Part II – An inconvenient historic truth and a question: When “some folks say he’s up there still,” who is “he”?
In my effort to follow the trail of Jeremiah Johnson, I thought it might helpful to know more about mountain men generally. While it is certainly possible for there to have been a romantic like Johnson, the historical fact is that most mountain men were illiterate and uncouth — social outcasts and men desperate for work. Like Jeremiah Johnson, many did take Indian wives. According to George Catlin (highly regarded artist and ethnographer from the time), the going rate was either two horses, a gun with powder and balls, or a couple gallons of whiskey. Some mountain men were loyal to their Indian wives while others mistreated, resold, or abandoned them. Sweet romance was a rarity among mountain men.
Then again, being a mountain man in the early to mid 1800s was far from romantic. It was downright dangerous. Not one mountain man had health or Life Insurance. Conservatively, one in five died from bears, snakes, spiders, Indians, other mountain men, mountain Lions, illness, injury, starvation, stupidity, exposure to cold, insanity, stubbornness, the masculine inability to ask for directions, and the lack of a Swiss army knife. Nobody became a mountain man in order to discover the wild man within. This was simply available work. Beaver pelts had become quite valuable in Europe and on the East Coast, probably in part due to fashion trends, but also due to European nostalgia for their lost wild. The mountain man phenomenon was really a gold rush for fur. Most mountain men were employed by fur companies and worked in teams of 30 to 60 men. When they got paid, they would go to town to spend it. (Apropos of nothing, the Grand Tetons got their name from French trappers who called the mountains Les Trois Tetons, which actually means The Three Teats.)
Have you ever eaten plantain or dandelion? They’re not very good. Having spent time in American wilderness, I also discovered that good old American mosquitoes and insects can be just as nasty as exotic mosquitoes and insects. The elements can be uncooperative, and it’s not necessarily fun to shit like a bear in the woods, with or without an Indian wife.
In 1982, my wife and I built a geodesic dome near the boundary waters canoe area in Northern Minnesota with the intention of living there year round. Severe medical problems prevented my burning the suburban bridges. At age 27, the year I’d planned to move into the wild, I became severely handicapped. The dome was not to become our home. I was not going to be Jeremiah Johnson after all.
It probably would have been harder than I had imagined. At the time we had planned to go back to nature there was no one else living in that area year round. We had heard stories of how our neighbor had once wintered in his cabin alone. People thought it made him a little odd, although he may have been odd to start with. Personally, I just thought he was quiet and withdrawn. A winter alone in Northern Minnesota could do that to you. The following is a typical conversation that a man might have with himself during the long winter months.
MAN: So, what should we do tonight?
MAN: I’m going to tell you up front, I’m tired of the left hand and right hand talking to each other.
MAN: How about staying in, staying warm, and having a meal.
MAN: We did that last night, and the night before.
MAN: No, the night before we were cold and hungry.
MAN: That’s because it was storming too bad to go out, and you neglected to bring in enough firewood.
MAN: There you go again, blaming me for something I didn’t do! Anyway, we didn’t have to go hungry.
MAN: You know the motto: To ration is in fashion while the road is snow bestowed.
MAN: Let’s go hunting tomorrow.
MAN: You know I hate eating squirrel. And chipmunk. I don’t really like deer either. This is a bad time to be discovering my inner vegetarian.
MAN: Not to change the subject, but don’t you think this living in the woods thing is overrated?
MAN: Well, don’t blame me, it was your idea.
MAN: It’s a shame when you play the blame game. A-b-c-d — Dame. I’ve got a whole alphabet of rhyme if you keep blaming me.
MAN: Who else is there to blame? We’re stuck here till spring, if we don’t starve or go crazy before then.
MAN: Here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.
MAN: I’m getting just a little tired of your sarcasm.
MAN: You’re such a beaver brain after the sun goes down.
MAN: Muskrat… I can’t think of a good alliteration. Muskrat meathead!
MAN: Call that good? If you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all.
MAN: OK, I won’t! (SILENCE UNTIL SPRING)
As it turns out, the film JEREMIAH JOHNSON is based on an actual book, a work of fiction entitled MOUNTAIN MAN by Vardis Fisher. Sam Minard, the Jeremiah Johnson of that book, kills, or is responsible for killing, hundreds of Indians. He is a Rambo of the old west that we’re asked to forgive because he loves classical music and looks after a crazy white woman.
