Who was this man?
“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
On June 8, 1974, Linda Burgin got a lot closer to the real Jeremiah Johnson and the man who played him in a movie than she would have ever imagined. Linda, along with her aunt and her four-year-old daughter, all living in Burlington, North Carolina, decided to take an “adventurous” road trip out west.
Linda never suspected that poor driving conditions in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming and the resultant detour would serendipitously land the travelers in Cody, Wyoming.
She remembers it this way: “We drove all the way around the southern tip of the Big Horns, stopping at Thermopolis, then continuing on to Cody where we spent the night. We heard about the reinterment of John Jeremiah Liver-Eating Johnston on the radio somewhere between Casper and Thermopolis, adding, “I knew we must attend.”
Linda, already a fan of the 1972 movie, Jeremiah Johnson, saw this as an opportunity to pay her respects to the real Jeremiah Johnston and get a gander at Robert Redford all in one fell swoop.
“Unfortunately, I did not get to meet Robert Redford, however, I did get close enough to reach out and touch him, but decided to get a picture instead.” Linda said.
Linda is a bit of an adventurer herself. I was there when she and her husband Bruce Burgin summited the Grand Teton Mountain in August of 1989 – Linda led the final dizzying pitch to the summit.
Regarding Johnston’s second burial, Linda added, “We were happy to be there and witness a tiny bit of the history of the west, even if it just happened to be ‘liver eating’ Jeremiah Johnston. That was one of my all-time favorite vacations.”
So, who was the real Jeremiah Johnston, and why does he have so many names?
The truth of the matter is that we humans have a natural propensity for indulging in nostalgia. It is the proverbial “walk down memory lane.” We revisit better times, or at least that is how we remember them.
Some stories, like Jeremiah Johnson, tap into our sense of adventure. Such stories kindle our desire to leave it all behind. With movies, we can join the ranks of those who really did “leave it all behind.” And eat popcorn and Sno-Caps at the same time.
It is not surprising that the movie struck such a chord in so many of us.
But in reality, the mountain man known as John Liver-Eating Johnston was not exactly like the character portrayed by Robert Redford. So, in this episode of For Your Consideration, we will attempt to separate fact from fiction.
Yet, not at a cost to either man; the one that lived in the 1800s informed and inspired the movie.
John Jeremiah Liver-Eating Johnston, aka John Garrison Johnston, aka Jeremiah Johnston.
The man that would later be billed as John Liver-Eating Johnston was born July 1, 1824, near Patterson, New Jersey. Depending on the source, his birth name was John Garrison Johnston or John Jeremiah Garrison.
After striking an officer on board a fighting ship he was assigned to during the Mexican American War, he went AWOL and assumed the name Johnston.
Even the middle name, Jeremiah, cannot be confirmed as being used by Johnston.
In the movie, Jeremiah arrives at the foothills of the Rockies wearing a military cap and striped trousers. This may be alluding to the fact that the real mountain man may have been a deserter, as, indeed, some sources claim.
Liver-Eating Johnston’s motivation for going west and becoming a mountain man was likely the same one that drove an estimated 3,000 men to the western mountains. Although their ultimate goal was trapping and hunting, many mountain men started off panning for gold and various other means of support.
Most of the mountain men worked for the half-dozen or so large fur companies. Some 300 men were freelance trappers and sold their furs to the highest bidder at the annual rendezvous.
The mountain man lifestyle must have been healthy as the majority who weren’t killed by Indians or bears lived an average of 64 years. This was when the average lifespan was a bit over 40 years.
The peak of the fur trade was during the years 1820 to 1840. It sharply declined after 1840 due to over-trapping and monopolization of the fur industry by the Hudson Bay Company.
This turn of events forced the mountain men to take jobs such as scouting and guiding. Indeed, the mountain men are credited with opening up the west to the pioneers.
Johnston’s career as a mountain man started as a “woodhawk.” He cut firewood and sold it to the steamboats that plied the western rivers at that time.
You may remember a scene in the movie Jeremiah Johnson when Bear Claw Kris Lapp advises Johnson, “You’ve learned well, pilgrim. You’ll go far, provided you ain’t burnt alive, or scalped. You can cut wood and leave it up on the ‘Judith.’ The riverboat captains will leave you gold if you put out a pouch.” *
Although Bear Claw was a friend of Liver-Eating Johnston, a man named John Hatcher taught Johnston the trade of the mountain man. Hatcher became famous for his many abilities, including hunting, trapping, scouting and exploring new areas of the West.
