Short URL for this page:
There were between six and seven thousand Americans in Oregon, most of whom had traveled there by white‑top in the last four summers. Most of them were in the Willamette Valley, practically all the rest along the Columbia west of The Dalles. They had built sawmills and flour mills, had established a considerable commerce in cattle, were beginning to export lumber and grain. There were perhaps eight hundred Americans all told in California, thinly scattered, in the Sacramento Valley, in Napa Valley, nearer Monterey, at Monterey, along the Bay of San Francisco, a few elsewhere. Not all of them were genuine emigrants; most had come by sea; most of those who had come overland had arrived in the last two years. Some had been completely assimilated in the leisurely, gracious, pastoral society of the Californians, a happy and indolent people who raised great herds of cattle in a fat land. Some were drifters, refugees, deserters, younger sons, remittance men. Some were agents of the Yankee commerce. Some, and these the arrivals of the last two years, were like the Oregonians, movers seeking a new home in the West. Most of the currency in the province came from the trade in hides and tallow, which centered at Monterey and San Diego. A few coasters traded northward to the Columbia or Puget Sound; there was a small triangular trade with China and the Sandwich Islands. The sea otter was still hunted and so there was trade with Russia as well as China. But the Russians were out of San Francisco Bay and, ever since their withdrawal, American whalers had been putting in there, with Daniel Webster keeping an eye on them for his principals.
Eastward from the coastal ranges and the Cascades, all the way to the Missouri River was a big unknown. This was the country they argued about in Congress. Benton knew a great deal about it, as a lover and a scholar — as one who knows and dreams but has never seen his desire. Polk had some knowledge of it, thin and inaccurate, at fourth hand. Webster was very clear about the Bay of San Francisco and could make speeches dizzy with the future of a sister republic somewhere in the Great American Desert, but had never bothered to find out what he was talking p50 about. Thoreau felt this empty land as a question asked while he slept. Whitman read about it in the Washington Union and the lesser party press, Longfellow in Frémont,1 thousands of others in Frémont and in Farnham, Wyeth, Hall, Kelly, Nuttall, and similar narratives, and they also had love but not knowledge. The archives at Washington, London, Paris, Madrid, and St. Petersburg held reports on it, properly filed. . . . And the Oregon, California, and New Mexico of Polk's war and a westering people were only a quickening pulsebeat, type in slugs, movement of the vocal cords, a pulsation without substance.
Westward Migration — 1846
[A much larger version, fully readable, opens here (3.5 MB).]
Substance begins when we mention some names: the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. Add the rest of the last three and add the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas. Now across the blank paper outlined by those names, sketch in some rivers: the Pecos, Gila, Rio Grande, Arkansas, Red, El Rio de las Animas Perdidas en Purgatoire (call that one the Picketwire), the Missouri, Blue, Vermillion, Platte, Niobrara, Cheyenne, Milk, Marias, Musselshell, Yellowstone, Jefferson, Madison, Gallatin, Okanagan, Columbia, Snake, Sacramento, Feather, San Joaquin, Humboldt, Virgin, Bear, Green, Grand, Colorado of the West. Now from a station high above Long's Peak observe those streams emptying the fundamental watershed, the snows of a few square miles diversely rolled down the Madison to the Gulf of Mexico, down the Colorado to the Gulf of California, down the Humboldt to the alkali desert. From that same station sketch on the blank paper the continental divide from Canada to Mexico and attach to that spine various peaks and ranges: the Flatheads, the Big Belts, the Absarokas, the Tetons, the Wind Rivers, the Laramies, the Medicine Bows, the Black Hills, the Rabbit Ears, the Sawatch, the San Juan, the Cochetopas, the Sangre de Cristo, the Spanish Peaks, the Ratons, the Sierra Blanca, the Los Piños, the Tulerosas, the Piloncillos, the Blacks, the Sierra Nevada, the Coast Range, the Cascades, the Blues, the Seven Devils, the Bitterroots, the Sawtooths, the Wasatch, the Uintas.
There remain other names to be lettered along these waters and between these ridges: deserts, passes, forests, plains, plateaus, sunken canyons, salt flats, lakes, divides. Such names sounded like whispers in a few ears, whether in Washington or along the Sangamon, and heaped up together, they mean a big land. Short of a million square miles, a big emptiness p52 and a big unknown. They argued it, were willing to send men to fight for it, were willing to fight for it, and would have a war for it. And knew nothing about it.
A big country. Whose was it?
* * *
Outline of American history. James Clyman was born in Fauquier County, Virginia, in 1792, during the administration of George Washington, on a farm that belonged to the President, whom he saw in the flesh. He died on his ranch at Napa, California, in 1881, during the administration of Chester Arthur. Jim Clyman was a man who went west.
