What Was Mountain Man Jeremiah Johnson’s True Life?

Despite his depiction in a 1972 film, John “Jeremiah” Johnston is unlikely to have engaged in a long feud with the Crow Indians. A mountain man, soldier and lawman, Johnston served as a private in the Union Army in St. Louis during the Civil War.

Johnston was born John Garrison in 1824 but changed his last name to Johnston after a scuffle in which he was involved while serving in the U.S. Navy. After his time in the Union Army, he served as deputy sheriff in Coulson, Montana and town marshal in Red Lodge, Montana. He died at the age of 76 in 1899 at a vertain’s hospital in Los Angeles. Newspapers misspelled his last name in his obituary, leaving out the “T.” The film, in which Robert Redford starred, gave him the fictional first name of Jeremiah.

The legend of Jeremiah Johnson indicated that Crow Indians killed and scalped his pregnant wife while he was away hunting. To avenge his wife, Johnston allegedly killed more than 300 Crow men and ate each of their livers. He was said to have eaten the organs because the Crow believed their livers must be intact before they could transition in the afterlife.