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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
Without serious incident the train trudged on to Oregon. Clyman, as rarely in his life, was bored. “Our selves & animals are becomeing tired of travel,” he noted somewhere west of Fort Boise. He hadn’t even bothered to visit the fort. He studied rock and flora and fauna, recorded his doubt of a “M r . Espy 8 ” theory that the smoke from prairie fires, which had thickened the air for days, could produce rain—it hadn’t rained in a month—and finally detached himself from the interminable train with a small party of men and rode ahead to the valley of the Willamette.
Oregon charmed him. The journal he kept of his time there alternates between bursts of eloquent observation and long weeks, busy weeks apparently, of fragmentary weather reports. Here was something new, bountiful land and as yet few settlers. His journals elaborated into consciously composed accounts of the country and long letters home, as if he had determined to add authorship to his kit of skills. Waterfowl along the Willamette, for example: “For miles the air seemed to be darkened with the emmène flights that arose as I proceeded up the vally the morning being still thier nois was tumultuous and grand the hoarse shrieks of the Heron intermingled with the Symphonic Swan the fine treble of the Brant answered by the strong Bass of the goose with ennumerable shreeking and Quacking of the large and Smaller duck tribe filled every evenue of Surrounding space with nois and reminded one of Some aerial battle as discribed by Milton and all though I had been on the grand pass of waterfowl on the Illinois River it will not begin to bear a comparison with this thier being probably Half a Million in sight at one time and all apparently Screaming & Screeching at once.” Or this astute observation, in a letter to Hiram Ross, of his Oregon compatriots: ”… I never saw a more discontented community, owing principally to natural disposition. Nearly all, like myself, having been of a roving discontented character before leaving their eastern homes. The long tiresome trip from the States, has taught them what they are capable of performing and enduring. They talk of removing to the Islands, California, Chili, and other parts of South America with as much composure as you in Wisconsin talk of removing to Indiana or Michigan.”
But if he had been roving and discontented, he was now clearly thinking about marriage and a home, this wanderer of fifty-two. From Oregon on, his journals note landscape not as geology or cartography but for the lie of it, its probable fertility and its prospects. And the ladies turn up frequently, as before this emigration they have never done: “And I must say that female beauty is not exclusively confined to any particular region or country for here too may be seen the fairy form the fair skin the dark Eye and drk hair so beautifully dscribed by Byron displayed in the person [of] Miss smith. …”
Clyman remained in Oregon until late May, 1845, when he packed up with a party of men planning to work their way down the coast to California. He was entrusted with a constabular duty, to carry letters from Elijah White, the U.S. Indian subagent in Oregon, to Thomas Larkin, the U.S. consul in California, inquiring about the murder of a Wallawalla chieftain’s son in a dispute at Sutler’s Fort. It was another of Clyman’s brushes with history. As Charles L. Camp, the editor of Clyman’s journals, explains: “White requested that [the murderer], if guilty, should be brought to trial, but nothing came of the investigation which followed. The unavenged murder is said to have been one of the causes of the Whitman massacre and disastrous Indian wars in the Northwest.” The reason why the murder of an Indian, even a chieftain’s son, went unavenged is obvious from Clyman’s record of the journey down from Oregon City. Some of the men in his party, he noted with disgust, routinely shot Indians along the way. Clyman was not himself a bigot or a hater, and kept his peace except when personally wronged. Not surprisingly, then, Sutler’s method of feeding his Indian workers appalled him: “The Capt keps 600 or 800 Indians in a complete state of Slavery and as I had the mortification of seeing them dine I may give a short discription 10 or 15 Troughs 3 or 4 feet long ware brought out of the cook room and seated in the Broiling sun all the Lobourers grate and small ran to the troughs like so many pigs and feed thenselves with their hands. …”