He was fifteen when his father became a mover, first to Pennsylvania, then to Ohio. The family settled in Stark County just when William Henry Harrison shattered the Shawnee under the Prophet at Tippecanoe, in 1811. Next year the Indians were up again, and Clyman, already a practised frontiersman, became a ranger. This war merged with the troubles of 1812‑1814, and he was both a volunteer and a regular. After the war his needle settled west. He cleared a planting in Indiana and traded with the local Indians. By 1821 he was a surveyor, working toward the Vermillion River of Illinois. Alexander Hamilton's son, who was running government surveys, hired him to make traverses along the Sangamon. Clyman was back on the Sangamon the next summer, 1822.
In the spring of 1823 he went to St. Louis to collect his pay. There he met William H. Ashley, whose company of trappers and traders was to open the Great Basin. Clyman joined the Ashley expedition of 1823, the second one. Thus he began to shape the future of the United States. And thus he became a mountain man.
Foremost of all American explorations was the one begun by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark at St. Louis just nineteen years before Clyman went there to get his pay. Second only to it in brilliance and importance were the explorations made by the employes of William Ashley — lead miner, lieutenant governor of Missouri, general of its militia, member of Congress, student and propagandist of the West, expansionist — during the two years after Clyman joined him. And during the following fifteen years these explorations became, as Ashley's employes bought him out, set up their own businesses, and interchanged and joined other firms, the discovery, the exploration, and the possession of the big unknown. Of the country we have sketched in names.
Between Benton or Polk or Longfellow and the West stretched a black curtain of the unimaginable, but the mountain men knew the country. p53 They took Frémont across it in comfort, showing the Pathfinder paths they had had by heart for twenty years. They took Lansford Hastings through the West, and Kearny, Abert, Cooke, all the officers, all the travelers. They made the trails.
From 1823 to 1827 Clyman was in the mountains with Ashley's men. He fought in the battle with the Aricara that made Ashley determine to forsake the known road to the West, the river route which Lewis and Clark and their successors had traveled, and to blaze a trail south of the dangerous Indians,2 an overland trail, the trail up the valley of the Platte by which the entire emigration was to move. He was with Jedediah Smith and Thomas Fitzpatrick when they made such a trail possible by finding South Pass, the one opening through which wagons could cross the mountains, the door to Oregon and California, the true Northwest Passage.3 He was one of the party of four who paddled round Great Salt Lake, and so laid forever the myth of the River Buenaventura which was supposed to flow salt water westward to San Francisco Bay — though the Pathfinder still half believed it twenty years later. . . . But these are details and the whole is vastly greater than its parts. From 1823 to 1827, Clyman was a mountain man and a good one, a peer of Carson, Fitzpatrick, Bridger, Harris, Provost, Ogden, the Sublettes, Fontenelle, or any of the other resounding names. It is enough to say, without decoration, that he was a mountain man.
Unlike most of his fellows he saved money and came out of the mountains. He bought a farm near Danville, Illinois, and set up a store. This is the phase of prairie farming while the land fills up. Then Illinois rose to the Black Hawk War, and Clyman joined Captain Early's company. This is an outline of American history: another private in Captain Early's backwoods fusileers was named Abe Lincoln. Still another private of that company is a person of our drama, James Frazier Reed. Born in Ireland of a noble Polish line, Reed settled near the Sangamon, made money, and in 1846 helped a townsman of his, George Donner, organize a wagon train for California. In June we shall see Clyman, moving eastward, meet him after fourteen years, in a moment of decision at Fort Laramie.
There was dysentery but no battle during the glorious two years of the Black Hawk War. When it was over the country had filled up and the mountain man's blood was uneasy. . . . In July, '46, having said good‑bye to Reed, Clyman moved eastward along the trail he had helped to blaze and came to the grave of Reed's mother-in‑law, who had died when her family neared the Blue on its westward journey. He meditated beside the grave: "This stone shews us that all ages and all sectsº are found to undertake this long tedious and even dangerous Journy for some unknown object p54 never to be realized even by the most fortunate. And why? because the human mind can never be satisfied never at rest always on the strech for something new some strange novelty." . . . Black Hawk's fangs drawn and Illinois getting crowded, Clyman's mind was on the "strech" in 1835.
