- Historic Sites
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
So, on the fourth of July, having crossed the south fork of the Platte River the day before, approaching Pawnee territory, he swings ambivalently between joy and depression and expresses a rare insecurity: “The sun arose in his usual mejestic splendor no firing of canon was heard no flags waving to the early morning Breeze. Nothing no nothing heard but the occasional howl of the wolf or the hoarse croak of the raven nothing seen But the green wide spread Prärie and the shallow wide spread river roling its turbed muddy waters far to the East the only relief is the on rising ground occasionally doted with a few stragling male Buffaloe and one Lonely Junt of a cotton wood Tree some miles down the stream the only occupant of a small low Island (not much veriety) O my country and my Country men the rich smiling surface of one and the gladsome Shouts of the other Here we are 8 men 2 women and one boy this day entering into an enimies country who if posible will Butcher every individual or at least strip us of every means of comfort or convenience and leave us to make our tiresome way to relief and this immediatly on your frontier and under the eye of a strong Militay post.” Or is he remembering that long sore stumble from the Sweetwater two decades before? Or is he now, finally, after all his wandering, in the fullness of his years, experiencing a loneliness that in wandering he never felt?
His journal is almost ended. He gave us two more clues. On the fifteenth, on the east bank of the Blue River in what is now north-central Kansas, he encounters the grave of James Reed’s mother-in-law and probes to the bone the meaning of the inexorable western advance. It is Clyman at his finest: “This stream affords some rich values of cultivateable land and the Bluffs are made of a fine lime rock with some good timber and numerous springs of clear cool water here I observed the grave of Mrs. Sarak Keys agead 70 yares who had departed this life in may last at her feet stands the stone that gives us this information This stone shews us that all ages and all sects are found to undertake this long tedious and even dangerous Journy for some unknown object never to be realized even by those the most fortunate and why because the human mind can never be satisfied never at rest allways on the strech for something new some strange novelty.” Not climate or land, not patriotism or destiny, but a hunger for knowledge never satisfied, knowledge even of strange novelty, the insatiable human mind always on the stretch: Clyman’s autobiography and the biography of his compatriots compressed into a narrow, roiling space. His distinction was to perceive calmly and with great thoroughness, and to come back and guide. Exploring an unexplored land is an act of creation, more rarely given and more interior, more profound, than all the artistic creations of the world. By exploration the land is made human, fit for habitation, its alienage drained. The explorer records its contours with an intimate stylus of muscle and nerve. He walks calmly through terror—for the unknown object is terrifying—and alleviates it, and families follow after to settle. His is an ecstasy—first knowledge—Clyman’s was an ecstasy kept at genial peace.
If he was melancholy at Sarah Keyes’s grave, it was because he knew the continent was bridged and his years of exploration over. That is the second clue. He has found his object, and in the next to last journal entry, back in Independence, perhaps not yet aware of the decision himself, he notes it down: “The [weather] was very warm and suffocating and in this particular you find a greate difference in the heat of the summer in California you find it cool and pleasant in the shade while here you find [it] hot and suffocating in [the] coolest place you can find.” He is ready for cool and pleasant California now, ready at fifty-four to settle down.
The following year, Clyman closed out his land and business interests in Wisconsin and Illinois, and in 1848 he moved to California. He guided a large family there, the Mecombs of Indiana. He may have panned some gold, but he didn’t linger at the mines. He bought land in the Napa Valley and took up farming near the sea and married, after due courtship, a small, pert woman of twenty-seven years, Hannah Mecombs.
His later years were peaceful, sweet and serene despite the loss of four of his five children to scarlet fever. In hours free from farming—he nurtured a trim and prosperous farm—he wrote verse, homely verse that could soar to sudden strength. More than once he celebrated the virtue of simplicity:
He celebrated his home, his neighbor’s garden, the seasons and their burden of death and renewal:
He kept his humor, even in “Hard Times”: