Sierra history: James Clyman was the man to match the mountains |

Sierra history: James Clyman was the man to match the mountains

Mark McLaughlin
Special to the Sun
“Advice on the Prairie.” A painting by William Tylee Ranney, circa 1853.
Courtesy Library of Congress |

TAHOE-TRUCKEE, Calif. — In 1824, exactly 190 years ago, a small contingent of American mountain men discovered a way through the Rocky Mountains and across the Continental Divide that required no great physical or technical challenges for families with farm wagons.

In the following decades, South Pass (Wyoming) became the portal for missionaries and more than 500,000 emigrants as they migrated west. Native Americans had previously utilized the pass, and in November 1812, six men led by explorer Robert Stuart had also made use of the route while heading east to St. Louis, Mo., from Fort Astoria on the Columbia River (Oregon).

Stuart’s discovery, however, was muted by the War of 1812.

Among the legendary fur trappers who crossed South Pass in 1824 were Jedediah Smith, Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick, Joseph Walker, and James Clyman.

After surveying the route, the men realized that it was the key missing link in opening a wagon route from the Missouri River to the Oregon Country. Many explorers, trappers, and frontiersmen have etched their legends into the annals of western history, but few have equaled the incredible exploits of James Clyman.


Born in Virginia in 1792 on land owned by George Washington, Clyman charged through a life filled with adventure. Raised on the family farm near the Blue Ridge Mountains, when James was 15 the Clyman’s moved to the frontier in Ohio.

During the War of 1812 Clyman joined the Army, where he learned land surveying. In 1822, Clyman hired on with a fur trapping expedition to the Rocky Mountains where he met Jedediah Smith, an intrepid trapper and trailblazer.

Smith was the first American citizen to reach California overland, the first to explore and cross the Sierra Nevada (eastbound), and the first to travel up the California coast to Oregon.

Lessons in survival came fast and furious for these early frontiersmen. In 1824, Smith nearly died when he was attacked by a grizzly bear. The grizzly mauled Smith’s head, ripping his scalp and tearing off one ear. The attack was brief but vicious.

After stitching the wounds as best he could, Jim Clyman told Smith that there was nothing he could do for his severed ear. Smith insisted Clyman sew it back on. Clyman later wrote, “I put my needle through and through and over and over, laying the lacerated parts together as nice as I could with my hands.”

Spring of 1846 found Clyman traveling with a small group of families heading back East after wintering at Sutter’s Fort in California’s Central Valley. Clyman’s trail guide was 82-year-old Caleb Greenwood.

Two years before Greenwood had successfully piloted the first wagon train (Stephen’s Party) over the Sierra. Clyman’s group traveled with wagons and pack animals as it traversed the Sierra via Truckee’s Pass (Donner).

Captain Sutter had hired Clyman to convince Oregon-bound emigrants to take the newly-established California Trail instead. The veteran mountain man knew the West and with a clear conscious could advise families that the California Trail was difficult but safe.


A member of Clyman’s company was Lansford Hastings, a lawyer and California land promoter who believed he knew a route west that would save time and miles.

Hastings had never seen the suggested cut-off through the Wasatch Mountains near the Great Salt Lake, let alone used it. Clyman knew the Great Salt Lake region better than anyone.

Twenty years before he had circumnavigated the lake in a skin canoe. Clyman agreed to accompany Hastings with packhorses eastbound on the new shortcut.

After an arduous two-week trek across the Utah Desert, Clyman and Hastings reached the Salt Lake. They traversed the Wasatch Mountains through rugged Weber Canyon, reaching Fort Bridger in mid-June.

The others in their group who had taken the tried-and-true California Trail arrived at Bridger’s fort just days later, proving that Hastings’ cut-off saved little time and was considerably more difficult.

When Clyman and Hastings reached the main overland trail and the westbound wagon trains of 1846, they had different messages to relate. Hastings told anyone who would listen about his new shortcut, while Clyman warned that the new route was dangerous and not much shorter.

He advised emigrants to stay on the California Trail all the way to Sutter’s Fort. Clyman continued east, repeating his warnings. One evening Clyman walked into the campsite of George Donner and James Reed, leading members of the Donner Party.

Reed recognized Clyman because they had fought together in the Black Hawk Indian War 14 years earlier. Among the men mustered in that regiment were Jim Clyman, James Reed, and a tall country lawyer named Abraham Lincoln.

Clyman strongly advised Reed against listening to Hastings, but Reed stated, “If there is a shorter route, we will take it.” That fateful decision resulted in the death of many in the party at Donner Lake and Alder Creek during the terrible winter of 1847.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at You can reach him at Check out Mark’s blog:

Support Local Journalism


Support Local Journalism

Readers around Lake Tahoe, Truckee, and beyond make the Sierra Sun's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.