osa Johnson were in NYC signing autographs. Source: Copy of their photos plus the signed and dated autograph sheet sent to the museum archives by a fan.
1935On August 12, 1935, Osa and Martin left the U.S. for their last adventure together, a return to North Borneo. Traveling east by ship they brought only one of their famous amphibian planes. Arriving in Belawan, Sumatra, they reassembled the single engine “Spirit of Africa” and flew on to Sandakan, Borneo, making several stops along the way. The final leg of the journey involved the first flight over a range of mountains deemed dangerous and impenetrable at the time, including Mt. Kinabalu, the tallest peak in Southeast Asia. From a small base camp near the town of Abai on the Kinabatangan river they traveled by river and air throughout North Borneo recording the customs and rituals of the Tenggara, Murut, Bajou, and Dunsun peoples. The Johnsons also took photos and filmed numerous primates indigenous to Borneo, including the first pictures of the proboscis monkey in the wild. The daily rains, constant humidity and insects made filming difficult, as it had been 15 years earlier, but the experience gained since then resulted in their finest motion picture yet. They left Borneo in September of 1936 with 3,000 photos and more than 150,000 feet of film.
1937Martin dies of injuries sustained in a commercial plane crash in Burbank, California, on January 13. When Osa recovers from the injuries she sustained in the same crash, she attends the funeral & burial services for Martin Johnson in Chanute at Elmwood Cemetery.
1940I Married Adventure book is published.
July 24, 1940 I Married Adventure film premiere (presumed Hollywood debut)
September 23, 1940: I Married Adventure makes it's New York City debut at the Plaza Theatre
1942Osa Johnson presents a Lecture & Film Presentation of her travelogue "AFRICAN PARADISE at the Horace Bushnell Memorial Hall in Hartford, CT on March 27, 1942 at 8:15pm. Source: Date and time on a Film Program in the Safari Museum archives.
1953Osa dies in New York City at the age of 58 on January 7. Osa's mother arranges to have Osa buried next to Martin Johnson at the Elmwood Cemetery on Malcolm Avenue, the same street Osa was born on in 1894.
1961 Osa's mother Belle Leighty, Martin's sister Freda Cripps and the Chanute Chamber of Commerce officially open the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum it the former Santa Fe Railroad's Freight Office at 16 South Grant in Chanute, Kansas, on June 11.
1974The IMPERATO AFRICAN ETHNOGRAPHIC COLLECTION was established by Johnson scholar Dr. Pascal J. Imperato. It includes masks, headdresses, furnishings, personal accessories, tools, armaments, textiles, and musical instruments representing different ethnic groups in west and central Africa.
1980The museum’s amazing Stott Explorers Library was formed and now includes over 10,000 volumes covering a variety of natural history and cultural subjects. The collection was primarily donated by or in honor of the now late Kenhelm W. Stott, a friend of Martin and Osa Johnson, and the noted author of the first book about their spectacular lives and legacy. Mr. Stott first met Martin and Osa at age 10 at the San Diego Zoo. He remained life long friends with them and later retired as the General Curator Emeritus of the San Diego Zoo. Together with journalist Jackson Selsor, Mr. Stott, retraced every footstep Martin and Osa Johnson made across the globe, and continued on to places they had hoped to explore as well.
1981The Selsor Fine Arts Collection encompasses a wide range of artistic forms; from sculptures to paintings to sketches that feature natural subjects. It was formed by initial donations of Jackson Selsor, a journalist and avid traveler who along with Kenhelm Stott (see 1980 entry for more details), retraced every footstep Martin and Osa Johnson made across the globe, and continued on to places they had hoped to explore as well.
1993The Safari Museum relocates to its present location, the newly renovated Santa Fe Depot & Harvey House Restaurant in Chanute, Kansas.