John "Liver-Eating" Johnson (c.1824 – January 21, 1900) was a mountain man of the American West.
Johnson is the basis for the fictional character Jeremiah Johnson.
Johnson is said to have been born near Little York, New Jersey, with the last name Garrison. Some accounts say that he joined the United States Navy in 1846, however, research in his genealogy has discovered he would have been too young during the Mexican-American War. He did go to sea, and at the time the Navy was commandeering vessels, and this may have happened to Johnson. He did say he had been in the Navy when he joined the Union Army during the Civil War. After striking an officer, he deserted, changed his name to John Johnston, and traveled west to try his hand at the gold diggings in Alder Gulch, Montana Territory. He also became a "woodhawk," supplying cord wood to steamboats. He was described as a large man, standing around six feet tall and weighing over two hundred pounds.
Rumors, legends, and campfire tales abound about Johnson. Perhaps chief among them is this one: In 1847, his American Indian wife was killed by Crow Indians, which prompted Johnson to embark on a 20-year vendetta against the tribe. The legend says that he would cut out and eat the liver of each man killed. Another theory is that he would only take a bite of the liver and then spit it out stating "the liver of the Crow is not suitable for a man." This was an insult to Crow being that the Crow indians used to eat the raw livers from their game because they believed it gave them the vitality of the animal that they ate. In any case, he eventually became known as "Liver-Eating Johnson". The story of how he got his name was written down by a diarist at the time. There were three Johnsons, nicknames were commonplace, and with Johnson's show of eating the liver, he received his name.
Another story is when Johnson was ambushed by a group of Blackfoot warriors in the dead of winter on a foray to visit his Flathead kin, a trip that would have been over five hundred miles. The Blackfoot planned to sell him to the Crow, his mortal enemies, for a handsome price. He was stripped to the waist, tied with leather thongs and put in a teepee with an inexperienced guard outside. Johnson managed to chew through the straps, then knocked out his young guard with a punch to the face, took his knife and scalped him, then quickly cut off one of his legs. He made his escape into the woods, and survived on the Blackfoot's leg until he reached the cabin of Del Que, his trapping partner, more dead than alive, a journey of about two hundred miles. However, this story was true, but the protagonist was Boone Helm, another raucous frontiersman.
Eventually, Johnson made peace with the Crow, who became "his brothers", and his personal vendetta against them finally ended after twenty-five years and scores of Crow warriors had fallen. The West, however, was still a very violent and territorial place, particularly during the Plains Indian Wars of the mid 1800s. Many more Indians of different tribes, especially but not limited to, the Sioux and Blackfoot, would know the wrath of "Dapiek Absaroka" Crow killer and his fellow mountain men.
The above information is based upon the yarns and tales told over and over through the years. The novel Mountain Man by Vardis Fisher is a good fiction source. The accurate story is told in the diaries of Lee and Kaiser who were on the Missouri River in 1868 when Johnston was given his moniker, after a rainy fight with the Sioux.
He joined the Union Army in St. Louis in 1864 (Co. H, 2nd Colorado Cavalry) as a private, and was honorably discharged the following year. During the 1880s he was appointed deputy sheriff in Coulson, Montana, and a town marshal in Red Lodge, Montana. He was listed as five foot, eleven and three-quarter inches tall according to government records.
In his time, he was a sailor, scout, soldier, gold seeker, hunter, trapper, whiskey peddler, guide, deputy, constable, builder of log cabins, and any other source of income producing labor he could find.
His last residence was just outside Red Lodge, Montana where he lived in the side of a hill while building his cabin. The cabin is still in Red Lodge although it has been moved many times.
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