by lyle e davis
We often take what we have today for granted. We live in air conditioned homes, drive air conditioned cars, buy our delicious food from air conditioned grocery stores.
But there was a time when this country was not quite so rich. And a time when there was danger around every bend and up every stream. This is the land our pioneers, our explorers found.
Some of the most fascinating accounts of this nation’s exploration can be found in journals kept by mountain men, by explorers, by trappers, hunters, and immigrants. The legends and feats of the mountain men have persisted largely because there was a lot of truth to the tales that were told. The life of the mountain man was rough, and one that brought him face to face with death on a regular basis--sometimes through the slow agony of starvation, dehydration, burning heat, or freezing cold and sometimes by the surprise attack of animal or Indian.
One such journal is that which was kept by James Clyman. To find men for the first expedition of what would become the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, William Ashley and Andrew Henry ran this advertisement in the St. Louis Gazette and Public Advertiser in the winter of 1822: "Enterprising Young Men...to ascend the Missouri to its source, there to be employed for one, two, or three years."
James Clyman was one of those who answered the ad. We present here, in his own handwriting, with only minor editing from his original notes (save where it was necessary to clarify his meaning and intent) an account of just what it was like to explore this land.
Nappa, (Napa Valley) CA April 17, 1871
"According to promis I will now attempt to give you a short detail of life and incidents of my trip in & through the Rockey Mountains in the years 1824-25.
Haveing been imployed in Public Surveys in the state of Illinois through the winter of 1823 and the early part of 24 I came to St Louis about the first of February to ricieve pay for past services and rimaining there Some days I heard a report that general William H Ashly was engageing men for a Trip to the mouth of the Yellow Stone river I made enquiry as to what was the object but found no person who seemed to possess the desired information finding whare Ashleys dwelling was I called on him the same evening Several Gentlemen being present he invited me to call again on a certain evening which I did he then gave a lenthy acount of game found in that Region Deer, elk, Bear and Buffalo but to crown all immence Quantities of Beaver whose skins ware verry valuable selling from $5 to 8$ per pound at that time in St Louis and the men he wished to engage ware to hunters trappers and traders for furs and peltrees (pelts) my curiosity now being satisfied St Louis being a fine place for Spending money I did not leave immediately not having spent all my funds I loitered about without employment
Haveing fomed a Slight acquaintance with Mr Ashley we occasionly passed each other on the streets at length one day Meeting him he told me he had been looking for me a few days back and enquiredd as to my employment I informed him that I was entirely unemployed he said he wished then that I would assist him ingageing men for his Rockey mountain epedition and he wished me to call at his housse in the evening which I accordingly did getting instrutions as to whare I would most probably find men willing to engage which (I) found in grog Shops and other sinks of degredation he rented a house & furnished it with provisions Bread from Bakers -- pork plenty, which the men had to cook for themselves
On the 8th of March 1824 all things ready we shoved off from the shore porceed up stream under sail
A discription of our crew I cannt give but Fallstafs Battallion was genteel in comparison I
ut (70) seventy all told Two Keel Boats with crews of French some St Louis gumboes as they were called
We proceeded slowly up the Misouri River under sail wen winds ware favourable and towline when not Towing is a slow and tedious method of assending swift waters It is done by the men walking on the shore and hawling the Boat by a long cord Nothing of importance came under view for some months except loosing men who left us from time to time & engaging a few new men of a much better appearance than those we lost The Missourie is a monotinous crooked stream with large cottonwood forest trees on one side and small young groth on the other with a bare Sand Barr intervening.