MOUNTAIN MAN, however, is based on an actual historical person, John “liver-eating” Johnson. This may sound like a joke, but it is the truth. I had finally found the actual Jeremiah Johnson. But my search did not uncover Robert Redford. Far from it. John “liver-eating” Johnson was a mountain man who went A.W.O.L. from the military and became a mountain man in 1843. According to the book CROW KILLER,* Johnson declared war on the entire Crow nation after the death of his Flathead wife in 1847, which he blamed on them. He supposedly killed, and/or was responsible for commanding the death of hundreds of Crow warriors, of which 20 were hand picked assassins – the finest Crow warriors sent to ambush him one at a time. We’re told that the 20th and final Crow assassin sent to kill Johnson spent 14 years on the trail, some of which was interrupted by Johnson’s participation in the Civil War. We’re expected to believe that this highly disciplined Crow warrior was about to ambush Johnson while Johnson was washing pans by the river, but instead took time out to eat Johnson’s freshly baked biscuits. This gave Johnson time to recover and ambush the Crow warrior as he was obliviously stuffing his mouth. Apparently, great cooking was to become a part of the Johnson legend as well. Speaking of good cooking and biscuits, Johnson poisoned 29 Blackfoot warriors with a batch of poisoned biscuits. Hopefully, little doubt can remain that this was not a nice person. Or, at least his legend wasn’t very nice.
He also killed, and/or was responsible for commanding the death of hundreds of Blackfoot, Sioux, and Cheyenne. He was often “required to direct the head poling,” impaling the heads of fallen Indians onto poles. He ate at least one Sioux liver publicly, and was reputed for eating most of the Crow livers fresh out of the body like a trophy.
Eating liver has become unfashionable in America because it’s an organ meat. Olympians are warned not to eat liver because it can result in an athlete testing positive via urine test for the anabolic steroid clenbuterol (honest — Scout’s honor). Eating Indian livers is politically incorrect. Rephrasing — eating Native American livers — won’t prevent you from being locked up in a maximum-security prison. My hero, John “Jeremiah” Johnson sounds more like Hannibal Lector from SILENCE OF THE LAMBS then the back to nature Boy Scout I had imagined. To the credit of Director Sidney Pollack, the titles in the film JEREMIAH JOHNSON fail to state an overused cliché: “This film is based on a true story.” Pollack knew that he was directing a myth.
In case you’re wondering, John Johnson died in a veteran’s hospital in Los Angeles and was buried there. His body was reburied in Cody Wyoming. Robert Redford was one of the pallbearers. As far as I know, no one ate raw liver to commensurate Johnson, although they could have eaten liver pate.
Perhaps my mistake was to search for Jeremiah Johnson when I was actually looking for Robert Redford’s mountain spirit. Perhaps I should have bypassed Redford and confined my search to Mount Olympus, hoping to secure a boon from the mighty Hercules.
Or, I could drive up to the top of Pike’s Peak, park my car, walk out of view of the visitor’s center, and wait for the clouds to turn into stars. Heck, it wouldn’t need to be Pike’s Peak, any wild place would do. When I became lost in wonder, I could ponder the statement: “Some folks say he’s up there still.” Within any genuine connection with Nature, in or out of trance, there exists the potential for an original moment apart from the “civilizing” streams that make us one of the crowd. In a moment such as that I would realize that the mythical Jeremiah Johnson was still out there, and that there was something left of me as an aging man that remains wild and untamed.
* CROW KILLER: THE SAGA OF LIVER-EATING JOHNSON, by Raymond Thorp and Robert Bunker, was first published in 1958. It purports to have traced an oral tradition back to John Johnson via J.F. “White Eye” Anderson, Who heard the original story from Del Grue, John Johnson’s trapping partner. Interviews were conducted with “White Eye” Anderson by Raymond Thorp in the winter of 1940-41, and that information was put into storytelling form by Robert Bunker. All information regarding the Johnson legend derives from this book. Needless to say, the book is obviously not true, and a horrific commentary on what anyone in 1958 would have thought made acceptable literature. The publisher must have thought it had the potential to make a buck.
Final Thought: I read an annotated version of Henry David Thoreau’s WALDEN when I when I was 23. I loved the man immediately. But I understood that he lived in the woods for only about two years, and that he was walking distance from town. But I can guarantee that if he ate liver, it was cow liver properly prepared. And he was more than a “back to the woods,” kind of guy. He was a naturalist and philosopher of integrity. While I may have been inspired by the Jeremiah Johnson myth, I embraced Henry David Thoreau. As I’ve aged, I identify more and more with another aspect of the man who knew he was physically wounded, and had only so much time to complete his work. He died at age 44.