Crow Killer, New Edition: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson

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The movie Jeremiah Johnson introduced millions to the legendary mountain man, John Johnson. The real Johnson was a far cry from the Redford version. Standing 6'2" in his stocking feet and weighing nearly 250 pounds, he was a mountain man among mountain men, one of the toughest customers on the western frontier. As the story goes, one morning in 1847 Johnson returned to his Rocky Mountain trapper's cabin to find the remains of his murdered Indian wife and her unborn child. He vowed vengeance against an entire Indian tribe. Crow Killer tells of that one-man, decades-long war to avenge his beloved. Whether seen as a realistic glimpse of a long ago, fierce frontier world, or as a mythic retelling of the many tales spun around and by Johnson, Crow Killer is unforgettable. This new edition, redesigned for the first time, features an introduction by western frontier expert Nathan E. Bender and a glossary of Indian tribes.

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1 The Making of a Legend

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The Making of a Legend

One May morning in 1847, Crow Indians killed and scalped John Johnston’s pregnant wife; for many years thereafter, he killed and scalped Crow Indians. Then he ate their livers, raw.

He ate them not for hunger’s sake but upon principle—just what principle, his whole life’s history may suggest. Other tribes than the Crows could arouse his anger—the Blackfeet indeed once shamed and mistreated him, their captive—but one tribe only did Johnston dreadfully humiliate. He was Dapiek Absaroka, the Killer of Crows.

As such he was feared; his fame served him almost as a weapon. Indians ambushing him, with every tactical advantage, broke and ran when he killed but one of them. As Crow Killer he might expect captivity and, therefore, the chance to escape when taken by other tribes, who would naturally hope to sell him dear to his special foes. On other occasions, as an awesome ally, Johnston could turn tribe against tribe and take for himself, in the warfare that followed, a highly profitable harvest of scalps. His first insane lust for revenge was surely real, whether provoked by the death of one he loved or by mere hurt to his pride; but the reputation it brought him was to become an extraordinary business asset. As John Johnston, the young trapper had already won a name for his strength and quick learning of wilderness ways.

 

2 The Hair Merchants

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The Hair Merchants

Late in the afternoon of a quiet autumn day in 1843 the steamer Thames, up from St. Louis, swung round into the famous landing eddy at St. Joseph. A blue haze, as of Indian summer, stretched from the far-off Rocky Mountains across the prairies to the Missouri, enveloping the trading post and the bright-leaved Blacksnake Hills. As the gangplank came down and the passengers walked ashore, the travelers found themselves under surveillance by the town’s loungers, by beady-eyed Indian braves looking for who knows what, and by white riffraff hoping for some chance job worth the price of a drink.

One young passenger started up the dusty street, his belongings in a skin sack thrown over his shoulder. A brawny river tramp, heaving himself with a mighty effort out of the dirt, tried to seize the bag and was knocked down for his pains. With a roar of rage he was back on his feet, fists clenched. The young man swung his bag to the roadway, turned, and looked at the fellow.

 

3 An Apprenticeship

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An Apprenticeship

When John Johnston went into the mountains with Old Hatcher, beaver had virtually disappeared and trappers had to take lesser animals. Hudson Bay agents and the despised “boughten Frenchies”—“mangeurs du lard”—encroached more and more upon the Mountain Men—trappers who prided themselves as white American freemen. Hatcher had specialized for years in the trapping of bear and mink, so he and Johnston went after these animals. Their years together shaped Johnston’s whole career. Naturally, the latter devised his own skills (his surprise kicks) and developed his physical capacities (notably his sense of smell). Yet, even though he improved on what others taught him (for one thing, Hatcher’s scalping technique), the fact remains that he was taught. His associates in his first years in the mountains, Hatcher, Bill Williams, “Bear Claw” Chris Lapp, and “Del” Gue, were remarkable men in their chosen field. The myth of Liver-Eating Johnson presents no hero sprung forth full-developed and ready for desperate adventures. Johnston’s learning was remarkably apt; but he himself, in his own words, made clear the fact that he had had to learn.

