Back in the frontier days, it was not uncommon for the lives and deeds of famous gunfighters and personalities of the Wild West to be greatly exaggerated in newspaper stories and dime novels, until an entire alternate, bloviated life history attached to their names began to form. This also happened with mountain men, like John “Liver-Eating” Johnson, Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, John Colter, Hugh Glass, and Jedediah Smith, all to varying degrees. It was also part of the mountain man persona to spin exaggerated, boastful stories about one’s exploits around the campfire — sort of like modern-day Instagram.
By the time the 1950s rolled around, interest in the Wild West hit an all-time high, and those exaggerated stories were translated to TV and the movies — muddling things even more. In this climate developed the accepted “true story” of Johnson’s life, as published in the 1958 biography Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson by Raymond W. Thorp and Robert Bunker.
The two authors never met. Bunker never even looked at Thorp’s notes before he crafted the bits and pieces he massaged into a cohesive book. Meanwhile, Thorp was widely known for embellishing stories, including his romanticized and largely fictional account of the life of Jim Bowie. Today, the book comes with an introduction written in 2015 by Nathan E. Bender that basically says, “Most of this book is unsubstantiated bullshit.” But that doesn’t make it any less fascinating a read.
The mountain man known as John Johnson did, indeed, exist. His given last name was actually Johnston, though he eventually went by Johnson. The stories that have been floating around about Johnson since the mid-1800s have painted him in various lights. Some describe him as a jolly, practical-joke-playing man of physically large stature who loved a tall tale and making a living off the land as a trapper and hunter. Others portray him as a vicious cannibal who could twist a man’s head off with his bare hands and waged a gruesome one-man vendetta against the Crow tribe of Native Americans, killing them outright where he found them and leaving poisoned food and blankets behind for the ones he didn’t. Of course, those stories got all mixed together and made into the bigger-than-life yarns about Johnson we have today. And if you dig a little, it just gets muddier and muddier.
Nobody knows if Johnson ever ate human flesh of any kind. The whole idea that he actually feasted on the livers of the many Crow natives he allegedly killed as an extra “f you” to their beliefs while avenging the murder of his wife and child most likely came from a skit Johnson performed while he was part of a traveling Wild West show in the 1880s, according to Bender. The name “Crow Killer” was invented for a good book title and was almost certainly never applied to Johnson while he was alive.
“In fact, Johnson had quite a bit to do with manipulating his public image, and he may have even consciously modeled his own story after that of Tom Quick and Lewis Wetzel. Quick had declared a one-man war on the Delaware Nation in northwestern New Jersey in the 1700s, where Johnson was born and raised,” Bender writes.
“In 1884 Johnson starred in an early Wild West show with Calamity Jane and Curley, one of Custer’s Crow Indian scouts,” Bender says. “In this traveling show Johnson reenacted and greatly dramatized his one-man Indian fights of the 1860s and 1870s and the eating of a Sioux warrior’s liver, though using Crow Indians as paid actors. This is apparently where Raymond Thorp got the idea of Liver-Eating Johnson fighting Crow Indians, no doubt during his work interviewing and writing the biography of Wild West showman Doc Carver.”
The version of John Johnson most people are familiar with is the protagonist of the 1972 movie Jeremiah Johnson starring Robert Redford in the titular role. You’ll often hear that it’s based on the Crow Killer book, but the entire structure of the movie — and the actual character that Redford plays — is largely pulled from the other book the movie is based on: Mountain Man: A Novel of Male and Female in the Early American West by Vardis Fisher, published in 1965, which itself is a fictionalized retelling of the Liver-Eating Johnson mythos.
Fisher greatly softens the character, called Sam Minard in the novel, making him a mild-mannered Mexican War veteran who sets out to find solitude in the mountains and learn to live on his own, which is how Jeremiah Johnson is portrayed in the film, as a prematurely world-weary young veteran who doesn’t want much to do with people anymore. Some of the plot details from the novel are different in the movie, but the structure is the same. In both novel and movie, Johnson comes upon a crazed woman who survived an attack by natives that killed her husband and sons, and puts her under his protection, something that the real Johnson is likely to have done, as it’s cited in all and the earliest accounts.
In the movie, Johnson adopts the crazy woman’s only surviving son, left mute from the tragedy he endured. Soon after, due to a language barrier, he ends up accidentally trading some ponies and scalps he and his partner, Del Gue, took from a marauding band of Blackfoot warriors to the chief of the Flathead tribe, in exchange for the chief’s daughter, Swan, in marriage. The three of them then build a cabin and a happy life together.