That year they were opening up Wisconsin. Clyman filed a claim where Milwaukee was to sprout. But settlers rushed in and he fled northward to the shadowy timber along Green Bay. He had fought the Blackfeet in their forbidden lands and all the shock troops of the plains — Aricara, Sioux, Pawnee, Kiowa. None had counted coup on him. Compared to them, the Winnebago were sissy Indians but now a Winnebago counted coup — shooting Clyman with his own gun and driving him into a forty-eight-hour flight through rain and forest. But he survived.
There followed six peaceful years on his timber claim and at his Danville store. He was called "Colonel," the settlements rightly conferring the command of a regiment on anyone who came back from the West. Odysseus was back in Ithaca and had before him the years when the American dream gathered its harvest, the homestead growing in productivity, one's age secure, and one's sons and grandsons sharing the increase. But Odysseus had no sons, he had seen the far side of the hill, and that seventeen years had passed since he came out the mountains meant nothing, for he had drunk the waters of Manitou which, the Ute said, would call one back again.
Clyman was fifty‑two and had half a volume of American history behind him. He caught a cold, there was no healing for it in the Wisconsin winter, and as the spring of '44 came on, taking his water spaniel with him, he set out on horseback from Milwaukee to seek recovery in softer weather. His needle settled southwest, he rode into Independence, and the incantation of the Manitou water was fulfilled. There had been no Independence in his time, at best only some scattered cabins in the Indian country. But the Independence he saw in '44 was a frontier metropolis, rich, noisy, cosmopolitan, lively with the commerce of the prairies. It was boiling with an energy new under the sun, families with their oxen and their kine forming wagon companies to cross the mountains to a new home in the West. He found two old companions, Ashley's men both, serving these companies in a new role, as guides. Bill Sublette, whom the Indians call Cut Face, was taking a party of invalids to Brown's Hole, in the heart of the mountain man's domain. That was astonishing, but there was greater astonishment in Black Harris' engagement to pilot Nathaniel Ford's company of five hundred all the way to the mouth of the Columbia.
These signs said that the mountain man's empire had fallen. The tenderfoot p55 would move down the trails the trapper had broken, few beaver plews would be taken from creeks that would now water crops, and plows would bring up the bones of the disregarded who had taken an Indian or two with them when they died, to make sure that those plows might break the soil. So Jim Clyman signed up with Manifest Destiny. ("It appears there has been a great Troubling & striving of the elemints the mountain having at last brot forth J. K. Polk & the invincible Henry Clay as candidates for the Presidency. go it Clay. Just whigs enough in camp to take the curse off.") He signed with Ford's company and was off for Oregon, composing an epitaph for his messmate: —
Here lies the bones of old Black Harris
who often traveled beyond the far West
and for the freedom of Equal rights
He crossed the snowy Mountain hights
was free and easy kind of soul
Especially with a Belly full
We need not follow that westering. Clyman got to Oregon. He spent some months inspecting the country and the settlements which, having organized themselves as a fragment of the United States floating in space, were clamoring to be moored to the United States. But there were new lands to visit . . . "I never saw a more discontented community. . . . Nearly all, like myself, having been of a roving discontented character before leaving their eastern homes. The long tiresome trip from the States has taught them what they are capable of performing and enduring. They talk of removing to the Islands, California, Chili, and other parts of South America with as much composure as you in Wisconsin talk of removing to Indiana or Michigan."
So in July of '45 Clyman went south to California. He took letters from Elijah White concerning the murder of a Wallawalla brave by an American: a fuse burned here which would at last set off the first uprising of the Oregon Indians and the murder of Marcus Whitman. He joined one of the companies that were trying to build a road. This is still an outline of American history: one of his companions was James Marshall, unknowingly heading for the sawmill which Sutter hoped to build on American Fork. He reached Sutter's Fort at New Helvetia, made note of the fleas, and went on to Monterey to talk to Larkin. He turned north to Yerba Buena, spent about three months there, and in December plunged into the mountains on a bear hunt. We have seen him camped on Putah Creek, watching the spring come on.
p56 In a little while he will write a letter to Captain Frémont, join Hastings, and start eastward along the trail down which the emigration is moving west.
* * *
Jim Clyman was a mountain man. That is the proudest of all the titles worn by the Americans who lived their lives out beyond the settlements.
History does not tell us whether Eric the Red and his successors traded with Indians for furs. If they got to Minnesota, as the legends say, they had to when the winter closed in. Besides strange birds and herbs and carvings, there may have been furs in the wealth that the Admiral of the Ocean piled in Queen Isabella's throne room. Certainly, before Spain or France or England sent explorers up the tidal rivers, coasting fishermen from overseas made deals for furs with the native savages. Furs were a principal object of all explorations, no matter if one also sought Cibola or the Northwest Passage or some other sunny myth, and the Captain John Smith who took skins home to his queen got them along trade routes already old. Then half a dozen countries planted colonies in the New World, and from all these plantations men went up the rivers — whether a few miles up the James or by the St. Lawrence to the Lakes and then by portage to the Wisconsin and so down the Mississippi — to trade with Indians for the only wealth the Indians had. It was these men who made the unknown known.
