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Western Short Story
Mountain Man University
Dennis Goodwin

Western Short Story

The gleaming silver needle plunged beneath the crimson-coated skin, reappeared, then dived again into the dangling remains of Jedediah Smith's ear. The needle's steel-nerved operator, James Clyman, set his jaw and continued the grim task of stitching his captain's head back together with a needle and thread from his supply pack. There had been no time for second thoughts. He knew Smith wouldn't last long unless he could contain the flow of blood from the gaping wounds the marauding grizzly bear had inflicted.

Stitch by agonizing stitch, James Clyman pieced together the mangled portions of Smith's ravaged head. When Clyman had seen the grizzly's teeth clamp firmly on Jedediah's head, it looked like the end of the expedition for his friend and captain. But James Clyman was in the process of becoming a "mountain man." And in the mountains there was no room for the faint of heart. Because of his unfaltering response, his captain would live to tell about the near-death attack. Clyman's account of the harrowing incident in an 1823 entry in his journal was a classic piece of frontier understatement. "This gave us a lisson," he reflected with more spirit than spelling ability, "on the character of the grissly Baare which we did not forget."

This would be only one of many "lissons" the wilderness would teach him during the next few years. Before his term at "Mountain Man University" would end, his subjects would include not only the character of the grizzly bear, but classes in bloodthirsty Indians, blinding sub-zero blizzards and treacherous mountain passes. Clyman would enroll in this school of mountain life in 1823. During a visit to St. Louis, he heard stories about a daring expedition the previous year taken by William Henry Ashley and a band of explorers. Ashley had recruited a small crew by placing an advertisement in the St. Louis Missouri Gazette. The notice addressed "Enterprising Young Men" and stated that "The subscriber wishes to engage one hundred men to ascend the river Missouri to its source, there to be employed for one, two or three years." Unfortunately, the engagement was destined to last a considerably shorter amount of time. One of the trading barges sank not long after they left port, taking with it thousands of dollars of valuable equipment and Ashley's hopes for a successful first expedition.

Ashley knew that a successful explorer needed to have a rugged perseverance. He couldn't simply give up. After all, he had tossed away a distinguished life of culture to follow his mountain dreams. He had previously established himself in St. Louis society as a surveyor and real-estate speculator. In addition, Ashley had made his mark in the military. He had advanced to the position of brigadier general of the state militia. As Missouri organized into a state in 1821, he became lieutenant governor and the presiding officer of the legislature. His social and political success, however, could not compete with the prospects of making a fortune in the fur trade of the undeveloped West. Along with his real estate partner, Andrew Henry, he walked away from the cultivated life to become a mountain man.

When Ashley met James Clyman, he recognized he was a step above most of the potential trappers he had encountered. Clyman could cypher and enjoyed reading Shakespeare, Byron and the Bible. Ashley offered him a position for a dollar a day to help recruit men for his trapping brigade. He also agreed that Clyman would join the expedition. Ashley's offer came at an ideal time. Clyman's efforts at farming in Indiana and surveying in Illinois hadn't filled him with the excitement he was hungry for. Plows and survey tools simply weren't the things rough-cut frontier memories were made of. But ascending the Missouri through uncharted territory, hostile Indians and treacherous mountain passes - yes, those were definitely the ingredients for a colorful batch of mountain memories.

As Clyman set out on his recruiting task, he knew just where to find men tough enough to weather the hazards the mountains would dish out. He would write in his journal that he prowled around the "grog shops and other sinks of degradation." The crew he eventually assembled would, in his view, make Fallstaff's Battalion appear "gentile in comparison." By the spring of 1823, the new collection of future mountain men was prepared to make another expedition. It wouldn't be long before the rugged character of the motley crew would be put to the test. Ashley hoped this second expedition would get off to a smoother start. The trip began with a little frontier flourish. As the expedition departed in March of 1823, they fired a small canon called a swivel, which was answered by a shout from the shore.

