John-Sam-Jeremiah Made His Way Into the Mountains

Ever since I got home from last year’s visit to Yellowstone National Park, I’ve been trying to figure out how to work famed mountain man Jeremiah Johnson into a column.  When I discovered that was also the name of the helpful young man who sold me my new cell phone, I had my answer.

Just outside of Cody, Wyoming is a tourist attraction called Old Trail Town.   It’s a collection of “Old West” buildings, Native American artifacts and memorabilia
from the Wyoming and Montana frontier, all gathered together in one place. Very cool.
One of the best parts of Trail Town is the cemetery, mostly because it contains the grave and an impressive bronze statue of John “Crow Killer/Liver-Eating” Johnston.

John Johnston was a real-life hunter, trapper and Indian-fighter and a contemporary of Jim Bridger and Kit Carson.  He was the model for the fictional character Sam Minard in Vardis Fisher’s classic 1965 novel “Mountain Man.” That book was the basis for the 1972 film “Jeremiah Johnson,” starring Robert Redford.  So John becomes Sam becomes Jeremiah.

Somewhere in all that becoming, the truth is likely to have been twisted around at least a little bit.

What historians know about John Johnston is this.  As a young man, he fought in the Mexican War and then headed north to Wyoming, where he quickly became adept at doing the things mountain mendid.  He married an Indian woman who, along with their unborn child, was murdered by Crow warriors while John was off trapping.  He vowed revenge and spent the next twelve years killing every Crow he could find.

Legend has it that John Johnston didn’t merely stab or shoot his enemies and then ride off into the sunset.  He cut out the liver of each man he killed and ate it raw.  Thus the nickname.

Vardis Fisher cleaned up the story just a tad.  Though Sam, too, married an Indian woman who was murdered by the Crows and though Sam also sought revenge, he didn’t resort to cannibalism.  As far as we know.  But he was highly skilled at scalping.  And at slicing off the left ear of every Crow brave he fought.

Sam was a big fan of raw liver but confined his enjoyment of the delicacy to the organs harvested from the bison and elk that were his primary source of nourishment.

Added to Vardis Fisher’s list of unforgettable fictional characters is Kate Bowden, who went stark raving mad after Blackfeet Indians kidnapped her husband—a fate far worse than death—and murdered her three children in cold blood.  SPOILER ALERT:  Kate spends the rest of her tragic life hanging out near the crude cabin Sam built for her, filling long, empty days by reading the Bible and fetching water from the river to pour on the wildflowers that blanket her children’s graves.

“Mountain Man,” raw and brutal though it is, is a love letter to the west and to the rugged individualists who were too soon displaced by thousands of settlers bound and determined to civilize the wilderness.

Seven years after the novel came the unforgettable movie.  I’m still surprised when I run across people who’ve never seen “Jeremiah Johnson,” who’ve never
watched a freshly bathed and cleanly shaven Robert Redford buy a Hawken rifle
and a Bowie knife and a fine horse and then make his way into the mountains.   Where, as the haunting theme song says, he soon discovers that “the story don’t always go the way you had in mind.”

Redford was apparently so affected by the role that he served as chief pallbearer and delivered the eulogy when, in 1974, John Johnston’s body was exhumed from a veteran’s cemetery in Los Angles and reburied at Old Trail Town, closer to the mountains he lived in and loved.

Finally, perhaps, at peace.

(January 29, 2012)





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