Motorcycle Search for Liver-Eating Johnston

June 9, 2009
Dr. Gregory Frazier
Dr. Gregory Frazier
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Having made multiple runs across the globe, round-the-world adventurer Dr. Frazier imparts some of his motorcycle traveling wisdom in his monthly Dr. Frazier Rides column.

There was still a large expanse of open country to be explored by an avid adventurer on two wheels following Johnstons trails.
There was still a large expanse of open country to be explored by an avid adventurer on two wheels following Johnston’s trails.

Adventurist “Liver-Eating Johnston” roamed the Indian country of Montana and Wyoming long before Indians were two-wheel motorcycles. I spent nearly 30 years hunting the truth behind this bigger-than-life, notorious adventurer. His trail through life led me from Colorado to Wyoming, and then Montana to California and back, often well away from paved roads and friendly people.

The full truth is still out there somewhere in the Big Horn Mountains of Montana, or on the prairies of Wyoming, blowing in the wind. If he were alive today, I suspect he would be roaming the world on a motorcycle, adventuring through unsafe countries, living off his wits and experiences, likely using a fake name and being a motorcycle agnostic when it came to which mount he chose to ride. That he was an adventurer there is no doubt, but as to whether he was a good man, or bad, has yet to be determined and frankly I do not care.

In 1972 film director Sidney Pollack brought Liver-Eating Johnston to the general public in a movie titled Jeremiah Johnson, staring Robert Redford. The film told the story of a man, soured by the civilization of eastern American society in the 1840s, who braves his first wilderness winter battling the hostile elements of Montana and Wyoming as a newbie mountain man. His adventures ranged from facing grizzly bears, surviving numerous Indian attacks and living off the land, one man against the toughest elements a harsh environment could throw at him. Today it could be likened to traveling by motorcycle through remote and hostile places like Burma or parts of Brazil, stopping and spending time while trying to make the money needed to move onward.

The film was a box office winner and after seeing it had me wondering about the life of this man. How he was able to go from a newbie, literally fresh off the boat, to a wandering adventurer in the true “wild west.” It is a geographical area I had grown up in, but never heard of Jeremiah Johnson.

My adventures riding motorcycles started 100 years after Jeremiah Johnson was depicted in the film covering the same ground. Instead of using a horse, as he had in the film, I was using a 1945 Indian Chief, then a Honda 305 Super Hawk, to explore the thousands of miles around my home in Montana. After seeing the movie in the 1970s, I could not remember ever hearing of Jeremiah Johnson, but did know of many of the places purportedly depicted on the screen. I was also familiar with some of the Indian tribes Johnson encountered, as well as several of the locations in the film like the Musselshell River and the Montana and Wyoming Rocky Mountains.

Open range was still along the edge of the Big Horn Mountains where once Johnston hunted and trapped
Open range was still along the edge of the Big Horn Mountains where once Johnston hunted and trapped.

My personal motorcycle learning curve was still quite steep in the late 1960s. On my Indian Chief and Honda Super Hawk I really knew no limits, so would often ride off-road until trails dead ended or my strength or the motorcycle gave out. These early days found me following trails, then paved, along the Yellowstone River like the Bozeman Trail, or dirt roads that crossed the Crazy Woman Creeks in Wyoming at the edges of the Big Horn Mountains – places referred to in the film. I knew the names, knew where they were, but those areas shown in the film did not match. For instance, I could not recall seeing many Aspen trees where I had been riding, yet in the film there were many. The same with red sandstone rocks, again aplenty in the film. Sometime in the late 1970s I learned the reason was because the film had been shot entirely in the state of Utah where Aspen and sandstone were more prevalent.

Flags started to go up in my acceptance of what had been portrayed in the film. I stopped to ask questions at Crow Agency in Montana, the central government of the Crow Nation – the Indians in the film Johnson was shown as having fought and killed after they killed his wife and foster son. I was told by a Crow elder that the film was a fictional movie, the man was not named Jeremiah Johnson, and that the character depicted was in fact a friend of the Crows, never an enemy. I can remember being chagrined when the Crow elder said to me, “Son, you watch too many movies. Quit believing what Hollywood shows you.”

In the early 1980s I found a fascinating book in a souvenir shop in Sheridan, Wyoming, about a man known as “Liver-Eating Johnson,” purportedly the basis for the film’s Jeremiah Johnson. The book recounted tales of a man known as John Johnston (Johnston spelled with a “t”) who had lived as a frontier adventurer, tried gold mining, hunted and trapped animals to survive, and killed many Indians to become known by the moniker of Liver-Eating Johnson for having eaten raw, the liver of a Crow Indian he had killed. Who was I to believe, a Crow tribal elder or a published author?