The winds are occasionally very strong and when head winds prevail we ware forced to lay by. this circumstanc happend once before we left the Settlements. the men went out gunning and that night came in with plenty of game Eggs Fowls Turkeys and what not Haveing a fire on shore they dressed cooked and eat untill midnight being care full to burn all the fragments the wind still Blowing in the morning several Neighbours came in hunting for poultry. liberty was given to search the boats but they found nothing and left the wind abateing somewhat the cord was got out and pulling around a bend the wind became a farir sailing breeze and wae ordred unfurled when out droped pigs and poultry in abundance
A man was ordred to Jump in the skiff and pick up the pigs and poultry
Ariveing at Council Bluffs (present day Iowa) we mde several exchanges (8) eight or Ten of our men enlisting and 2 or 3 of the Soldier whose was nearly expired engageing with us The officers being verry liberal furnished us with a Quantity of vegetables here we leave the last appearance of civilization and fully Indian country game becomeing more plenty we furnished ourselvs with meat daily
But I pass on to the arickaree villages whare we met with our defeat on ariveing in sight of the villages the barr in front was lined with squaws packing up water thinking to have to stand a siege
For a better understanding it is necessay that I state tha the Missourie furr company have established a small trading house some (60) or (80) miles below the arrickree villages the winter previous to our assent and the arrickarees haveing taken some Sioux squaws prisoners previously one of these Squaws got away from them and made for this trading post and they persuing come near overtaking her in sight of the post the men in the house ran out and fired on the Pesueing arrickarees killing (2) others so that Rees considered war was fully declared betwen them and the whites But genl. Asley thought he could make them understand that his was not resposable for Injuries done by the Missourie fur company But the Rees could not make the distiction they however agreed to recieve pay for thier loss but the general would make them a present but would not pay the Misourie fur companies damages. (Editor’s Note: Archeologists confirm there was a drawing together into large villages on the Elk Horn River in the vicinity of what is now called Omaha, Nebraska. The Arickaree, Ricaree, or Ree, as their name is recorded in various historical documents, call themselves Sanish. They were once part of the greater Pawnee tribe, then split off into a separate tribe, migrated up the Missouri River, and later intermingled with the Hidatsa and Mandan tribes.
After one days talk they agreed to open trade on the sand bar in front of the village but the onley article of Trade they wantd was ammunition For feare of a difficulty, the boats ware kept at anchor in the streame, and the skiffs were used for communications Betteen the boats and the shore. we obtained twenty horses in three dys trading, but in doing this we gave them a fine supply of Powder and ball which on fourth day wee found out to Sorrow
In the night of the third day Several of our men without permition went and remained in the village amongst them our Interperter Mr Rose about midnight he came runing into camp & informed us that one of our men was killed in the village and war was declared in earnest We had no Military organization diciplin or Subordination Several advised to cross over the river at once but thought best to wait untill day light But Gnl. Ashley our imployer Thought best to wait till morning and go into the village and demand the body of our comrade and his Murderer Ashley being the most interested his advice prevailed We laid on our arms epecting an attact as their was a continual Hubbub in the village
At length morning appeared every thing still undecided finally one shot was fired into our camp the distance being however to great for certain aim Shortly firing became Quite general we seeing nothing to fire at Here let me give a Short discription of an Indian City or village as it is usually cald Picture to your self (50) or (100) large potatoe holes as they are usuly caled in the west (10) to (15) feet in diameter and 8 to 10 feet high in the center covered on the outside with small willow brush then a (a) layer of coarse grass a coat of earth over all a hole in one side for a door and another in the top to let out the smoke a small fire in the center all Told The continual wars between them and Sioux had caused them to picket in their place You will easely prceive that we had little else to do than to Stand on a bear sand barr and be shot at, at long range Their being seven or Eigh hundred guns in village and we having the day previously furnished them with abundance of Powder and Ball many calls for the boats to come ashore and take us on board but no prayers or threats had the the Boats men being completely Parylized Several men being wounded a skiff was brought ashore all rushed for the Skiff and came near sinking it but it went the boat full of men and water the shot still coming thicker and the aim better. the skiffs having taken sevarl loads on Board the