How Mountain Man ‘Liver-Eating’ Johnson Was Buried In Wyoming Decades After His Death

Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of the reburial of legendary mountain man John “Liver-Eating” Johnson in Cody, Wyoming. But how that happened is a tale almost as unbelievable as Johnson’s legend.

AR
Andrew Rossi

June 08, 202419 min read

Actor Robert Redford played the lead role in the hit movie "Jeremiah Johnson" and was the lead pallbearer for the remains of the real John "Liver-Eating" Johnson whose life loosely inspired the movie.
Actor Robert Redford played the lead role in the hit movie "Jeremiah Johnson" and was the lead pallbearer for the remains of the real John "Liver-Eating" Johnson whose life loosely inspired the movie. (Courtesy Dewy Vanderhoff)

CODY — Saturday was like any other day during the peak summer tourist season at Old Trail Town in northwest Wyoming. But it' also was the momentous golden anniversary of the final journey of legendary mountain man John "Liver Eating" Johnson.

In June 1974, Johnson's remains were moved from a Los Angeles cemetery to a picturesque spot overlooking the Shoshone River. The reburial, two years after the release of the hit 1972 Robert Redford movie “Jeremiah Johnson,” based on life of the famous mountain man, made national news and attracted one of the largest crowds ever seen in Cody.

But Johnson's final journey in the untamed West was far from peaceful. It required body-snatching shenanigans, circumventing an out-of-state injunction and the steadfast orneriness of a class of Southern California students determined to get Johnson back where he belonged.

Stopping The Montana Body-Snatchers

Cody resident Dewey Vanderhoff was intimately involved in the reburial. He was only 23 years old when he was tasked with protecting Johnson's remains from an angry posse of would-be grave robbers from Montana.

"There was quite a backlash to this thing coming from the people of Red Lodge," he told Cowboy State Daily. "They wanted Johnson's body in Red Lodge. They figured they deserved (the remains) and that he belonged there. 'If you're going to move the guy's grave somewhere, it should have gone to Red Lodge, not Cody,’ they said. And they started a resistance."

Johnson served as the town marshal of Red Lodge for a time, and a cabin he lived in is still on display there. The talk of commandeering his remains for a Red Lodge reburial wasn't an idle threat.

Montana Gov. Thomas Lee Judge entered the fray advocating for Johnson's reburial in Red Lodge, while U.S. Sen. John Melcher lobbied the Departments of the Interior and Veterans Affairs to prevent the planned reburial in Cody. An injunction was even passed to prevent Johnson's remains from crossing Montana state lines — should there ever be an attempt to return them to Montana.

It took some last-minute shenanigans to get Johnson's remains to Cody.

Vanderhoff spent the night before the reburial in 1974 in one of the cabins at Old Trail Town, protecting Johnson's remains from any potential Montana body-snatchers.

"Bob Edgar gave me a Colt .45 7-inch barrel loaded with blanks," he said. "I was on guard duty, so I slept in this cabin with that box."

He only learned later that the whole situation was a ruse. While Johnson's coffin was at Old Trail Town, his remains were kept elsewhere to ensure the legendary mountain man reached his final destination.

"If the Red Lodge guys did come down and sneak into Old Trail Town in the middle of the night and try to make off with the casket, they wouldn't have had anything," he said. "They thought they would have, but they didn't. I thought that was funny as hell that I had been guarding an empty box all night."

Posthumous Justice For Johnson

While John "Liver Eating" Johnson's life has been the subject of many books and a successful movie, his final and most publicized journey started 73 years after his death.

In 1973, Tri Robinson was working with a class of "intelligent but not very motivated" middle schoolers at Parkview School in Lancaster, California, through the California Department of Education's Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program. When Robinson shared Johnson's story with his seventh grade American Literature class, there was an impassioned reaction to his fate.

"They got irate," he told Cowboy State Daily. "They were all upset, thinking it was wrong after his reputation and everything."

Johnson, a Civil War veteran, traveled to Southern California seeking treatment for myriad medical issues at a veteran's home. He died Jan. 21, 1900, at age 75.

"He died the same day he arrived in Los Angeles," Robinson said.

Johnson was dressed in a full military uniform and buried in a redwood casket in the South Hill Cemetery, a veteran's cemetery in Los Angeles. By 1974, the mountain man's grave was less than 100 yards from the San Diego Highway.

"I told my wife that (the students) got a real reaction from that," he said. "And she said, 'Well, they should go dig him up and rebury him if they don't like it.' Yeah, right. I didn't think that was possible."

Those irate feelings sparked a massive letter-writing campaign. Robinson's students started writing letters advocating for Johnson's exhumation and reburial somewhere in the Rocky Mountain region and sent those letters to every person, agency and municipality in the United States that might assist them.

"Nobody was responding to them," Robinson said. "They wrote to congressmen and agencies in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, and everybody laughed us off because they were junior high school kids trying to dig up a dead mountain man."

Robinson said it was looking like "one of those things you couldn't make happen." That's when three key people took a keen interest in their efforts and started to make things happen.

  • Cody resident Dewy Vanderhoff was tasked with guarding the remains of John "Liver-Eating" Johnson before their reburial in Old Trail Town. It wasn't until later he was told he was guarding the wrong place as a ruse.
    Cody resident Dewy Vanderhoff was tasked with guarding the remains of John "Liver-Eating" Johnson before their reburial in Old Trail Town. It wasn't until later he was told he was guarding the wrong place as a ruse. (Courtesy Dewy Vanderhoff)
  • John "Liver-Eating" Johnson got a 21-musket salute at his reburial in Old Trail Town on June 8, 1974.
    John "Liver-Eating" Johnson got a 21-musket salute at his reburial in Old Trail Town on June 8, 1974. (Courtesy Dewy Vanderhoff)
  • Bob Edgar of Cody and Tri Robinson in 1974.
    Bob Edgar of Cody and Tri Robinson in 1974. (Courtesy Dewy Vanderhoff)

The Three Keys

Robinson and Vanderhoff credit three people for galvanizing the effort to rebury Johnson. Bob Edgar, the founder of Old Trail Town in Cody, was the first to eagerly offer a final resting place for the mountain man.

Robinson had met Edgar while working on his master's thesis on Western history. He mentioned that to one of his students, who wrote a letter to Edgar on their own initiative.

"Edgar took it seriously enough that he answered the letter," Robinson said. "He told them, 'If you can get permission to dig him up, I'll pay for everything if you'll move his remains to Wyoming.'"

The second key person was Roy Neal, a journalist and NBC News correspondent who made his name as an aerospace specialist covering the Apollo missions. Vanderhoff said he took "a keen interest" in the effort to rebury Johnson, which led to national media interest.

"He was one of NBC's top news reporters," he said. "He thought he smelled a story, and it turned out he was right. Any time those kids ran into a problem with a government official or a bureaucrat, Roy Neal stepped in and lobbied for them, and he did that several times all along the way."

Neal's involvement and Edgar's commitment gave the middle schoolers momentum. After six months of campaigning, and a few fortunate connections, the Department of Veterans Affairs legally designated the seventh graders as Johnson's next of kin, as no living decedents of the mountain man could be found.

Vanderhoff said another "catalyst" of the effort was Western artist and Cody resident James Bama. When he heard about the campaign to get Johnson's remains to Cody, he offered whatever support he could.

"He offered to pay a lot of the expenses, and he did," he said. "That wasn't known at the time."

All the pieces were in place to exhume and relocate Johnson. The final push came from the superstar actor who had just achieved great success portraying the long-dead mountain man on the silver screen.

The Not-So-Red-Faced Redford

"I saw a movie with my parents, and I think it's about the guy we're trying to dig up."

That's how Robinson described a student's reaction to the 1972 film “Jeremiah Johnson,” starring Redford and loosely based on Johnson's real life. It's best known as a meme today, but the film was a huge critical and commercial hit at the time, earning nearly $48 million on a budget of $3 million.

“Jeremiah Johnson” reignited interest in the American West and mountain men in particular, which boosted the visibility of Robinson's class to exhume and rebury the film's titular character. An article published by the Los Angeles Times catapulted Redford into the reburial effort.

Redford was one of the many people who received and didn't respond to a letter from Robinson's middle schoolers. The LA Times took the inch and ran the mile on their front page.

"The LA Times story said, 'Redford Red Faced Over The Reburial of Jeremiah Johnson,' because he didn't respond to the kids," Robinson said. "I don't know how that got out, but the article said that he was embarrassed because he didn't do anything to help these kids out."

Robinson's class was hugely surprised when Redford called them directly, applauding their perseverance and determination to find a final resting place for Johnson. Vanderhoff said Redford's connection to the mountain man was already firmly in place when he got wind of the effort to rebury him.

"The story I heard was that Redford was still riding that wave two years after the movie came out," he said. "It was a very popular movie. Redford was getting 100 fan letters every day. But believe it or not, that kid's letter stuck with Redford, and he picked up on that."

Redford immediately lent the weight of his name and celebrity to the cause.

But, according to Vanderhoff, the actor went above and beyond to ensure the students' success.

"There were a lot of outside expenses involved in getting that whole thing done," he said. "Redford paid some of the expenses to get it done, but that was never said at the time. He paid Western Airlines to fly those kids to Cody, and he kept real quiet about that. But he made sure that it would happen to the extent that he could influence it, and he did."

  • Robert Redford shares a laugh with a group of mountain men at the reburial of Liver-Eating Johnson in Cody's Old Trail Town.
    Robert Redford shares a laugh with a group of mountain men at the reburial of Liver-Eating Johnson in Cody's Old Trail Town. (Courtesy Dewy Vanderhoff)
  • The funeral procession for John "Liver-Eating" Johnson for the 1974 reburial in Cody, Wyoming, at Old Trail Town. Right: Actor Robert Redford sketches some of the period clothing of the Old West at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.
    The funeral procession for John "Liver-Eating" Johnson for the 1974 reburial in Cody, Wyoming, at Old Trail Town. Right: Actor Robert Redford sketches some of the period clothing of the Old West at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. (Courtesy Dewy Vanderhoff)

What Little Remains

As Johnson's next of kin, Robinson's class got permission to exhume his remains from the Los Angeles veterans cemetery. Robinson and some of his students were there when Johnson's grave was reopened.

There wasn't much of the 6-foot-4 mountain man left in the grave. The cemetery was built on a water table, and more than 70 years of moisture and movement had destroyed the redwood coffin and left little of Johnson's skeleton.

"It wouldn't fill a 5-gallon bucket with everything they had," Vanderhoff said. "A skullcap, a little bit of a shoulder blade, a shoulder socket joint, a little bit of the forearm, a couple of pieces of what were probably ribs and some teeth. I can't imagine why there wasn't a skull in there somewhere, but there wasn't."

Nevertheless, Johnson's remains and the original headstone marking his grave were reverently collected and placed in a modest wooden coffin. Then, the mountain man was escorted to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to follow the final trail back to the Rockies.

Robinson and his students had escorted the coffin to a special terminal at LAX when they got wind of a suspicious call.

"When we got there a guy said, ‘Your people in Montana just called to make sure he's going to come into Billings on time,'" Robinson said. "We didn't have any people in Montana.'"

Remember the injunction? Robinson guessed that there was a plan to intercept Johnson's remains at Billings Logan International Airport and prevent them from traveling across the state line to Wyoming.

"I was taking kids' lunch money to make the phone calls to Bob Edgar," he said. "He said he had heard something about it."

Edgar, who was paying the travel costs, devised a new strategy. While Johnson's remains were eagerly awaited in Billings, they were actually put on a flight to Casper, where Edgar was waiting to load the coffin into his pickup and drive it to Cody.

Of course, the ultimate irony is that there was never any risk of losing Johnson in Montana. His actual flight into Casper was 10 days earlier than the announced flight to Billings. Edgar must have forgotten to inform the public about the rescheduled flight.

"They put it in somebody's basement for a week until the day of the reburial," Robinson said.

Vanderhoff believes Red Lodge was only interested in the reburial becasuse of "the tourism hook" of having “Liver-Eating” Johnson’s remains and didn't make any effort until it was already a national news story. Several Red Lodge and Montana residents, officials and agencies had previously rejected or ignored letters from Robinson's students.

"I don't think Red Lodge had a leg to stand on," he said. "I really don't.

A Moment For A Mountain Man

June 8, 1974, was a perfect day in Cody, Vanderhoff recalled. By then, Johnson's reburial had become a national news story and people from all over the world were arriving in Cody to attend.

"I don't think I'm going out on a plank if I say that was the biggest crowd that ever was in Cody for any event that wasn't a Cody Stampede or John Wayne," he said. "There were over 2,000 people, I'd say closer to 4,000, at Old Trail Town that day. All three networks were there, and every wire service and magazine called Cody saying they wanted pictures."

Roy Neal's involvement ensured every television station and major publication had people on the scene for the ceremony. Warner Brothers capitalized on the national hubbub by sending Redford and his son to Cody. Vanderhoff remembered seeing Sydney Pollack, the director of “Jeremiah Johnson,” at the ceremony but couldn't be sure it was him.

Redford was the chief pallbearer, leading Johnson's coffin out of the house where Vanderhoff thought he had spent the night guarding it. He was accompanied by members of the American Mountain Men Association, who sent more than 200 men in full Western regalia to Cody.

There were several speakers at the ceremony. The keynote was Godfrey Broken Rope, a Brule Sioux/Lakota painter and preacher who gave "one heck of a great speech about white men, Indians, spirituality and the actual facts of Johnson's life," Vanderhoff said.

