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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 encountered a California similar in some ways to California today, remarking on the general nakedness of its natives in the mild climate, recording an earthquake, praising the “Beautifull and picturesque” land. Something was stirring in him, something that made him judge California’s occupants—the Spanish from Mexico, the Indians, his fellow foreigners from the States—more harshly than had been his wont when he was only a rover passing through. “The Callifornians are a proud Lazy indolent people doing nothing but ride after herds or from place to place without an appearant object The Indians or aboriginees do all the drudgery and labour and are kept in a state of Slavery. … The californian Plough is a curosity in agraculture. … Harrow no such thing known. … Several kinds of red pepper are grown in greate abundance and enter largely into the californian cookery so much so as to nearly strangle a Forigner. … The forigners which have found their way to this country are mostly a poor discontented set of inhabitants and but little education hunting for a place as they [want] to live easy only a few of them have obtained land and commenced farming. …”
In this discontented mood—perhaps discontented with himself—Clyman finished up his business, which included a visit to Monterey and San Francisco and a bear hunt, and wrote to Captain John Charles Frémont proposing to assemble an armed party for a return to the States. Frémont, the Pathfinder, would have none of it. Ostensibly in California to explore, he intended to stay on and stir up revolution; California would join itself to the States in one more year.
If not Frémont, then Lansford Hastings, a promoter who seems to have dreamed of establishing a republic in California with himself at its head and who was returning to the vicinity of Fort Laramie with 150 horses and a whirlwind of bad advice. Clyman joined Hastings at his camp on Bear Creek, above Johnson’s Ranch in the foothills of the Sierra, on April 16,1846, the same day the Donners and the Reeds left Springfield, Illinois, for Independence.
Crossing the Sierra Nevada in early spring was hard. It would be deadly to the Donners. Clyman recorded the descent from what would be called the Donner Pass with grim attention: “Here we commenced the desent over step Pricipices rough granite Rock covered in many places through the chasms with snow 15 or 20 feet deep and luckily for us we lost no horses allthough we had to force them down several perpendicular cliffs afer about 3 hours unpacking and repacking we succeeded in clearing the steepest pitches of the whole length of which is not one mile you may imagine that we felt a happy relief to find ourselves on bear ground one more which we found at the head of truckys [later Donner] lake a small sheet of water about two miles in length and half a mile wide the N hill sides being intirely clear of snow but verry little green vegitation made six miles and encamped at the foot of the Lake.” That camp would become the major Donner camp; here unknowingly Clyman sets the stage.
Beyond Truckee Meadows, now Reno, Clyman lost his dog to a boiling spring—the thirsty dog, a water spaniel that had been with him since Wisconsin, jumped into the pool and “scalded himself allmost insantly to death”—and the loss further depressed him. He rode on through barrenness to the north fork of the Humboldt River, where wisdom decreed the party turn north but Hastings insisted they head east toward the Great Salt Lake. They did, to Pilot Peak, and looking eastward saw the terrible desert of salt that they would have to cross. “This is the [most] desolate country perhaps on the whole globe there not being one spear of vegitation and of course no kind of animal can subsist and it is not yet assertained to what extent this immince salt and sand plain can be south of whare we [are].” That day they traveled forty miles, the next day fourteen, the next day twenty. They succeeded in the crossing because they had horses. The Donner Party was slowed by oxen and wagons, and nearly failed. Clyman’s advice to Reed had teeth. Onward to Laramie, where he delivered it, and we are back where we began.
Clyman’s mood by now, after Laramie, is almost melancholy. His temperament was as equitable across the length of his life as any man who ever kept a journal, but what he saw on his long odyssey to Oregon and California and back again has left him wondering: wondering about his countrymen, wondering implicitly about himself. The West is no longer wilderness, and he is no longer young.