John Liver-Eating Johnston

There is a story of a man who once struck fear into many Indians in the American West. This man went by many names, some of which are quite interesting as to how he acquired them. Sometime in July of 1824 a child was born to Isaac and Eliza Garrison who they named John Garrison. Through the years Garrison had a few different jobs. At a young age he was working on the farm for his father, who had quite the temper and often sent him and his brothers to pay off his debts on other farms. This could be where Garrison acquired his short temper. After deciding to leave the family farm, mainly due to not wanting to work with his father, he went to the coast where he worked as a whaler for about 13 years. Later he enlisted in the navy during the Mexican War where he was kicked out due to striking a superior officer. As if he hadn’t already lived a fairly eventful but short life, he was then on the run and needing to change his name. This is where the story of Garrison’s life gets interesting and a little confusing. He has come to be known by many different names, and the story behind one is particularly interesting as to why it has stuck with him. It seems as though the stories of the west that stick with people always seem to be violent and gory ones, and it is no different for this man.

As with many old stories, things have been added and things have been taken away, so it is hard to determine what is right and what is wrong. The story that has been told of Garrison, otherwise known as John Johnston and eventually known as Liver-eating Johnston, goes as follows. Johnston was hired by the army to lead a wagon train through the mountains. In doing so he would have to leave his new wife, a Flathead Indian woman who was with child, back home. During his time away a Crow Indian killed his wife and unborn child. When Johnston returned and found his wife and child dead he went on a rampage against the Crow Indians. It is said that every time Johnston killed an Indian after this he would cut out and eat the liver of that Indian. This was particularly bad for the Indians because they believed that the liver was a very important organ that was needed to enter the afterlife. A Crow chief sent out 20 of his best warriors to hunt down and kill Johnston, but they were all unsuccessful in doing so and Johnston killed them all. This is how he came to be known as Liver-eating Johnston.

Johnston is also popularly known as Jeremiah Johnson due to the movie starring Robert Redford. In some ways the movie follows that above story of Johnston, but it also dramatizes the story for the big screen. In fact, during the time period that the movie is supposed to be taking place, Johnston would have been working on the whaling boats.

Although all this makes for a pretty good story, it is not really what happened. The true story is a little less vicious then the one that has been told throughout the years. Johnston never had it out with the Crow Indians, in fact he actually got along with them pretty well. While cutting firewood to fuel steamboats on Sioux land in 1868 him and 15 other woodcutters were attacked by the Sioux Indians. During the battle he stabbed an Indian in the side and when he pulled out his knife a piece of the liver was on the end and he proceeded to put the blade up to his mouth and ask his fellow mountain men nearby if they wanted a bite (2). This act is how he came to be known as Liver-eating Johnston.

Of course the myth that follows the Liver-eater is one that many people would feel fits with the image of the Wild West. The mountain men that are out there living amongst the savages, and often fighting with them, must have been quite the thing to see riding through a small town that they very rarely frequented. Those people who had only heard the stories of these men would have no reason to believe that they are not as wild and crazy as some would say that they are, and the mountain men themselves were known for often telling tall tales and stretching the truth quite often. This is not the only thrilling story that has been told of Johnston, and even though most of what people hear about him and other mountain men are not entirely true, they do make for good stories to be told around the camp fire.

Mitchell King

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1)

The Anaconda Standard. (Anaconda, Mont.), 18 July 1899. Chronicling America: Historic  American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

2)

Nelson, Dorman. John Liver Eating Johnston. Los Angeles: Web, 2009.

3)

Thompson, Ben. Liver-Eating Johnson. Badass of the Week. Web, 2004.

4)

Thorp, Raymond W., and Robert Bunker. Crow Killer; the Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1958. Print.

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