by Sarah Deffinger, History Intern  |

“I am very happy to be able to plant in this beautiful tree-sanctuary a sweet-gum tree, for it has always been my favorite in Africa. . . . And since my heart is in Africa and I am giving you an African tree, I feel that I am Osa Johnson 001leaving part of my heart here.” –Osa Johnson’s Tree Dedication Speech, 11/01/1940

A little foul weather was no match for Osa Johnson. On a rainy November day in 1940, she dedicated a tree at Dawes Arboretum, turning the dirt with a determined grin. Beman Dawes stood by, holding an umbrella to protect her elaborate hat. To a seasoned explorer like Osa, whose usual stomping grounds included the vast plains of Africa and dense jungles of Borneo, the drizzly Newark skies were a minor nuisance.

Born in Chanute, Kansas in 1894, Osa Helen Leighty enjoyed a typical Midwestern childhood. When Martin Johnson traveled through town, lecturing about his South Seas journey with Jack London, Osa was disgusted by his photographs of cannibals and headhunters. Nevertheless, the two married in 1910 (Osa was sixteen; Martin, twenty-six) and immediately took to the road, planning and saving for their first adventure.

Over the course of two decades, Martin and Osa explored the South Pacific Islands, Borneo, and East and Central Africa. Martin, a photographer, wanted to capture on film the rapidly disappearing wildlife and indigenous cultures of these distant regions. The Johnsons prided themselves on producing authentic footage of animal and native life. Their lecture and feature films, photographs, and books were unique and groundbreaking contributions to scientific knowledge, photography, and popular culture. The Johnsons were the first people to film South Pacific Islanders and the first to make a film with sound in Africa. Not content to remain on the ground, they flew 60,000 miles over Africa, taking the first aerial photos of animal herds and Mts. Kenya and Kilimanjaro.

Though initially hesitant, Osa became more than a traveling companion. Again and again, she heard the familiar refrain regarding their destinations: “That’s no place for a woman!” Osa, however, was a essential partner in these expeditions. While Martin rolled the cameras, Osa planned and organized their safaris. She obtained supplies, made travel arrangements, supervised transportation of their extensive cargo, hired native crews, and maintained the camp. She also helped operate the cameras, which often required waiting in a cramped hunting blind from before sunrise until after sunset, hoping to remain undetected by a hungry lion or angry rhinoceros.

Osa also provided meals for the crews by hunting, fishing, and gardening. She became an expert with both a fishing pole and a gun. While traveling, Osa planted familiar plants from home such as Kansas sunflowers, watermelon, and corn, as well as native flowers and tropical fruits. Gardening on a safari presented a unique set of challenges: baboons stole her tomatoes, while elephants enjoyed her sweet potatoes and crushed plants under their massive feet.

Additionally, Osa stood guard while Martin filmed dangerous animals. Often, she could break up a charge by firing a shot into the air. Osa skillfully saved Martin’s life from charging rhino and elephants, as well as attacking lions and leopards. Sometimes Osa killed these animals, but Martin always encouraged her to wait until the last possible moment to pull the trigger. Their goal was to shoot wildlife with cameras, not guns.

Osa JohnsonOsa JohnsonAfter Martin’s death in 1937, Osa continued to lecture and write about her experiences. Some winters, she visited her friends Beman and Bertie Dawes at their Florida home on Jupiter Island. The two women shared many interests, including nature, gardening, fishing, and photography. Osa wrote fond letters to Bertie expressing her desire to “get out and cast a plug or a fly again with my dear beachcomber friend.”  The pair even entered a fishing derby in which a shark snatched Osa’s fish! Undaunted, she went on to reel in a prize catch. Other Dawes family members read Osa’s books with fascination. Beman and Bertie’s grandchildren enjoyed her picture books, and in 1941, Osa dedicated Pantaloons: Adventures of a Baby Elephant to Beman Gates Dawes III.

Osa JohnsonAlthough they began their careers looking for thrills and adventure, Osa and Martin Johnson gradually turned their attention to conservation and education. They strived to create a record of endangered animals, cultures, and landscapes before they vanished under the forces of civilization. In the same spirit as Beman and Bertie Dawes, Osa and Martin wished to increase the public’s knowledge and appreciation of nature, and to encourage the study of the natural world. Today Osa’s tree stands in Dawes Arboretum as a tribute to this shared mission.


Photo #1: Osa Johnson dedicates a tree at Dawes Arboretum with the help of Beman Dawes, November 1, 1940.

Photo #2: Osa poses with her gun in this photograph signed “From fisherman to fisherman, Just Osa.” (no date)