Johnson was a legend, indeed, since few original sources mention him. There were multiple men named Johnson who lived in the west in that era, but he was distinguished by his nickname. Supposedly, the mountain man was born in New Jersey with the surname Garrison and served on a naval ship in the Mexican-American War. He deserted after striking an officer.
That's when he changed his name to John Johnson and headed to Alder Gulch, Montana Territory, to dig for gold. He may have cut wood and stacked them into cords for steamboats. He stood six foot or six foot two, around 260 pounds without a bit of body fat from all the hard work he did as a sailor, gold miner, wood-hawk, hunter, trapper, scout, soldier, whiskey-peddler, log cabin builder, deputy, guide, constable -- whatever he could do to earn money.
Several tales of Liver Eating Johnson - that of being attacked by a band of Blackfeet who planned to sell him to the Crow, escaping and surviving by eating the legs of a captor, may be attributed to another and far more notorious mountain man of that era, killer and cannibal Boone Helm. Other famous mountain men include Kit Carson, Jim Bridger, Old Bill Williams, James Clyman, John Colter, David Edward Jackson, Jedediah S. Smith, Doc Newell and Jonathan Warner.
Despite his former desertion under a different name, Johnson enlisted in the Union Army in 1864, Company H, 2nd Colorado Cavalry, and received an honorable discharge in 1865. He returned to Montana, preferring solitude, but did serve as deputy sheriff in Coulson and as town marshal in Red Lodge in the 1880s. By the end of his life, however, he spent his last month in a veterans home in Santa Monica, California. Johnson's body was relocated to Cody, Wyoming, from a Los Angeles cemetery after a 5th grade class and the teacher campaigned for it. The bronze statue below stands above Liver Eating Johnson's grave at Old Trail Town.
The Avenging Fury of the Plains: John Liver Eating Johnston. Dennis J. McLelland, Infinity Publishing, 2008.
Tales of the Mountain Man. Lamar Underwood, Editor, Lyons Press, 2004.
Jim Bridger, Mountain Man. Stanley Vestal, University of Nebraska Press, 1970.
Mystery author Meg Mims lives in Southeastern Michigan with her husband and a 'Make My Day' Malti-poo dog. Meg loves writing novels, short novellas and short stories, both contemporary and historical. Her Spur and Laramie Award winning books - Double Crossing and Double or Nothing - are now among the Prairie Rose Publications book list. Meg is also one-half of the D.E. Ireland team writing the Eliza Doolittle & Henry Higgins Mystery series for St. Martin's Minotaur. Wouldn't It Be Deadly, Book 1, is out now! Book 2, Move Your Blooming Corpse, will be out in 2015. You can find Meg (and D.E. Ireland) on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest.