As a boy, I watched the 1972 classic movie, “Jeremiah Johnson” until the tape eventually got stuck in the VCR. The movie is very loosely based on the life of John Garrison, whose life is an even greater bundle of lore, fantasy and downright fairytale—with much of it taking place in the Montana Territory. The stories that make up Garrison’s life are the pinnacle of mountain man mythology.
We do know that Garrison was born in New Jersey to a surly, alcoholic father who worked his six children to the bone. To escape this life, Garrison worked on a schooner hunting whales for more than a decade. After enlisting in the Navy, he knocked the snot out of an officer and fled west once he got his shore leave back. Because he deserted, he changed his name to Johnston. And that’s when the tales emerge.
Road to Vengeance
The best-known tale (and how he got his nickname) centers on his quest for vengeance. Legend has is that Johnston married the Swan, daughter of a Flathead Chief. Johnston left his bride and unborn child behind one winter to trap and returned to find them murdered by the Crow. He went on to kill dozens of Crow warriors, carving out and eating the livers of his foes. When the Blackfeet captured him for the bounty the Crow had put on his head, he chewed through his rawhide handcuffs, beat up a guard, cut off the guard’s leg and used it as trail mix on his long road to vengeance. Then again, some documents reveal Johnston was still serving in the Navy when his revenge took place. Either way, we do know he moved to Coulson, Montana (now Billings) to work as a deputy sheriff. He built a cabin in the woods near Red Lodge to live out all but the last year of his life. He died in 1900 at the National Soldier’s Home in Santa Monica, California.