Plantations grew to empires and on the farthermost frontier of New France some of the coureurs du bois fell into contention. Some lost out and two of the disgruntled came in due time to the court of Charles II of England, then withdrawn to Oxford because there was plague in London. The court was bored in that provincial community, no one more bored than the King's mistress, whose great silken sleeves could be attractively lined with the beaver, mink, and otter which Radisson and Groseilliers heaped at their feet. So plague and boredom conferred a monopoly on the King's cousin, the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson's Bay. From that moment it was inevitable that two empires in the New World would come to grips. New France went down.
Meanwhile in all the colonies the Indian trader pushed up the streams, over the divides, and down into the new country. He was the man who knew the wilderness and he held the admiration of the settlements. Let there follow after him the men who built cabins; his was the edge and the extremity. The settlements saw his paddle flash at the bend or sun glint p57 on his rifle at the edge of the forest, and then there was no word of him till his shout sounded from the ridge and he was back, with furs.
He had to live in the wilderness. That is the point. Woodcraft, forest craft, and river craft were his skill. To read the weather, the streams, the woods; to know the ways of animals and birds; to find food and shelter; to find the Indians when they were his customers or to battle them from stump to stump when they were on the warpath and to know which caprice was on them; to take comfort in flood or blizzard; to move safely through the wilderness, to make the wilderness his bed, his table, and his tool — this was his vocation. And habits and beliefs still deep in the patterns of our mind came to us from him. He was in flight from the sound of an axe and he lived under a doom which he himself created, but westward he went free.
Thus the Long Hunter. On May 25, 1804, Lewis and Clark, ascending the Missouri River toward the mountains, passed the mouth of La Charette Creek and a settlement "of seven small houses and as many poor families . . . the last establishment of whites." Here, in 1804, ended the fringe of civilization and the lifelong westering of "Colonel" Daniel Boone, seventy years old, his back to the wall, unable to go farther. The Long Hunter's farthest west . . . Lewis and Clark went on up the river, to winter near the Mandan villages at the Great Bend. So far the pirogues of rivermen were familiar and the trails were known. The next spring they went on, and to about the mouth of the Yellowstone they still traveled where the voyageurs had gone before them, but somewhere hereabout the known ended. Doubtless an occasional pirogue had passed beyond the Yellowstone and there is always some phantom Spaniard, a memory in an Indian narrative, who had come up from Taos to leave his scalp, his bridle, and perhaps his bastard in this country. Nevertheless, somewhere on this side of the Shining or Stony Mountains they were seeking, Lewis and Clark brought a white man's eyes for the first time to the big unknown. They went on into the mountains, over the divide, down the Snake to the Columbia, and on to the Pacific. The next year they were coming back along their own trail — and met fur hunters already following it toward the mountains. The Astorians moved in, the North West Company worked westward through the English lands, and Americans and Mexicans came up from a third base at Taos or Santa Fe. The era of the mountain man began.
The frontiersman's craft reached its maximum and a new loneliness was added to the American soul. The nation had had two symbols of solitude, the forest and the prairies; now it had a third, the mountains. This was the arid country, the land of little rain; the Americans had not known p58 drouth. It was the dead country; they had known only fecundity. It was the open country; they had moved through the forests, past the oak openings, to the high prairie grass. It was the country of intense sun; they had always had shade to hide in. The wilderness they had crossed had been a passive wilderness, its ferocity without passion and only loosed when one blundered; but this was an aggressive wilderness, its ferocity came out to meet you and the conditions of survival required a whole new technique. The Long Hunter had slipped through forest shadows or paddled his dugout up easy streams, but the mountain man must take to horse in a treeless country whose rivers were far apart and altogether unnavigable. Before this there had been no thirst; now the creek that dwindled in the alkali or the little spring bubbling for a yard or two where the sagebrush turned a brighter green was what your life hung on. Before this one had had only to look for game; now one might go for days without sight of food, learn to live on rattlesnake or prairie dog, or when those failed on the bulbs of desert plants, or when they failed on the stewed gelatine of parfleche soles. Moreover, in that earlier wilderness, a week's travel, or two weeks' travel, would always bring you to where this year's huts were going up, but in the new country a white man's face was three months' travel, or six months', or a year away. Finally this was the country of the Plains Indians, horse Indians, nomads, buffalo hunters, the most skillful, the most relentless, and the most savage on the continent. . . . Mountain craft was a technological adaptation to these hazards.