boats at length the shot coming thicker and faster the men clambering on Boad let the skiff float off in their great eaganess to conceal themselves from the rapid fire of the enemy I seeing no hopes of Skiffs or boats comeing ashore left my hiding place behind a dead hors, ran up stream a short distance to get the advantage of the current and coricieving myself to be a tolerable strong swimer stuck the muzzle of my rifle in belt the lock ove my head with all my clothes on but not having made sufficien calculation for the strong current was carried passed the boat within a few feet. thinking that I had the river to swim my first aim was to rid myself of all my encumbraces and my Rifle was the greatest in my attempt to draw it over my head it sliped down the lock ketching in my belt comeing to the surface to breathe I found it hindred worse that it did at first making one more effort I turned the lock side ways and it sliped through which gave me some relief but still finding myself to much encumbred I next unbucled my belt and let go my Pistols still continueing to disengage my self I next let go my Ball Pouch and finally one Sleeve of my Hunting shirt which was buckskin and held an immence weight of water. when rising to the surface I heard the voice of encoragemnt saying hold on Clyman I will soon relieve you This Reed Gibson who had swam in and caught the skiff the men had let go afloat and was but a few rods from me I was so much exausted that he had to haul me into the skiff. I lay for a moment to cacth breath when I arose to take the only remaing ore when Gibson caled oh, god I am shot and fell forward in the skiff I encouraged him and Perhaps not fatally give a few pulls more and we will be out of reach he raised and gave sevreral more strokes with the oar using it as a paddle when coplained of feeling faint when he fell forward again and I took his plac in the stern and shoved it across to the East shore whare we landed I hauled the skiff up on the shore and told Gibson to remain in the Skiff. After getting up on the river bank and looking around I Discovered sevral Indian in the water swimming over of whoom ware nearly across the stream I spoke to Gibson telling him of the circumstance he mearly said (said) save yourself Clyman and pay no attention to me as I am a dead man and they can get nothing of me but my Scalp My first Idea was to get in the skiff and meet them in the water and brain them with the oar But on second look I concluded there ware to many of them and they ware too near the shore. I concluded to take to the open Pararie and run for life by this time Gibson had scrambled up the bank and stood by my side and said run Clyman but if you escape write to my friends in Virginia and tell them what has become of me I left for the open Prarie and Gibson for the brush to hide I steered directly for the open Prarie and looking Back I ssaw three Inians mount the bank being intirely divested of garments excepting a belt around the waist containing a Knife and Tomahawk and Bows and arrows. They made but little halt and started after me I began to have the palpitation of the heart and I found my man was gaining on me I had now arived at a moderately roling ground and for the first time turned a hill out of sight I turned to the right and found a hole wased in the earth some 3 feet long 1 1/2 feet wide and Pehaps 2 feet deep with weeds and grass perhaps one foot high surrounding it into this hole I droped and persuer immediatle hove in sight and passed me about fifty yards distant both my right an left hand persuers haveing fallen cosiderably in the rear in all this time I gained breath and I did not see my persuers until I gained the top of the ridge over a Quarter of a mile from my friend when I gained this elevation I turned around the three standing near together I made them a low bow with both my hand and thanked god for my present Safety and diliveranc
But I did not remain long here wishing to put the gratest possible distance between me and the Arrickarees I still continued Southward over a smoothe roling ground But I was at least Three Hundred miles from any assistanc unarmed and uprovided with any sort of means of precureing a subsistance not even a pocket Knife I began to feel after passing So many dangers that my propects ware still verry slim, mounting some high land I saw ahed of me the river and Quite a grove of timber and being verry thirsty I made for the water intending to take a good rest in the timber I took one drink of water and setting down on a drift log a few minuits I chanced to look and here came the boats floating down the stream the watcing along the shores saw me about as soon as I saw them the boat was laid in and I got aboard
I spoke of my friend Gibson whe I was informed he was on board I immediately wen to the cabin where he lay but he did not recognize me being in the agonies of Death the shot having passed through his bowels I could not refrain from weeping over him who lost his lifee but saved mine he did not live but an hour or so and we buried him that evening the onley one of (12) that ware killed at the arrickarees Eleven being left on the sand bar and their Scalps taken for the squaws to sing and dance over.
