Tuesday, March 14, 2006


From the Billings Gazette Sunday Magazine for March 20, 1966
by Mary Strachan Scriver

First -- the Hawken rifle and the Bowie knife... Then the shadow of a massive, red-bearded man... Mysterious, but just coincidence? Or -- is he Montana’s famed mountain man, Liver-Eatin’ Johnson, reincarnated for the sculptor?

A huge shadow darkened the reception desk at Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife. I looked up and screamed. Bob Scriver came out of the workshop, stopped dead in his tracks, staring. “My God!” Scriver’s voice was hoarse. “It’s Liver-Eatin’ Johnson.”

The shadow’s maker -- a massive man with blood-red beard -- stared back. “I just wanted an admission to the museum,” he said softly, almost apologetically. “I’m Bob Swinford from Cascade, CO. I truck cars across the country and...”

“Yes, but---” Scriver put in, “You look like the Liver-Eater.”

Scriver knows the looks of the Liver-Eater. Siince the winter night Hubert Bartlett, Browning gun dealer, showed him the Hawken rifle and Bowie knife the Liver-Eater carried, Scriver has been digging for every bit of information possible about this fmous Montana mountain man.

Johnson, named John Johnston, who’s figured in plenty of blood-curdling tales, came into Montana after a hitch in the Civil War. He fought Indians, hunted, trapped, cut wood for steamboats on the Upper Missouri, was a deputy sheriff at Coulson in the early 1880’s, a lawman at Red Lodge. he died in Los Angeles in 1899.

He got his nickname in the spring of ‘70 at Fort Hawley on the Musselshell. Sioux shot a white woman and a nephew picking berries near the fort. The fort’s men took after the Indians, killed 24, scalped the corpses and cut up the bodies. Johnston, a wood cutter at the fort, held out a Sioux liver stuck to the tip of his scalping knife. “Any you boys take yore liver rare?” The “boys” stared at Johnston’s blood-smeared beard. From then on John Johnston was “Liver-Eatin’ Johnson.”

Facts and fantasy surrounding Johnson fascinated Scriver. He wanted to sculpt this huge mountain man. When Swinford cast his shadow across the museum desk, it was almost as if the Liver-Eater had been reincarnated for the sculptor.

All this was explained to Swinford, who agreed to stay for supper, be measured, photographed, posed and reposed. Being a model for a statue of a mountain man fit right in with Swinford’s leisure interests. He’s explored, hunted treasure, fired a Hawken rifle, trapped on snowshoes.

Based on Swinford, the clay model of Liver-Eatin’ Johnson practially leapt to life iin Scriver’s hands. It now stands in Scriver’s studio and will be cast in bronze and put in the art gallery of Museum of Montana Wildlife or in galleries in New York, Tucson or Dallas where Scriver’s work has been shown.

Sculpting the Liver-Eater is another step along the way of life Scriver decided was to be his. Ten years ago friend persuaded him to submit an entry in the Montana Historical Society contest for a statue of Charles M. Russell to be placed in the Hall of Fame. Scriver’s entry did not win, but the experience made him decide he was meant to be a sculptor.

He was born in Browning, son of Thaddeus E. and Ellison Scriver. Thaddeus founded Browning Mercantile Co. in 1909. Son Bob was fascinated by the oldtimer’s tales of Indians, rustlers, stagecoaches and wagon trains. He roamed the countryside after school hours, sketching animals, cowboys, Indians, and modeling with clay dug from river banks.

After high school he went to Dickinson State College in North Dakota, played in the college and city bands, and then studied at Vandercook School of Music in Chicago whee he was graduated with a bachelor of arts degree.

Bob returned to Browning High School as a teacher. Soon the band was winning superior ratings in state competitions. In his spare time, Bob hunted with Indian friends and built a kayak. In summer he lived in a tipi at St. Mary’s with his wife and small daughter while he built a more permanent summer cabin. Later he taught in Malta.

Then came World War II. Bob served as a sergeant and was first chair cornet in the U.S. Army Air Force Band, Alaskan Division. When the war was over, he had a bursted blood vessel in his head, which made him unable to bear the pressure necessary to produce high notes, his little family had broken up, he had lost the thread of his former career.

For several years he was an ice-cutter, a professional musician, a mink rancher, a photographer and a common laborer. Then he went back to teaching music, but the life no longer satisfied him. His hobby of taxidermy began to grow into a business. As a sideline he modeled a set of small animals and sold them to tourists.

So -- in 1956, encouraged by his friends who’d seen his Russell entry, Scriver made the start in a career of sculpting. With two empty lots, $500 and an old red truck, he build Scriver Taxidermy and Art Studio.

Buying two old warehouses with the $500, he demolished them, board by board with a nail puller and hauled the lumber to his lots. He constructed a building of his own design, put in the wiring and plumbing.

