• Notes From The Frontier

The Real Jeremiah Johnson


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 on April 11, 2020

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