The Year of Decision: 1846

from Chapter II

The Mountain Man


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. They took Fremont 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, 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. He was one of the party of four who paddled round Great Salt Lake, and so laid forever the old 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.


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 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.



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 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 was able 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."