* * *
The Ashley party to which Jim Clyman was attached spent the winter of 1823‑1824 in a valley north of Frémont's Peak in the Wind River Mountains. In February they tried to cross the range but could not and moved southward looking for a gap. (This was the trip that, as an incident merely, was to reveal South Pass.) One morning Jim and the Bill Sublette whom he was to meet again at Independence in '44 saddled their winter-worn horses and went out to hunt. Nothing showed in that arctic air till at sundown they sighted some buffalo. Their horses were too broken-down to make a run and they had to crawl on their bellies for •nearly a mile over frozen snow. The buffalo scented them and bolted but they wounded one. Sublette went back for the horses and Clyman followed the wounded buffalo, finally killing it in a small arroyo, whence he could not get it out alone. Sublette came up at nightfall, they got a small fire going, and were able to butcher some meat. But a blizzard came out of the north. There p59 was no wood and but little sage; their fire was blown away. They pulled their robes over them and the gale battered them till morning. At daylight Clyman was able to pull some sage but they could not ignite it, either by flint and steel or by rifle fire. Jim got the horses. Sublette was too weak to mount. Jim found a single live coal left from their fire of the night before and got the sage lighted. They warmed themselves and Sublette to mount his horse — but soon turned numb and began to die. Jim dismounted and led his friend's horse through snow •a foot deep into the teeth of the gale. •Four miles away he found a patch of timber where one wall of an Indian bark lodge was standing. Behind this shelter he got a fire going at last, then "ran back and whoped up my friends horse assisted him to dismount and get to the fire he seemed to [have] no life to move as usual he laid down nearly assleep while I went Broiling meat on a stick after awile I roused him up and gave him his Breakfast when he came to and was as active as usual."
Jim says, "I have been thus particular in describing one night near the sumit of the Rockey mountains allthough a number simular may and often do occur."
The following June, coming east, Clyman pushed ahead of his companions, among them Fitzpatrick, and moved down the Sweetwater to wait for them on the Platte. Near Devil's Gate he suddenly found Indians on all sides. He holed up like a prairie dog in the rocks for eleven days, the Indians having set up their village. Then he "began to get lonesome." He had "plenty of powder but only eleven bullets." Since this was a wholly new country he did not know "whether I was on Platt[e] or the Arkansas," but he decided to get out. Note his course: "On the 12th day in the afternoon I left my lookout at the mouth of Sweetwater and proceeded downstream knowing that civilization could be reached Eastward." Eastward •about six hundred miles in an air line.
He started out. He killed a buffalo. He kept close to the streams. He found an abandoned bull boat and so knew that either whites or Indians had passed this way. Once he saw some martins and lay listening to them — "it reminded me of home & civilization." Encountering some wild horses, he tried to crease one but broke its neck. Some Indians overtook him, robbed him of his blanket, powder, and lead, and bore him to the village, intending to kill him. But a friendly chief led him out of camp, restored his rifle, and gave him some parched corn. Game failed, water failed, and Clyman grew weak. He saw two badgers fighting. His gun misfired but he picked up some bones, "horse brobly," and killed the badgers. It rained for some days and the wet grass made walking easier but brought out the p60 prairies' deadliest wild life, the mosquitoes. The going was harder, food scarcer, time stretching out: —
I could not sleep and it got so damp I could not obtain fire and I had to swim several rivers at last I struck a trail that seamed to lead in the right direction which I determined to follow to its extream end on the second day [on this trail] in the afternoon I got so sleepy and nervous that it was with difficultiy I kept the trail a number of times I tumbled down asleep but a quick nervous gerk would bring me to my feet again in one of these fits I started up on the trail travelled •some 40 rods when I hapened to notise I was going back the way I had come turning right around I went on for some time with my head down when raising my eyes with great surprise I saw the stars and stripes waving over Fort Leavenworth [really Fort Atkinson, •150 miles up the Missouri from Fort Leavenworth] I swoned emmediately how long I lay unconscious I do not know. . . .
So there entered into Captain Bennett Riley's quarters a bearded, hatless, all but starved mountain man, his buckskins and moccasins in tatters, his powder used up, after eighty days and at least •seven hundred miles of solitary journeying. Ten days later Fitzpatrick and two others reached the fort after even harder going. . . . This was misadventure after accident, a commonplace risk in the mountain trade.
