We all have stories that are passed down from our grandparents or great-grandparents. These tales have a way of enticing our imaginations.
All too often, as we dig a little deeper into these fantastic tales, they prove only partially true or not true at all. As a consequence, a bit of magic from our childhood evaporates. However, through research new exciting tales take their place. That is the real magic of genealogy.
Recently, my father asked me to check into a story told to him by a scruffy old logger from Alaska. His name was Jack Johnstone. The old logger’s story had inspired dreams of living the frontier life that lasted a lifetime.
When my Dad was fourteen years old, he and his father worked as loggers on the islands around southeast Alaska during the summer of 1968. While sitting around a campfire after a long day of work Johnstone told stories of his connection to Jeremiah Johnson, the famous frontiersman who was made even more famous by Robert Redford.
As a child, I remember having to watch the movie Jeremiah Johnson over and over. As a consequence, the movie is forever committed to my memory.
It was apparent that the tales told to my father so many years ago still inspired his imagination.
Jack Johnstone of Ketchikan Alaska claimed he was a direct descendant of the infamous Jeremiah Johnson.
The first step in debunking or confirming this tale was to learn as much about Jeremiah Johnson’s life. Here is what I found:
Jeremiah Johnson, was in fact, born Jeremiah Garrison to Isaac and Eliza Garrison in July 1824 in Little York, New Jersey. He had a very rough childhood with a father that was abusive.
Isaac Garrison thought nothing of sending his small children out to work off his debts. Jeremiah had at least one brother who died while fighting during the Civil War and two sisters, both of whom had children.
Due to the abuse suffered during his formative learning years, Jeremiah grew up scrappy, a fighter and a survivor. A skill which would serve and hinder him throughout his life.
At the age of twelve, Jeremiah left home to work on a schooner hunting whales. After a while, Jeremiah became bored and joined the Navy. His violent nature got the better of him, and he knocked out his commanding officer. It was thirty days before Jeremiah could go ashore. Once on dry land, he disappeared.
Fearing reprisal of desertion Jeremiah changed his name to Jeremiah Johnston and ventured out into the wilds of the west. Trapping and gold mining became his new occupation.
He wandered all the way to California, then back to the east towards Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. As he went, he gained a bad rap as a violent drunk and was known to be a skilled fighter.
During his travels, he met up with his friend and business partner J. X. Beidler. The two men hit it off immediately. Together they started bootlegging alcohol to Native tribes.
In the 1880’s Jeremiah quit his rough and dangerous lifestyle, opting to become a lawman around Billings Montana. At the age of 70, he retired and took one last trip to Tombstone Arizona.
On his return, he took sick and was shipped off to Los Angeles California where he spent the last year of his life. He died in January 1900.
Of Note: At this time Jeremiah had no known children.
For a more in-depth look at the life of Jeremiah Garrison Johnston check out this website dedicated to this colorful mountain man.
Now on to the storyteller Jack Johnstone.
Jack was the son of Charles Roscoe Johnstone and Dora Ida Hanna.
Charles Roscoe Johnstone was born 6 Aug 1861 in Pineville, Kentucky. He was the son of Stephen Johnson of Virginia and Abigail W Johnson of Ohio.
Charles and Dora’s first child, Forrest, was born in 1891 in Kansas. By 1892 their second child, Frank was born in Saguache Colorado.
Wyoming was the Johnstone family’s next stop. There they stayed for at least three years before moving north towards Canada.
Jack Johnstone was born in 1903 in British Columbia. Three more Johnstone children were born in Canada before the family finally settled in the small southeast Alaskan town of Ketchikan around 1915.
In conclusion, there seems to be little to no evidence of a connection between Jack Johnstone of Alaska and the infamous frontiersman Jeremiah Johnson.
Jack Johnstone’s lineage is readily available to any researcher. His father was Charles Roscoe Johnstone.
Maybe Jeremiah Johnson was an uncle of Jack some may ask? A more distant connection is not the case.
Jack’s grandfather was Stephen Johnson who was born in 1816 in Virginia and died in 1894 in Kansas.
Stephen was born eight years before Jeremiah Garrison Johnston and in a different state. Also, we must remember that Jeremiah’s original surname was Garrison. Stephen was born with the surname of Johnson.
The closest connection the Johnstone family has with the legendary Johnston is proximity. They were living in the same area at the same time.
Steven Johnstone and his sister Ruth were born in Wyoming in 1894 and 1896. Jeremiah G Johnston was a lawman in Billings during those years. There is a possibility that they may have crossed paths or at the least, the Johnstone family heard about the already famed man.
Unless Dora, Jack’s mother, had an unknown affair with Jeremiah, who was nearing seventy years old at the time, it is highly doubtful there is a blood connection.
It is easy to see how this story became a tall tale within the Johnstone family while sitting around a campfire after a long day of work with an impressionable teenager like my father soaking in every word.
Unfortunately, this tall tale is debunked.
Do you have a family legend you would like investigated? Maybe I can help. Check out my services page for more information.
Thank you for reading.
J. R. Findsen