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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
He trapped beaver on the Green River that winter and spring, detached from Smith, and the next June, waiting at the Sweetwater to rendezvous, had to hide out from Indians for eleven days and lost contact with the other men and lost his horses too. He “began to get lonesome.” With “plenty of Powder but only eleven bullets” he struck out for civilization—on foot, a distance of six hundred miles over landscape he’d never seen before and which he walked in eighty days. He lost most of his powder and bullets in another encounter with Indians. Down to one bullet, he retrieved the ball from the occasional buffalo he shot and chewed it round again. “I could not sleep and it got so damp I could not obtain fire and I had to swim several rivers.” He realized he was wandering in circles and jerked himself straight. “I went on for some time with my head down when raising my eyes with great surprise I saw the stars & stripes waving over Port [Atkinson] I swoned emmediately … certainly no man ever enjoyed the sight of our flag better than I did. …” Thus Clyman’s wilderness initiation. He would never again find himself at so great a loss.
When he recovered, he turned around with Ashley and headed back west. His story for the next three years is a story of trapping and hunting and exploring, living for the most part out on his own a thousand miles from store and home. The year 1826 was a high point. Smith was looking for new beaver country, breaking trail on the north shore of the Great Salt Lake. The party could go no farther on horseback—there was nothing for the horses to eat. Clyman, Moses “Black” Harris, and probably Louis Vasquez and a man named Henry G. Fraeb, built bullboats, hide canoes, and paddled south along the lake shore, riding high in that dead, bitter water. Its circumnavigation took them twenty-four days. They knew thirst and probably hunger. They might have seen dead trout and catfish floating, washed in from mountain streams. They may have seined for the brine shrimp that even today are harvested from the lake. Significantly, they found no outlet. Fanciful geographers had imagined that the salt lake was an arm of the Pacific—they consistently had underestimated the continent since Columbus’ day—Clyman’s circumnavigation proved that it was not. “This wide spread Sterility,” Clyman called the lake and the land beyond it when he saw it again in a later year. He did not return to St. Louis until the fall of 1827, and not all was sterile on his four-year tour. He sold his last year’s catch of beaver skins for $1,251, wealth enough to buy a substantial farm.
He bought the farm, in Illinois, and set up his two brothers to manage it. Farming was not yet to his taste. He participated in the Black Hawk War. He went into partnership with a man named Hiram Ross and laid claim to government land in wilderness Wisconsin, land on which Milwaukee was later founded. Too many people came on; he moved out. In November, 1835, traveling with a man named Burdett, looking for wilder land, he bought a canoe from an Indian woman whose son and husband weren’t at home, intending to float a river. A mile-and-a-half float brought him to sundown, and he and Burdett stopped at a deserted cabin to camp. Clyman went out to collect wood while Burdett started a fire. The Indians, father and son, trailed them to retrieve the canoe and, says an old chronicle, “to avenge the death of a brother of the squaw, who was killed by a soldier at Fort Winnebago, two years before.”
The son shot Burdett; Clyman came running back; the father raised his gun; Clyman took off, dodging through the woods. Not all his luck was with him: one bullet broke his left arm below the elbow, and the son, taking up Clyman’s own shotgun, managed to hit him in the thigh. “This last shot was not very effective,” the chronicle goes on, “on account of the distance Clyman was from them by that time, for he could run like a deer; and the principal effect was to make him, as he expressed it, ‘as mad as hell’ to be peppered in that way with his own gun, and he would have liked to return the compliment very much, but as sauve-qui-peut was the order of the day just then, he kept on, until the voices of his pursuers … were lost in the distance, when he hid under a fallen tree.” At one point the Indians actually stood on the tree wondering where Clyman had gone.
He made his way at night, then, carrying his broken left arm in his right, on foot, through rain and unbroken wilderness, and continued the next day and the next night and part of one day more, to Milwaukee, a distance of fifty miles. For a time, in and around Milwaukee, no Indian felt safe in Clyman’s presence. The chronicler: “And it might truthfully be said that the fear of him was upon every Indian then here, for not one of them would remain in the town twenty minutes after they got sight of him. A whole regiment of soldiers could not have inspired them with a greater desire for the solitude of the wilderness, than did the presence of this one man.”