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Liver-eating Johnston Comes Home

June 2024
1min read

At last the sod may lie lightly on the bones of Liver-Eating Johnston, thanks to the efforts of the seventhgrade students of Park View Junior High School in Lancaster, California. John Johnston went west from New Jersey during the Gold Rush, fought with the Union army during the Civil War, did a turn of duty as a sheriff, and spent most of his years as a logger and trapper. When Crow Indians murdered his pregnant Indian wife, Johnston swore revenge and declared war on the tribe. Six feet tall and weighing 260 pounds, he was a formidable opponent. Legend has it that a mutual respect grew out of the feud, and Johnston eventually became blood brother to the Crow chieftain.

Johnston got his grisly nickname after a skirmish with a group of Sioux when a friend saw him cutting out the liver of a fallen Indian. Later Johnston modestly explained: “I didn’t eat any …,” just “made that man think I did.”

Like so many of his breed, he ended up penniless; the sometime mountain man lived out his last days in Santa Monica, died in 1900 at the age of seventy-eight, and was buried in the Sawtelle Veterans Cemetery.

Johnston had told his friends that he wanted to be buried in the great Northwest, but nobody paid any attention to this last wish until the students at Park View learned of it late last year. Encouraged by their teacher, Tri Robinson, they formed the Committee for the Reburial of Liver-Eating Johnston. The committee petitioned the head of the Los Angeles Veterans Cemetery, won the support of various colleges and historical societies, and waited for a decision from Washington. The decision came in April: Johnston could be moved to Cody, Wyoming. Despite the intervention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, whose spokesman called the federal officials who approved the move grave robbers and complained that “…no veteran remains safe in his grave,” Johnston was reburied last June in a sagebrush prairie at the edge of the Shoshone River, near the prominence that the Crow Indians named Buffalo Heart Mountain.

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