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The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson
By Raymond W. Thorp, Robert Bunker
Indiana University PressCopyright © 1969 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
The Making of a Legend
One May morning in 1847, Crow Indians killed and scalped John Johnston's pregnant wife; for many years thereafter, he killed and scalped Crow Indians. Then he ate their livers, raw.
He ate them not for hunger's sake but upon principle—just what principle, his whole life's history may suggest. Other tribes than the Crows could arouse his anger; the Blackfeet indeed once shamed and mistreated him, their captive; but one tribe only did Johnston dreadfully humiliate. He was Dapiek Absaroka, the Killer of Crows.
As such he was feared; his fame served him almost as a weapon. Indians ambushing him, with every tactical advantage, broke and ran when he killed but one of them. As Crow Killer he might expect captivity and, therefore, the chance to escape when taken by other tribes, who would naturally hope to sell him dear to his special foes. On other occasions, as an awesome ally, Johnston could turn tribe against tribe and take for himself, in the warfare that followed, a highly profitable harvest of scalps. His first insane lust for revenge was surely real, whether provoked by the death of one he loved or by mere hurt to his pride; but the reputation it brought him was to become an extraordinary business asset. As John Johnston, the young trapper had already won a name for his strength and quick learning of wilderness ways.
Force and cunning, however, were mere details in his new repute as Liver-Eating Johnson: one whom the Indians could consider as obsessed, divinely mad. Johnston (Johnson) talked but little, and this added to his fearsome personality; he was known as surly, uncommunicative, mistrustful. Yet from the beginning he was willing to talk, when necessary, to set the record straight and inform his companions of things they could not see for themselves. He fell in first with Old John Hatcher, a famous but loquacious trapper who admired him and delighted to spread stories about him. In some of these first stories, Johnston was portrayed as simply the greenhorn: he had been cheated by that sly trader Joe Robidoux, and he had allowed Hatcher to steal upon him at his campfire, apparently unobserved. Yet, as the same stories went on, somehow the greenhorn had beat Robidoux in a horse trade, and had seen more quickly than Hatcher that a supposedly dead Indian was actually alive, ready to leap upon them.
Johnson chose as his long-time partner a trapper even more concerned with spreading his fame: "Del" Gue. Del, though as he put it he "knew when not to ask questions," did manage to obtain the answers necessary to the legend. Del went along with Johnson on his pilgrimages to the cabin of John Morgan's feared widow, Crazy Woman. Del witnessed the killing of the last of the twenty warriors whom the Crows dedicated especially to Johnson's destruction.
Del was not ashamed to relate his own queasiness when livers were plucked out and devoured. He also lived to tell his story even after Johnson's death of old age; in the middle 1880's and again in 1900, he told it to J. F. Anderson—"White-Eye."
The materials for legend were, surely, ready to hand. John Johnston's shrewdness and fantastic strength were of course the natural attributes of a Liver-Eating Johnson. Crazy Woman's shrill keening for her dead, each night come sundown, was as his Chorus of the Fates. His unfortunate enemies, the Crows, were tribesmen generally admired for their wisdom and dignity; and their very marking of twenty heroes to seek vengeance individually against one dapiek has in it their own sense of high drama. Johnston's associates, too, Mountain Men who when given the opportunity joined in his feuding, set off the Crow Killer's bloody history with their own eccentricities. As background against which die Liver-Eater's exploits might be savored and judged, there was the tradition of the private grudge. Should a trapper, beset already by unending work and harrowing danger, choose to run still further risk of bullet, tomahawk, or even the stake, certainly there was no one to deny him that privilege. Liver-Eating Johnson was not the first in frontier history to take a trail of vengeance against the Indians (though possibly the most spectacular). Black Jack of the Juniata and Lewis Wetzel won special renown for such vendettas, and there were others of the vengeful "Nick o' the Woods" type, too many by far to mention here.
Surely, as mere killer of Indians, mere bloody-bearded eater of red men's livers, the Crow Killer would be worth little investigation; we could easily dismiss him as inhuman or insane. But he was not simply inhuman or insane; he was not even simply cruel; he cannot be so easily understood. Rather, we may see him stepping back from the barbarities of others of his kind, almost as if they offended his sense of order. (They, in turn, at times seem more troubled by his choice of liver than by his mere cannibalism.) And though Johnson did express the generalized contempt of his era in regard to Indians, we shall observe repeatedly his very real respect for the warriors of many tribes. Even as in his heyday he was above all the Killer of Crows, a time did arrive in his terrible vendetta when—in sheer admiration of Crow magnanimity—he ceased his dreadful feuding and became their brother-in-arms.CHAPTER 2
The Hair Merchants
Late in the afternoon of a quiet autumn day in 1843 the steamer Thames, up from St. Louis, swung round into the famous landing eddy at St. Joseph. A blue haze, as of Indian summer, stretched from the far-off Rocky Mountains across the prairies to the Missouri, enveloping the trading post and the bright-leaved Blacksnake Hills. As the gangplank came down and the passengers walked ashore, the travelers found themselves under surveillance by the town's loungers, by beady-eyed Indian braves looking for who knows what, and by white riffraff hoping for some chance job worth the price of a drink.