 

4 A Madness

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A Madness

In his very earliest days as a trapper, John Johnston undertook a prosaic but profitable sideline. Five miles above the mouth of the Musselshell, in east central Montana, he set up a woodyard, where for many years (in times of lean trapping) he cut and dried and piled cordwood for the use of Missouri river steamboats. Here steamboats “wooded up,” the captains depositing paper-money payment in a knothole in a cottonwood.1

And here, in the summer of 1846, Johnston returned with “Bigfoot” Davis from some highly profitable trading among the Flatheads. He had, incidentally, turned down a subchief’s offer to sell him his daughter.

Johnston found some money in his tree-safe; and now the two separated, Bigfoot going down the Missouri to a trading post, and Johnston riding southward along the Musselshell. He was heading directly toward a wilderness tragedy.2

Having heard the call of the West, sold his Connecticut farm, and transported his family to Independence, Missouri, John Morgan, like other emigrants who traveled by wagon, put in his own supplies for the journey and then joined a train up the Oregon Trail. All went well for the Morgans until (as White-Eye recorded) the train reached a point near the present town of Beatrice, Nebraska; there Morgan quarreled with the train boss and decided to go it alone. His start was near the Big Blue, not many miles from the point where Old Hatcher had taught Johnston his first lesson in caution. Stupid indeed was John Morgan to leave the protection afforded by a large train of prairie schooners with his wife, two small sons, and an eighteen-year-old daughter. But headstrong was many a man who left his Eastern farm for the dangers, rigors, and vicissitudes of a harsh wilderness.

 

5 Oath of Vengeance

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Oath of Vengeance

Del Gue knew in the spring of 1847 that his partner had something on his mind. Partners often enough separated for the winter, then split their accumulated profits—simply in order to lessen the likelihood of a bad season for both; and it was agreed that the following winter Del would trap in the Big Snow Mountains while Johnston operated from his old headquarters in the Uintahs. But Johnston was proposing that they take separate trails now.

“Ye kin tek them furs inter Lar’mie, Del,” he said of their huge catch of the winter just past. He did not elaborate, and Del made no issue. Perhaps he had heard Bigfoot Davis’s story of the Flathead subchief who offered Johnston his daughter in trade. Surely he needed no assistance in selling furs, or in purchasing their year’s supplies. So when the snow turned to water in the canyons, the partners packed their catch into small bundles and tied them on two pack horses; Del mounted and set out for the trading post at the Fort. Johnston too packed a pair of horses with likely gifts for an Indian, and set out for the Wind River range.

 

6 A Man’s Reputation

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A Man’s Reputation

It was in 1848 that the first news of Johnston’s despoiling of the Crows spread through the West. Over vast territory where white men’s campfires were few, far from the Absaroka’s own lands and indeed wherever they hunted or traded, Crow warriors’ bodies—and only Crow warriors’ bodies—were found mutilated in special fashion: not merely scalped but cut beneath the ribs, and the livers removed. Del Gue, Bear Claw Chris, and Bigfoot Davis answered what questions were put to them: Johnston, they said, was eating these livers. What Johnston’s motive was, they did not say; few knew even that Johnston had taken The Swan to wife, so short had been their time together. The general knowledge of Johnston’s motives among the scattered inhabitants of that wilderness resulted only from an anonymous Indian’s accidental spying out of a visit to his bones.

Naturally, the vendetta could not remain hidden. Within half a year Johnston became the Crow Killer (Dapiek Absaroka), or Liver-Eating Johnson. Forty-niners on their way to dig California gold heard the tales as they passed through mountain country and carried them to the coast. Mountain Men made an epic of the story. Many of them had, when hard enough put, eaten human flesh—but limbs, of course, never inner organs.

 

7 Twined Scalps

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Twined Scalps

Now the lands of the Crows, in mid-nineteenth century, were much as the fur trader LaRoque had reported them fifty years before. As described in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, the boundaries ran thus:

Commencing at the mouth of Powder River, on the Yellowstone; thence up Powder River to its source; thence along the main range of the Black Hills and Wind River mountains to the head waters of the Yellowstone; thence down the Yellowstone to the mouth of Twenty-five Yard Creek; thence to the head waters of the Musselshell River; thence down the Musselshell to its mouth; thence to the head waters of Big Dry Creek; and thence to its mouth.

But Crows had ridden far from tribal lands to seek out and kill The Swan. The Crow Killer would pursue them, likewise, on these “their” lands or wherever they might ride.

