James Clyman was a mountain man who lived many American lives.
James Clyman (1792-1881) isn’t thought of as one of the stars of Manifest Destiny. He hasn’t come down to us with the reputation of a Kit Carson or a Jim Bridger. He was never a character portrayed in a Dime Novel or a Hollywood Western. There are no statues dedicated to his memory in public parks in western towns.
But for a scholar such as the late Bernard DeVoto, Clyman is a compelling figure. He’s one of those historical actors who seems to pop up in the right place and at the right time, and throughout a long life. He’s an ongoing touchstone in DeVoto’s The Year of Decision: 1846 (1943): “Jim Clyman was a mountain man. That is the proudest of all the titles worn by the Americans who lived their lives out beyond the settlements.”
Clyman also kept a diary himself, and it has come down to us as Journal of a Mountain Man (Mountain Press, 1984). Typical of his time, Clyman was a haphazardly educated man, literate enough to write in that bold style familiar to readers of Lewis and Clark’s Journals, replete with idiosyncratic spelling and grammar. Oddly enough, these semi-literate diaries (the journals of Zenas Leonard and Osborne Russell also come to mind) are a gold mine for scholars interested in particular historical events occurring far from the American public sphere amidst the endlessly remote roaming of participants in the Rocky Mountain fur trade. Clyman: “We packed up and crossed the White Clay [Teton] river and proceeded north westernly over a dry roling Country for several days meting with a Buffaloe now and then which furnished us with provision for at least one meal each day….”
James Clyman was born in Fauquier County, Virginia in 1792. His father was a tenant farmer on land owned by George Washington, and as a child Clyman once glimpsed the first president at a public event. The War of 1812 saw the young Clyman a veteran of wilderness battles against British-allied Indians in the Ohio Valley. After the war he helped survey the rough frontier along the Sangamon River in Illinois, the region where Abraham Lincoln would later come of age.
Clyman found himself in St. Louis in 1823, where he met William Ashley; military man, politician, and fur trade entrepreneur. Ashley hired him for the second expedition he financed for the purpose of trapping and trading the upper Missouri River region. “A discription of our crew I cannt give but Fallstafs Battallion was genteel in comparison,” wrote Clyman.
Now roughly 30, Clyman found himself in the company of a somewhat younger cohort that included such future fur trade legends as Thomas Fitzpatrick, William Sublette and Jedediah Smith. With these three he participated in a bloody skirmish with Arikaras on the way upriver, and the first crossing by white men of South Pass (1824 — present western Wyoming) from the east (Wilson Price Hunt’s “Astorians” had come through from the west on their return trip in 1812). This opened up the Green River Valley to fur trade activity, and inaugurated a noteworthy period in the history of the American West, the mountain man era, where violent adventure occurred often. Clyman once sewed a piece of Jedediah Smith’s ear back in place after Smith had suffered a nasty assault from a grizzly bear. “I put my needle stiching it through and through and over and over laying the lacerated parts together as nice as I could with my hands.” Clyman’s survival skills were typical of his peers. After being separated from fellow trappers and robbed by Indians, Clyman walked 600 miles in 80 days from present Wyoming to Fort Atkinson (Council Bluffs, Iowa), starving and hallucinating upon arrival.
Clyman didn’t stick around for the whole fifteen-year (1825-1840) fur trade heyday. (If he had and managed to stay alive, one wonders what his historical legacy would be.) He left the Rockies in 1827, returning east to Danville, Illinois, where he opened a General Store. And he speculated in the lumber business in Wisconsin. There was also service in the Black Hawk War of 1832, where he met a young volunteer named Abraham Lincoln. Reminiscing late in life, Clyman recalled that “Abe Lincoln served in the same company with me. We didn’t think much then about his ever being President of the United States.” But other than this short military interregnum, a more settled life occupied Clyman until the 1840s.
In 1844, Clyman — now past 50, and yet a bachelor —went west again to “see the country and try to find a better climate.” This was the time of the great western emigration to Oregon and California. The Rocky Mountain fur trade was extinct. The market for beaver had collapsed due to changing fashions (men’s beaver top hats replaced by silk ones). Ex-mountain men with their certain knowledge of Western trail routes (what DeVoto calls “the mountain man mind”) were much in demand as guides for wagon trains. James Clyman easily found work as a guide on the Oregon Trail. He took a wagon train to the Willamette Valley of Oregon, and then another party south to California.
On a return trip east in 1846 to secure another wagon guide job, Clyman encountered that iconic and tragic collection of emigrants known as the Donner Party, who ultimately perished in the deep snows of the Sierra Nevada, with the survivors practicing cannibalism. It was late in the season, and Clyman advised them to bypass the Hastings Cutoff off the California Trail, as it would waste valuable travel time. They ignored his sage advice, and the rest is history.
While guiding a wagon train to California in 1848, Clyman met Hannah McComb, a woman thirty years his junior. They soon married, producing five children, four of whom the aging guide survived.
Clyman eventually settled in the Napa Valley as a farmer, a typical retirement for an old mountain man, dying at 89 in 1881. The man who as a child saw George Washington and later Abe Lincoln (and how many Americans of his time could claim that?) lived to see the curtain close on American Manifest Destiny, his life setting like the sun into the Pacific.
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