One young passenger started up the dusty street, his belongings in a skin sack thrown over his shoulder. A brawny river tramp, heaving himself with a mighty effort out of the dirt, tried to seize the bag and was knocked down for his pains. With a roar of rage he was back on his feet, fists clenched. The young man swung his bag to the roadway, turned, and looked at the fellow.
"Don't ye like it?" he asked.
The lounger eyed his tormentor just long enough for a quick estimate. Whatever he saw, he did not like; he quailed. Wiping the blood and dirt from his face, he turned away. The young man went on up the street.
If he spoke at all to his fellow passengers on the Thames, the young man must have heard of the old trader who had founded the town, Joe Robidoux. Joe was a wizened, squint-eyed, stooped and bent frontiersman who could cheat even such a shrewd competitor as Manuel Lisa; who would cheat even his own son. When, many years earlier, Lisa was setting out to trade with the Pawnees in rivalry with Robidoux, the latter asked him in for a drink, locked him in his famous whiskey cellar, and went on himself to trade with the Pawnees. And when Joe, Jr., fell heir to building lots in St. Louis worth some $90,000, his father locked him in the same cellar, this time empty of liquor, till young Joe in his thirst traded a quit-claim deed to his land for a glass of whiskey.
Old Joe was behind the counter of his supply store when the new arrival walked through the open door, swung his belongings to the dirt floor, and tendered a scrap of brown paper. There was no feeling reflected in the old man's face as he read the few sentences scribbled thereon. Nor did he show any reaction as he looked up into the face of the bearer.
What he saw was the powerful build of a six-footer, some 190 pounds in weight and yet apparently not full grown—a young fellow about twenty years of age. Extraordinarily long arms hung from his thick, broad shoulders. His hair was bright auburn, worn at half length; his face full and strong, with a stubble of red beard. One moment his eyes were a cold, light blue; the next, a dirty, flecked gray. Perhaps there was in them something remaining from his encounter with the brawler; Old Joe may have seen there what men would speak of later as their merciless depths.
"Ol' Hawken sent ye?" he asked.
"He said ye had three of his rifles to sell." Robidoux made no reply, and the newcomer glanced about at the goods displayed behind the counters. "An' I'll need some traps. An' a good hoss."
"Says hyar yer name is John Johnston," remarked the old trader, and the young man nodded. "Stay hyar the night. I'll fix ye up in the mornin'."
Johnston slept on grain bags filled with com shucks on the bare floor of the store, locked in—lest he steal from the prince of knaves. It seemed to him that he had hardly stretched himself out before the old man had him by the shoulder, shaking him awake. After a breakfast of venison, com pone, and strong black coffee, the bargaining began.
A Hawken rifle, brand new, of .30 caliber, cost Johnston fifty dollars. This was double the price charged at St. Louis—but not out of reason. It was the best make, and meant all the difference between life and death. For his traps, however, Johnston was later to learn that he had paid five times their value (since, on these, Joe would not have to answer to Hawken). A Comanche pony, led into the feed yard by a Pawnee Indian, was guaranteed by the trader to outrun anything bred north of Texas—and cost fifty dollars more. An Oto tomahawk, surprisingly, was a gift. Johnston had brought along a Bowie knife, purchased at St. Louis; so, equipped now, and stripped of money, he asked the way to the best trapping country.
Solemnly, Robidoux tore off a twist of tobacco between his snaggle teeth and turned to the Pawnee; after a few minutes' palaver he spat and pointed west. "Thar's good trappin' out yander on the Big Blue," he said; "this Injun will set ye on the trail."
By mid-morning, mounted on the Comanche pony and with his "possibles" packed behind his treeless Cheyenne saddle, Johnston was on his way; old Joe, watching him leave, chuckled as he pocketed his spoils.
Old John Hatcher was in Big Blue country by sheer accident. He had set out from Independence with an enormous caravan for Santa Fe—not in order to trade, not to help protect the one hundred and seventy-five wagons (it was the largest caravan that ever crossed the plains), but simply to visit with old cronies. At the Council Grove he left the train and set off due north toward the Platte. As he approached the Big Blue, he saw or somehow sensed human activity below the riverbank. A large kingfisher, usually the most wary of birds, sat so low in the branches of a small cottonwood and so engrossed by whatever was going on down by the stream as not to see the approaching horseman. Hatcher, with acumen developed in hundreds of ticklish situations, dead-reined his horse on the prairie, dismounted, and circled around on foot so as to surprise both the sentinel bird and the object of its interest.
