Culture

The story of Jeremiah Johnson, the Liver Eater, protagonist of the Robert Redford film

On January 21, 1900, one of the inmates of the residence for war veterans in Santa Monica, California, died. Despite his advanced age for the time, seventy-six, he was a big man who still retained some of the imposing appearance he had had in his youth, when he had reached six feet two inches in height and weighed a meager three hundred pounds. It was neither more nor less than John Jeremiah Johnson, a mountaineer, one of those legendary frontiersmen who shaped the history of the United States and whose life was brought to the cinema by director Sidney Pollack in 1972 with his fetish actor Robert Redford as the protagonist.

He was born in Hickory Tavern, New Jersey, around 1824. His parents were named Isaac and Eliza Garrison, and he had five sisters plus a brother who would die fighting in Virginia during the Civil War, in which he would also participate. The father, alcoholic and violent, gave him numerous beatings that probably influenced the brutal character that he himself would develop in the future, although they also toughened him to survive in the difficult conditions of survival that he would have to face in his hazardous and risky life.

This began when John, after being sent by Isaac to work on a farm to pay off some debts, and receiving treatment similar to that at home, chose to leave, joining a schooner as a cabin boy, at the age of twelve or thirteen. At sea, he first worked the hard trade as a whaler and then enlisted in the Navy, when men were required for the War with Mexico, falsifying his age. However, the profession of a sailor was not exactly suitable for someone lacking in self-control like him; when an officer punched a fellow officer, Jeremiah knocked him out, costing him a month without furloughs. After the sanction ended, he took advantage of a day when he went ashore and no longer returned to the ship.

Sidney Pollack movie poster

In the middle of the 19th century, the Far West appeared as a promised land for many people willing to start a new life, either due to lack of resources or due to lack of social integration. Since most of the country was virgin, the concept of the West applied to all the territory beyond the Appalachian Mountains, where only Indians lived who, obviously, did not count. So Jeremiah changed his last name to Johnson and headed first to California and then Colorado to try gold mining. With that same objective he later moved to Alder Guch, in Montana, where a group of prospectors had discovered that precious metal in 1863 and where, when the news spread, almost ten thousand people flocked there trying to make their fortune.

Johnson was one of them but, although the deposits proved to be very rich and favored the founding of mining towns that would later become cities, allowing the creation of the Montana Territory the following year (it would become a state of the Union in 1889 ), he had no luck, so he had to be used in other things. His imposing physique made it easy for him to work as a lumberjack, since river steamboats needed wood, but he also worked as a hunter, a salesman of homemade whiskey and even as a scout for the army, changing his last name again to that of his father, Garrison, since he was a fugitive. He fought against the Indians and it was then that the simple biography began to be tinged with legend.

That region belonged to the Crow tribe, whose members, logically, did not see the invasion of the whites with good eyes and acted accordingly. Around that time, the young woodcutter had taken a wife, Cisne, a Salish Indian (a people the first called smooth heads, in contrast to the habit of deforming the skulls of children that his neighbors had) with which he lived in a cabin in the woods and who bore him a son. In 1847, a party of Crows wiped out the family while he was away, and when he returned he went mad and became obsessed with revenge, vowing to kill any Crow he found and eat his liver; This detail was not free because, according to Indian beliefs, the liver was necessary for the afterlife.

Two more portraits of Johnson, the first is the oldest known and the other is from when he was a marshall at Red Lodge/Photo 1: Public Domain on Wikimedia Commons -Photo 2: Rocky Mountain College

Thus, Johnson would have killed hundreds of crows, skinning their bodies and devouring that organ, earning the nickname of Liver Eating (Liver Eater). He also scalped them and ended up becoming a kind of demonic figure for the natives, against which it was useless to send warriors to assassinate him because he always emerged victorious. Actually, current historians believe that all this is a myth derived from the sensationalist chronicles published in the press of the time, as well as from the fact that there were other frontier men surnamed Johnson whose adventures were mixed in a totum revolutum. On the other hand, Liver Eater it was a fairly common nickname.