Before meeting with this defeat I think few men had Stronger Ideas of their bravery and disregard of fear than I had but standing on a bear and open sand barr to be shot at from behind a picketed Indian village was more than I had contacted for and some what cooled my courage We fell down a few miles and lay by several day to wait and if any more men had escaped the buthery when on the third or fourth day Jack Larisson came to us naked as when he was born and the skin peeling off of him from the effects of the sun he was wounded a ball passing through the fleshy part of one thigh and ldging in the other the ball was easily exticated and in a few (a few) days he was hobbling around Larrisson had lain between two dead horses untill the boats left and he saw no other chance of escape but to swim the river then divesting himself of all his clothing he took the water the Indians came running and firing at his head but escaped without further injury the wound Before mentioned he had recieved in the early part of the battle if it can be called Battle supposing no more men had survived the slaughte we again droped down the river
Two men ware sent up to the mouth of the yellowstone and one boat containing the wounded and discouraged was sent down to Council bluffs with orders to continue to St Louis This being the fore part of June here we lay for Six weeks or two months living on scant and frquentle no rations allthough game was plenty on the main Shore
In proceess of time news came that Col. Livenworth with Seven or eight hundred Sioux Indians ware on the rout to Punnish the Arrickarees and (18) or (20) men came down from the Yellow Stone who had gone up the year prevous these men came in Canoes and passed the Arrickarees in the night we ware now landed on the main Shore and allowed more liberty than hertofore. Col. Levenworth about (150) men the remnant of the (6) Regiment came and Shortly after Major Pilcher with the Sioux Indians (Indians) amounting to 5 or 600 warriers and (18) or 20 engagies of the Missourie furr Company and a grand feast was held and speeches made by whites and Indians
After 2 days talk, a feast, and an Indian dance, we proceded up stream Some time toward the last of August we came near the arrickaree villages again a halt was made arms examined amunition distributed and badges given to our friends the Sioux which consisted of a strip of white muslin bound around the head to distinguish friends from foes
The third day in the afternoon being 2 or three miles from the villages the Sioux made a breake being generally mounted they out went us although we ware put to the double Quick and when we arived the plain was covered with Indians which looked more like a swarm bees than a battle field they going in all possible directions the Rees having mounted and met the Sioux a half mile from their pickets But as soon as we came in sight the Rees retreated into their village the boats came up and landed a short half mile below the village but little efort was mad that afternoon except to surround the Rees and keep them from leaveing the Sioux coming around one side and the whites around the other Quite a number of dead Indians streued over the plain I must here notice the Bravery of one Sioux a Ree ventured out some distance from the pickets and held some tantalizeing conversation with the Sioux, one Siox on a fast horse approached him slowly Still bantering each other to approach nearer at length the Sioux Put whip to his horse taking directly for the Ree and run him right up to the then firing at full speed wheeled to retreat the Rees inside of the pickets firing some 40 or 50 of them covered him completely in smoke but Sioux and his horse came out safe and the Rees horse went in through the gate without a rider the Rees friends came out and carried in the man Several Rees lay dead and one in long shot of the pickets the old Sioux chief Brought one of his wives up with a war club who struck the corpse a number of blowsl with club he tantalizeing the Rees all the time for their cowardice in comeing out to defend thair dead comrad and allowing his Squaws to strike their braves in gunshot of their village a common habit of the Indians in war is the first man that comes to the body of a dead enemy is to take his Scalp the second will take off his right hand the third his left the fourth his right foot the fifth his Left foot and hang thes trophies around their necks to shew how near they ware to the death of their enemy on the field of Battle and in this case a member of our Sioux shewed Trophies one more circumstance and I am done one large middle aged Sioux blonged to the grizzle Bear medicine came on hand feet to the body of a dead Ree in the attitude of a grzzly Bear snorting and mimican the bear in all his most vicious attitudes and with his teeth tore out mouth fulls of flesh from the breast of the dead body of the Ree
But I will not tire you with details of the savage habits of Indians to their enimies but I will merely state that it is easy to make a savage of a civilised man but impossible to make a civilised man of a savage in one Generation
The third day in the afternoon one of the Ree chiefs came out alone offering terms of peace a Schedule was drawn up to be confirmed on the morrow in a half hour after this was undestood our Sioux packed up and ware out of sight also the most of the Missourie companies men
