This is one of the books recommended to me by a Great Nephew who is studying to be a high school history teacher. The subtitle of the book, “The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson” by Raymond W. Thorp and Robert Bunker provides a hint about the descriptions of brutality. I’ve often said flippantly that one of my favorite moves is Jeremiah Johnson because it was a role for Robert Redford in which he seldom spoke. The first observation is that the book refers to John Johnson or John Johnston in Veteran’s Administration records. I don’t recall reading Jeremiah anywhere in the book. The book was published in 1983, and I wonder whether it could be published in the world of today with the radically racist language and many instances of complete disrespect to Native Americans (called Indians throughout) attributed to Johnson and other “mountain men.” The terms “red coons” and “red n…..s” (I decided to not even type that one) are used freely. Johnson and others were willing to act savagery toward hostiles, apparently because that was what was expected by “…the code of the mountain man.” There are several references to shooting foes in a manner that disabled but didn’t kill and then mutilating them before they died and then were decapitated so that their heads could be displayed on stakes. It was taken for granted that foes would be scalped either alive or dead.
The Foreword describes that the sources for the stories were primarily “Del” Gue and White-Eye Anderson (who apparently had one white eyebrow). It’s made clear that the myths about Johnson probably based on enough facts to cause them to spread. However, the mountain men were proud of their ability to embellish stories. The book is described as “…the personal history of Liver-Eating Johnson from 1847 to his death in 1900, pieced from oral legend.” One fact that stands out is that Johnson was a large and powerful man who could break a man’s neck with his hands. He is frequently described as being able to crush a man with a kick. He is even described as fighting off both a grizzly bear and a mountain lion with a frozen leg he had earlier wrenched off a Blackfoot. Even his horses were legendary. “Crow Killer’s big black watched over his master, scented Indians, and allowed none but his master near him.”
The Foreword contains a short summary of the book. “It was the murder of his Flathead wife (Swan) and unborn baby that led to his liver-eating vendetta against the Crows. It was the Crows’ respect for the grave of Crazy Woman, the maddened woman befriended by Johnson that induced him finally to make peace with his enemies. For all the hundreds of scalps he was said to have acquired, Johnson claimed that he never killed a white man despite the fact he served as a Union sharpshooter in the Civil War. “Loyalty to his fellow mountain men, and sympathy with the white overlanders, rather than a desire for wanton slaughter, caused Johnson to raid tribes who had taken white scalps—according to the tales.” It is admitted that the Crow, Blackfoot, Sioux, and even the Flathead, the tribe of his wife, would “…cast Johnson as a demon-possessed ogre.” He also is described “…as a pariah, a half-naked beast hurling obscenities at Missouri steamboat passengers as they gawked at the cannibal on shore beside his thirty-odd bleached Indian skulls…Whether John Johnson is thought admirable or bestial depends on one’s own cultural outlook.”
Johnson and his companions lived in a world that was unforgiving, and the mountain men were fatalists. There were many ways to die. A story told by the mountain men was that one starving man handed his partner his knife and said, “Stick me between the ribs, ol’ coon. It ain’t no use fer both of us to cash in.” The “…ol’ coon stoically appraises his comrade’s lean flanks. He does, presumably, wait until his comrade ceases breathing. Then he carves his steak.”
Chapter 1, “Making a Legend” discusses why Johnson ate the livers of the Crows. “He ate them not for hunger’s sake but on principle—just what principle, his whole life history may suggest.” Johnson (yes, the book refers to him as Johnston and Johnson on the first page of the chapter) was considered by the Indians to be “…obsessed, divinely mad.” He is described as surly, uncommunicative, and mistrustful. He “was willing to talk, when necessary, to set the record straight and inform his companions of things they could not see for themselves. The book has a wealth of information about the many colorful mountain men he hunted, trapped, and killed with, which makes it worthwhile for anyone interested in the history of the West. However, the descriptions of life in the West are more uncomplimentary than colorful. It is mentioned that passengers departing a steamship in St. Louis were greeted “…by the town’s loungers, beady-eyed Indian braves looking for who knows what, and by white riffraff hoping for some chance job worth the price of a drink.”
Johnson made his way to the trader who had founded St. Louis. Joe Robidioux was an ancestor by marriage of mine (an aunt was married to a man named Fred Robidioux), and I enjoyed the descriptions of how he severely overcharged Johnson for rifles and traps. John Hatcher was the first mountain man Johnson fell in with by chance, and Hatcher taught Johnson many of the skills needed to survive. He also taught him not to take a scalp with his hatchet because it “Spiles the scalp. Dressed scalps, he averred, brought big money on the English market.” The book eventually describes that selling scalps was one of the more profitable ventures for Johnson and his comrades.
There is an interesting discussion of a profitable sideline Johnson ran for years. “Five miles above the mouth of the Musselshell, in east central Montana, he set up a woodyard, where for many years (in times of lean trapping) he cut and dried and piled cordwood for the use of Missouri river steamboats. Here steamboats ‘wooded up,’ with the captains depositing paper-money payment in a knothole in a cottonwood.”
The sad story about John Morgan and his family would have a large impact on the legends of John Johnson. Morgan had quarreled with the wagon train boss as they crossed the prairie and set out alone with his family. Morgan left camp to find a place for the oxen to graze and didn’t return. His wife sent their two small sons to search for him. When they didn’t return she sent the eighteen year-old daughter. Mrs. Morgan eventually followed and found a dozen Blackfeet warriors had trussed and scalped Morgan, killed and scalped the boys, and raped and killed the daughter. She went into a hysterical rage and (in a difficult to believe part of the story) killed four Indians with an axe. Her attack drove off the survivors with her husband. Johnson arrived on the scene and helped the woman, who became known as Crazy Woman, dig four graves, one of which received her husband’s scalp that the Blackfeet had dropped during their escape. Johnson stayed with the woman to build a small cabin and give her some of his supplies, before she drove him away by threatening him with a musket.
The stories about Crazy Woman appear throughout the book. Johnson and others would stop and leave her supplies when they were near her cabin. She eventually starved to death, Johnson buried her, and the Crow Indians who became his enemies built her a cairn out of respect to Johnson. That act led to a truce between Johnson and the Crow.
One of my favorite stories is of some women on a steamship asking a companion of Johnson’s whether he was married and he replied, “To a squaw, ma’am.” “Where is she now?” “I sent her to Rome.” “How wonderful! To Rome, Italy?” “No ma’am, to roam on the prairie.”
There are plenty of interesting stories of Johnson’s exploits. I recommend it with the warning that the vile racism and stories of the hundreds of Native Americans Johnson killed, sometimes cruelly, made for some uncomfortable reading. Perhaps that makes it an even more valuable book for me to have read, because it probably erased any lingering ideas that the lives of the mountain men were glamorous.