James Clyman: A man to match the mountain | SierraSun.com
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James Clyman: A man to match the mountain

Courtesy of Library of Congress/Sierra SunJames Clyman kept a journal of meticulous record describing the landscape and events surrounding him during the mid-1800s.
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The life of a nineteenth-century mountain man was usually quite exciting, but often violent and brief. One fur-trading partnership led by Jedediah Smith reported that over a six-year period his company employed about 180 men. Of those hired, 94 were killed by Indians. That doesnt include the men who died from grizzly bear attacks, blizzards, hypothermia or drowning. For these bold frontiersmen, death lurked behind every tree and boulder. Mountain man James Clyman was already 54 years old when he met James Reed and the Donner Party on the overland trail in 1846. Their refusal to accept his experienced and sound advice about the trail ahead cost many of them their lives in the deep Sierra snow.Clyman was a rare man among the early trappers because he kept a journal for nearly all of his adult life in which he chronicled his incredible adventures. Although telling tall tales was considered an art among mountain men, Clymans first-hand recollections are a conspicuously sober and meticulous record. His experience as a land surveyor compelled him to take measurements and note down facts. He was a keen, thorough, and precise observer of the landscape around him. Even in the most desperate situations, Clymans narrative remains cool, almost detached. He tried not to judge the behavior of his comrades, he preferred to write down the facts and let the record speak for itself. Many mountain men were crude, illiterate frontiersmen, sometimes on the run from the law, the church, their families, or anything else that tried to tie them down. In contrast, James Clyman was born into a family of respectable tenant farmers. He was well-educated for the time; his literary tastes included Shakespeare, Byron and, of course, the Bible. Many frontiersmen were unkempt runaways from society, but Clyman carried himself with bearing and dignity. Like all mountain men, in the wilderness Clyman was independent and self-supporting. He wore a fringed buckskin suit and carried a powder horn, shot pouch, tomahawk, knife, sometimes a pistol and always a muzzle-loading rifle. Besides buckskin pants and shirt, trappers often wore an overcoat made from a thick Hudsons Bay blanket. No matter the season, Clyman needed nothing that he couldnt obtain using only the equipment on his back. Clyman was stingy with words and not easy to know, but when the chips were down, he was the man to have at your side.

In February 1824, James Clyman and the famed trailblazer, William Sublette, were trapping in the Rocky Mountains. Nearly out of food, Clyman managed to shoot a buffalo. They gathered as much sagebrush as they could from the frozen landscape and built a small fire in order to cook some meat. At dusk, a gusty wind scattered their campfire in all directions. All night the howling wind drifted snow against them, making for a cold and sleepless night. At dawn they tried to light another fire, but the frigid wind chilled their hands so badly that they could not hold the flint and steel. Clyman could tell that the shivering Sublette was about to freeze to death so he ran his hand through the remaining ashes of the previous evenings fire and found a live coal the size of a corn kernel. By gently blowing on the ember, Clyman managed to start another small fire, but the lack of fuel stymied his effort to get a substantial blaze going. Desperate now, they mounted their exhausted horses and headed for the safety of a timber stand about five miles away. Realizing that he too was starting to suffer from the severe cold, Clyman dismounted and began trudging through the foot-deep snow. Sublette was too numb to walk, so he and the struggling horses soon fell behind Clymans determined pace. Clyman eventually reached an old Indian shelter where he immediately built a roaring fire. He ran back half a mile to find Sublette and the horses. Clyman wrote, I assisted him to dismount and get to the fire. He seemed to have no life to move as usual. He laid down nearly asleep while I went broiling meat on a stick. After awhile I roused him up and gave him his breakfast when he came to and he soon became as active as usual. James Clyman undoubtedly saved Bill Sublettes life, but in his journal modestly notes I have been thus particular in describing one night near the summit of the Rocky Mountains although similar incidents may and often do occur. Flirting with death was a way of life for the western mountain men. In the spring of 1824, James Clyman was leading a group of trappers when they were attacked by hostile Indians near present-day Casper, Wyoming. During the ensuing fight, the men became separated and Clyman lost his horse and all of his supplies except for his knife, powder, rifle and eleven bullets. He was 600 miles from Fort Atkinson on the Missouri River, the closest settlement. There was nothing to do but start walking, avoiding the Indians along the way. Clyman mentioned in his journal If I turned back to find [Jedediah] Smith or [Broken Hand] Fitzpatrick, I might find them; but I might run out of bullets and be in a worse fix. Or the rest of the party may have been wiped out by Indians. Clyman waited eleven days, but none of his comrades showed up, so he set out for the Missouri River. Although Clymans narrative minimizes this epic trek, his friend John Hustis later described Clymans long walk: He was cut off from his party & he was obliged to turn his face eastward. Avoiding rivers as dangerous [Indians] he with his rifle and eleven bullets began his journey. Shooting such buffalo as was necessary for his subsistence he occasionally would rest & dry his meat. Once he killed a badger for the skin to cover his feet as his moccasins had given out & it cost him one bullet which were now becoming precious. (At one point, Clyman ran after and clubbed two badgers to death with a large animal bone after his gun misfired.) He killed in succession three buffaloes with one bullet which he successfully cut from the animals & rounded again with his teeth. After eighty days wandering and holding three remaining bullets & a small amount of powder, he wearily plodded on his way. Once he saw the American flag flying at Council Bluffs & some men making hay nearby, he fainted away.During his journey, a Pawnee Indian chief had protected Clyman from hostile villagers who had stolen his knife, gun and powder. The friendly chief saved Clymans life and returned his weapons. All he asked for in return were the locks of Clymans long hair, which were promptly cut off with a dull butcher knife as a memento of the occasion. In his typical, understated style, but with an unmistakable hint of humor, Clyman wrote, Here too I barely saved my scalp but lost my hair.Mark McLaughlin’s column, “Weather Window,” appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. He is a nationally published writer and photographer whose award-winning books, “The Donner Party: Weathering the Storm,” “Sierra Stories: True Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2,” and “Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly” are available at local stores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at mark@thestormking.com


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