Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson, by Raymond W. Thorp -- A Mountain Man Book Review
The reviewed book, which presents a detailed account of Jeremiah Johnson's life as a mountain man in the early frontier history of the United States.
A mountain man is often pictured as a powerfully-built, rugged man with a bushy salt-and-pepper beard and a face worn and leathered by weather and time. He wears handmade buckskin, a coonskin cap, probably knee-high moccasins that are fringed along the sides or the back, and he carries an ancient rifle. While many know the popular image and can picture this man with ease, few stop to consider that these men really lived – and some still do. Despite the sensationalism of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show, the true image of the mountain man has survived the years, and is one of the few to have done so.
Now let’s take a trip to the mountain regions of the Western United States around the end of the 1800s. Before there were roads or Indian reservations in the “Wild West” there were those who inhabited the mountains that were considered inhospitable to human life. They had a distinct lifestyle that shunned the “civilized” world, and that required people to live by their wits and the provisions of the untamed wilderness; these were the Mountain Men. For these people, life consisted of hunting and trapping throughout every long winter for furs to use and to take to trading posts for other provisions. They had to seek shelter and food, and felt they must kill any native inhabitants of the land who might wish to kill them.
Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson, by Raymond W. Thorp, details what is known of one such mountain man. This man was well-known for his size and strength, as well as the exploits and conditions that earned him the name “Liver-Eating” Johnson, or the Crow Killer. John Johnson headed out West as a 20-year-old man eager to make his way in the wilderness of the Big Blue. After purchasing a rifle and a good horse, he struck out across country and learned the way of the mountain man through a number of different mentors. All went well until one ill-fated year. He married a girl of the Flathead tribe, and then left her in their cabin to head for the winter trap line. When he returned in the spring, he found that she had been attacked, scalped, and murdered by marauding Crow warriors – her and their unborn child. The next 15 years of Johnson’s life were invested in a vendetta against the Crow as he sought vengeance for the death of his family. He killed all Crow who crossed his path, took their scalps, and at their livers raw.
Hollywood couldn’t imagine a more dramatic and gruesome tale than the life of John Johnson, though they did attempt to re-create it in the 1972 film Jeremiah Johnson based on this true tale. Though originally buried in California, John Johnson now lies in Old Trail Town in Cody, Wyoming – where I first became acquainted with his story. My father often attended the Mountain Man Rendezvous that is held in the Beartooth Mountains outside of Cody, and that is who introduced me to this old West legend and the story that people still retell today.
This is an excellent recounting of John Johnson’s life that’s written in an easy-to-read format, it flows nicely, and is delivered in a writing style that allows readers to almost hear the slow high mountain drawl that was characteristic of the mountain men. It is concise and moves along well, and does limit the graphic detail in what is a very disturbing story in parts. I definitely recommend this book to those seeking to learn more about the mountain men, or who have watched the movie Jeremiah Johnson and would like the whole story behind the film.
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