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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
An interlude then to wandering: Clyman settled down. He built a sawmill in Wisconsin in 1836 with Hiram Ross, near what is now Wauwatosa, and he remained in business until at least 1841. This is the man at forty-eight, in 1840: look at him now: he has yet to make, twice more, the great emigration: “He was nearly or quite six feet tall,” remembered an acquaintance, “erect and straight of rather sparse build though well formed and firm in person with a firm and elastic tread, deliberate in all his movements of a sandy complexion high and very slightly receding forehead neither very broad nor very narrow rather a thin elongated face, rather a small mouth slightly inclined to pucker good teeth but like his person rather long and narrow.” Another acquaintance thought he looked like Washington, the Washington of “Lot Trumbull’s portrait … at Yale College.”
“A hoosier gentleman,” another said. And another—men didn’t forget him—“His manner very quiet, modest, voice pleasant and low very amiable and agreeable person.” Hiram Ross, his sawmill partner: “Clyman was over six feet high rather slender his personal appearance was very pleasant his trait of character was good he was a straight forward and up right man.” In 1835, when his old friend Dan Beckwith died, Clyman, “armed with pick and shovel, wended down to the Old Williams Burying Ground and dug a grave in the frozen soil. There were other willing hands to help, but Jim, with the Soul of a Poet, wanted … to pay last tribute to his Friend.”
He had endurance, and patience, and a mind. Running the sawmill, whiling away his time, Ross outside on a cold winter afternoon building a sleigh, he filled a ledger with philosophical musings and wry observations: “Two things Infinite Time and space Two things more appear to be attached to the above infinity (viz) Matter and number Matter appears to pervade the infinity of space and number attempts to define quantity of matter as well as to give bounds to space—which … Expands before matter and number—and all human speculation is here bounden in matter and number leaving space at least almost completely untouched. …
“About the year 650 from the fowning of Rome the difficulties commenced between Marius and Sylla from which I date the commencement of the decline of the Roman commonwealth. …
“Of all People it seems to me those are the most tiresome who never convers on any subject but their misfortunes.
“[Winter] appears to be the night the time of sleep and rest for the vegetable kingdom leafless and frozen they are now taking their rest and matureing the subsistance thy recieved during the last summer it appears as if revolution of the earth around the sun was the day & night for the vegetable as is the earth’s revolution on its own axis [for the animal]. ……
“We may comprehend the globe we inhabit pretty fully and even the sollar System but a million of such systems becomes incomprehensible although even a million such Systems may fall verry short of the quantity of matter in existance throughout the universal Kingdom.”
More in the ledger on hibernation and the extirpation of animals by man and the velocity of light and the possibility of a finite universe, the only such speculations Clyman found time to record; thereafter he turned his attention to the land, and to his countrymen.
Troubled by a lingering cough, he journeyed down into Arkansas and up to Independence in the spring of 1844. There he remembered his wilderness health, like many another prairie traveler. The trains were forming. He signed on, for Oregon, and resolved to keep a journal. Fifty-two, he noticed the ladies now: “I took my rifle and walked out in the deep ravin to guard a Beautiful! covey of young Ladies & misses while they gathered wild currants & choke chirries which grow in great perfusion in this region and of the finerst kind.” He noticed the constriction of the buffalo from their former range: “This vally [Bear River Valley above the Great Salt Lake] is the early Rendevous of the mountain Trappers & hunters But in the last 7 or 8 years the Buff aloe have entirely left this country & are now seldom seen west of the Sweet water.” When travelers caught up with the train with news from civilization, he exercised his ironic humor: “As it appears there has been a great Troubling & Striving of the eliments the mountain having at last brot forth J. K. Polk Cap Tyler & the invincible Henry Clay as candidates for the Presidency, go it Clay. Just whigs enough in camp to take the curse off.” There was humor in camp as well when emigrants following the trail for the first time disagreed with his old friend Black Harris: “Our pilot Mr. Harris8 22 years experiance and advice is perfectly useless in this age of improvement when human intelect not only strides but actually Jumps & flies into conclusions.” And somewhere along the way, for his own amusement or Harris’, he penned the old mountain man’s epitaph: