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The Farther Continent Of James Clyman

July 2024
23min read

“Surveyor, mountain man, soldier, businessman, wanderer, captain of emigrants, farmer…he was himself the westward-moving frontier.”

In medias res: Fort Laramie on the Oregon-California Trail, June 27,1846, a day of reckoning. Francis Parkman was there, beginning the tour that he would chronicle in The California and Oregon Trail , the Harvard man come out West for health and curiosity, patronizing, disdaining the common emigrants who halted at the fort to tighten their iron tires and recruit their oxen, effusively admiring the stylish Sioux. The Sioux were there in the thousands, camped round Laramie at the invitation of the American Fur Company to trade, at truce with the emigrants, preparing war against the Crows. Lillburn Boggs was there, former governor of Missouri who had driven the Mormons from his state and thus indirectly set them on their exodus to Utah. Boggs had just been elected captain of a large party of emigrants. William H. “Owl” Russell, Kentucky colonel, had resigned the post the week before in a dispute over campsites, and drunk now, he cornered fastidious Parkman and belched indignation. The Boggs or Russell Party included businessmen and farmers from Illinois, emigrants from Germany and Ireland: George and Jacob Donner, James Frazier Reed, Lewis Keseberg, Patrick Breen. Soon George Donner would captain it. The Donner Party, it would come to be called.

Another traveler was there as well. He had just returned from California. For convenience he had accompanied a promoter and erstwhile author named Lansford W. Hastings along the way. Hastings had published a book popular among the emigrants—one of the Donners had a copy in his saddlebags— The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California . The traveler knew the quality of the book and the quality of the man, and meant to condemn them both. He passed Francis Parkman, this traveler, at Fort Bernard, some six miles beyond Laramie, but laconically chose not to record the event in his journal. Parkman made the note, not much impressed: another greasy, trail-worn mountain man.

The traveler, James Clyman, camped among friends at Laramie. He enjoyed “a cup of excellent coffee … the first I had tasted since the early part of last winter.” He talked with his friends “untill a late hour.” Near the end of his life he reported the substance of that conversation. One of his friends at Laramie was James Frazier Reed. Reed and Clyman and Abraham Lincoln had been together in Jacob Early’s company in the Black Hawk War. Now Reed and the Donners were hot for California, Clyman cold. Reed at least was hot for Hastings’ new cutoff, which the promoter had grandly sketched in The Emigrants’ Guide: “The most direct route for the California emigrants, would be to leave the Oregon route, about two hundred miles east from Fort Hall; thence bearing west southwest, to the Salt Lake; and thence continuing down to the bay of St. Francisco.” But Clyman had just endured that route in reverse, and so had Hastings, for the first time. So Reed and Clyman argued. “Mr. Reed, while we were encamped at Laramie, was enquiring about the route. I told him to ‘take the regular wagon track, and never leave it—it is barely possible to get through if you follow it—and it may be impossible if you don’t.’ Reed replied, ‘There is a nigher route, and it is of no use to take so much of a roundabout course.’ I admitted the fact, but told him about the great desert and the roughness of the Sierras, and that a straight route might turn out to be impracticable.” It did, as we know, and led the Donner Party to disaster. To twenty days wasted cutting forty miles through the untracked Wasatch Mountains. To five days and four nights crossing the Great Salt Desert without water, the oxen scattered, the wagons abandoned, the cattle lost. To early Sierra snow, and snow burial, and poor beef and boiled hides, and finally, in extremity, the flesh of the dead. If Reed and the Donners had listened to Clyman they would have achieved California in mid-September, as most of the other emigrants did, roundabout course or not. Governor Boggs listened, and left the party for Oregon the next day.

James Clyman has not been given his due. He was farmer’s son, surveyor, mountain man, soldier, businessman, wanderer, captain of emigrants, and finally farmer again; he saw much of the opening of the West, and contributed his considerable skills to it; he was present at the inception of more than one great event; but he was not celebrated nationally in his own lifetime, as Daniel Boone and Jim Bridger were, nor has he been accorded much more than passing references and footnotes since. He deserves better. His life was varied and dramatic: he was himself the westward-moving frontier. His journals are important historical documents. Most of all, Clyman’s quality as a human being—his exceptional character—can enlarge our understanding of the intellectual and emotional range of the American pioneer. A nation at its best is at least a composite of its best men. Clyman was one of them.


James Clyman was born in Fauquier County, Virginia, on a farm his father leased from George Washington, in 1792. The retired first President often rode the boundaries of his lands, and Clyman may have met him on one of those rides. Clyman’s father wanted more than a life lease, even on Washington land. He wanted land of his own. He moved the family to Pennsylvania and then to Ohio when Clyman was fifteen. Clyman himself struck out early. After a young manhood spent wandering the Midwest as a farm hand, woodchopper, and provisioner, he hired on with a government surveyor in Indiana. In 1822, having learned the trade, he contracted with William S. Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton’s son, to finish a course of surveying Hamilton had begun along the Vermilion River in Illinois. More surveying, along the Sangamon, led him to St. Louis, early in 1823, to collect his pay. “My curiosity now being satisfied St Louis being a fine place for Spending money I did not leave immediately not having spent all my funds I loitered about without employment.” That is a foretaste of Clyman’s humor, dry and ironic. He would need it in years to come.


