How One Man's Quest For Revenge Made Him An Early American Legend

On the bloody battlefields of the Mexican-American War, it is said a young sailor named John Garrison decided that he'd had enough of civilization. He retreated to become a feared and famous mountain man known as Liver-Eating Johnson. While his legacy has been disputed for generations, everyone can agree that the tale behind his nickname is anything but a pleasant one. Johnson never quite found the peace he craved.

A military man first and foremost

As a hardy man with considerable physical prowess, John Garrison likely could have enjoyed a successful career in the United States Navy. He was reportedly over 6 feet tall and weighed as much as 230 pounds. But, as with everything to do with John, the stories around often obscure the truth.

“The stories about him, he keeps getting taller and heavier,” Nathan Bender told The Spokesman-Review in 2017. And that's coming from a man who has researched John and the various legends that surround him.

Slapping his superior?

“There’s a real mishmash of material out there, including dozens of stories that can be attributed to [John] himself,” Bender told the Los Angeles Times in 2005. So tracing the true history of the man is tricky — including how he got dismissed from the Navy.

The legend has it that John grew tired of his superior officer and struck him. Some then say that the Navy issued him a dishonorable discharge, but others contend that John deserted. Whatever the case, we know that John certainly changed his last name.

A new man and a new name

Yet while the world may know John as either John Johnson, Liver-Eating Johnson, or — thanks to the hit Hollywood movie — Jeremiah Johnson, the real-life John actually chose a completely different last name. He changed his name to John Johnston — with a T.

Newspapers at the time would often misspell his name, though, and the misspelling has lived with John ever since. In fact, the first time America even heard of John was when the Washington Post published a story saying he'd died — 20 years before John actually died!

His teacher taught him the ways of mountain men

John was alive and well, though. According to Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-eating Johnson by Raymond W. Thorp and Robert Bunker, John met the famed mountain man Old John Hatcher. Hatcher then showed him how to hunt, trap, pan for gold, and endure the ruthless frontier climate.

This training would no doubt prove invaluable when John started battling Native Americans, bears, and the unforgiving landscape. He also earned money by providing firewood to steamships that traveled the Missouri River and mining for gold.