The night was Quiet but the two previous we had a lively picture of pandimonium the waing of squaws and children the Screams and yelling of men the fireing of guns the awful howling of dogs the neighing and braying of hosses and mules with the hooting of owls of which thy a number all intermingled with the stench of dead men and horses made the place the most disagreeable that immaginnation could fix Short of the bottomless pit In the morning however our Quiet night was easily accounted for the Rees having dserted thair village early in the night previous a few men with an Interpeter ware sent forward to hunt them up and bring them back they returned about noon not being able to overtake them
We Remained one night more in our stinking disageeable camp when we loosed cable and droped down stream 4 men of our mountanier corps was left behind and in an hour after we left a great smoke arose and the acursd village was known to be on fire three Squaw 2 verry old and feebe and one sick and unabe to move ware found to have been left as not worth caring for these ware removed into a lodge which was preserved Col. Levenworth had given special orders that the village be left unmolested & ordered the boats landed and role called to assertain who if any ware missing the sargent called over the roles rapidly and reported all present
We having to hunt for our living we soon fell behind the Col. and his corps droping down to a place called fort Keawa a trading establishment blonging to Missourie furr Company
Here a small company of I think (13) men ware furnished a few horses onley enough to pack their baggage they going back to the mouth of the yellow Stone on their way up they ware actacted in the night by a small party of Rees killing two of thier men and they killing one Ree
we having bought a few horses and borrowed a few more left about the last of September and proceded westward over a dry roling highland a Elleven in number I must now mention honorable exceptions to the character of the men engaged at St Louis being now thined down to onley nine of those who left in March and first Jededdiah Smith who was our Captain Thomas Fitzpatrick William L. Sublett and Thomas Eddie all of which will figure more or less in the future in evening we camped on White clay Creek a small stream running thick with a white sediment and resembling cream in appearance but of a sweetish pugent taste our guide warned us from using this water too freely as caused excessive costiveness which we soon found out
We prceeded up this stream one day not in sight since we left the Missourie part of the nxt day same when our guide infomed us to take what water we could as we would not reach water untill about noon the next day our means of taking water being verry small we trailed on untill dark and camped on a ridge whare the cactus was so thick that we could scarcely find room to spred our Blankets Starting early about 11 oclock we arived at our expected water But behold it was entirely dry not even dam mud to be found but here we found a few Shrubby oaks to protect us from the scorching sun We rested perhaps half an hour 15 miles to the water yet and being all on foot and a pack horse to leade can hold out and reach it before dark we urged and hauled our stubron horses along as fast as posible our guide getting a long way ahead and finely out of sight I followd as near as possible the last appeance of our guide but deveating slightly to the right struck on a hole water about an hour before sunset I fired my gun immedeately and then ran into the pool arm deep my horse foloing me
Comeing out I fired my gun again one man and horse made their appearance the horse out ran the man plunging into the water first each man as he came fired his gun and Shouted as soon as he could moisten his mouth and throat Sufficienty to mak a noise about dark we all got collected except two who had given out and ware left buried in the sand all but their heads Capt Smith Being the last who was able to walk and he took Some water and rode about 2 miles back bringing up the exhausted men which he had buried in the sand and this two days of thirst and Starvation was made to cross a large bend of the white clay River in the morning we found it yet 4 or 5 miles to the river whare our guide waiting for us I have been thus particular in describing the means and trobles of traveling in a barren and unknown region here our River is a beautiful Clare stream running over a gravely bottom with some timber along its course having from its bed of mud and ashes for the sediment spoken of is nearer it mouth Continued up the vally of this stream to Sioux encampment of the Bois Brulie tribe whare we remained several days trading for Horses and finely obtained 27 or 28 which gave us 2 horses to each man and two or three spare animals so far the country is dry not fit for cultivation However there may be and proaly is better soil and better grising higher up amongst the hills as it certainly grew better the farther we proceeded up the stream and there was an increas of Shrubery and soil Likewise here our guide left us to return with the Horses we had borrowed of the Miourie Furr compy.
We packed up and crossed the White Clay 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 our luck was to fall in with the Oglela tiribe of Sioux whare traded a few more horses.