Much of the routine could be repeated here from Clyman's recollections: drifting downstream with a log to escape the Aricara, watching a Dakota tear the flesh of a dead enemy with his teeth, sewing Jedediah Smith's scalp and ear in place after a grizzly had lacerated them, starving in winter canyons, purged by alkali water, feasting with the Crows on a buffalo hunt, battling the Arapaho on Green River, captured by the Blackfeet but escaping them. But the routine may be assumed.
* * *
Of the Ashley expedition which he joined Clyman said that "Falstaf's Batallion was genteel in comparison." Yet it included some men whose distinction did not rest entirely on their craftsmanship. There was Jedediah Smith, the Yankee whose ambition was to be a geographer, who first crossed the desert to California and first made contact northwestward with the Hudson's Bay Company, whose reports it would have been sensible of both Polk and Frémont to look up — a Christian gentleman who became an explorer of the first rank. There were Pierre Louis Vasquez, the Spanish p61 gentleman of St. Louis; Robert Campbell, who was to become a great Western merchant; Andrew Henry, who, like Campbell, was a true empire builder. Elsewhere in the mountain trade there were men like them: Joe Meek, whose cousin by marriage, Jim Polk, was President of the United States in '46; Lucien Fontenelle, in whose veins flowed the royal blood of France; Peter Skene Ogden, from a family that had been loyalist in the Revolution and was now important in Canada; Manuel Lisa, whose life was ambiguous and shadowed but who came from the Spanish aristocracy; "Captain William George Drummond Stewart, seventh Baronet of Grandtully," trapper, traveler, big‑game hunter, and novelist‑to-be. There were other sprigs of British, French, and Spanish nobility, remittance men or younger sons or just the restless seeking a new title. There were British army officers who had tasted the life on frontier garrison duty and liked it, men like George F. Ruxton, Lieutenant of Her Majesty's 89th Regiment, whom we shall meet in Mexico. There was the Irish romantic, American journalist, and European revolutionary, Mayne Reid.
Against such mountain men may be set off such others as Edward Rose, the crossbred white, Negro, and Cherokee, who had been a river pirate and became a Crow chief. Or another riverman, Mike Fink, who is immortal in our folklore. Or another Crow chief, the mulatto Jim Beckwith, who went up the river as Ashley's blacksmith and gave our literature its goriest lies. Or Bonneville's partisan, Joe Walker, who broke part of Frémont's trail, who wiped out Diggers as he would have stepped on piss-ants, and who, following the lead of Ewing Young, opened a trade in stolen California horses and so gave the mountains another routine of simple theft, complicated though not made hazardous by the murder of Californians. Such irreproachables as Frémont and Kit Carson were to follow him in this commerce.
And there were those whose distinction was wholly of the trade itself. There was the French strain: Frémont's Alexis Godey and Basil and François Lajeunesse, the Cerrés, the various Robidoux, Godin, Gervais, La Bonte, Etienne Provost. There were the Canadians and Scots of the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay outfit that absorbed it. More particularly there were the Americans, mostly Missourians, Kentuckians, and Virginians: the Sublettes, John Gant, Drips, Vanderburgh, Peg‑leg Smith who cut off his own leg and whittled a stump to take its place, Black Harris, Old Bill Williams who had been a Methodist preacher and served as fiction's first image of the mountain man,4 David Jackson, Dick Owens, Dick Wooton, Doc Newell, Hugh Glass, Greenwood, Fallon, Rube Herring, Long Hatcher — to the number of a good many hundred.
p62 And finally the great triumvirate must be named: Kit Carson, the Little Chief; Tom Fitzpatrick, White Head or Broken Hand; and, with drums and trumpets, Old Gabe, Jim Bridger.
So reads a short catalogue of Clyman's peers. A few of the names still clang a little, and at least Kit Carson and Jim Bridger have found a permanent place in our legends. But the catalogue does not disclose the history coiled within it or the era they began and ended within the span of a single lifetime.
They were the agents of as ruthless a commerce as any in human history; they were its exploited agents. The companies hired them — or traded with the highest order of them, the free trappers, such as have been named above — on terms of the companies' making, paid them off in the companies' goods, valued at the companies' prices deep in the mountains. They worked in a peonage like the greasers they despised, the freed Negroes of the South, or the share-croppers of our day. The companies outfitted them and sent them out to lose their traps, their horses, and frequently their scalps — to come back broke and go deeper into debt for next year's outfit. Their trade capitalized starvation, was known to practise land piracy, and at need incited Indians against competitors. It made war on Indians who traded with competitors and debauched the rest with the raw alcohol that was called whiskey in the mountains. There was no problem in the Indian trade which firewater could not solve; so the fixed policy of the business that made rich men of the Astors, Chouteaus, McKenzies, Ashleys, and Campbells perfected the methods begun by coasters along the Atlantic littoral. The Indians went down before tin tubs curved to fit a packsaddle and filled with alcohol at fifty cents a gallon. . . . And, as they went down, took with them through the hole in the earth the scalps of mountain man.