Redford also spoke at the ceremony. Vanderhoff said the actor's genuine connection to Johnson and the campaign to return him to the mountains were evident in his words.

"Redford didn't say one word about himself," he said. "He didn't make hay or do anything to build up his name or reputation. He thanked those kids. He was impressed with those kids and wanted to make sure that the world knew this wouldn't have happened if they hadn't taken the initiative."

Several items were placed in Johnson's coffin to honor the man and his legacy. Vanderhoff described it as a chance for those closest to the reburial effort to "send Johnson to the hereafter with gifts and trinkets from this world."

The items included a Bowie knife and a custom-made fur coat. Vanderhoff contributed a gift that he hoped the mountain man would appreciate.

"I rolled a joint with strawberry Zig-Zag paper and threw it in the box," he said. "I thought that was the funniest thing ever. Something to smoke on in the hereafter."

Johnson's coffin was lowered into what so far has been his last grave to the playing of taps and a 21-musket salute from the American Mountain Men Association. And with that, the ceremony ended — short and simple, just as everyone assumed Johnson himself would have preferred it.

But there was one last bit of business to attend to.

  • The remains of John "Liver-Eating" Johnson are marked in Old Trail town by a large marker and a sculpture of him. And he's not going anywhere. After his burial, two trucks worth of concrete filled in the gravesite. Note the monument names him as "Jeremiah" Johnson because of the movie, which wasn't his true name.
    The remains of John "Liver-Eating" Johnson are marked in Old Trail town by a large marker and a sculpture of him. And he's not going anywhere. After his burial, two trucks worth of concrete filled in the gravesite. Note the monument names him as "Jeremiah" Johnson because of the movie, which wasn't his true name. (Andrew Rossi, Cowboy State Daily)
  • The remains of John "Liver-Eating" Johnson are marked in Old Trail town by a large marker and a sculpture of him. And he's not going anywhere. After his burial, two trucks worth of concrete filled in the gravesite. Note the monument names him as "Jeremiah" Johnson because of the movie, which wasn't his true name.
    The remains of John "Liver-Eating" Johnson are marked in Old Trail town by a large marker and a sculpture of him. And he's not going anywhere. After his burial, two trucks worth of concrete filled in the gravesite. Note the monument names him as "Jeremiah" Johnson because of the movie, which wasn't his true name. (Andrew Rossi, Cowboy State Daily)
  • The remains of John "Liver-Eating" Johnson are marked in Old Trail town by a large marker and a sculpture of him. And he's not going anywhere. After his burial, two trucks worth of concrete filled in the gravesite. Note the monument names him as "Jeremiah" Johnson because of the movie, which wasn't his true name.
    The remains of John "Liver-Eating" Johnson are marked in Old Trail town by a large marker and a sculpture of him. And he's not going anywhere. After his burial, two trucks worth of concrete filled in the gravesite. Note the monument names him as "Jeremiah" Johnson because of the movie, which wasn't his true name. (Andrew Rossi, Cowboy State Daily)
  • The remains of John "Liver-Eating" Johnson are marked in Old Trail town by a large marker and a sculpture of him. And he's not going anywhere. After his burial, two trucks worth of concrete filled in the gravesite. Note the monument names him as "Jeremiah" Johnson because of the movie, which wasn't his true name.
    The remains of John "Liver-Eating" Johnson are marked in Old Trail town by a large marker and a sculpture of him. And he's not going anywhere. After his burial, two trucks worth of concrete filled in the gravesite. Note the monument names him as "Jeremiah" Johnson because of the movie, which wasn't his true name. (Andrew Rossi, Cowboy State Daily)

Damn Sure He Stays There

Johnson was in his final resting place, but Edgar wanted to ensure it stayed that way. Robinson and Vanderhoff recalled that night's impromptu graveside service ensuring Johnson's everlasting peace.

"(Montana) swore they were going to take it to court, and they were going to get (Johnson's remains) moved," Robinson said. "So, we ordered two Ready Mix trucks full of concrete and filled the entire grave site full of concrete."

"A local contractor donated the cement, and they filled that grave," Vanderhoff added. "They put a buffalo skull on top of it. It was the Buffalo Bill Lookout Mountain model: how to put a guy in the ground and make damn sure he stays there."

The grave of Cody's founder, William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, was covered with several feet of concrete on Lookout Mountain in Colorado to prevent Cody, Wyoming, residents from snatching his body so they could rebury it on Cedar Mountain overlooking Cody. There are claims Buffalo Bill's body was successfully snatched, but Johnson's grave has remained undisturbed since 1974.