Country nearly the same short grass and plenty of cactus untill we crossed the Chienne River a few miles below whare it leaves the Black Hill range of Mountains here some aluvial lands look like they might bear cultivation we did not keep near enough to the hills for a route to travel on and again fell into a tract of county whare no vegetation of any kind existed beeing worn into knobs and gullies and extremely uneven by enclining a little to the west in a few hours we got on to smoothe ground and soon cleared ourselves of mud at length we arived at the foot of the black Hills which rises in verry slight elevation about the common plain we entered a pleasant undulating pine Region cool and refreshing so different from the hot dusty planes we have been so long passing over and here we found hazlenuts and ripe plums a luxury not expected We had one two day travel over undulating Pine with here and there an open glade of rich soill and fine grass but assinding the Ridges unill we arived near the summet our route became brushy mainly Scruby pine and Juniper the last covered in purple beries comencing our desent the ravines became steep and rugged an rockey the waters flowing westward we suposed we ware on the waters of Powder river
The Crow Indians being our place of destination a half Breed by the name of Rose who spoke the crow tongue was dispached ahead to find the Crows and try to induce some of them to come to our assistance we to travel directly west as near as circumstances would permit supposing we ware on the waters of Powder River we ought to be within the bounds of the Crow country continueing five days travel since leaveing our given out horses and likewise Since Rose left us late in the afternoon while passing through a Brushy bottom a large Grssely came down the vally we being in single file men on foot leding pack horses he struck us about the center then turning ran paralel to our line Capt. Smith being in the advanc he ran to the open ground and as he immerged from the thicket he and the bear met face to face Grissly did not hesitate a moment but sprung on the capt taking him by the head first pitcing sprawling on the earth he gave him a grab by the middle fortunately cathing by the ball pouch and Butcher Kife which he broke but breaking several of his ribs and cutting his head badly none of us having any sugical Knowledge what was to be done I asked Capt what was best he said one or 2 for water and if you have a needle and thread git it out and sew up my wounds around my head which was bleeding freely I got a pair of scissors and cut off his hair and then began my first Job of dessing wounds upon examination I the bear had taken nearly all his head in his capcious mouth close to his left eye on one side and clos to his right ear on the other and laid the skull bare to near the crown of the head leaving a white streak whare his teeth passed one of his ears was torn from his head out to the outer rim after stitching all the other wounds in the best way I was capabl and according to the captains directions the ear being the last I told him I could do nothing for his Eare 0 you must try to stich up some way or other said he then I put in my needle stiching it through and through and over and over laying the lacerated parts togather as nice as I could with my hands water was found in about ame mille when we all moved down and encamped the captain being able to mount his horse and ride to camp whare we pitched a tent the onley one we had and made him as comfortable as circumtances would permit this gave us a lisson on the charcter of the grissly Baare which we did not forget I now found time to ride around and explore the immediate surroundings of our camp and assertained that we ware still on the waters of shiann river which heads almost in the eastern part of the Black hill range taking a western course for a long distance into an uneven vally whare a large portion of the waters are sunk or absorbd This is fine country for game Buffaloe Elk Bare deer antelope &c likewise it produces some Hazel nuts Plumbs white thorn Berries wild currant large and of fine flavour and abundance of nutricious grass and some land that would bear cultivation
after remaining here ten days or 2 weeks the capt. Began to ride out a few miles and as winter was rapidly approaching we began to make easy travel west ward and Struck the trail of Shian Indians the next day we came to their village traded and swaped a few horses with them and continued our march across a Ridge mountains not steep & rocky (in general) but smooth and grassy in general with numerous springs and brook of pure water and well stocked with game dsending this ridge we came to the waters of Powder River Running West and north country mountainous and some what rockey terrain.
So now you have an idea of just what our pioneering explorers went through. Clyman was very active in exploration. In addition to fighting the Arikara Indians in the Arikara War in 1823 he also traveled with Jedediah Smith and Thomas Fitzpatrick through the South Pass.
After his explorations, he bought a farm near Danville, Illinois, and also set up a store there. Then, the Blackhawk War broke out and Clyman joined that fight.
After the war, he travelled back West and crossed the Great Salt Lake Desert and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. On his way back, he met the Donner-Reed Party and accompanying parties and advised them to go no further. They did not heed his advice and ended up cannibalizing many members of their parties after reaching the Sierra Nevada.
In 1846, Clyman settled in the Napa Valley. He died there in 1881 at the age of 89. Most observes would agree that he lived a full and exciting life.
James Clyman's Narrative
Extract from James Clyman's manuscript narrative, covering incidents in the
Rocky Mts 1824-29.
"My Sixty years on the Plains" by William Thomas Hamilton.
Volume one of "The American Fur Trade of the Far West" Hiram Martin Chittenden