My personal hunt intensified. Rides on more modern motorcycles to destinations like Sturgis, South Dakota, or Cheyenne, Wyoming, had me vectoring off the paved highways to follow dirt and gravel roads, sniffing out leads to where the adventurer might have left his mark 100 years before. Sometimes the roads or trails would end at a stream I could not cross with my motorcycle, but I could see how Johnston on his horse would’ve easily managed the fast-moving, deep water. To get across these streams I would often have to ride back to the pavement, use a modern bridge, and then try to find a way back to where Johnston and his horse

Modern day soldiers at Fort Laramie  Wyoming reliving the years Liver-Eating Johnson passed through here.Fort Fetterman was one of several US Army forts my motorcycle took me to along the Bozeman Trail  and where I nearly stepped on a rattlesnake.
(top) Modern day soldiers at Fort Laramie, Wyoming reliving the years Liver-Eating Johnson passed through here.
(bottom) Fort Fetterman was one of several US Army forts my motorcycle took me to along the Bozeman Trail, and where I nearly stepped on a rattlesnake.

would have crossed.

Johnston’s trail led me from Fort Laramie, Wyoming, to Fort Fetterman, along the Bozeman Trail. A small marker along the route told of how Fort Laramie, the city of Laramie, Laramie Peak, and the Laramie Rivers were all named after Jacques La Ramie, a “free trapper” who was in the region around 1815 and “met an unknown fate, probably at the hands of Indians about 1820.” It was an interesting sidebar to my hunt, and pointed to the arduous and risky environment of the territory Johnston had passed through later.

I rode the gravel and two-lane paved roads from Fort Fetterman to Fort Phil Kearney along what are now Interstate 25 and Interstate 90. It was from Fort Phil Kearney that John “Portugee” Phillips made what some historians called “The Greatest Ride in History,” by horse December 24 and December 25, 1866. Phillips literally rode his horse into the ground over 236 miles in two days, through a blizzard with the temperature below zero, to report the death of Colonel William F. Fetterman and all 80 of his men, leaving Fort Phil Kearney unprotected. The horse died from exhaustion soon after arriving at Fort Laramie. Some wild tales were that Liver-Eating Johnson accompanied Phillips for much of that famous ride to help Phillips, but those are, like many other stories surrounding Johnston, tall tales and likely not the truth.

From Fort Kearney the Bozeman Trail, and likely much of the ground covered by Johnston, took me to Fort C.F. Smith on the banks of Big Horn River, at the base of the Big Horn Mountains. This trail was hard to follow as much of it was across privately owned lands, but in places I could see ruts from the settler’s wagons using this route 100 years earlier. Johnston had worked as an Indian scout, freight hauler, trapper and hunter for many years along this route, likely having traversed it more than once. The route from Fort Phil Kearney to Fort C. F. Smith would have taken him three to four days by horse in the 1860s. By motorcycle, on pavement, I managed it

Some of the Bozeman Trail Johnston followed was still passable by road but some crossed private lands where I could not ride the motorcycle.
Some of the Bozeman Trail Johnston followed was still passable by road but some crossed private lands where I could not ride the motorcycle.

easily in three to four hours.

My hunt for the truth about Johnson took me to what was once the small Montana town of Coulson, now known as Billings, the largest city in the state. Johnston left his mark in this area for having been hired as County Deputy in November, 1882, and served there until he joined the Hardwick Wild West Show and traveled east in 1884.

Billings was a comfortable stop on my hunt for Johnston. My motorcycles were serviced in Billings, and the town had provisions for my pursuits ranging from computer repair shops to an Army/Navy surplus store for camping supplies. In between were ATMs and a modern library for research.

The wild west show Johnston joined went out of business while he was on the road with them somewhere east of the Mississippi River. He was left to find his own way home, which for him was anywhere he could survive by living off the land and his wits back in the area around Billings. He did so with the help of a small pension for having been wounded in the Civil War, trapping, and at one time even growing cabbages. At age 64 he accepted the job of sheriff of the new town of Red Lodge, Montana. He lived in a small cabin he had built three miles south of town, which has since been moved and restored in downtown Red Lodge. Today the town is a popular stop for motorcyclists riding the famed Beartooth Highway from Yellowstone Park or on a day ride out of Billings.

Motorcycle Search for Liver-Eating Johnston
Motorcycle Search for Liver-Eating Johnston Page 2

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