John “Liver Eating” Johnson – Mountain Man and Lawman


John "Liver-Eating" Johnson

John “Liver-Eating” Johnson

John “Liver-Eating” Johnson is known in history as a sailor, mountain man, Indian fighter, and lawman who earned the moniker of “Liver-Eating” because he allegedly killed a number of Crow Indians and ate their livers.

His real name was John Garrison Johnston and he was born in Little York, New Jersey in July of 1824 to Isaac and Eliza Garrison.

He joined the Navy during the Mexican-American War, but after striking an officer, he deserted and changed his name to John Johnston. He then traveled to Montana where he worked as a trapper, miner, wagon master, scout, tour guide, whiskey peddler, and supplier of cordwood to passing steamboats. He also served with the Union during the Civil War.

Johnston is purported to have married a Flathead woman named the Swan, who was said to have been killed by the Crow. He then supposedly waged a personal war against the Crow, killing any Crow warrior he saw. Neither of these legends actually occurred because Johnston’s military records tell us he was a sailor, onboard ship, during the Mexican American War. Similarly, Johnston never did eat anyone’s liver. One day during a Sioux battle, he jokingly told his companions he ate a piece of liver. Hence, his nickname, “Liver-Eating” Johnson,” was earned through a macabre joke.

Johnston became the constable of Coulson/Billings, Montana in the early 1880s. He also served as a town marshal in Red Lodge, Montana in the 1890s. In December 1899, he was admitted to a veteran’s hospital in Los Angeles, California where he died the next month on January 21, 1900, of peritonitis. He was buried in nearby Sawtelle National Cemetery.

However, in the early 1970s, his body was moved to Cody, Wyoming, where it now rests at Old Trail Town with several other local old west characters. A number of legends surround Johnston, some of which are the basis for the movie Jeremiah Johnson.

By Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated December 2020.

Also See:

Trading Posts of the Mountain Men

The Great Fur Trade Companies

Trappers, Traders & Pathfinders


4 thoughts on “John “Liver Eating” Johnson – Mountain Man and Lawman”

  1. Sorry for my english (in Belgium, french is my native langage).
    Recently I have bought the book “Crow Killer”(by W. Thorp & R. Bunker). What a mistake!!!
    This book is a compilation of testimony from moutains men Johnston friend’s (who aren’t not present at the material time).
    For me it’s pure legends and collection of impossible facts .
    The book is only a suite of bloody anecdotes absolutly not interresting or exciting…
    Why? Because Johnston is able to kill 300 crows (?) (who have make the count?) and survive in any situation (against Blackfeet, crow, Nez Percés, Sioux, or grizzly).

    Furthermore, for me, the book is very imprecise with the historical contexte. The authors use names of reals tribes but only in order to create violent irrelative anecdotes between thoses tribes.

    for example:
    – Never I hear that 60 “nez Percés” have been killed by mountain men, crows ans Shoshones (neither 1870).
    – Historical context during the sioux campaign 1877 is imprecis.
    – Young Johnston, who just arrived on Frontier, kill and scalp Indians right from the start. Just like that, just like that one moutain men firing on Indians every day and night.
    – Johnston will be abble to kill 5 sioux only with his hands during one fight during a “Rendez-vous”.
    When we read that, never can we imagine that indians warriors (Crow, Blackfeet, Sioux, Cheyenne,…Apache, Commanche) learn to fight since the age of 12.

    – And many other exageration (the killing of the grizzly)

    So I was disapointed by an uninteresting story (who killing 10 “Injuns” every day is normal) and the fact that this “literary genre” discredited real history approch of the west and create only a folklore of history builded with legend and exageration. In the case, one legend of violence, a cock-and-bull story.

    One of the most well know mountain men, Jedediah Smith have participated only in few fight against Indians (between 1823 and 1831)… And when he was killed, I was… alone.
    I mean, when one man fight alone against several warriors, the result is the dead for the man. With lucky, He can survive once … not ten times.

    So my point of view.

      1. “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” (The man who shoot L. Valance. 😉

        However, a good story don’t need 250 killed because nobody believe it…
        20 years ago, I saw one volume of the traveler’s tale of the Lewis and Clark expedition… very more exciting story than Johnston affabulation. And without really battle (only one fight against Blackfoot and… 2 Indians deads).
        If you read “the crow killer”, you can not understand how it’s possible to realise one so long expedition during 3 years through many differents tribes… without real problem.

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