Thursday, October 24, 2013

John Jeremiah Liver-eating Johnston

During our recent trip to Montana and Wyoming, I discovered Cody, Wyoming. I had never been there, but always wanted to, partly because I always like the name. My youngest son is named Cody.

I wasn’t disappointed. The museums, attractions, and just the area itself are full of history and grandeur. 

One tidbit I learned about was John Jeremiah Liver-eating Johnston. His life was the inspiration behind the 1972 Robert Redford movie Jeremiah Johnson. I’d never realized the movie was based on a real man. 

Born in New Jersey in 1824, Johnston headed west to the Medicine Bow Mountains in Wyoming to become a tapper while in his early twenties. A few years later, as a man over six and half feet tall and weighing 250 pounds, he took a Flathead Indian wife and built a cabin near the Little Snake River. His life changed drastically when he arrived home one day to discover his wife and unborn child mutilated on the floor of his cabin. 

Deciphering they’d been killed by Crow, he went on the rampage against the Crow that lasted 12 years. Legend says he’d remove the liver of those he killed and take a bite out of it, or pretend to, in order to make an impression on his proclaimed enemies, hence giving him the name of Liver-eating Johnston.

In 1862 he went to Colorado and joined the Calvary to fight in the Civil War, though wounded, he continued serving until receiving an honorable discharge in 1865. Afterwards he was hired to provide meat for the Army Post in Wyoming. Later he worked his way into Montana where he started a wood yard to supply wood for the steamboats on the Missouri River. Following that, he became the first Marshal in Billings, Montana and a few years later, the first Sheriff in Red Lodge, Montana. 

Rheumatism set in during his aging years in the 1890’s and he found relief in the hot springs near Cody, Wyoming. The winter of 1899 his health failed and he was sent to the old soldier’s home in California, where he died in January of 1900.  

In 1974, with Robert Redford assisting in his re-burial, Johnston’s remains were transferred and laid to rest in Cody, Wyoming at The Old Trail Town museum.


  1. I loved that movie, Laurie but didn't know it was based on a real person. Gross on the liver business. Interesting post!

  2. Thanks for sharing, Lauri. I also didn't know the movie was based on a real person.

  3. While it's accurate to say that the character in Jeremiah Johnson was based on Jeremiah Johnston, the movie's plot takes a lot from Vardis Fisher's novel Mountain Man (which was also based on Johnston's life). But several of the events in the movie were in the Fisher novel.
    Jeremiah Johnson was one of the few movies I went back to see several times at theaters. I saw it first with a friend and then dragged several family members to see it.
    Vardis Fisher is an author nearly forgotten today, but he still deserves to be read. I just looked on Amazon and Mountain Man is available. One of the reviewers said the novel was much better than the movie (of course!) even though that reviewer also really liked the movie.

  4. This is one of my favorite movies, so hauntingly beautiful. I remember reading Vardis Fisher's "Mountain Man" as well, but I never knew of the liver-eating stuff until recently.

    Great post, Lauri.

  5. This is one of my favorite movies, so hauntingly beautiful. I remember reading Vardis Fisher's "Mountain Man" as well, but I never knew of the liver-eating stuff until recently.

    Great post, Lauri.

  6. Hi, Lauri. I have heard of Liver Eating Johnson and, in fact we were just talking about him on Petticoats and Pistols where I'm a filly Sister with Tanya Hanson.

    I love Jeremiah Johnson. My favorite moment in the movie is when Jeremiah is watching that bird fly and saying something like, "It'd take me two weeks to hike across that mountain and that eagle will be there in....heck, he's there already."

    It's just a powerful moment to me. About how hard that life was.

    Of course the movie is so ... you might say SLANTED in Jeremiah's favor. Of course the Crow killed his wife and son because he was FORCED to walk through their burial ground.

    Then they attacked HIM he was only defending himself. It sounds like HE went on a rampage against them. And, in fact, the story I read made it sound like he was an absolutely ruthless killer of Indians.

    Fisher's book cleaned that up and was more just a book trying to tell what the life of a mountain man was like, and Jeremiah Johnson was much like that, too.

    Will Geer. "Are you the same dumb pilgrim I've been hearing for twenty days and smelling for three?"

    I loved it. I've probably watched it a dozen times at least.

  7. Thank you for your post. It was most enlightening!

  8. I never saw the move Jeremiah Johnston--where was I? Oh, yes, I was in Oklahoma driving 25 miles back and forth every day to teach in a consolidated high school. I did nothing during 71-74 except work myself into the ground, along with my husband. Our kids were in elementary school. Hard years, for sure.
    But I heard about the movie probably a decade or two later, so I did sort of know the premise. I knew nothing about the liver -eating part--egads!--but he was a legend, for sure.
    And Robert Redford probably made a very good JJ.
    Thanks, Lauri, for the information. I love this group--always teaching and coming up with something new.

  9. Yes, Linda, the liver business is gross. I didn't know it was based on a real person, either. They had lots of pictures at the grave site of Robert Redford--that man is so attractive at all ages. Thanks for stopping!

    Thanks, Caroline! Ditto above.

    It certainly is a movie worth seeing more than once, Judith!

    It is a great movie, Tanya!

    I love Will Greer in that movie, too, Mary, and that line! Movies, and books, do slant things, don't they?

    Thanks, Karren.

    I know what you mean, Celia, the 80's were the years that was nothing but work and kids in school for us.

    Glad you all enjoy the post.


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