I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
American wolf hunters, whisky traders, cargo haulers, and Assiniboine Indians clashed at a place known as Cypress Hills in south-western Saskatchewan in 1873. About 20 innocent Indians died and one of the killers might have been a man known as Liver-Eating Johnston.
American Wolf Hunters Crossed the Border
In late May 1873, a group of about a dozen American wolf hunters was heading to Fort Benton in Montana with their season’s furs when 20 of their horses were stolen.
According to Philip Goldring writing in the Canadian Encyclopedia, the hunters “tracked their missing property north into Canada, lost the trail, and reached [Abel] Farwell’s [trading] post in a foul mood.”
Tensions Between Indians and Traders High
Farwell and Moses Solomon operated trading posts beside what is now known as Battle Creek. Nearby, was a 50-lodge camp of Assiniboine Indians.
Farwell and Solomon supplied the Indians with liquor in exchange for furs and buffalo hides. The whisky trade was illegal but there was no Canadian authority present to uphold the law, or protect the Native People from exploitation.
Walter Hildebrandt, writing in The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan says “The Assiniboine had accused Solomon of cheating them and had fired shots into his post; they threatened to ‘clear out’ the traders and kill them all if they resisted.”
Into this tense situation rode the dozen angry American wolf hunters.
Hunters Start Drinking
Whisky began to flow in the trading posts. On the morning of June 1, one of the wolf hunters said his horse had been stolen and blamed the Assiniboine. It wasn’t difficult to recruit a party among his drunken companions, traders, and Métis freight haulers to retrieve the horse.
Shortly after the group set off for the Indian camp the missing horse was found to have just wandered off but it was too late to stop the men fired up for a fight. The Indians also had been drinking and started taunting the white men.
Inevitably, this was going to turn out badly.
Indians Overwhelmed by Modern Weapons
Philip Goldring picks up the story: “There are different accounts of who fired first, but the result was horrific. Shooting with repeating rifles from shelter in a coulee, the whites overwhelmed the Assiniboine, whose muskets and arrows killed only one wolfer.”
Hopelessly over-matched, the Indians withdrew and the attackers entered their camp, where they found a wounded chief, Little Soldier. Bill Twatio (Esprit de Corps, April 2005) records that Little Soldier was “murdered in cold blood, decapitated, his head impaled on a pole. Other lodges were set afire. Several women were raped and some allegedly killed. Estimates of the number of Assiniboines killed, ranged from 15 to 30.”
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News of the Massacre Travels Slowly
It wasn’t until August that news of the Cypress Hills Massacre reached Ottawa. The government sent out officers from the newly formed Northwest Mounted Police to try to arrest the wolf hunters and anybody else involved.
Three men were captured and tried in Winnipeg in 1876, but there was not enough evidence to convict them. Eventually, the government gave up and dropped all charges relating to the massacre in 1882.
There is one interesting name that crops up in the historical record as having been involved in the massacre.
According to the Mysteries of Canada website a “colourful individual with the name of John Liver Eating Johnston was one of the many Americans who sold whisky to the Indians in Cypress Hill.”
Johnston Described as Mean Individual
Colourful is an adjective used to describe someone by a sympathetic biographer whose subject might more objectively might be called a rogue, scoundrel, or villain.
One such character was John Liver-Eating Johnston; the name alone might cause a flutter of alarm. A website dedicated to his life story describes him as “surly, extremely strong, and a loner.” From his photograph he looks exactly like someone central casting would send over to fill the role of “wild man from the bush.”
He was born John Garrison in 1824 and changed his name to Johnston and, sometimes, Johnson.
The Lawless Western Frontier
The western regions of the North American continent in the 19th century were made for hard men like Johnston. The rule of law was only a concept in the minds of Eastern intellectuals; in places such as Montana and Wyoming being handy with a gun or knife was what often decided disputes.
Few were handier than John Johnston. Among his many occupations he counted trapper, hunter, guide, sailor, whisky peddler, and trader. One biographer, Alan Bellows, writes that in 1846 “a Flathead Indian sub-chief had offered his daughter to Johnston in a trade. Johnston made the exchange, and he and his new wife set off to return to his cabin on the Little Snake River.”
Johnston Starts a Killing Spree
The following winter Johnston spent trapping and when he returned to his cabin he found the skeletal remains of his wife in the open doorway. She had, apparently, been killed by Crow Indians.
Johnston began a campaign to avenge his wife’s death, and Bellows writes that “Soon the scalped bodies of Crow warriors began to appear throughout the Northern Rockies and the plains of Wyoming and Montana. Each had had his liver cut out, and presumably eaten by the killer.” His attacks went on for 25 years and earned him his nickname.
Legend and Myth Mixed with Truth
Raymond W. Thorp and Robert Bunker published a biography of Johnston (Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson, Indiana University Press, 1958) and a foreword written by Richard M. Dorson warns that details of his life may have been embellished: “We shall never know the full and exact facts in the saga of John Johnson … For all the hundreds of scalps he acquired, Johnson claimed that he never killed a white man.”
He was never brought to account for his vendetta; this was a time when Indian-killer was seen as a positive entry on anyone’s resume. He lived by the code that was honoured by the rugged frontiersmen of his day.
A fitting end to Johnston’s life would have been a violent death, but he passed away in a Los Angeles nursing home in 1900.
- The government of Canada was persuaded by the Cypress Hills Massacre of the need for some effective law enforcement in Canada’s frontier. The Northwest Mounted Police set up posts and began shutting down the illegal whisky trade and the violence it spawned.
- The Northwest Mounted Police eventually became the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
- Liver-Eating Johnston went from being a lawless killer to the embodiment of the law. In the 1880s, he served as a deputy sheriff and then as a town marshal.
- The 1972 movie Jeremiah Johnson starring Robert Redford in the title role is said to have been loosely based on the life of Liver-Eating Johnston.
- “Cypress Hills Massacre.” Canadian Encyclopedia, undated.
- “Cypress Hills Massacre.” Mysteries of Canada, undated.
- “Rape, Murder, Arson ... the Cypress Hills Massacre ...” Bill Twatio, Esprit de Corps, April, 2005.
- “Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson.” Raymond W. Thorp and Robert Bunker, Indiana University Press, 1958.
- “John Liver Eating Johnston.” Website.
- “Liver-Eating Johnson.” Alan Bellows, Damn Interesting, January 22, 2006.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on December 25, 2017:
I love the movie, Jeremiah Johnson, but I have never heard of "Liver-eating" Johnston. Merry Christmas!