From the cloudy reservoir of history it is often difficult to separate legend from reality, and such is the case with the story of the infamous American mountain man John Johnston. It is certain that throughout his life he was known by many names, but most famously he came to be known at the time as “Crow Killer” and “Liver-Eating Johnson.”
It is said that he earned these names through his penchant for killing Crow Indians, then cutting out and eating their livers; a symbolic way of completing a revenge slaying. His personal war against the Crow tribe was an errand to avenge the murder of his wife, who had been killed by Crow warriors in 1847.
John Johnston was born sometime around 1824 as John Garrison, though little is known of his early life. Some say that he joined the navy as a young man to fight in the Mexican American War, but deserted after striking his superior officer during an unknown disagreement. In any case, when he was aged about twenty years he changed his name to John Johnston and headed west to become a hunter and fur trapper, setting out with Old John Hatcher as his guide.
Hatcher— an experienced mountain man of some repute— took Johnston to his cabin on the Little Snake River in northern Colorado. There, he taught Johnston the trapping, hunting, and survival skills which a mountain man needed in order to live and profit. Johnston caught on quickly, proving handy with his .30 caliber Hawken rifle and Bowie knife. When Hatcher quit the mountain-manning trade several years later, Johnston took over the cabin and set out for the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, where a year earlier a Flathead Indian sub-chief had offered his daughter to Johnston in a trade. Johnston made the exchange, and he and his new wife set off to return to his cabin on the Little Snake River.
During the journey of several weeks, Johnston had his wife begin to teach him the Salish language of her tribe out of respect for her, and he taught her how to use a rifle so that she might hunt to feed herself during the winter while he was away. Once they arrived at the cabin in early Autumn, Johnston spent the rest of the season putting together an ample supply of dry goods for her winter’s stay, and set out to do his trapping.
When he returned to his cabin in the following Spring, he was met with a gruesome scene. The remains of his wife— little more than bones after lying exposed for months— were lying in his cabin’s open doorway. It was clear that she had been the victim of a Crow hunting party. Even worse, amongst her bones was a smaller skull… that of his unborn child. She had been about seven months’ pregnant when she was killed.
Soon the scalped bodies of Crow warriors began to appear throughout the Northern Rockies and the plains of Wyoming and Montana. Each had had his liver cut out, and presumably eaten by the killer. Eventually other mountain men and Indians learned of Johnston’s ongoing vengeance slayings, and he soon became known as “Liver-Eating Johnson” (dropping the “t” in “Johnston”). Also known as “The Crow Killer,” he was waging a mortal, solitary battle against the whole Crow tribe, and no Crow warrior was safe from his wrath.
Many deaths followed. In time, the Crow decided to hand-pick their twenty best warriors and set them on a mission to hunt down and kill Johnston. How the battle played out, no one knows, but not one of the warriors would return.
Johnston’s killings continued for years, and the Crow seemed helpless to respond. But one winter, as Johnston was traveling over five hundred miles to visit his Flathead kin, he was ambushed by a group of Blackfoot warriors who intended to present him to the Crow for a handsome reward. The Blackfoot overtook Johnston and captured him, placing him in a teepee and binding him with leather straps. A young warrior guard was placed just outside. But Johnston turned out to be an unmanageable prisoner.
Inside where he couldn’t be seen, Johnston eventually managed to chew through the leather straps which bound him, and he slipped out of the exit. When he confronted the guard outside, Johnston— who was a large man of about six feet and two hundred pounds— landed a devastating blow to the man’s nose before he was able to act. Johnston wasted no time in taking the warrior’s knife, which he used to saw one of the Indian’s legs off at the hip. Armed with the leg as a blunt instrument and with the warrior’s knife, Johnston managed to fight his way out of the Blackfoot camp and make his escape into the woods.
As Johnston began the two hundred mile journey back to his cabin, the guard’s leg proved to be useful as more than just a weapon. He used it as a source of food for lack of anything better in the harsh winter, and it sustained him until he reached his destination.
After almost twenty years and countless Crow deaths, Johnston finally ended his vendetta against the Crow and made peace. This truce was so complete that he thereafter referred to the members of the Crow tribe as “his brothers.”
Liver-Eating Johnson never ate another human liver, but during the Civil War he did join the Union Army in St. Louis. He worked as a sharpshooter, and was honorably discharged the following year. During the 1880s he was appointed deputy sheriff in Leadville, Colorado and later as a town marshal in Red Lodge, Montana.
In December 1899, aged seventy-six years, the Crow Killer was admitted to a veteran’s hospital in Los Angeles, where he died on January 21, 1900. He had lived a long and adventurous life, and his story was passed on through the generations. While some of the events from his life are verifiable, many of the stories are no doubt improved upon from over a century of retelling and embellishment.