In the novel by Fisher, Minard simply takes a native woman from the Flathead tribe as a wife and they have a child together. When he goes to hunt one winter, leaving his wife and child at home so they don’t have to endure sleeping outdoors in the harsh weather, Minard returns to find his family massacred by Crow natives, and then sets out to kill those responsible.
The incident is portrayed about the same way in Crow Killer, the only difference being that his child hadn’t been born yet and Johnson’s wife was pregnant at the time of her murder.
Another layer is added to this pivotal event in Johnson’s life for the movie in an attempt to make it more understandable and provide some motivation for the attack on his family. One day, a column of US Cavalry soldiers arrive at his cabin, asking for his services as a guide to help them find and assist a wagon train of settlers stranded in the mountains before they freeze to death.
He reluctantly agrees, even though he should be hunting buffalo at the time. When they come to a Crow burial ground blocking their way through a mountain pass, Johnson tells the troop leader that they have to take another route that would add about 20 miles to their trip.
The soldiers protest and pressure him to lead them through, which he does. When returning on the same route, Johnson notices his wife’s distinctive blue trinkets adorning the graves in the burial ground, causing him to rush back to his cabin, where he finds his family murdered.
The next part is pretty much the same in the novel and the movie. He sits in a stupor for a while, as one does, before wrapping his wife and son in blankets and setting the cabin afire. He then tracks the band of Crow who killed his family, finds them with all the goods they stole from his home, and straight up kills them all in a solo, berserker-like attack — all but one, whom he allows to escape.
This revenge quest is the heart of the Johnson legend. Much like Wyatt Earp set out on a vengeance quest to kill every member of the gang who killed his brother, the real Liver-Eating Johnson is said to have done something similar, killing hundreds of Crow in the following years as retribution for the death of his family, eating their livers along the way, which would have been considered a severe insult to the Crow.
Depending on the source, Johnson killed anywhere between 300 and 1,299 natives. That latter number is one Johnson boasted of personally, according to Bender.
In the movie, this is also softened a bit, making the Crow out to be the aggressors. After the initial attack on the group that killed his family, Johnson is plagued by regular assaults by individual Crow warriors, attempting to confront and defeat the man who became their tribe’s biggest adversary, who he faces and kills one after the other — with no eating of livers. This is shown through a montage of Johnson defending himself from various attacks that fade into one another.
When he meets up with his old partner, Del Gue, after a significant amount of time has passed, Johnson kills a lone attacker at their campsite like it’s a chore that’s simply part of his life now.
Did any of this really happen? The answer seems to be: Nobody knows, but probably not.
According to some, Johnson simply liked taking scalps from the Crow and other Native Americans, which he sold. Others say he took no more scalps than any other mountain man of the day, but that he played up his reputation as an “Indian killer” when he got into the self-promotion business and Wild West shows at the end of his life. This is Bender’s conclusion.
For context, there’s an absurd tale attributed to Johnson, which some say actually happened to Boone Helm and others say is merely an embellished version of the incredible real survival story of Hugh Glass, and was more recently chopped up and reworked in much the same way for the film The Revenant.
Johnson was supposedly ambushed and captured by Blackfoot warriors who planned to sell him to the Crow. As the tale goes, Johnson escaped his bonds and killed the man guarding him, quickly scalping the Blackfoot and cutting off one of his legs. He then set out into the freezing wilderness, shirtless, and made a 200-mile journey on foot to Del Gue’s cabin — in some versions he returned to his own cabin. He survived the trip by eating the man’s severed leg along the way. If anything, it shows how grisly the public appetite was for these kinds of tales.
Even the headstone on Johnson’s grave is partly b.s. In 1974, they dug him up from his eternal resting place in California and reinterred him in Cody, Wyoming. His new tombstone, somewhat appropriately, reads: “John ‘Jeremiah Liver-Eating’ Johnston,” seemingly mashing the various versions of the man into one inscription, the name “Jeremiah” having been invented for the movie two years prior.
One thing people do seem to agree on is that during the bulk of his mountain man years, the real Johnson was known to carry a Colt Walker revolver with rosewood grips that matched the handle on his bowie knife, along with his famous Hawken rifle. In the movie, Jeremiah has a bowie knife and carries both a .30- and a .50-caliber Hawken, but the only handgun he carries is a single-shot caplock pistol given to him by the crazy woman.
After the Civil War, Johnson is said to have changed his weapons of choice to a stone tomahawk given to him as a tribal antique and a .45 Army Colt revolver. We think. In truth, the only possible way to get an accurate picture of Liver-Eating Johnson is to read both books, watch the movie, and decide for yourself.