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The Farther Continent Of James Clyman
“Surveyor, mountain man, soldier, businessman, wanderer, captain of emigrants, farmer…he was himself the westward-moving frontier.”
December 1978 | Volume 30, Issue 1
James Clyman was born in Fauquier County, Virginia, on a farm his father leased from George Washington, in 1792. The retired first President often rode the boundaries of his lands, and Clyman may have met him on one of those rides. Clyman’s father wanted more than a life lease, even on Washington land. He wanted land of his own. He moved the family to Pennsylvania and then to Ohio when Clyman was fifteen. Clyman himself struck out early. After a young manhood spent wandering the Midwest as a farm hand, woodchopper, and provisioner, he hired on with a government surveyor in Indiana. In 1822, having learned the trade, he contracted with William S. Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton’s son, to finish a course of surveying Hamilton had begun along the Vermilion River in Illinois. More surveying, along the Sangamon, led him to St. Louis, early in 1823, to collect his pay. “My curiosity now being satisfied St Louis being a fine place for Spending money I did not leave immediately not having spent all my funds I loitered about without employment.” That is a foretaste of Clyman’s humor, dry and ironic. He would need it in years to come.
In St. Louis he caught the eye of Lieutenant Governor William H. Ashley, who was preparing to make his fortune in the fur trade and “was engageing men for a Trip to the mouth of the Yellow Stone river.” Ashley hired Clyman to help in recruiting, scouring out likely candidates “in grog Shops and other sinks of degré dation.” When the keelboats sailed from St. Louis up the Missouri, the Ashley Expedition was ninety strong. Jedediah Smith, the calm, devout mountain man, would meet it along the way. “A description of our crew I cannt give,” Clyman wrote later, “but Fallstafs Battallion was genteel in comparison.” I am looking for mind here: Clyman had only “a smattering” of education, but its texts were the best of the day. His j ournals allude to Byron, Milton, Shakespeare, and to the Bible; the wryness was his own.
The expedition met a setback up the Missouri, fighting off two villages of Arikaras—eleven wounded, fifteen dead. “The worst disaster in the history of the Western fur trade,” Dale L. Morgan calls it in his book Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West . “Fallstafs Battallion” hastily retreated from the sand bar below the villages under the withering fire from the Arikara fusils, but Smith held his ground, Clyman fighting beside him. Forced at last to swim the river to escape, Clyman let go the rifle and pistols that weighed him down. Three Arikaras swam after him and chased him for more than an hour across the prairie beyond the river before he found a hole to hide in on the other side of the hill. He made his way back to a point of land below the battle site and the boats, retreating downriver, luckily picked him up.
Ashley then sent a party of men westward on horseback, Clyman among them and William Sublette, captained by Jedediah Smith. In the Black Hills they surprised a grizzly, and Clyman learned another trade. The grizzly attacked Smith, badly chewing his head and almost tearing off one ear. “None of us having any sugical Knowledge what was to be done one Said come take hold and he wuld say why not you so it went around I asked the Cap what was best he said … if you have a needle and thread git it out and sew up my wounds … I got a pair of scissors and cut off his hair and then began my first Job of dressing wounds … after stitching all the other wounds in the best way I was capabl and according to the captains directions the ear being the last I told him I could do nothing for his Eare O you must try to stich up some way or other said he then I put in my needle stiching it through and through and over and over laying the lacerated parts togather as nice as I could with my hands … this gave us a lisson on the character of the grissly Baare which we did not forget.” Smith survived the ordeal and the men rode on west, through “a grove of Petrifid timber,” across shale and waste and prairie to the Powder River, among the Crows to trade horses, to the Wind River Valley to winter in. Their rations were short. When they could find them they shot mountain sheep and antelope and buffalo. Caught out one night in a blizzard, Clyman and Sublette nearly froze. Clyman saved them; Sublette was too stiff with cold to move.
The party went without meat for four hungry days before the provisioning team of Clyman and Sublette tracked a buffalo and brought it down, “many of the men eating large slices raw.” Their bellies full, they rode west for water across a high, cold plain at the southern terminus of the Wind River chain. The water they found flowed west. It was Pacific water: they had crossed the Continental Divide and rediscovered the South Pass (first discovered by Robert Stuart in 1812), the broad road through the Rockies that would open the western continent to wagons, and thus to family emigration, and thus eventually to annexation to the United States.