"Adventure, romance, avarice, misanthropy, and sometimes social outlawry have their influence on enticing or driving these persons into the savage wilderness," Edwin Bryant wrote, who learned to respect them but observed that they lived in savagery. To Francis Parkman they were "the half-savage men who spend their reckless lives in trapping among the Rocky Mountains," and he could live with them as he never brought himself to live with the "offscourings of the frontier," those sallow-faced and inquisitive people who were moving on toward Oregon. He even came to call one of them a friend, Henry Chatillon, who chaperoned him through the prairies, whom he found noble and true-hearted, "a proof of what unaided nature will sometimes do." Chatillon interpreted them and so he could associate with others, till at last he could lie in camp with p63 them at the mouth of Chugwater and listen with unalloyed admiration to their stories, and "defy the annals of chivalry to furnish the record of a life more wild and perilous than that of a Rocky Mountain trapper."
The savagery thus alleged was that of the Indians, a neolithic people. Jim Beckwith, who knew, said that though the Indian could never become a white man, the white man lapsed easily into an Indian. The mountain man's eye had the Indian's alertness, forever watching for the movement of boughs or grasses, for the passage of wild life downwind, something unexplained floating in a stream, dust stirring in a calm, or the configuration of mere scratches on a cottonwood. His ear would never again hear church bells or the noises of a farm but, like the Indian's, was tuned to catch any sound in a country where every sound was provisionally a death warning. He dressed like an Indian, in blankets, robes, buckskins, and moccasins, and it was sometimes his humor to grease his hair and stripe his face with vermilion. He lived like an Indian in bark huts or skin lodges, and married a succession of squaws. He thought like an Indian, propitiating the demons of the wild, making medicine, and consulting the omens. He had on call a brutality as instant as the Indian's and rather more relentless. The Indians who had proved themselves his friends were his friends just so long as they seemed to be; all others were to be shot and scalped at sight. It was the Indian law, no violence to be left unavenged.
He might winter at Taos, that first of Wild Western towns; he might bring his or the company's furs to St. Louis after the fall hunt, when the town would roar with mountain war cries, rock with the pleasures of behemoths, and grow quiet toward dawn when he spread his robes in some alley under the sky. But mostly he wintered at a log stockade a thousand miles from the Planters' House — Bent's Fort, Fort Union, Fort Pierre, Fort Laramie; or hutted up in some basin under the peaks — Brown's Hole, Ogden's Hole, Jackson's Hole, Pierre's Hole, Bayou Salade. Mostly his only touch with the settlements was an annual debauch when the caravan came to buy his furs and get the purchase price back in tobacco and alcohol at two thousand per cent advance. For the rest, in small parties he was on the creeks and among the mountains. His legs stiffened from the icy waters where he trapped beaver. Behind any ridge Blackfeet or Arapaho might be waiting for him. From the dark behind any fire he lighted might come the ultimate arrow. Any sleep might end in the rush of stampeded horses and a gurgle in his partner's throat. He had ahead of him only more years of unintermitted struggle against a savage country, unending warfare against a savage race, the long stretch against starvation, p64 solitude, loneliness, and some final effort that would be not quite enough. Comparatively few lived to settle down as permanent colonels in the tamed West; the trade did not last long enough for many to grow old in it.
True enough . . . But the back trail was always there and need only be followed eastward. Few ever took it. They were, by God! the mountain man. The companies might exploit them but they were free and masters. Folks might call them Indians but they were better Indians. They had usurped the Indian's technology and had so bettered it that they could occupy the Indian's country and subdue the Indian. They had mastered the last, the biggest, and the hardest wilderness. Give any of them a horse and a pack mule, a half-dozen traps, a couple of robes, a bag of possibles, and a rifle — and he could live comfortably among dangers that killed soldiers like flies in the first frost. They had learned not only to survive the big lonesome but to live there at the height of function.
The waters of Manitou held freedom and desire, both inappeasable in the American consciousness. Why else the everlasting myth of the West? From Eric the Red to Jim Clyman, from the Atlantic fall line to the Pacific littoral, from The Adventures of Emmera to this week's horse opera issuing from Hollywood. The seed of expansion, to answer the tug, to push over the ridge, to go it alone. To the destructive element submit yourself and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up.5 To be a man and to know that you were a man.
