After breakfast we elected a man named Walker, from Detroit, for supper. He was very good. I wrote his wife so afterward. He was worthy of all praise. I shall always remember Walker. He was a little rare, but very good.
–Mark Twain, “Cannibalism in the Cars,” 1868
Just off Route 80 near Truckee, California, is the popular Donner Party Picnic Area. Locals and tourists alike do lunch at picnic tables near historical markers that relate the tale of the eponymous 1846 emigrant expedition that was trapped by the howling blizzards that frequent the Sierra Nevada in winter. As the well-known story goes, as the suffering pioneers expired in the snow they were enthusiastically eaten by family and friends.
Cannibalism has always been a mainstay of the-chips-are-down survivalist school in the West. Kit Carson advised a greenhorn to stay clear of his friend the mountain man Old Bill Williams when the latter was truly hungry. Alfred Packer, a 19th century guide whose memory is honored by an annual holiday festival in Colorado, reputedly ate a number of his clients while trapped in a mountain storm. One wonders how Williams and Packer — born survivors — would have fared under today’s Hollywood klieg lights.
“Survivor,” the popular CBS reality series, features people from all walks-of-life scrambling to position themselves to win a grand prize by being the sole survivor not voted off a tropical Polynesian island. A tropical island? Tropical islands have fruit, nuts and roots growing wild, not to mention the bounty of the sea. Robinson Crusoe never had it so good. Pass the breadfruit. Who do these modern-day “survivors” think they’re kidding?
Survival in the American West always came in many guises. The predominant one was the economic crapshoot of making a living in unforgiving places. Going back to the fur trade and emigrant eras — fascinating and amusing tales of cannibalism aside — the stories are extraordinary.
John Colter — in 1808 the victim of savage Blackfeet sport — ran naked and barefoot the ten miles between the Jefferson and Madison Rivers in present Montana in an adrenaline-pumped effort to shake his pursuers, which he did. Over the course of the following week he covered more than a hundred miles in this condition as he made his way toward friendly campfires on the Bighorn River.
A party led by Jedediah Smith exploring the uncharted deserts of the Southwest in 1826 fought off maddening thirst by drinking blood bled from their horses and mules.
Thomas Fitzpatrick, while traveling to the 1832 Rendezvous at Pierre’s Hole in present Idaho, lost his horses and outfit to a party of murderous Gros Ventres. Fitzpatrick escaped into the mountains on foot and hid in a cave for a number of days while the Indians futilely sought him. He drank water from a seep in the cave, and literally ate his felt hat to satisfy his gnawing hunger.
In 1823, Hugh Glass, torn to shreds by a grizzly and left for dead by companions (the young Jim Bridger among them), crawled some 200 miles across a large portion of present South Dakota to an encampment of trapping associates. He subsisted on roots and berries during this supine, sometimes biped, journey. A man of vicious temper, he instead — in the end — forgave his negligent friends. He survived the bear only to be killed by Arikaras a few years later.
In a skirmish with some Blackfeet in 1832, Jim Bridger picked up two arrows in the back. One was pulled out, but the other was too deep and the arrowhead remained embedded in muscle tissue for three years. At the 1835 Green River Rendezvous the missionary-physician Marcus Whitman removed the three-inch-long iron point in an outdoor surgery — with whiskey as anesthetic — attended by hundreds of curious trappers and Indians. Whitman was amazed at the size of the arrowhead, and at Bridger’s formidable constitution that had enabled him to carry it for so long with no obvious detriment to his health and vitality. The legendary mountain man’s answer was simple: “Meat don’t spoil in the mountains, doctor.”
We all know that “Survivor” is a harmless and silly thing designed to amuse a jaded and entertainment-glutted American populace. Its pretensions toward seriousness are not only an insult to us, but says a lot about who we are in America 2002, and about our ideas concerning heroes and personal virtue.
They don’t make survivors like they used to.