Far away to the west, even beyond Fort Benton and the headwaters of the Missouri, there lay a country wild and primeval, its great mountains alive with wild game: the country of the Bitter Root Mountains. Here, each spring, came the Crows. This was Flathead country now; these fabled hunting grounds of many tribes, these green valleys and tortuous streams beneath looming peaks that had seen the wars of so many peoples, were not open to Crow hunters except as they came for war or on specified business.

 

8 Crow against Flathead

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Crow against Flathead

Johnson knew he had no time to lose; the Crows would be no more than a day or two in rounding up their horses, and he had delicate negotiations to complete with the Flatheads before their arrival. As was his custom on the trail, he slept little, traveling from long before sunup until long after sunset. He camped briefly—always on rising ground, where he could see afar. He knew, as he later said, that the Crows were never any more than one day behind him; no doubt scouts had surveyed the neighborhood after his departure, discovered the mutilated sentry, and so learned the identity of the killer.

After he had pushed his big black almost beyond endurance, he sighted the foothills of the Bitter Roots. The horse faltering within five miles of the Flathead encampment, and soon stumbling to its knees, Johnson sprang clear, drew his Walker Colt, and shot the suffering animal. He carried in his saddle, bridle, and roll, with some small help the last half-mile from Indian boys out lizard-hunting.

 

9 Winter Holiday, Spring Council

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Winter Holiday, Spring Council

Thirty-six scalps were like money in the bank—and Liver-Eating Johnson was a thrifty man, with no merely conventional vices. Once home, he doffed his new Crow white-skin suit and put on old and greasy skins. He never drank. He would live simply and quietly this winter; though he gave Del two hundred pounds of coffee and sugar and salt and dried fish, his expenditures from his new capital came to no more than eleven scalps, spent at Bridger’s trading post. He would give this winter to putting his house in order, literally. Del set off, with one of Johnson’s pack horses as gift “to take the load off’n his jughead,” for the cabin on the Musselshell.

Working only when the spirit moved him, Johnson soon transformed his single bare room into a comfortable haven. In a fortnight he had mudded up the chinks in the walls, hung buffalo robes about them, and spread three beautiful bear rugs—two black, one from a grizzly—on the earthen floor. He cut and dragged a huge supply of firewood from the riverbank. He thatched the walls and roof of the tattered corral and dragged in a supply of grasses from the valley floor, for his horses’ bedding and food. Inside by the glowing fire, he had woman’s work to do as well, the mending of his clothes.

 

10 … A Missing Chapter

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… A Missing Chapter

Fortunately, perhaps, John Johnson never told how he destroyed twenty such Crow warriors, one by one; and since during the years when he killed the first seventeen of them he still kept himself pretty much alone, fellow Mountain Men observed his killing of only two.

No doubt the story of all twenty killings would illustrate the full extent of Johnson’s craft and above all his capacity for estimating others’ craft, his readiness for his opponents’ every variety of move. But in any such story the refrain—“He snapped off the scalp, he carved under the ribs, he ate the dripping liver”—must become not merely monotonous but intolerably sickening. Liver-Eating Johnson likely served his saga best by leaving this chapter to his contemporaries’, and our, imaginations.

Only one fact did he provide: that each of the twenty was slain hand to hand. Each, in his last moments, knew himself victim of the Crow Killer.

 

11 The Eighteenth Warrior

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The Eighteenth Warrior

From all accounts, Liver-Eating Johnson was astonished by the respect and above all the desire for friendship suddenly shown him throughout mountain country. But apparently the warmth of feeling expressed by some of those with whom he came in contact was not displeasing to him. At length, like any gregarious Mountain Man, he took to visiting the camps of other trappers from time to time, and swapping news about trade and the tribes. His own story he saved, though, for a very few old comrades, especially old Bear Claw Lapp, Bigfoot Davis, and of course Del Gue. Even now Del asked Johnson no more questions than Johnson apparently wanted to answer; but the details Del observed for himself are enough to give the impression of a Johnson almost comfortably settled into his “family”—the few close friends—and his “place”—a thousand miles of wilderness. This is a Johnson who seeks no trouble with any man, not even with Crows, and who is really rather appalled when Mountain Men outside his immediate “family” come bursting around to stage him a “revenge” against some Blackfeet.

