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  • Writer's pictureValentine Smith

‘Freedom My Friend’ - Liver eating Johnson

Updated: Dec 11, 2022

Jeremiah Johnson on the left and Robert Redford on the right. (Image courtesy of

“I’m Bear Claw Chris Laffan, blood kin to the ‘grizzly’ that bit Jim Bridger’s arse.” [i]Some of you will remember that line from legendary actor Will Geer, and some will have no idea what it relates to. It is a line out of ‘Jeremiah Johnson’ a 1972 classic film starring Robert Redford. Interestingly Robert Redford is no stranger to plunging into wilderness thinking. His roles in ‘Out of Africa’ and ‘A walk in the Woods’ (ref) tell me that he is a man who understands our need to connect to the wild places. Also there is a connectivity between all three of these movies, and that is they are loosely based on true stories, fact. However, when you mix men and wilderness you come up with campfire tales and myths, some real, some not and many embellished, such is the story of John (Jeremiah) Johnson/Johnston.

Jerimiah Johnson (AKA Crow Killer and Liver eating Johnson), was born John Jeremiah Garrison Johnston on 1 July 1824 in New Jersey, U.S.A. He is reported to have died aged 76 in a Los Angeles Veteran’s Hospital on 21 January 1900.

In his early twenties Johnson went West towards the Rocky Mountains to take up a life as a hunter and fur trapper, later heading to the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, where he took a young Flathead Indian girl as a wife before heading back to the Little Snake River.

Leaving his young wife well equipped in his cabin he set out for a winter’s trapping in the mountains. Tragically upon his return he found the skeletal remains of his wife and their unborn child, who had been murdered by a Crow (Absaroka) Native American hunting party.

For an estimated twenty years following his wife’s death Johnson waged a one-man war against the Crow, allegedly killing hundreds of their finest warriors, each to be found with their liver cut out, which legend has it Johnson ate, perhaps as a symbol of the taking of another man’s inner strength, his soul. Eventually Johnson would make a complete peace with the Crow, referring to them as ‘his brothers’.

Johnson would later join the Union Army as a Civil War sharpshooter, followed by the 1880’s with service as a Deputy Sherriff in Colorado and the town marshal in Red Lodge, Montana.

Whoever Johnson was and whatever is true about his exploits, one fact remains, and that is that as a young man he chose to leave an expanding industrious America and head into a vast challenging wilderness, where a bad choice would likely be fatal and where the only law was the statute of quick-thinking, resilience and wit.

Perhaps Jeremiah Johnson was following a dream, or maybe it was an innate need to be free of something, to be able to be responsible for no other but himself. Whatever the need it is a long journey to be at peace with the wild trails of nature, and the harsh confronting simplicity of life, and death determined by fate and circumstance, without announcement of its coming.

Jeremiah Johnson is one of thousands of similar souls, some locked in the legends of history and others yet to be born. All have a back-story and most leave a question for us all to contemplate, which is what does it really mean to be free and has our contemporary life destroyed our ability to even understand that freedom is something we need?

(Footprints in the Wilderness (FITW) is interested in what motivates any of us to want to wander in the wild places –

Footprints in the wilderness missing persons cold cases

[i] The Movie ‘Jeremiah Johnson’ 1972 produced by Joe Wizan.

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