A photograph of John Johnston as a scout in 1876, under the command of General Miles, holding a Sharps rifle. Photographed by John H. Fouch, Artist, Black Hills, Dakota Territory.
A half-stock, .56-caliber Hawken rifle with an octagonal barrel and a Wade & Butcher Bowie knife with ivory grips that belonged to John Johnston.
Wade & Butcher Bowie Knife made in London, England. The knife belonged to John Johnston and features ivory grips and a scabbard. This is not to be confused with the rosewood Bowie knife he allegedly owned in the 1840s.
John Johnston is known by many names: John Garrison, John Johnson, Jack Johnson and “Liver-Eating” Johnson. He is even known as the fictionalized Jeremiah Johnson portrayed by Robert Redford in the film of the same name. The only thing more hotly contested than his name, however, is the story of his life.
Most of Johnston’s life is preserved through oral histories. This causes conflict because memories are often inconsistent. Whether one story of Johnston’s life is fact or fiction is not as important as how these stories spun him into the mythical model of a mountain man—the way oral histories turned him into legend.
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That being said, there are a few non-negotiable facts regarding this man. Thanks to written records, historians agree he was born John Garrison but changed his name to Johnston. His name often appeared in newspapers and records without a ‘T’ due, in part, to a lack of standardized spelling. Johnston was born in 1824 near Little York, New Jersey. His family life was difficult, with six siblings and an alcoholic father who tirelessly worked his children. Hardened by childhood trauma, Johnston grew to be a violent man, standing at about 6 feet tall and over 200 pounds. He migrated West with the dream of being a fur trapper and periodically served as a soldier. He remained on the frontier until his passing in a California veteran’s home in 1900.
Johnston’s impulsive and violent nature contributed to the stories that surround the man behind the myth. While historians do not dispute his temper, the degree to which he executed his violence is still debated.
Killer Of Crows
The legend of John Johnston was born from oral histories, retellings of events that endorse him as Dapiek Absaroka, or “The Killer of Crows.” Passed down by fellow mountain men, these stories center on Johnston’s need for vengeance against the Crow nation.
That story begins in the spring of 1847. The previous winter, Johnston had married The Swan, a daughter of Flathead Chief Bear Head. Shortly after their nuptials, Johnston was called away from their home for work. In May 1847, he returned to find his wife and unborn child scalped, mutilated and murdered by the Crow.
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He declared war on the Crow nation, single-handedly killing dozens of their warriors. Word of his violence against the Crows spread among rival tribes. In 1861, on his way to sell whisky, Johnston was attacked by a Blackfoot chief called The Wolf and several of his men, all seeking a Crow bounty for the mountain man. Because he was outnumbered, Johnston quickly surrendered. His captors took his firearms, Bowie knife and jacket and bound his hands together. When the Blackfeet set up camp, however, Johnston was able to chew through the leather cuffs. He attacked a guard with a kick and a blow to the face. He cut off the man’s leg and allegedly used it as sustenance throughout his escape. Undeterred, Johnston continued his path of vengeance.
By 1868, however, he was tired of fighting. Johnston rode into the camp of Crow Chief Grey Bear and established a truce, one that would blossom into a life-long friendship. It was this legend, coupled with Vardis Fisher’s novel, Mountain Man, that inspired the 1972 Robert Redford film Jeremiah Johnson.
Another school of thought claims the aforementioned story is the product of myth with minimal truth. Using written documentation, the counterargument claims Johnston was not even in the west in 1847; he was serving in the Navy during the Mexican-American War. To corroborate this service, his obituary in the Carbon Country Democrat states that Johnston went to shore for leave and never came back, after violently attacking a lieutenant in his command. Additionally, a military pension claim Johnston filed in 1884 said he was in the Navy until the 1860s. Local Montana newspapers and additional sources place his arrival to the west in 1862. The counterargument further projects that he had an admiration for the Crow and instead declared war on the Blackfeet and the Sioux.
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While this documentation is compelling, it doesn’t necessarily disprove Johnston’s legend. It is important to note that written record can be riddled with inaccuracy, especially words written by Johnston, who saw benefit in a vet’s pension claim. Although the evidence is compelling, Johnston’s whereabouts in the 1840s still remain the subject of severe controversy.
Later in life, Johnston traveled to Canada in the 1870s, where he transported and traded whisky. He served in the Plains Indian Wars. In 1878, Montana newspapers romanticized his battles with tribes like the Sioux and Blackfeet. After the wars, he moved to Coulson, Montana, to work as a deputy sheriff. He then moved to Red Lodge and remained in the area for the majority of his life. In 1899, he was admitted to the National Soldiers Home in Santa Monica, California, and died on January 21, 1900.
There are many parts to Johnston’s legend that are debated. The most prominent is whether or not he carved out the livers of his foes with a Bowie knife and ate them as a form of psychological warfare. To the Crow, the liver was considered essential to ensure one’s passage to the afterlife. Therefore, Johnston’s liver consumption could be seen as an assault on the soul of a man.
Most people agree he made frequent and sadistic use of his bowie knife; some argue he did not in fact put liver in his diet. In several newspaper articles and oral histories, Johnston only referenced eating liver in jest. There is little consensus in written record as to the origin of his nickname, but urban legend and popular culture have continued to feed the folklore into our memories.
John Johnston’s life may lack focus and consensus. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter. Sometimes distortion is considered truth because people believe it to be so. In public memory, Johnston is the epitome of a mountain man. His legend survived him and impacted the ways we romanticize the frontier. Even if his life is predominantly folklore, at least he can be remembered as the creation of incredible storytelling.
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This article was originally published in the AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN™ Winter 2016 issue #205. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.
This easy-to-assemble, alcohol-burning stove is the ultimate hunter’s companion!
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