 

12 Captive of the Blackfeet

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Captive of the Blackfeet

In the early fall of 1861, the Crow Killer helped Del set up a winter trapping camp east of the Continental Divide, in the rough country toward the North Platte in Wyoming. As in their other years of partnership, their plan was to pool the profits of separate adventures. Del was in a trapping location Bigfoot Davis had recommended, and would use Bigfoot’s lean-to for shelter. Johnson helped Del set out his trap lines, then set out to trade in the camp of his Flathead kin, in the Bitter Root Mountains.

Now it must be stated at once that, by his own standards, Johnson deserved some of the punishment he was to take on that expedition. The product he planned to offer the Flatheads, in trade, was one he would not touch himself. He had purchased two twenty-gallon kegs of whiskey from a trader on the Missouri. The sale of whiskey to Indians, granted, was not as direct an incitement to murder as the sale of rifles (which, of course, Johnson damned as violently as any other Mountain Man). But—though some Indians even then could drink companionably—as yet most had learned nothing about alcohol but the frenzy a keg could add when already excited warriors drank together. Ironically, Johnson was to see his whiskey drunk by despised Blackfeet, as their prisoner.

 

13 Mountain-Man Rendezvous

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Mountain-Man Rendezvous

It was Del Gue who took the winter’s furs to Fort Laramie, come spring, and it was he who told the story of Johnson’s Blackfoot captivity. Johnson hadn’t wanted that story told, it would seem; he must have been pretty weak still, not to make his desire for silence clear to Del. In any event, Del told Johnson’s story to Bigfoot Davis, in Laramie trading; and inevitably, when the two had parted, Bigfoot worked the mountain telegraph. Once Bigfoot knew, there was no forestalling a gathering of the clan. Johnson cussed Del out, when Del said he’d told Bigfoot; for now he’d have to lead Mountain Men from all the West against the Blackfeet.1

The rendezvous was set for a narrow valley some five miles east of Virginia City, Montana. There gathered forty of the men who tore their living from the Rockies by means of rifle, revolver, and Bowie. Some of them had known the trails for more than half a century; some had ridden with Sublette and traded furs with Manuel Lisa. Their horses, their saddle blankets, their saddles too showed the range of these men’s country—the tribes among whom they traded, the dead whom they had plundered. There were men in that gathering who had ridden a thousand miles for that meeting, each sure that even in such company he could contribute fighting might. Each was heavily armed. Some carried as many as four heavy six-shooters, and all carried their broad Bowie knives in skin sheaths. Their Sharps and Hawken muzzle-loaders they gripped across the front of their saddles.

 

14 Boots and Biscuits

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Boots and Biscuits

By Del Gue’s account, Liver-Eating Johnson got into the Civil War as soon as the Indians in his stretch of country seemed bent on peace for a while. Johnson put aside his own feud, his reckoning with the twentieth Crow warrior, already twelve years on his trail. (The nineteenth he had killed on La Bonte’s Creek, in 1863.) One may decide for oneself what were the full set of motives for Johnson’s staying out of the Army as long as he did, and for joining up at the age of forty-one. He knew that the United States was fighting against the “Secesh” or “Rebs.” His decision, as the story is handed down, would seem almost too simple: he enlisted when the War seemed to him the best fight going. On February 24, 1864, Johnson and a band of young trappers who’d headed East with him joined the Union Army in St. Louis. They were allowed to keep their side arms but forced to store their Hawkens and use Spencer rifles instead.1

The Crow Killer was academically interested enough in a rifle which would fire more than once, but he was naturally leary of a weapon as dangerous to the man who fired it as to the enemy: when it blew up, the entire string of shells in the magazine, housed in the butt, exploded. In his first engagement, Johnson threw his Spencer away and used a dead adversary’s single-shot musket.

