Trailing a Wild West Character to His Graves

Times Staff Writer

He's identified with the wilderness, the West and the mountains of Montana and Wyoming -- but for more than 70 years his body lay in Los Angeles, the city of concrete and automobiles.

The mountain man carved his niche in the American frontier as a legendary Indian fighter, inspiring books and becoming immortalized as "Jeremiah Johnson" in the 1972 film starring Robert Redford. He was born as John Garrison and changed his name to John Johnston, with a T, after an altercation in the Navy. But newspapers often misspelled his name as Johnson.

He spent much of his life in Montana and Wyoming but lived his final months at the Old Soldiers Home in what was then the town of Sawtelle, now the Veterans Administration Hospital in West Los Angeles. When he died in 1900, penniless and without known relatives, he was buried in the military cemetery.

There he stayed for nearly three-quarters of a century. Then in 1972, a middle school teacher in the Antelope Valley town of Lancaster became fascinated by his story after reading "Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson," by Raymond Thorp and Robert Bunker. The book recounted Johnston's exploits as a soldier and Indian fighter and noted that he had been buried in Los Angeles.

After further research, the teacher, Tri Robinson, learned that Johnston had wanted to be interred in his old stomping grounds in the northern Rockies. He shared the book with his seventh-grade students.

"The kids got all upset that Johnston was buried near the San Diego Freeway," said Robinson, who is now pastor of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship Church in Boise, Idaho. "A friend of mine at the Old Trail Town in Cody, Wyo., said if we could get permission to move him, they would pay for everything else.

"Then the movie came out that fall, and the kids got even more excited. They wrote letters to legislators and Veterans Administration officials and even Redford. Soon everyone was behind the project."

Robinson's students at Park View Middle School began calling themselves the Committee for the Reburial of Liver-Eating Johnston. "Half the class got to go to his disinterment and the other half went to his reinterment," Robinson said.

In 1974, more than 2,000 people paid homage at Johnston's new burial ground, the gateway to Yellowstone National Park. Redford was a pallbearer -- the only one who didn't dress as a frontiersman.

But Johnston's life hasn't been as easy to resolve as his gravesite. Researchers are still trying to unravel the truth behind the man, who perpetuated his own mythologies -- as a poetry-loving hunter, an Indian-hating killer and cannibal, a soldier and a mountain man.

The name Jeremiah was concocted for the film, said Nathan Bender, a historian and archivist at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody. But there was already plenty of fabrication and fantasy about Johnston.

"There's a real mishmash of material out there, including dozens of stories that can be attributed to Johnston himself," Bender said.

America learned of John Johnston first "when the Washington Post mistakenly published his premature obituary, in January 1878, more than 20 years before his death," Bender said. The obituary portrayed "him as a vicious frontiersman who killed Indians as a pastime" or as revenge for his wife's supposed murder, Bender wrote in an article published by a historical journal in 2004. Other papers picked up on his reported death and his "revolting cannibalistic deeds," Bender wrote.

Amid fact and myth, Johnston lived when the West was a wilderness, when the skill, courage and self-reliance of the individual determined whether he lived or died.

Born in Little York, N.J., in 1824, he served in the Navy during the Mexican War, according to Dennis McLelland, 58, a retired high school counselor in North Carolina who found Johnston's birth name, Garrison, in military records.

"He deserted the Navy after he struck an officer," McLelland said, "and changed his name to John Johnston." Then he began fighting Indians, grizzlies and Mother Nature. He also supplied firewood to steamships along the Missouri River and mined for gold in Nevada.

Johnston's legend, which he later denied, holds that he married a Flathead Indian woman in the northern Rockies before the Civil War. While he was away hunting, the legend goes, his pregnant wife was killed and scalped by a raiding party of Crow Indians. In retaliation, he supposedly waged his own war in which he single-handedly fought and killed more than 300 Crow warriors.

Bender discounted that tale. The Crow, he said, were known as "strong allies of the Americans throughout the entire frontier history of the region."

During the Civil War, Johnston joined the Army as a scout for the 2nd Regiment, Colorado Volunteer Cavalry. Afterward, he set out for the West once more, meandering several thousand miles across the nation and, according to legend, reconciling with the Crow.

Other tales had Johnston poisoning a batch of biscuits with strychnine and leaving them for the Indians to eat or even tainting blankets with smallpox, then giving them to Indians.

Stories of cannibalism attached themselves to Johnston too -- as happened when he supposedly was held prisoner by Canadian Indians. He killed a guard, cut off the man's leg and walked out, chewing on the leg, the story goes.

How much of this is true, if any, is obscured by the fact that Johnston relished perpetuating his own myths. In an 1868 letter to a Montana newspaper editor, he wrote that he got the "Liver Eating" nickname through a misunderstanding.

After a battle with the Sioux, he wrote, he cut out the liver of a young warrior he had killed and asked a friend if he wanted a bite. "He refused but told everyone he seen me eating the Indian liver," Johnston wrote. "But I don't eat any ... just rubbed it over my mouth to make the man think I was eating it."

Johnston repeated the story over the years, reveling in his audiences' reaction and adding additional mutilated Sioux to the telling.

"He took advantage of his ghoulish name" to stoke his notoriety, Bender said.

Johnston was actually a great friend of the Crow, the "only white man they knew who would eat raw deer liver with them," Bender said. The name "Liver Eater" was adopted as a Crow name out of respect for Johnston, he wrote.

Johnston worked as a whiskey trader and a fur trapper in the 1870s and as a civilian Army scout during the Indian wars of 1877-78. He served as a deputy sheriff in Coulson, Mont., for a few years before trying to turn his frontier fame into money by starting a Wild West show.

Partnering with Martha Jane Canary, better known as "Calamity Jane," and many of his Crow friends, he regaled townsfolk across the Great Plains with his exploits fighting the "whole Sioux Nation."

After less than two years on the road, the show went belly up; troupe members had to sell their horses to get home. Johnston went back to work, spending a decade as a constable in Red Lodge, Mont.

As his health failed in late 1899, he hopped a train and headed for the Old Soldiers Home, where he died at age 76.

Even now, much of the legend clings to Johnston's reputation, along with a little stardust.

"Most people visiting Johnston's gravesite in Cody think it's the grave of Jeremiah Johnson," Bender said. But the gravestone inscription reads: "John 'Jeremiah Liver Eating' Johnston."

That he was buried at Cody -- named for Buffalo Bill Cody -- proved controversial. In the early 1970s, when the Lancaster students were campaigning to move Johnston's body, a Montana congressman wanted him buried in Red Lodge instead.

"He didn't even like Buffalo Bill Cody," Rep. John Melcher said. "He once got in a fistfight with him."

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