Johnson is said to have been born with the last name Garrison, in the area of the Hickory Tavern between Pattenburg and Little York, near the border of what is today Alexandria and Union Townships in Hunterdon County, New Jersey. During the Mexican–American War he served aboard a fighting ship, having enlisted under a false age. After striking an officer, he deserted, changed his name to John Johnston, and traveled west to try his hand at the gold diggings in Alder Gulch, Montana Territory. He also became a "woodhawk," supplying cord wood to steamboats. He was described as a large man, standing about six feet two inches (1.88 m) in stocking feet and weighing in the area of 260 pounds (120 kg) with almost no body fat.
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