 

15 Portuguese Phillips

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Portuguese Phillips

In the year 1866 the greatest concentrations of hostile Indians ever seen in the West began a series of military engagements and massacres that lasted into the early 1870s. Eventually, just as he had been drawn into the Civil War, Johnson would find himself swept into the general fighting. Yet ideally, to Johnson’s way of thinking, even such enemy strength should be met by the might and the guile of individual Mountain Men. Army forces might be necessary to protect settlers, but when a detachment of soldiers was surrounded and helpless before the Indian foe, there must be one Mountain Man, a Portuguese Phillips, say, to get through and report the soldiers’ plight. Johnson’s real reverence for individual achievement and his concern for the legend appear strikingly in the help he gave Phillips, and his effort to hide that help from men’s knowledge. If Phillips recounted how his ride through blizzard waste, glorious as it was, would have ended in disaster without Johnson’s help—why, Johnson had done what he could to make the adventure seem Phillips’s alone.1

 

16 A Sioux Liver

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A Sioux Liver

Even so confirmed an individualist as Liver-Eating Johnson must share in such a defense of settlers’ women and children as that at Fort Hawley, in 1869. His distinctive contribution, however, the eating of a Sioux liver, was by way of a command performance required by those very Mountain Men who had “helped” him to a vengeance against the Blackfeet.

Fort Hawley—named for an Army man and fur wholesaler who never saw the place—was a trading post and rendezvous for hunters and trappers from all the far West. In 1869 it was in charge of one Captain Andrews and his small detachment of soldiers. Johnson, arriving on routine business, found there a number of settlers who had been driven from their homes by the Sioux. Many of their people had been killed, and the smoke and flames of burning cabins were to be seen along all that stretch of the Missouri. Already many Mountain Men had offered their help, among them Del Gue and his last-winter’s partner Jim Deer. Beidler was there, and hoary-headed Bear Claw Chris Lapp. Bear Claw had pretty much retired from violence, settling down instead to the sale of his special necklaces to an excellent new market—the “tenderfeet” on river steamboats; but he had come out from his cabin in the Little Rockies for the present emergency. Hatchet Jack Ireland was in the band as well, with his adopted “father,” Mad Mose.

 

17 Monument for a Foe’s Friend

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Monument for a Foe’s Friend

In the winter of 1868–69, the Crow Killer and “X” Beidler, having no commitments to the military, resolved to set out trapping. After months on scouts’ pay, they were pinched financially. More important, they would break the monotony of hanging around Army posts. Instead of setting out for any of the richest fur fields, they went to Beidler’s comfortable cabin in the Big Belt Mountains. Though glad of the privacy of one another’s company, they worked assiduously, and surprisingly enough they did bring in a good winter’s haul.

Thus the two came out of the Belts in March with two pack horses heavily loaded. Their winter’s lonely activity, the spring’s freshness, and the very sort of scrape they met with Blackfeet, all were as simple as in young John Johnston’s first seasons in the West twenty-five years ago. That was before the coming of so many settlers, before such intensive posting of Army detachments, before the determined uprising of the Sioux and their friends. The snow melted in the mountains as Johnson and Beidler rode along the river sides. The willows and cottonwoods stretched their just-unburdened limbs. Small parties of Crows and Blackfeet were on their springtime move, some to trade and others to kill, or more likely all of them to see what adventures they might meet.

 

18 Target for Gray Bear

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Target for Gray Bear

The Crow chief Gray Bear, with twenty-six braves, was camped where the Judith empties into the Missouri, east of Fort Benton. On their way back from trapping on the Milk River, north almost into Canada, they were still far from home. Hemmed in by freshets, they were waiting now for the waters to subside before continuing on to Hawley’s, where they hoped to sell their peltries. Johnson could have waited and met them at the Fort, but he determined to meet them alone. At the Fort the presence of many others, white and Indian alike, must in itself prevent the active prosecution of their feud. By the Judith, Johnson’s and the Crows’ own forbearance could be acted out, in formal ending to their years of vendetta.

After a few days by the Judith, the Crows were waiting for more than a subsiding of rivers. For now Blackfeet swarmed all through that countryside. Though not quarrelsome, the Crows would have been willing enough to take on any one of the several hunting parties of Blackfeet which Gray Bear had already seen. But with Blackfeet roaming in bands all along the Upper Missouri, a mere rifle shot would have served to bring many of them together. The Crows had not labored through a long and bitter winter merely to provide their enemies with these loads of furs. It was a glad day for them when, well along in April, their scouts reported that the Blackfeet had headed south, toward the Yellowstone. Now Gray Bear could give the long desired command: “We go.”

 

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