A large portion of Johnston’s life is a bit murky on factual details. Johnston did have quite a résumé, to be sure. He is known to have been a guide, prospector, military scout, law enforcement officer, and even a cabbage farmer.
But, he also had a stint working the Wild West Shows that were hugely popular during this period. It is known that Johnston was an extravagant self-promoter. So, we have to take many of his alleged exploits with a grain of salt.
That said, the portion of the movie when Jeremiah Johnson wages a campaign of revenge against the Crow Indians for the killing of his wife and Caleb, borrows heavily from exaggerated stories of disparate sources.
Some sources claim that Jeremiah Liver-Eating Johnston’s Flathead wife and unborn child were indeed killed by a Crow hunting party. Tales circulating among the mountain men allege that he killed more than 300 Crow braves in revenge for their murder.
And, it is said, Johnston took the additional step of removing and eating the liver to terrorize the Crow. Sources further allege that the Crow believe that eating the liver prevents entry into the afterlife.
I wonder, did anyone ever check with the Crow tribe to see if any of these allegations are true? Stories are often concocted without regard for the truth concerning the customs and history of indigenous peoples.
To further muddy the waters, there are suggestions that Johnston’s story was cross-contaminated with that of a character named Boone Helm, who was a known cannibal during the same period.
This story claims that Johnston was captured by Blackfeet warriors with plans to turn him over to the Crow – his sworn enemy. According to this gruesome tale, Johnston was subdued and tied up with a lone guard left to watch over him.
He broke out of his bonds and killed his captor and escaped, but only after severing one of the man’s legs. He reportedly ate the leg during his near-naked journey to Del Gue’s cabin, some 200 miles away.
Maybe this whole chapter of Johnston’s life is inflated for the benefits of self-promotion. Particularly so in the Wild West Shows, which he was involved in later in his life.
This is a reminder that movies seldom depict our heroes as they really were. They are, after all, human, and with all the faults and foibles that entails. Even if most of the stories about Liver-Eating Johnston are pure unadulterated bulls**t, he was, in fact, a true mountain man and a colorful character at that.
Crippled by arthritis, John Liver-Eating Johnston died in a veteran’s home in Santa Monica, California, on January 21, 1900. He was buried with military privileges in a veterans cemetery in Los Angeles.
His final wish to be buried in the northwest mountains was ignored. That is until a Cody, Wyoming, artist decided to do something about it.
In 1973, Robert Edgar corroborated with friend and seventh-grade history teacher Tri Robinson to obtain permission and the funds to reinter the remains of Johnston and place a monument on the spot.
Robinson and his 25 students took on the reburial of Johnston as a stunningly successful class project.
And so, Linda Burgin, her Aunt Lessie, daughter Gail, and 2,000 other admirers of Johnston assembled in Cody, Wyoming, on June 8, 1974. Robert Redford officiated over the ceremony granting Johnston’s final wish.
The stone and bronze monument simply states, JOHN JEREMIAH LIVER EATING JOHNSTON 1824 – 1900 “NO MORE TRAILS.”
The protracted name on the memorial is evidently meant to satisfy every iteration of Johnston’s life, including the film version, Jeremiah Johnson
Next week in For Your Consideration, we will depart from the testosterone-charged braggadocio and cumbersome ego that is the province of men. Instead, we’ll meet some of the toughest and most able-bodied women who have ever walked the earth.
And, because we will be reading only about females, we can expect much more truth and far less inflated tales than those offered by the stories of the mountain men.
Author’s Note: Why would anyone want, or even cultivate, a moniker such as Jeremiah Liver-Eating Johnston? I was saddled at an early age with the unfortunate nickname of Ken Pie-Eating Springer.
And, even that relatively benign name has caused me much aggravation at times. Though, in retrospect, it turned out to be quite fitting, as well. I am comfortable with the implications.
Watch your topknots, readers.
A huge thanks to Linda Burgin up in Beckley, West Virginia, for sharing her story.
* The Judith River is a tributary of the Missouri River, running through central Montana.