To young Johnston, bending over beneath the bank as he prepared a trap-set, the voice of the Mountain Man came like a clap of thunder. "Cuss me fer a Kiowa, but yer back makes a good target fer a red nigger's arrer!" Johnston froze as—its fame as sentinel belied—the kingfisher emitted its raucous cry and sailed from the cottonwood.
A man may be a greenhorn but be possessed of intuition; and somehow the young trapper knew not to compromise his life by reaching out for his rifle. Instead, he turned slowly and faced his accoster. The latter stood above him at the edge of the prairie, holding his Hawken rifle loosely, but with the muzzle staring at Johnston and the hammer drawn.
In large outline against the afternoon sky, Johnston saw the very picture of a Mountain Man. Long blond hair hung well below Hatcher's shoulders; a heavy beard of the same hue graced his ruddy countenance. Over six feet in height and weighing well over two hundred pounds, he was dressed in the best cured buckskin from Blackfoot tanners, beaded and fringed with Crow finery. His moccasins were of Cheyenne make, and the beaded rim of his beaver cap was Shoshoni craftsmanship. From his belt of buffalo hide hung a hatchet, a Bowie knife, a powder horn, and a metal ring for holding scalps. Even as Johnston was taking all this in, the Mountain Man let down the hammer of his rifle and leaped the ten feet to the river shore. "What air ye a-doin' hyar, son?" he asked, and put forth a brawny hand.
Johnston led the older man's gaze to his trap, then explained, "I heerd in St. Joe trappin's good hereabouts."
Hatcher laughed loud and long. "That's a good 'un," he said. "This place war clean trapped out afore '25." He looked hard at Johnston—studied the greenhorn victim of Robidoux' practical joke—and saw in him, greenhorn or no, a likely partner. Kicking at the trap with disdain, he said: "Come along wi' me, lad, but leave these things hyar. Whar we're a-goin' we makes our own traps."
He next turned to Johnston's horse; he inspected the animal very carefully, raising each foot in turn and watching the reflexes, looking at the teeth, and stepping back at last to watch in admiration as the pony danced about. "Wonders come an' wonders go," he said. "Now, how come it ol' Joe sold ye a sound and fiery hoss sich as this?"
The two new partners ate boiled jerked venison that night. They sat by a campfire in the vastness of the plains, and Hatcher, ever willing to talk, spoke of Mountain Men and mountain ways. Johnston listened and even asked a few questions; perhaps his native dourness was the less evident in the presence of so much wisdom. When morning came and they rode into the West, Hatcher pointed to his partner's present from Robidoux, the Oto tomahawk.
"Don't use it less'n ye hafter," he said; and then, observing Johnston's astonishment, added: "Spiles the scalp." Dressed scalps, he averred, brought big money on the English market.
The young trapper wanted to know why.
"Hangs them up in their parlors, s'pect so," Hatcher surmised.
They pressed hard for the mountains, since according to the Mountain Man it was of the utmost importance that they arrive in Uintah country before snows piled up on the Divide. They made camp only when darkness fell upon the prairie, and were up and breakfasted and on their way each day long before sunrise. When on the trail Hatcher was as silent and uncommunicative as an Indian. He kept his nose to the wind and his eyes along the skyline. At night, however, when all had been snugged, with the horses safely staked nearby, he spilled his wilderness lore as from a flowing fountain. Johnston took it all in as they lay quietly, feet to the fire and shoulders propped against their Indian saddles.
"Allus remember, young un," Hatcher told him repeatedly, "ye must never give a red coon a chanst." Or again, "Alius be the fust ter count coup. Otherwise ye'll be nowhar!" Johnston was soon enough to prove that he could follow such good advice.
For along in the middle of one afternoon, as they were entering the foothills, a dozen Arapahos swept down upon them. At first fire Johnston caught an arrow in the flesh of his right shoulder, but despite this he felled one of the attackers—while Hatcher downed two—before the others fled out of rifle range. The young trapper started forward for the coup but found himself peremptorily halted.
"We'll git that arrer out fust," said Hatcher; and with his Bowie knife he removed it, along with a quantity of flesh. Johnston stood stoically the while: "Now cuss me fer a Kiowa," said the Mountain Man, "haven't ye got no feelin's? Thet stun wuz deep!" Johnston's only reply was to load his rifle. ("Never come up on a dead Injun wi' an unloaded gun," Hatcher had taught him.) They advanced, leading their horses, toward the fallen Indians.
Hatcher took advantage of the occasion to expound upon Arapaho character: "These red coons," he said, "air treacherouser than most."
"One is still a-livin'," his partner told him.
For answer Hatcher drew his Bowie, and as Johnston pointed, the wounded brave attempted to draw his scalping knife. He was too late; the Mountain Man's blade was buried to the hilt in his chest.
"Now," said Hatcher, "let's git on."
Excerpted from Crow Killer by Raymond W. Thorp, Robert Bunker. Copyright © 1969 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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