In 1972 Sydney Pollack directed the film “Jeremiah Johnson” starring Robert Redford. A jaded veteran of the Mexican War (1846-48), Jeremiah Johnson (Robert Redford) seeks solace and refuge in the West. He aims to take up the life of a mountain man, supporting himself in the Rocky Mountains as a trapper. The film itself was a huge critical and commercial success and to this day remains a much loved classic.
But who was the real “Jeremiah Johnson”? Where did the character come from and how much of the film was based on fact?
As it is, the character was in fact based off a real man whose own life story not only parallels the movie character but has become a legend in it’s own right. That man was John “Liver-Eating” Johnson also known as “Crow Killer”. Johnson is said to have been born near Little York, New Jersey, with the last name Garrison. Some accounts say that he joined the United States Navy in 1846. Research into his genealogy, however, has discovered that he would have been too young during the Mexican-American War. At some point, though, he did go to sea, and since at that time the Navy was commandeering vessels, this may have happened to Johnson. He did say he had been in the Navy when he joined the Union Army during the Civil War. After striking an officer, he deserted, changed his name to John Johnston, and traveled west to try his hand at the gold diggings in Alder Gulch, Montana Territory. He also became a “woodhawk,” supplying cord wood to steamboats. He was described as a large man, standing around six feet tall and weighing over two hundred pounds. (Source: Wikipedia)
There have been countless tall tales and legends ascribed to Johnson as with most of the trailblazers and mountain men of the time. One such tale is that in 1847 his native american wife was killed by the Crow people which prompted Johnson to engage in a 12 year vendetta against the Crow. According to legend, Johnson would cut out and eat the liver of each Crow warrior he killed. This was considered an insult to the Crow. This is likely the tale that garnered his nick-name.
There is no real way of telling whether or not these stories are accurate but beyond the tall-tales and legends, the man who was Jack Johnson was of the type that helped to explore and settle America. A true individual and trailblazer for his time.