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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

The Real Jeremiah Johnson

Updated: May 11, 2023

An Original "Rugged Individualist"

Mountain men. They were the quintessential Americans. The original “rugged individualists.” They were the first nonindigenous men (mostly although there were some women) to brave the wilderness, to turn their backs forever on their eastern homelands and all the comforts and luxuries “civilization” offered. They met in mortal struggle with the hardships of the wilderness, but also were blessed by its beauty. They learned the ways of Native Americans to survive and became more like them than the men in cities they left behind from their youth.

Their heyday were the decades between the Lewis and Clark Expedition to the Pacific that was completed in 1806 and the beginning of the settler immigration to the West that started in great numbers in the 1840s. Contrary to the popular American myth of singular mountain men who eschewed humans and lived solely on their own, most traveled in brigades for survival.

But there were some exceptions and those individuals were the grist for legend. One such man was Jeremiah Johnson, who became famous during his lifetime. But then he was catapulted to even greater fame in modern times with the 1972 movie starring Robert Redford named after the mountain man himself: “Jeremiah Johnson.” The movie was based on Vardis Fisher’s novel, “Mountain Man” and Raymond Thorp and Robert Bunker’s biography of John Johnson, “Crow Killer.”

But, the movie is a revisionist take on Jeremiah Johnson, who is depicted as a man of good spirit and good intensions. It is one of the reasons the movie has become such a popular cult classic, especially among lovers of the western frontier. In the movie, Johnson is a romantic, fleeing from civilization and what he sees as its ravages, seeking communion with Nature. He tries to do good, appreciates the ways of Native Americans and the wilderness, respects them. In that way, he becomes the tragic hero.

But, in fact, the real Jeremiah Johnson was quite the opposite: uneducated, unprincipled, contemptuous of Natives (although he admired their spectacular survival and warring skills), brutal, and a product of the era. By most accounts, he was surly and antisocial. He was heroic, however, in his indomitable courage and survival skills that typified mountain men who were the raw edge of western expansion. And, unlike many mountain men, who eventually came to a violent end killed by hostile Indians, he survived to old age, amazingly even given his violence against the Crow tribe.

Jeremiah Johnson was born John Jeremiah Garrison in Little York, New Jersey, on July 1, 1824. He grew into a huge man, 6’2” (when the average height of the day was 5'6") and about 260 pounds. While still underage, he enlisted in the navy in the Mexican-American War and served on a fighting frigate, until he struck an officer. He deserted, changed his name to Jeremiah Johnson and fled west to Montana to try his hand at digging for gold. Along the way, he worked as a “woodhawk” supplying steam ship engines with wood. While he was digging for gold in Alder Gulch in Montana Territory, he met a Flathead woman who became his wife. He built a log cabin and lived there with his wife, trapping, hunting and peddling whiskey. His wife became pregnant. It seemed he had found some peace. But that would not last.

Sometime around 1847, when Johnson was 23, he was out hunting when a group of Crow attacked his home, killed his pregnant wife and burned his cabin. Blinded with rage, he vowed blood revenge and set out to kill the tribe members.

He went on a decades-long killing spree, not only killing Crow warriors, but scalping them and cutting out their livers and eating them. According to Crow belief, the liver was necessary to enter the afterlife. By eating his victim’ livers, he not only deprived them of their lives on earth, but in the afterlife as well. Johnson also struck fear in the hearts of many living Crow, for, according to legend, he left a trail of carnage.

According to Johnson’s biographers Raymond Thorp and Robert Bunker in their book, “Crow Killer,” Johnson killed for the joy of killing. They cite one incident in which he poisoned and killed 29 Blackfeet warriors with strychnine biscuits as a practical joke.

It is not surprising, then, that when a group of Blackfoot warriors later captured him, they planned to sell him to the Crow, his mortal enemies. While he was bound with leather straps, he knocked out a guard, scalped him and cut off one leg, the flesh of which he later smoked into strips of jerky.

According to legend and his biographers, Johnson killed nearly 300 Crow men and boys the next 25 years to avenge his wife and unborn baby. He lived the mountain man life, mostly trapping and hunting to make a living, sometimes peddling whiskey. In 1864, he joined the 2nd Colorado Cavalry in the Union Army in St. Louis and was honorably discharged at the end of the war.

After the war, he rode back west. He worked as an Army scout during the Indian wars, The was appointed deputy sheriff in Coulson, Montana. Later he would become the town marshal of Red Lodge, Montana. He even started a small Wild West show and traveled with Calamity Jane for a while, telling tales of the frontier and his Indian killing exploits.

By now the West was changing. The buffalo were gone. The beaver were gone. Much of the large game he had hunted in the previous decades were gone. The Native tribes were being decimated, their land stolen, their people relegated to reservations. After 25 years on the war path against the Crow, they both buried the hatchet. Like the Native Americans of frontier lore, Johnson too had become a relic of a bygone age.

In January 1878, The Washington Post reported Jeremiah Johnson’s death, although he would live for more than 20 years after their premature account. The obituary portrayed “him as a vicious frontiersman who killed Indians as a pastime” or as revenge for his wife’s supposed murder. Other papers picked up on his gruesome sobriquet, “Liver-Eating Johnson” and reported his “revolting cannibalistic deeds.”