Despite Ashley's hopes, the new expedition soon encountered disaster. In June, as they traveled through the Arikara Indian villages, they were viciously attacked. Before the brief but bloody massacre ended, a dozen of Ashley's men lay dead and eleven were wounded. Still more were missing. One of these was James Clyman. During the battle, he had escaped by leaping into the river.

He swam furiously toward the far bank and discarded his rifle and pistols to stay afloat. When he reached the shore, he turned to find three Indians swimming after him. Clyman would later write that he "concluded to take to the open Prairie and run for life." He ran for nearly an hour until he found a hiding place in a cluster of tall reeds. Once he was certain he had dodged his pursuers, he made his way toward a distant ridge. Before heading down river to join the remainder of the expedition, he stopped to exhibit his frontier spirit. He would write that he showed himself to the Indians and mockingly "made a low bow with both my hands."

Despite this show of bravery, Clyman privately had second thoughts about continuing the expedition. "Before meeting with this defeat," he would add to the day's journal entry, "I think few men had stronger ideas of their bravery and disregard of fear than I had..." But that incident had been more than he had contracted for. The attack, he admitted, had "…somewhat cooled my courage."

Clyman's courage apparently "warmed" again. He stayed with Ashley's group and continued to overcome one challenge after another. Ashley had decided to abandon the river route and try an overland path toward the mountains. In the fall of 1823, he split the group into two parties. They launched their expeditions from Fort Kiowa in present-day South Dakota. Andrew Henry and his men headed toward the Yellowstone outpost. Along the way, two of the men were killed by Mandan Indians. Once Henry's party reached the Yellowstone outpost, his luck didn't improve much. Most of their horses had been stolen and the Indians weren't bringing furs into the post as he had expected. Although Henry eventually came down the Missouri River with a relatively good catch, the bloodshed and hardship involved turn him away from the mountain life forever.

Jedediah Smith's group, including Clyman, headed west through the Black Hills and then northwest into the Powder River country. Their mission was to establish a trade alliance with the Crow Indians. Like Henry's group, they wouldn't have a smooth path ahead. According to Clyman's journal, they left Fort Kiowa on the last day of September, 1823. They headed toward the Sioux Villages at the edge of the Black Hills. On their way through the badlands, they nearly died of thirst. Despite the hardship, the little party eventually worked its way into the Black Hills, about a hundred miles east of the Wind River mountain range. Once there, fate didn't exactly favor them. That was scene of the harrowing grizzly-bear attack.

Clyman and the rest of the little group explored the Black Hills for ten days as Jedediah Smith recovered from his wounds. Unfortunately, that incident was not destined to be the last of their challenges. As they worked their way toward Wind River, they ran short of water again. They searched for days before finally locating the precious liquid. When they reached the Wind River range, they encountered another shortage - warmth. February of 1824 was bitterly cold in the mountain range. They tried to move up the river and cross over the mountains at Union Pass but the snow was too deep. At a Crow Indian village, they learned of a passage at the extreme south end of the mountain range. Although the pass would eventually lead them toward the beaver-rich Green River, reaching it would be no easy matter.

As the frozen little group tried to fight off the subzero temperatures with a warm campfire, it became exceedingly clear how Wind River had inherited its name. The gale-force winds regularly blew out the fire, scattering the embers in the snow. Clyman wrote about a hunting junket he and Milton Sublette made. After the wind had scattered their campfire, they lay under their buffalo robes throughout the night waiting for daybreak. When the winds finally slowed, they decided Clyman would rise and gather sagebrush for a new fire. Sublette remained under his buffalo robe, keeping his hands warm so he could strike a fire.

The second Sublette's hands hit the freezing air, they were too numb to hold the steel. As the desperate explorers tried to clutch the icy metal in their paralyzed hands, a glow caught Clyman's eye. A smoldering coal the size of a kernel of corn had somehow survived the frigid night. Tenderly transporting the tiny savior to a bed of kindling, he succeeded in igniting the pile of sagebrush. The sight of the roaring flames was likely the most beautiful scene either had witnessed in some time.