California Kids In Cody

Robinson and his students were the guests of honor at Johnson's reburial. Some students flew into West Yellowstone with their teacher and explored the Rocky Mountain region on their way to Cody.

"They gave me a special budget and told me I could take (the students) off campus and do anything I wanted with them," he said. "So, I took half the class to go dig him up, and half the class flew up to Wyoming to rebury him."

Robinson and his students got caught in a snowstorm in Yellowstone National Park and stayed at the Irma Hotel during their visit. The American Mountain Men Association invited the kids to their camp, where they had a homecooked meal of beaver stew.

During their brief visit, the city of Cody rolled out the red carpet for the students. Robinson knows they’ve cherished that experience for the rest of their lives.

Furthermore, thanks to the generous and anonymous contributions of Redford, Neal and Bama, all their expenses were paid.

Redford also got to savor some of his time in Cody. After the ceremony, he asked to spend a few hours there before returning to LA.

Vanderhoff accompanied Redford while he visited the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, now the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. He recalled how Redford pulled out a sketchbook and started sketching hats in the Buffalo Bill Museum.

"He was very interested in the actual frontier," he said. "I got to know that guy. He was friendly, straight up and honest. What you see is what you get. Just the most wonderful person."

Couldn't Happen Twice

Fifty years later, Johnson's final resting place at Old Trail Town is as peaceful and picturesque as in 1974. His original headstone stands in front of a larger monument, topped by a bronze sculpture of Johnson on horseback, sculpted by Bama.

Johnson's epitaph reads, "No More Trails," a fitting memorial given the effort involved in traveling that final trail to Cody.

Robinson continued to find innovative projects for GATE students in southern California. Another class used a similar letter-writing campaign to save The Western Hotel in Lancaster, which now operates as a small museum.

"My whole teaching career was doing specialized projects," he said. "I was a rancher myself, so I had horses and wagons. It was natural for me to teach the kids about it. They built a covered wagon one year."

The campaign to rebury Johnson was "one of the best things" about his career. He's still in contact with students from the class that spearheaded the effort, and some have even visited him at the sustainable farmstead in Idaho where he's spending his retirement.

"It was something you couldn't make happen twice," he said. "And the miracle about it is that it took exactly one school year, two semesters. I started it in September, and we buried him in June. And it took all of that to get it done. It was a very special time."

John "Liver-Eating" Johnson.
John "Liver-Eating" Johnson. (Montana Historical Society)

A Genuine Effort

The 50th anniversary of Johnson's reburial was celebrated at Old Trail Town on Saturday, a modest memorial compared to the pomp and circumstance of the 1974 reburial.

The Yellowstone Mountain Men did a ceremonial offering of tobacco, along with a playing of taps and another 21-musket salute. Robinson said he planned to be there, along with Becky Nelson, one of the intrepid students in that seventh grade class that became Johnson's next of kin.

Vanderhoff's pictures of the 1974 reburial were on the front pages of media outlets across the United States. For him, it felt like everyone who attended spent a few moments in the Old West while paying their respects to Johnson.

"It was like we wove a tapestry that day of all these threads that came together, and we had a picture," he said. "It was that ceremony, that place, that time for that reason. We were all back 125 years ago, and we were all in the here and now."

For Vanderhoff, one of the most incredible things about the reburial was the genuine intentions of everyone involved. Everyone was motivated by the honest desire to honor Johnson, from Robinson and his students to Bob Edgar, Neal, Bama and Redford.

"Looking back on it, that was authentic," he said. "That's the word I would use for it. What you saw was what you got. I'm kind of critical of Cody for presenting the myths and legends of the West. … It was honest to the bone marrow, what (little) bone marrow there was."

Johnson was known to spend time in Cody during his life. He visited the hot springs of Colter's Hell, which is within sight of his final resting place, to soothe his arthritis-afflicted body, the condition that led him on his last living trek to California.

"God bless (Robinson) and those school kids from Lancaster, California, for making this happen," Vanderhoff said. "The only reason they wanted to do it was the historical value of it, the intrinsic worth of it. It all converged in Cody on that day, as well it should have. Nothing was more real than ‘Liver-Eating’ Johnson coming home to the mountains.”

About That Nickname

Yeah, then there’s that morbid nickname that speaks to another part of Johnson’s story. The legend is Johnson (whose real last name was actually Johnston) killed dozens, or even hundreds, of Crow warriors to avenge the death of his wife, then ate their livers.

There’s no evidence this ever happened, however, and according to an essay by Eric Rossborough presented by the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, while the mountains man’s true-life story is fascinating in itself, “He doesn’t eat any livers.”

Andrew Rossi can be reached at arossi@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Andrew Rossi

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