Jeremiah Johnson’s legend had become shrouded in so many blood-thirsty tales, it is impossible to distinguish fact from fiction. Johnson had perhaps become a victim of his own tall tales. He began to revise his version of how he acquired his “liver-eating” name in interviews with newspapers.

In Johnson’s later years, his wandering led him to California. It is one of history’s great ironies that the man known as America’s most famous mountain man, who disliked people and had tried to escape civilization, would end up in one of the most populated pieces on land on the continent. His final months on earth were spent, not in his beloved wilderness, but in the Los Angeles Old Soldiers Home. He died penniless in 1900 at the age of 76 and was buried in the military cemetery there. And it was there he stayed for 75 years, as the concrete, automobiles, and rushing people of Los Angeles rose around him. By 1972, when the movie, “Jeremiah Johnson,” was released, the mountain man’s grave was buried almost next to the San Diego Freeway!

It was about that time that a middle schools teacher named Tri Robinson in Antelope Valley, California, was teaching his students about Jeremiah Johnson and he learned that Johnson had wanted to be buried in his old stomping ground in the Northern Rockies. Then a friend in Old Trail Town in Cody, Wyoming, offered to have Jeremiah reinterred there and would pay for the reburial.

Robinson's middle school students wrote the Veterans Administration and even Robert Redford. The movement grew and many agreed that America's most famous mountain man should be buried in his wilderness habitat. In 1974, more than 2,000 people paid homage at Johnson’s new burial ground in Cody, Wyoming. Robert Redford, who had played Jeremiah Johnson in the movie, was a pallbearer, along with five other men who dressed as frontiersmen in rawhide.

Some residents of Red Lodge, Montana, had vied for Jeremiah Johnson to be buried in their town instead. They maintained that Johnson didn’t even like Buffalo Bill Cody, for whom Cody, Wyoming, was named. According to some historians, Jeremiah had gotten into a fist fight with Cody!

But, no matter. Mountain man Jeremiah Johnson would probably approve that he was finally laid to rest back where he belonged in the wilderness and mountains, right at the gateway to Yellowstone National Park. No doubt he would have loved the movie Hollywood made about him and would have agreed with the famous line in the movie: “The Rockies is the morrow of the world!”

"The Real Jeremiah Johnson" was first posted on Facebook and on April 11, 2020

313,656 views / 17,764 likes / 9,482 shares

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90,338 views10 comments

10 ความคิดเห็น

Delicious Low Carb Meals
Delicious Low Carb Meals
02 ส.ค. 2566

Definitely was a very hard life for everyone back then. He was a Father and a Husband who just wanted to avenge his family. If it not for them being killed, he would have surely settled down and lived a long peaceful life right there on the mountain with his family. #mealbetix


31 ก.ค. 2566

Also, that photo, "The most Unique Picture ever taken, of the alleged group of old west most famous, that is not Johnston sitting on the porch with the white beard. That is my uncle Dr. Andrew Jackson Hunter, founder of Hunter's Hot Springs. And everyone else in that photo are nor who the caption says they are, most of them never even knew each other in 1883.


31 ก.ค. 2566

In a nutshell, Johnston was born John Garrison in New Jersey. He joined the Navy in 1846. After striking an officer, he deserted and changed his name to Johnston. He did not run off to the mountains to be a mountain man. He went to the gold fields of California in 1849 to search for gold, later in 1859 he went to Colorado then in 1862 came to Virginia City, Montana. He gave up the search for gold and began hunting, providing meat to the gold camps. In 1868, he was joined by my uncle's great grandfather Henry Kaiser trapping and cutting wood for the river boats at Fort Mussellshell on the Missouri River. It was there that he received…

Ken Roche
Ken Roche
01 ส.ค. 2566

This is all most interesting and probably true. Motion pictures are 'entertainment' (some more so than others I might add), and even though many claim to be based on fact, few seldom are.

My comments were made for the Motion Picture. It was the various stylish production values that attracted me to it, and finding the site associated with the story/ies was intriguing. As romanticized moviemaking goes, J.J. has elements that are still better than many others of its genre. It was also easy to like some of the attitudes attributed to this 'characters' nature.


Golden Ruler
Golden Ruler
30 ธ.ค. 2565

He killed how many? Why celebrate this guy?

31 ก.ค. 2566

He didn't kill any Crow Indians.


Ken Roche
Ken Roche
22 เม.ย. 2565

What an engrossing read this article is! Pity we cant separate the facts from the legend but so much information is fascinating. We just re-screened the film and found this account compelling.

The one of a kind movie seems to be a love or ‘not sure’ experience – my audience thought it excellent. It’s at times slightly off the wall but mostly on the money for depicting the vast challenges facing a war damaged (deserter) city dweller - who’s attempting to survive hiding away from ‘civilization’ in some of the worlds harshest country. Being based on two works (by different writers) it depicts a true-life legendary mountain dwelling character with a stark background – telling of a surprisingly gripping battl…


Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook


Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  


Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on, Facebook, and Instagram.

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