The little group finally worked their way southeast down the Wind River until it met the Sweetwater River. Moving east, they found shelter in a valley. There they waited out the blizzard. Finally, fate was kind to them. As they trudged west through the snowdrifts, they eventually ran across the pass the Crow Indians had described. A broad low ridge let them cut across the Rocky Mountains. This "South Pass" would later become the main crossing point of the Central Rockies. The pass, in the present-day southwestern tip of Wyoming, would eventually lead to the opening of the Oregon Trail.

Finally, it looked as if their luck was turning around. They had withstood a ferocious grizzly bear attack as well as a tedious trek without water. And they had survived the bitter cold and scaled the treacherous mountain range. Ahead was the promise of a prolific springtime season of fur-trapping. Fate, it appeared, was finally on their side. Appearances, however, can be deceiving.

The trapping went well. It was meeting after the trapping that presented the problem. When they had arrived in the Green River area, they split into smaller parties. They agreed to meet about the first of June at an appointed rendezvous on Sweetwater River, east of the South Pass. Clyman, Thomas Fitzpatric and two others split off and decided to build two skin canoes in an attempt to float their furs east down the Sweetwater.

As the others set about building the canoes, Clyman began to investigate the potential river path. In the process, he ran across an Indian war party on a summer hunt. He found safety, but as he continued to hide from the war party, Fitzpatrick and the others feared he had been killed by the Indians, and headed down river in the canoes. When Clyman was finally able to reach the campsite, he waited for twelve days hoping to find a sign of his little group or Jedediah Smith and the others. Eventually he gave up and decided to set out on foot for civilization.

Week after week, he trudged eastward. Along the grueling path he killed a buffalo and dried the meat. During the final days of his solitary journey, he nearly walked in his sleep, often stumbling off the trail in exhaustion. Finally, eighty days later, he came upon an American flag flying over a fort. He collapsed as he reached the entrance. Clyman had covered more than 600 miles from the Sweetwater River, across most of present-day Wyoming and all of Nebraska, to Fort Atkinson. His companions hadn't fared much better. Their canoes had capsized. Fitzpatrick and the others gathered as many furs as they could and also made the rigorous journey to Fort Atkinson. "They arrived," Clyman recorded in his journal, "in a more pitiable state if possible than myself."

James Clyman had lived more in his first year of exploring than most men do in a lifetime. Throughout the next few years, he continued to lead the rugged life of a mountain man. In the summer of 1825, he participated in the first annual fur-trapper's rendezvous on the Green River. During the next two years, he and William Sublette explored the great Salt Lake. Finally, in 1827, he was ready to leave the mountains. He piloted a return party to St. Louis, sold his catch, and bought a farm near Danville, Illinois. Within a few years, however, he became restless for a more action-packed life. In 1832, he volunteered to fight in the Black Hawk War. Then settling down again, he and a partner built a sawmill near present-day Milwaukee and he dabbled in land speculation.

But Western history was not yet through with James Clyman. In 1844, his eyes once again turned westward. He joined a group bound for Oregon. After wintering there, he led a party of immigrants southward over the Umpqua Trail to California. Clyman then joined a group led by Caleb Greenwood. They headed east over the Sierra Nevada range through the newly discovered Hastings Cutoff.

Although the Hastings Cutoff was a tempting shortcut, Clyman realized it was extremely dangerous and nearly impassable. He knew the delays it could cause a wagon train would greatly slow the progress of a westbound immigrant party. They might not be able to cross the Sierra Nevada range before the treacherous winter snows began. When he reached Fort Laramie, he stayed to warn travelers not to take the shortcut, but to stick instead to the longer but safer northern path through Fort Hall.

All the guides but one heeded his warnings. An impatient group leader named Frazier Reed felt the longer route would simply be a waste of time. Clyman would later recall that Reed told him, "it is of no use to take so much of a roundabout course." Despite repeated pleas, Clyman was not able to dissuade the stubborn guide. The headstrong Reed then marched off into Western history. Following him was his trusting group of anxious immigrants...the Donner party.


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