In St. Louis he caught the eye of Lieutenant Governor William H. Ashley, who was preparing to make his fortune in the fur trade and “was engageing men for a Trip to the mouth of the Yellow Stone river.” Ashley hired Clyman to help in recruiting, scouring out likely candidates “in grog Shops and other sinks of degré dation.” When the keelboats sailed from St. Louis up the Missouri, the Ashley Expedition was ninety strong. Jedediah Smith, the calm, devout mountain man, would meet it along the way. “A description of our crew I cannt give,” Clyman wrote later, “but Fallstafs Battallion was genteel in comparison.” I am looking for mind here: Clyman had only “a smattering” of education, but its texts were the best of the day. His j ournals allude to Byron, Milton, Shakespeare, and to the Bible; the wryness was his own.

The expedition met a setback up the Missouri, fighting off two villages of Arikaras—eleven wounded, fifteen dead. “The worst disaster in the history of the Western fur trade,” Dale L. Morgan calls it in his book Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West . “Fallstafs Battallion” hastily retreated from the sand bar below the villages under the withering fire from the Arikara fusils, but Smith held his ground, Clyman fighting beside him. Forced at last to swim the river to escape, Clyman let go the rifle and pistols that weighed him down. Three Arikaras swam after him and chased him for more than an hour across the prairie beyond the river before he found a hole to hide in on the other side of the hill. He made his way back to a point of land below the battle site and the boats, retreating downriver, luckily picked him up.

Ashley then sent a party of men westward on horseback, Clyman among them and William Sublette, captained by Jedediah Smith. In the Black Hills they surprised a grizzly, and Clyman learned another trade. The grizzly attacked Smith, badly chewing his head and almost tearing off one ear. “None of us having any sugical Knowledge what was to be done one Said come take hold and he wuld say why not you so it went around I asked the Cap what was best he said … if you have a needle and thread git it out and sew up my wounds … I got a pair of scissors and cut off his hair and then began my first Job of dressing wounds … after stitching all the other wounds in the best way I was capabl and according to the captains directions the ear being the last I told him I could do nothing for his Eare O you must try to stich up some way or other said he then I put in my needle stiching it through and through and over and over laying the lacerated parts togather as nice as I could with my hands … this gave us a lisson on the character of the grissly Baare which we did not forget.” Smith survived the ordeal and the men rode on west, through “a grove of Petrifid timber,” across shale and waste and prairie to the Powder River, among the Crows to trade horses, to the Wind River Valley to winter in. Their rations were short. When they could find them they shot mountain sheep and antelope and buffalo. Caught out one night in a blizzard, Clyman and Sublette nearly froze. Clyman saved them; Sublette was too stiff with cold to move.

The party went without meat for four hungry days before the provisioning team of Clyman and Sublette tracked a buffalo and brought it down, “many of the men eating large slices raw.” Their bellies full, they rode west for water across a high, cold plain at the southern terminus of the Wind River chain. The water they found flowed west. It was Pacific water: they had crossed the Continental Divide and rediscovered the South Pass (first discovered by Robert Stuart in 1812), the broad road through the Rockies that would open the western continent to wagons, and thus to family emigration, and thus eventually to annexation to the United States.

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.”

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.

Put on a damp night cap & then relapse He thought he would have died he was so bad His Peevish Hearers allmost wish he had …

“[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:

Here lies the bones of old Black Harris who often traveled beyond the far west and for the freedom of Equal rights he crossed the snowy mountin Hights was free and easy kind of soul Especially with a Belly full.

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. …”

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.

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:

Now while hot roles surround your plate Dont envy either wealth or state. …

He celebrated his home, his neighbor’s garden, the seasons and their burden of death and renewal:

But I mourn not for the flowers I mourn not for the grain I mourn not for the birds for they will come again The spring and the summer again will return Therefore for these I seace to mourn I have seen manhood both active and strong In the midst of ambition to death they were drawn … For the strength and the beauty of manhood I mourn. …

He kept his humor, even in “Hard Times”:

Live while you live This is my text Then feast to day, then starve the next … And if we live on bread alone We’ll take the world without a groan But if our bread should chance to fail We’ll Turn out Tramps or go to Jail.

He preserved a lyricism and a love of life that was, I think, the deep current of his years. “Decoration Day 1881”:

Strew flowers oer the héros head Who for your country fought & Bled He fought for eaqul rights for all Let raining flowers or him fall He died your countrys life to save Strew flowers oer the heroes grave

He died that year, 1881, peacefully. His wife and daughter survived him, but only by repute his name. His journals were finally edited, brilliantly, by Charles L. Camp and published in a limited edition in 1928, 330 copies, and 1,450 copies in a second limited edition in 1960.

“Not that he settled Kentucky or made a path to the west,” writes William Carlos Williams of Daniel Boone in In the American Grain , “ … but because of a descent to the ground of his desire was Boone’s life important and does it remain still loaded with power—power to strengthen every form of energy that would be voluptuous, passionate, possessive in that place which he opened. … Filled with the wild beauty of the New World to overbrimming so long as he had what he desired, to bathe in, to explore always more deeply, to see, to feel, to touch—his instincts were contented.” James Clyman explored a farther continent, “the rich smiling surface,” as voluptuously as Boone a nearer. It grew up into him; he fitted it; with others he gave it to us; sensuously contented he gave it back himself. Strew flowers oer the heroes grave .


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