Tri Robinson was in his second year as a schoolteacher. He had overcome a learning disability to get through college and now he was faced with a classroom full of dead-eyed students. Young and full of spirit and energy, Robinson was given some latitude by the administration to engage his charges, who had been deemed bright, but unmotivated.
Tri Robinson had come to reading relatively late in life. As a dyslexic, Tri didn’t like reading much until a college teacher assigned The Big Sky by A. B. Guthrie. Robinson was off. He went on to read everything he could find about the mountain men. He was so into it that as a teacher he brought his muzzle-loading rifle into school, and taking his class outside, fired it into the air as a historical demonstration. It was 1974, and as Robinson says, a different time.
Regaling his students with stories about long-dead frontiersmen, he was taken aback when he told them how Liver-Eating Johnson, of Red Lodge, Montana, wound up spending the last month of his life in the Santa Monica National Soldiers’ Home, where he died in January 1900. He was buried in a massive veteran’s cemetery that now sits by the 405 freeway. “That’s just wrong!” The students said.
Seeing a teachable moment, Tri, so nicknamed because of his habit of plowing through his learning disabilities, had the students engage in a letter writing campaign. Return the Liver-Eater to Red Lodge, where he belonged! Where, it is said, he wept as he got on the train and left his friends and beloved mountains for the last time.
The Governor of Montana demurred. He had a lot of Native American constituents, he said, and they might not appreciate the fanfare over an Indian fighter. Bob Edgar was more receptive. Bob Edgar is the local hero behind Old Trail Town here in Cody. Bob himself dismantled and moved a whole bunch of derelict buildings and set them up on the banks of the Shoshone River. Included are a bar that Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch hung out at, and shot off their pistols in, as well as the reputed last residence of mountain man Jim White.
There was a bit of good fortune along the way. One day one of Robinson’s students came in, very excited. Had Mr. Robinson seen the new movie Jeremiah Johnson? The student had loved it, and what’s more, it was based on the life of Liver-Eating Johnson!
So it went that the Veteran’s Administration approved an unusual request. They named Mr. Robinson’s class Johnson’s next-of-kin, and the move was approved. There was some hijinks at the end on the part of patrons at the Hootie Owl Saloon in Red Lodge, but it was too late. Johnson was disinterred, flown to Cody in a spring blizzard, and reburied, with Jeremiah Johnson star Robert Redford himself serving as a pallbearer and visiting with the schoolchildren.
Bob Edgar, a Cody native who’d grown up on stories of Buffalo Bill being buried in Colorado, and tales of outraged Codyites purportedly getting on the train at one point for the purpose of digging him up, made sure the Liver-Eater would stay planted. He called a friend of his at a local concrete company and ordered a whole bunch of it dumped over Johnson’s coffin.
So it happened that a man who never lived in Cody was reburied here, under a name that was not his own. The children were moved to tears by the replanting of this man of the woods in his own turf. The media got a hold of the story. The country was charmed by the children’s fortitude. Robert Redford gave a few words at the service, focusing on the children’s accomplishment, and not mentioning the movie.
Liver-Eating Johnson was purportedly born John Garrison in New Jersey in 1824. He started off as a sailor, but his seafaring career ended after he floored his commanding officer while enlisted in the Navy. Drifting inland, he hunted, trapped, wood-hawked, and sold whiskey to the Indians. He served in the U.S. Army during the Civil War, and later served under General Nelson Miles as a scout. A six-foot-five wall of muscle, Liver-Eating was not to be messed with. Rumors of the source of his nickname vary. Let Liver-Eating tell the story:
“We was attacked by Injuns and we licked ‘em, licked ‘em good. There was fifteen of us and we killed thirty-six of them and wounded sixty. It was toward the close of the fight that I got my name. I was just getting’ my blood up and feelin’ like fightin’. We was short of ammunition and as I saw an Injun runnin’ toward the cover, I threw my gun to Bill Martin and took Bill’s knife. I wasn’t goin’ to waste no good cartridges on him, for I could lick any Injun I laid my paws on. I was considered the best shot with a rifle in Montana at that time, but I wanted to save my cartridges.”
The Liver-Eater continues, “We had a three-hundred-yard run to the bushes…. [I] threw him down just at the edge of the brush…. Then I scalped him and then I sang and danced some more. Then I ran my knife into him and killed him and part of his liver came out with the knife. Just then a sort of squeamish old fellow named Ross came running up. I waved the knife with the liver on it in the air and I cried out, “Come on and have a piece! It’ll stay in your stomach ‘til dinner!…. And I kind of made believe to take a bite.”
An article in a Saint Paul, Minnesota newspaper quoted an unnamed army officer critical of Johnson’s conduct. The Liver-Eater did not let it slide. Johnson wrote:
“So far as ‘sand’ goes, I don’t need to go to any second lieutenant for it. I have been in forty different Indian fights and have fought them from California to the Gulf of Mexico. I have killed more Indians than all the officers of the Seventh Cavalry put together, throwing in their regiment for good measure. If the dirty, cowardly officer who tried to stab my reputation will publish his name, the first time that I strike his trail, I’ll make him think a section of the Day of Judgement has struck him. My adventures and my conduct are known pretty well through the West, and I don’t need to go away from home to get a certificate of good character, but it does rile me when a whelp of an officer, that was nearly scared to death in one little campaign, comes barking and snarling at my heels, when I can count twice as many coups as he can toes and fingers.”
Johnson went on to deride the unnamed officer as a “Poltroon…. Who is much braver in attacking a beef steak than a hostile camp.” At any rate, the character in Jeremiah Johnson is, as historian William Clements puts it, a pastoral figure. He doesn’t eat any livers. The movie was popular, and Johnson has been stuck with an alias that was invented a hundred years after his time. He never even heard the name Jeremiah. But that’s what it says on his new, as of 1974, monument, when he was reinterred in a place he never lived, under an alias he came up with to avoid prosecution for a violent crime, co-joined with another alias, which he never even heard of.
Welcome to history! For more information on Liver-Eating Johnson, check out the books Crow Killer by Raymond W. Thorp, or Mountain Man by Vardis Fisher. But you won’t find an accurate account of the man in either of these tomes. For that, you’re going to have to write your own.