The incredible exploits of mountain man James Clyman |

The incredible exploits of mountain man James Clyman

Courtesy Library of Congress imageArtist William Tylee Ranney's 1853 painting, "Advice on the Prairie."

Many explorers, trappers, and frontiersmen have etched their legends into the talisman of Western history, but few ever equaled the incredible exploits of mountain man James Clyman. Born in Virginia in 1792 on land owned by George Washington, Clyman charged through a life filled with adventure. On his familys farm near the Blue Ridge Mountains, young James learned to hunt. When he was 15, the family moved to Stark County, Ohio, a region where Indian attacks were quite common. During the War of 1812 Clyman joined the Amy, where he learned land surveying. When he was 31, he hired on with the William Ashley fur trapping expedition. It was there that Clyman met Jedediah Smith, an intrepid trapper and Western trailblazer in his own right.Lessons in survival came fast and furious for these wild frontiersmen. The following year, Smith nearly died when he was attacked by a grizzly bear. Clyman recorded the event in his diary: While passing through a brushy bottom [canyon], a large grizzly came down the valley, we being in single file on foot leading pack horses. Captain Smith being in advance ran to the open ground and as he emerged from a thicket he and the bear met face to face. Grizzly did not hesitate a moment but sprung on the captain taking him by the head first. The attack was brief but vicious and Smith suffered serious injuries to his head and face. After stitching all the other wounds as best he could, Clyman told Smith that there was nothing he could do for his severed ear. But Smith insisted Clyman sew the ear back on somehow. Clyman did as ordered: I put my needle through and through and over and over, laying the lacerated parts together as nice as I could with my hands. Shortly after, the hardy Smith remounted his horse and led his men on to camp. In typical frontier understatement, Clyman wrote in his journal This gave us a lesson on the character of the grizzly bear which we did not forget. The spring of 1846 found James Clyman traveling with a small group of single men and a handful of families heading back East after wintering in Californias Central Valley. Outfitted with wagons and pack animals loaded with provisions, they passed through Sutters Fort (Sacramento) before they made their way up and over the Sierra Nevada via Truckees Pass. Captain John Sutter had hired Clyman to station himself east of Fort Hall, near the fork in the overland trail in order to convince Oregon-bound emigrants to take the newly established California Trail instead. Sutter needed settlers and was paying Clyman a modest fee for his efforts to divert them to the fertile Sacramento Valley, rather than Oregons Willamette River. Although his eastbound comrades had grown disillusioned with California, Clyman was on his way to visit family and friends back in the States and wasnt opposed to making a little money on the way. The veteran mountain man knew the West and with a clear conscious could advise families that the California Trail was difficult but safe. Leading the eastbound group was an 82-year-old man, the durable trail guide Caleb Greenwood, and his two sons, John and Britton. Back in 1844, the Greenwood trio had piloted the first wagon train across the Sierra to open the California Trail, the successful Stephens-Townsend-Murphy Party. Conspicuously present among these noted men was Lansford Hastings. No mountain man, Hastings was an ambitious attorney from Ohio, who had written a popular book titled The Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California. It was filled with important information, such as physical descriptions of the topography and climate in Oregon and California, as well as all necessary information relative to the equipment, supplies, and the method of traveling. Hastings had led a small group of American emigrants to Oregon in 1842, and now considered himself an expert on the overland routes to California and Oregon. Although Hastings had traveled the northern Oregon trail in 1842, and then returned east by ship, in his book he described a shortcut to California that would save weeks of traveling time and countless miles of rugged trail. The shortcut would bypass Fort Hall, which was far to the north, by heading almost directly west around the south end of the Great Salt Lake. But Hastings had never seen the suggested cut-off through the Wasatch Mountains, let alone used it. Before he led the emigrants of 1846 through, he figured he had better check it out. Clyman knew the Great Salt Lake region better than anyone. Twenty years before he had joined an expedition which had circumnavigated the lake in skin canoes. His exploration disproved the existence of the mythical River San Buenaventura, which purportedly flowed all the way from the Wasatch Mountains to the bay of San Francisco. When the eastbound group reached the turn-off on the Humboldt River, the Greenwoods and those with families chose the reliable Fort Hall route. Clyman and a few others agreed to accompany Hastings with packhorses on the new shortcut. After an arduous two-week trek across the Utah Desert, Clyman and Hastings reached the Salt Lake by the first of June. They traversed the forbidding Wasatch range through rugged Weber Canyon, reaching Fort Bridger 11 days later. The others, who had taken the tried-and-true California Trail, arrived at Bridgers fort less than a week later, proving that the Hastings cut-off saved a little time, but was considerably more difficult and maybe impossible with loaded wagons. When Clyman and Hastings reached the main overland trail and the westbound emigrants of 1846, they had different messages to relate. Hastings told everyone that he would lead anyone interested through his new short-cut, while Clyman warned that the new route was dangerous and not much shorter. He advised the emigrants to stay on the California Trail all the way to Sutters Fort. Clyman continued east, telling all who would listen to avoid Hastings cut-off. One day Clyman walked into the campsite of George Donner and James Reed, leading members of the Donner Party. Reed jumped to his feet when he spotted the buckskin-clad Clyman because the two men knew each other. In fact, they had mustered together in the Black Hawk Indian War in northwest Illinois 14 years earlier. Among the volunteers in that regiment were James Clyman, James Reed; their captain was a lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. Clyman strongly advised Reed to avoid Hastings short-cut, but the stubborn Reed stated, If there is a higher route, we will take it. That decision ended up costing the Donner Party weeks of traveling time and ultimately trapped them in the deep snows around Donner Lake and Alder Creek, where nearly half of those unfortunate emigrants starved to death during the heavy winter of 1846-47.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

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