Sierra history: James Clyman bucked the trend of mountain men
Special to the Sun
TRUCKEE, Calif. — The life of a 19th century mountain man was 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 doesn’t include the men who died from grizzly bear attacks, blizzards, hypothermia or drowning. For these bold frontiersmen death lurked behind every hill, tree and boulder.
James Clyman was unusual among the early trappers because he kept a journal in which he chronicled his incredible adventures. Although telling tale tales was considered an art among mountain men, Clyman’s 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.
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.
READ MORE: This is the second in a two-part series about 19th century mountain men. Click here to read part one.
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.
FREEZING IN THE ROCKIES
Like all mountain men, Clyman was independent and self-supporting. He wore a fringed buckskin suit and carried a powder horn, shot pouch, tomahawk, knife, pistol and a muzzle-loading rifle. Besides buckskin pants and shirt, trappers often wore an overcoat made from a thick Hudson’s Bay blanket.
No matter the season, Clyman needed nothing that he couldn’t 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. One morning frigid wind chilled their hands so badly that they could not hold the flint and steel to start a fire.
Sublette was freezing to death so the pair began heading for a timber stand about five miles away. Clyman was so cold that he dismounted and began trudging through deep snow to warm up. Sublette was too numb to walk and he and the horses fell behind Clyman’s determined pace. Clyman eventually reached an old Indian shelter where he built a roaring fire.
He ran back half a mile to find Sublette and the horses which he then brought to safety.
A few months later, 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 11 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 the men, 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.”
ELEVEN DAYS, ELEVEN BULLETS
Clyman waited 11 days, but none of his comrades showed up, so he set out for the Missouri River. Although Clyman’s narrative minimizes this epic trek, his friend John Hustis later described Clyman’s 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 11 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. Clyman killed in succession three buffaloes with one bullet which he successfully cut from the animals & rounded again with his teeth. After eighty days wandering he had three remaining bullets & a small amount of powder. 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 Clyman’s life and returned his weapons. All he asked for in return were the locks of Clyman’s 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.”
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org Check out Mark’s blog: tahoenuggets.com.
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