In 1959 business growth justified addition of the Museum of Montana Wildlife -- a main hall of full mounts of each major mammal in the state, a diorama room, featuring miniature game animals in realistic settiings, and an art gallery containing a complete collection of his sculpture.

The taxidermy business paid for the sculpture, but sculpture has begun to attract attention. With suport of Kennedy Galleries in New York and Rosequist Galleries in Tucson, Scriver will give sculpture his full time when present taxidermy obligations are fulfilled.

His sculpture ranges from cowboys and Indian and the Liver-Eater to character studies and portraits.

Leisure-time activities are quiet moments of sketching and painting in the outdoors, a slab of venison and homemade bread in his saddlebags, or playing with his pets. His grounds, home and workshop are full of animals -- horses, eagle, fox.

After years of hunting, Scriver believes all animals should be protected except those that are destructive or needed for food.

His aim is to keep what remains of the West from vanishing and to preserve the vanished West in bronze.

Reprinted at the request of Dorman Nelson, who is writing about Liver-Eatin’ Johnson.


Anonymous said...

I believe his name was John Garrison, not Johnston or Johnson. He was an army deserter and a probable or at least possible member of my family.
The name Johnson came from an alias he took, to elude the military police who searched for him. Jeremiah Johnson was the whole handle and he was portrayed by Robt Redford in the movie of the same name. TOGunslinger.

Meadow Creek said...

Here is the most acurate information about him. Too many rumors going around about him being a turncoat! If he was such a timid scardy cat, then how would he carve out a liver, much less, a man's and eat it!? Honestly!!

Western Frontiersman. Standing 6 feet, 6 inches tall, and weighing in at 240 pounds, he lived and thrived in the western mountainous region of the United States and survived the end of the Mountain Man era of the United States’ settlement to become both fact and legend in his own time. He was a feared Mountain Man, accomplished fur-trapper, and steamboat “woodhawk” who supplied cord wood for money, he started and ended his own personal war against an entire tribe of Indians, fought in the Civil War, and acted as both Deputy Sheriff and Town Marshall before he died of old age (70+ years) in 1900. In the fall of 1843, the steamboat “Thames” from St. Louis transported the young trapper to the St. Joseph eddy in the Blacksnake Hills of Wyoming. Three years later, he was well known to the steamboat captains as a reliable supplier of wood for their boilers. At this time, the “Crazy Woman” saga depicted in the movie, “Jeremiah Johnson”, actually took place as Jane Morgan’s family was massacred by Indians in the Musselshell River basin of the Rockies. Johnston tracked down and killed all of her assailants. In 1847, Johnston’s pregnant Flathead Indian wife was killed and scalped by a raiding party of Crow Indians while he was away hunting. Barely a year later, his infamous war against the whole tribe of Crows was well known and established. He would eat the liver of his slain enemies as a sign that he had conquered yet another killer of his young Indian squaw. This gruesome practice earned him the title of Dapiek Absaroka (Crow Killer) by the Indians, and, more generally, “Liver-Eating” Johnston. For more than twenty years he maintained a solitary, wary, daily mortal battle with the Crows. In 1869 he made a peace with them. On February 24, 1864, he joined the Union army in St. Louis and rapidly rose in the ranks from horseman to sharpshooter. Johnston was honorably discharged on September 23, 1865. Thirteen years later, in 1878, “Bear Claws” Chris Lapp, one of his compatriots, was found murdered in his cabin. Johnston and “Del” Gue killed all of the Indians involved and the traders who sold them their rifles and ammunition. By the time 1887 came to pass, he was in his sixties but he was still feared, respected, and dominant. He had already served as the Deputy Sheriff of Leadville (Billings), Colorado, and he was elected Town Marshall of Red Lodge, Montana in 1888. The brutally vigorous existence that he led eventually caught up with Johnston. In 1895, his health began to fail him rapidly. He was forced to enter the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Los Angeles in the last month of 1899. Exactly month later, on January 21, 1900, he died. In 1972, Warner Brothers released the motion picture, “Jeremiah Johnson”, starring Robert Redford as the grizzled Mountain Man. His portrayal of Johnston’s life was much tamer than the reality. The movie was based on two books about Johnston; one, “Mountain Man” by Vardis Fisher, is extremely romantic and paints the trapper as a poetry-loving, peaceful hunter. The other, “Crow Killer”, by Raymond W. Thorp and Robert Bunker, is a more factual, documentary-styled novel. After reading the second novel, Tri Robinson, a 7th grade teacher from Lancaster, California, worked with his students to have the body of Johnston reburied in Bob Edgar’s recreated western town, Old Trail Town, in Cody Wyoming on June 8, 1974. He now rest near the face of one of the cliffs that he visited in his later years. (bio by: Bob Dollenmayer)

Lara Martin
(I visited Old Trail Town, Cody Wyoming when in 6th grade! Never will forget Liver Eatin Johnson's grave there covered in pine needles. It was awsome!