And to be a free man. At any evening fire below the Tetons, if they had paid civilization its last fee of contempt they had recompense in full, and Henry Thoreau had described it. They made their society, and its constraints were just the conditions of nature and their wills, the self-reliance in self-knowledge that Mr. Emerson commended. At that campfire under the Tetons, in the illimitable silence of the mountain night with the great clouds going by overhead, one particular American desire and tradition existed in its final purity. A company of free companions had mastered circumstance in freedom and their yarns were an odyssey of the man in buckskins who would not be commanded — what scalps had been taken along the Yellowstone, who counted coup in Middle Park, what marvels had been seen in John Colter's Hell or where the stone trees lie beyond the Painted Desert or where the waters of Beer Spring make the prettiest young squaw quite unattractive for a surprising time. The stories came from a third of a continent and summed up something more than two centuries of the American individual.
p65 Finally there was the beauty of the last wilderness, added upon all the unspoiled natural beauties through which the individual had passed in his two centuries. The land of little rain, the Shining Mountains. It was theirs before the movers came to blemish it — rivers flowing white water, peaks against the sky, distances of blue mist against the rose-pink buttes, the canyons, the forests, the greasewood flats where the springs sank out of sight. They were the first to pass this way and, heedless of the eagle's wing which they stretched across the setting sun, they stayed here. God had set the desert in their hearts.
* * *
Their era was ending when Jim Clyman got to Independence in '44 and found Bill Sublette, who had first taken wagons up the Platte Valley in 1830, now taking invalids to Brown's Hole for a summer's outing. It was twenty‑one years since Jim had first gone up the Missouri, forty years since Lewis and Clark wintered at the Mandan villages, thirty-three years since Wilson Hunt led the Astorians westward, twenty years since Clyman with Smith and Fitzpatrick crossed South Pass, eighteen years since Ashley, in the Wasatch Mountains, sold his fur company to Smith, Sublette, and Jackson. Thirty‑two years ago Robert McKnight had been imprisoned by the Spanish for taking goods to Santa Fe. Twenty-three years ago William Becknell had defied the prohibition and returned from Santa Fe in triumph. Eighteen years ago the Patties had got to San Diego by the Gila route and Jed Smith had blazed the desert trail to San Bernardino Valley; fourteen years ago Ewing Young, with Kit Carson, had come over the San Bernardino Mountains, making for the San Joaquin. There had been a trading post at the mouth of Laramie Creek for just ten years. Bent's Fort was fifteen years old.
Now the streams were trapped out, and even if beaver should come back, the price of plews would never rise again. There were two or three thousand Americans in Oregon, a couple of hundred in California, and in Independence hundreds of wagons were yoking up. Bill Sublette and Black Harris were guiding movers. Carson and Fitzpatrick were completing the education of John Charles Frémont.
Forty years since Lewis and Clark. Think back to that blank paper with some names sketched in, the Wind River peaks, the Tetons, the Picketwire River, the Siskidee, names which, mostly, the mountain men sketched in — something under a million square miles, the fundamental watershed, a thousand mountain men scalped in this wilderness, the p66 deserts crossed, the trails blazed and packed down, the mountains made known, the caravans carrying freight to Santa Fe, Bill Bowen selling his place to go to Oregon, half a dozen wagonwrights setting up at Independence . . . and, far off, like a fly buzzing against a screen, Joe Meek's cousin, Mr. Polk, preparing for war.
Whose country was it?
1 From his journal, December 3, 1846: "In the evening F. read Frémont's Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1842; highly interesting and exciting. What a wild life, and what a fresh existence! But, ah, the discomforts!"
(p485) 2 The Aricara, the Assinniboin, the northern Arapaho, and most of all the Blackfeet.
3 The opinion of scholars, which has changed before this, is again that the returning Astorians learned about South Pass and traveled it — from east to west. Such descriptions as they print do not closely resemble South Pass, but it is neither my business nor my interest to question them. At any rate, the Ashley party under Jedediah Smith, certainly the first white men to travel the Pass from the east, were the effective discoverers. They made it known and the rest followed — from their passage, not that of the Astorians.
4 With Markhead, La Bonte, Hatcher, and the Seventh Baronet of Grandtully in Ruxton's Life in the Far West, 1848. This statement is tolerably arbitrary. Stewart himself published a novel called Altowan in '46, two years before Ruxton's book. Mike Fink and Rose had been celebrated in the magazines still earlier and various romances had introduced characters modeled on the mountain man. But genuine portraiture begins with Ruxton.
5 Stein's words in Conrad's Lord Jim.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY if its URL has a total of one *asterisk. If the URL has two **asterisks, the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use. If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 2 Dec 21