What’s more, Jeremiah Johnson didn’t have a vendetta Particularly with the crows, with whom he seemed to get along reasonably well, but keep in mind that, in fact, he was not an angel either. He had become friends with another loose verse named JX Beidler, sharing both alcoholic excesses and violence, but that cannibalistic hobby seems false, to which he later became a creditor, after participating in a battle against the Sioux in 1868: he was cutting wood for the soldiers along with several companions when they were attacked and, in the fight, Johnson stabbed an Indian in the side; removing the blade he took a piece of liver, with which he joked to the others asking if they wanted a bite.

Another particularly memorable myth told of him was that while traveling to deliver a shipment of whiskey to his Salish relatives he was taken prisoner in an ambush by the Blackfeet, who sold it to the Crows, his deadly enemies. While he was in a tent, tied up and under the watchful eye of a warrior, he took advantage of his carelessness, managed to get rid of his bonds, kill him and cut off a leg that he took with him to feed himself for the days that his flight lasted, over hundreds of years. of kilometers. This unusual story actually corresponds to Boone Helm, another mountain man who lived in those difficult times and who was executed for murder and cannibalism. It is evident that Johnson’s life passed to posterity enriched with elements of those of others and, thus, its legendary character was modeled.

Crow warriors in 1903/Photo: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

In 1863, Johnson joined the Union Cavalry as a volunteer scout to fight in the Civil War. He lasted five days, deserting after spending all his pay on drink and leaving debts, although soon after he enlisted again in the 2nd Colorado Cavalry Regiment and took part in the battles of Westport and Newtonia, Missouri, where he received leg wounds. and shoulder respectively. After the contest ended in 1865, he was discharged and marched again to Montana; there he was reunited with Beidler and the two helped transport supplies and wood to the miners. This required crossing Sioux territory, constituting a dangerous occupation whose brave practitioners received the name of Wood Hawks; half a dozen of them died at the hands of the Indians in the summer of 1868.

Clashes with the Sioux were as constant as they were varied. If they stole the prey and skins that he obtained with his traps, he would set up a tent for them -as bait- with poisoned meat; if they attacked him by surprise in his own cabin, he would catch them off guard by shooting at them from a tunnel he had prepared under the ground. And so year after year, as he fought skirmish after skirmish under General Nelson Miles in his 1877 campaign against the Lakotas and their allies, who had defeated General Custer at Little Big Horn a year earlier. Johnson, by the way, also collaborated in the defeat of the Nez Percé that led to the capture of the famous chief Joseph. Of course, his relationship with the Indians was not always with arms in hand; Between 1868 and 1873, once again with Beidler at his side, he dedicated himself to selling whiskey to those in the so-called Whoop Up Territory (in what is now the province of Alberta, Canada), who regarded him as a bad spirit and avoided messing with him.

By then, Johnson was already in his fifties and these were beginning to weigh on him, so he chose to leave the lonely life in the mountains to eventually work for a stage company. In the eighties he was also an assistant to the sheriff of Coulson (present-day Billings) and acted as Marshall in Red Lodge, both in that Montana that they knew so well, participating in one of those Wild West shows that were in fashion. But age does not forgive and also the wound he received in the shoulder during the war was giving him problems, something not recommended in a job in the service of the Law, so when he turned seventy he retired and in 1899 he entered the aforementioned residence where he would end his days.

However, his mortal remains did not stay in Los Angeles and continued to travel after his death: in 1974 they were transferred to Old Trail Town, Cody (Wyoming), near Red Lodge, one of his favorite places in life, where he now rests in peace at last


Sources

Crow Killer. The saga of Liver-Eating Johnson (Raymond W. Thorp and Robert Bunker)/The legendary Mountain Men of North America (J.P. Walker)/The mythical West. An encyclopedia of legend, lore, and popular culture (Richard W. Slatta)/Liver Eating Johnston (Skyler Gabel in John Liver Eating Johnston)/Wikipedia


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