The Farther Continent Of James Clyman

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In medias res: Fort Laramie on the Oregon-California Trail, June 27,1846, a day of reckoning. Francis Parkman was there, beginning the tour that he would chronicle in The California and Oregon Trail , the Harvard man come out West for health and curiosity, patronizing, disdaining the common emigrants who halted at the fort to tighten their iron tires and recruit their oxen, effusively admiring the stylish Sioux. The Sioux were there in the thousands, camped round Laramie at the invitation of the American Fur Company to trade, at truce with the emigrants, preparing war against the Crows. Lillburn Boggs was there, former governor of Missouri who had driven the Mormons from his state and thus indirectly set them on their exodus to Utah. Boggs had just been elected captain of a large party of emigrants. William H. “Owl” Russell, Kentucky colonel, had resigned the post the week before in a dispute over campsites, and drunk now, he cornered fastidious Parkman and belched indignation. The Boggs or Russell Party included businessmen and farmers from Illinois, emigrants from Germany and Ireland: George and Jacob Donner, James Frazier Reed, Lewis Keseberg, Patrick Breen. Soon George Donner would captain it. The Donner Party, it would come to be called.

Another traveler was there as well. He had just returned from California. For convenience he had accompanied a promoter and erstwhile author named Lansford W. Hastings along the way. Hastings had published a book popular among the emigrants—one of the Donners had a copy in his saddlebags— The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California . The traveler knew the quality of the book and the quality of the man, and meant to condemn them both. He passed Francis Parkman, this traveler, at Fort Bernard, some six miles beyond Laramie, but laconically chose not to record the event in his journal. Parkman made the note, not much impressed: another greasy, trail-worn mountain man.

The traveler, James Clyman, camped among friends at Laramie. He enjoyed “a cup of excellent coffee … the first I had tasted since the early part of last winter.” He talked with his friends “untill a late hour.” Near the end of his life he reported the substance of that conversation. One of his friends at Laramie was James Frazier Reed. Reed and Clyman and Abraham Lincoln had been together in Jacob Early’s company in the Black Hawk War. Now Reed and the Donners were hot for California, Clyman cold. Reed at least was hot for Hastings’ new cutoff, which the promoter had grandly sketched in The Emigrants’ Guide: “The most direct route for the California emigrants, would be to leave the Oregon route, about two hundred miles east from Fort Hall; thence bearing west southwest, to the Salt Lake; and thence continuing down to the bay of St. Francisco.” But Clyman had just endured that route in reverse, and so had Hastings, for the first time. So Reed and Clyman argued. “Mr. Reed, while we were encamped at Laramie, was enquiring about the route. I told him to ‘take the regular wagon track, and never leave it—it is barely possible to get through if you follow it—and it may be impossible if you don’t.’ Reed replied, ‘There is a nigher route, and it is of no use to take so much of a roundabout course.’ I admitted the fact, but told him about the great desert and the roughness of the Sierras, and that a straight route might turn out to be impracticable.” It did, as we know, and led the Donner Party to disaster. To twenty days wasted cutting forty miles through the untracked Wasatch Mountains. To five days and four nights crossing the Great Salt Desert without water, the oxen scattered, the wagons abandoned, the cattle lost. To early Sierra snow, and snow burial, and poor beef and boiled hides, and finally, in extremity, the flesh of the dead. If Reed and the Donners had listened to Clyman they would have achieved California in mid-September, as most of the other emigrants did, roundabout course or not. Governor Boggs listened, and left the party for Oregon the next day.

James Clyman has not been given his due. He was farmer’s son, surveyor, mountain man, soldier, businessman, wanderer, captain of emigrants, and finally farmer again; he saw much of the opening of the West, and contributed his considerable skills to it; he was present at the inception of more than one great event; but he was not celebrated nationally in his own lifetime, as Daniel Boone and Jim Bridger were, nor has he been accorded much more than passing references and footnotes since. He deserves better. His life was varied and dramatic: he was himself the westward-moving frontier. His journals are important historical documents. Most of all, Clyman’s quality as a human being—his exceptional character—can enlarge our understanding of the intellectual and emotional range of the American pioneer. A nation at its best is at least a composite of its best men. Clyman was one of them.