History is a passion for me, both my own family's and our country's. I am driven to learn all I can before it disappears into the mist.
"His name was Jeremiah Johnson, and they say he wanted to be a mountain man." These are the first words uttered in a film that would impact me for the remainder of my life. Jeremiah Johnson starred Robert Redford and few others, maybe a half dozen or so, actors in a magnificent film that ranks as my all time favorite. It set my feet on the path to becoming a trapper, a hunter, an outdoorsman. I desired to have a muzzleloader rifle and learn to hunt with this method because of this film. My youngest son is named for this film. I even had some knee high moccasins like his at one time. At times, I have been called Pasquinel, Bill Dance and Oscar Outdoors but in my heart I wanted to be Jeremiah Johnson. There's a part of me that still loves the thought of that lifestyle even as I know it can never be,
It was many years after seeing this for the first time that I learned that while this may have been a film, it was based in real life. No, Jeremiah Johnson did not exist, but John Johnston did and he lived what could easily be termed an exciting life.
This hyer's his story.
Jeremiah Johnson's story
The film was based on two books: Mountain Man by Vardis Fisher first published in 1965, and Crow Killer by Randall Thayer, first published in 1958. Between these two books you get a feel for what the real Johnston was like, who he interacted with, and what life in the early parts of the 1800's was like for those who turned their backs to society and made a living in the mountains of the western skies. I purchased Mountain Man on my only trip to Yellowstone, and bought Crow Killer years later. Mountain Man is largely a fiction story with some truths embedded within, while Crow Killer is based on facts gleaned by interviews with those who actually knew, hunted, trapped and lived with Johnston in his life. I will say that many of the stories in this book seem embellished, but yet not so. They are larger than life, stretching the imagination to great lengths before you realize that this was a real time, and his was a real life. To know a person lived a life such as this, that life in this time was like this is almost beyond my capability to understand. Even as I was drawn to a lifestyle like this, I can honestly say a little bit of me feared it and am glad I didn't live then.
How did he get the name Crow Killer?
Those of you who have watched the film may know how he received the name Dapiek Absaroka, which means Crow Killer in the Crow language. His Indian wife, known as Swan, and the child he adopted, Caleb, were killed when some young Crow braves found them while Johnston was away, and killed them both. This is both factual and not. He did have an Indian bride, but no adopted son. Instead, she was pregnant with their first child when she was killed. In Crow Killer, Johnston returns to find the cabin burned and her skeletal remains, complete with an unborn infant's, lying in the ruin. He collects a large kettle, places both skeletons inside and finds a location to secure them before beginning the hunt.
He finds and kills the ones who killed his bride. The Crow decide they cannot allow this to go unchallenged and send twenty braves on the warpath against him. They are to hunt him individually, on their own and are not allowed to return to their home until Johnston is dead.
None of them return home. The book details a few of these combats between Johnston and his adversaries. It also supplies the reason for his nickname of Liver Eatin' Johnston. Hint: he doesn't like Sioux livers.
In addition to being a Mountain Man...
Johnston was a mountain man, but he was also a man who cut and set out wood for passing river boats, a sheriff, and he was part of the Union Army during the Civil War. I learned that he was even part of a battle in Southwest Missouri, near a little town called Newtonia. Such a Johnston nut that I am, I went to Newtonia, looked around, and found an old house that was from that time period. I knocked on the door and spoke with the owner about his stone fence surrounding the property. I found that the fence predated the Civil War, and just across the road from this property is the monument for the Battle of Newtonia.
I asked the owner if I could take a stone from that fence, because Johnston might have been there during the battle. I was given permission, and secured myself a piece of history that is only important to me.
In his life he was a sheriff for Red Lodge, Montana. I have been to Red Lodge, and even seen the building he used at the time he was there. He took a couple of kids to a show there by hiding them under his coat and walking right in. They had no money to get in and were peeking through some holes to see what they could when he just grabbed them, placed them out of sight and took them inside.
It was evident from reading about him that he was a hard man, but fair. He eventually made up with the Crow and even went on the warpath with them against their enemies.
Keep your eyes along the skyline
In Crow Killer, one of the persons interviewed knew Johnston was dead and buried, but still was fearful of his reaction to telling stories about him. He finally relented, and what stories he shared. If you have the time and inclination, I highly recommend reading Crow Killer as it is a very enjoyable read, not too long and filled with the Old West. You get as peek at something long gone, never to return. It can be harsh, as when he describes his method of taking a scalp; and it can be tender, such as the description of how he laid his bride to rest, the cairn he built for it, and the protector that took its place on the cairn.
As the film says at the end,
"And some folks say he's up there still."
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Mr Archer