I have recently been reading Crow Killer by Raymond W. Thorp, first published in 1959. It is a chronology of the life of John Johnson—born Garrison, he took the name Johnson after deserting during the Mexican-American War—who carried on a long vendetta against the Crow tribe of Montana after several young warriors killed and scalped his pregnant Flathead wife while he was trapping. The movie, “Jerimiah Johnson,” starring Robert Redford, is loosely based upon this story.
There are several reasons why I am attracted to this book. First, I live where much of what occurred between Johnson and the Crows. Second, the movie was responsible for me jettisoning my dream of becoming an exotic animal veterinarian and moving to Wyoming the first time in 1979. Finally, Johnson was re-interred at Old Trail Town in nearby Cody, Wyoming, in 1974. I don’t go there often, but when I do—usually with out-of-town visitors—I always find a way to steal a few moments by myself at his grave to pay respects.
Thorp’s accounts of Johnson are gleaned from an oral history passed down from Johnson’s contemporaries. He did interview White Eye Anderson when Anderson was in his 90s. Most of Anderson’s accounts were recounted from conversations with Del Gue, who was Johnson’s partner in the mountains. Thorp’s writing style is a bit stilted for modern readers—and editors—but it is quintessential American storytelling and in that sense, it is rather refreshing. I have no idea who may have edited Thorp’s manuscript some 56 years ago, but there are plenty of errors. For example, Thorp spells the mountain man’s name as Johnston and Johnson interchangeably, and thus far I have found no explanation as to why. As to why an editor let that go by is equally mysterious.
The skeptic in me believes that while entertaining, the accounts put forth are probably not entirely factual. There was no way to corroborate these oral recollections, and people—especially the old and independent mountain men—never let a good tale get any worse for the telling. Legend has it that Johnson made a practice of consuming the livers of his Crow conquests. Others say that he merely bit into the livers, without swallowing them. Nonetheless, it is a fascinating read and spurs one to further explore things like the origin of the Crow name—it’s from a French description of the Apsáalooke (sometimes Absaroka) tribe gens du corbeaux (people of [the] crows).
So if you are tired of reading stuff on a computer screen, get a copy of Crow Killer from Amazon. It’s $12.34, and if you order enough stuff to surpass $35, shipping is free.