Here’s another weird history piece, this time from the American west. In the nineteenth century it
was easy to change your name and become someone else. That is exactly what John Johnson, born Garrison, did. And then his real story begins.
A little backstory, he was born under the name Garrison in New Jersey around 1824. When the chance to see the world and serve his country came up, he joined a fighting ship in the Mexican American war, but quickly deserted after a brawl with an officer that likely would’ve gotten him dishonorably discharged. Garrison then changed his name to John Johnston and hopped a train out west, as many generations of Americans would do after him. He was said to be a striking figure, over six feet tall, two hundred pounds, and pure muscle. Not a man I would challenge lightly.
Johnston (later called Johnson) traveled to Montana in hopes of finding gold and becoming a rich man. He did not find gold, what he found instead was a welcome to the Flathead tribe. He married a Flathead woman and considered them to be his family. Tragedy struck in 1847 when his wife was killed by a Crow brave. His wife was heavily pregnant at the time, and Johnston had been away hunting, unable to protect his family. Johnston was heartbroken and vowed revenge.
To the Crow the liver was vital to an individual’s chances of entering the afterlife, and Johnston knew it. He began a personal vendetta against the Crow that would last twenty-five years and claim the lives of countless Crow men. Distraught over the loss of his beloved wife, Johnston, now called Johnson, began killing any Crow he came across, and eating the liver, insulting the Crow. Just coming across Crow men wasn’t enough for him, the loss of his wife was so great and Johnson was so bereft, that he sought out Crow men to kill and cannibalize.
The Crow picked out their twenty best warriors, outfitted them, and sent them to kill Johnson. Not one of them returned, and no accounts exist of what happened when they left their tribe.
Many legends surround Johnson, it can be hard to tell legend from fact through the veils of history, but one in particular stands out. Some attribute this to another man, but many attribute it to Johnson. He had begun a journey of over 500 miles to sell whiskey to some of his Flathead family when he was attacked by Blackfoot warriors. They planned to sell him to the Crow for revenge. Johnson was tied up, and put in a teepee with only one guard. Of course, as we know, Johnson was a brick wall of a man with quite an axe to grind.
Johnson broke through his binding, killed the guard, scalped him, and supposedly cut off his leg. He then escaped from the camp and survived on only the guard’s raw leg in the middle of a Rocky Mountain winter until he reached the cabin of a friend and old hunting partner Del Que. He would’ve traveled 200 miles through snow and ice.
In 1864, almost twenty years after the death of his wife and unborn child, John Johnson joined the Union Army. A year later, at the end of the war, he was honorably discharged from the army, and returned to Montana. A few years later he made peace with the Crow, bodies having piled up and followed him everywhere. Later, he was appointed deputy sheriff, then town marshal in Montana. In December 1899 Johnson was admitted to a VA hospital in California, where he died on January 21, 1900.
Tragedy can be truly transformative, and for John Garrison Johnston Johnson it created a monster.