John Garrison – The Lover, The Fighter, The Cannibal

Husband, Soldier, Lawman, Cannibal

What drives a person to eat another can be difficult to answer. But in the case of John Garrison it was for survival. And revenge. Or so the story goes.

John Garrison was born in New Jersey around 1824. And it is said he served in the navy until he was around 20. Changing his name to John Johnston he headed west to the Colorado wilderness where an older mountain man, Old John Hatcher, taught him how to be a successful hunter and trapper. John Johnston proved a handy man with his rifle and Bowie knife. When the old trapper quit the trade around 1846 he left the cabin to John, who took himself a wife.

His wife was the daughter of a Flathead Indian who traded him to Johnston. On the long journey back to the Colorado cabin she taught him the language of her tribe, and he taught her to hunt with the rifle. He made sure to take care of her needs, considerate of what she would need whilst he was away trapping through the winter and of how difficult it could be. And spent months ensuring she would have enough supplies, plenty of warmth, and the ability to hunt for herself if she needed to. When he left for the winter trapping season he was certain she would be there when he returned in the spring.

John Garrison

Laden with his bounty, he was faced with a gruesome scene. In the months he had been away, trapping and hunting to provide for his new wife, she had been killed in his absence by a Crow hunting party. Her bones lay in the doorway of the cabin he’d so carefully stocked before his departure.

Revenge – The Crow Killer

After discovering the bones of his wife, it is said, he put his hunting and trapping skills to another use. His prey became the Crow Indians. And one by one the fell. The scalped bodies of the hunted Crow began to appear. Their livers cut out.

Whether he ate the livers because of hunting tradition or as a direct insult to the Crow Indians, or even at all, we’ll never truly know. Other mountain men got hold of the story and passed it on, there is a strong possibility they enhanced the story for  better effect on those they were telling it to.

Leg of Man

One winter Johnston was ambushed by a band of Blackfoot Warriors. They bound him with leather straps. But it wasn’t enough and he escaped. A big man, he punched his guard and then used the Indian’s own knife to saw off his leg.

With leg and knife he fought his way out of the camp. The leg and knife were enough to make it back to his cabin. The leg proving a valuable source of food on the long trek.

Making Peace

After 20 years of hunting, scalping, and supposedly eating the livers of all Crow Indians he could find he gave up on his Vendetta and made peace with the Crow. There are numerous stories of him hunting down and killing various Indians for a number of different reasons. Whilst many were probably true -legends are usually based in a little fact- the number he is attributed to have killed is likely exaggerated.

During the Civil War he signed up to fight as a sharpshooter. After leaving the army he spent time as a lawman, as Sheriff in Custer County, Montana. When not taking care of the local law or enlisting to fight he would spend time in his mountains. Living in the wilderness for many years. Before entering the Los Angeles Veterans home in 1899 when his health began to fail him.

In January 1900 John Garrison breathed his last breath.

The Robert Redford Movie Jeremiah Johnson is said to be a portrayal of John Garrison’s life before he made peace with the Crow.

Jeremiah Johnson, John Garrison
via IMDb


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