Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

James Clyman:

James Clyman was born February 1, 1792 in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.  His parents were farmers, holding a life-tenancy on a farm belonging to George Washington.  As a child he received some education, learning to read and to write.  He also shared in the work on the farm, clearing land, planting crops, tending livestock and hunting.  In 1811, when he was fifteen, he and his family moved to Ohio.  Raiders were active in this area during the period leading up to the War of 1812, and Clyman became a ranger, scouting the countryside on horseback for Indians.  In 1814 he served briefly in the local militia.  In 1818 he left his fathers farm, moving westward into Indiana were he cleared and farmed 20 acres.  By 1820 Clyman apparently decided that his future did not include farming.   He moved on to Illinois, where he got a job furnishing provisions (hunting) for a surveyor.  He was a quick learner, and when the surveyor became too ill to complete a job, Clyman was able to take over and complete the survey of a township.  After this he worked harvesting crops, as a wood cutter, and had several additional surveying jobs.  

James Clyman had made his way to St. Louis in the spring of 1823 where he met General William Ashley.  Ashley must have been impressed with Clyman’s experience and background, because he hired Clyman as Clerk for his second expedition up the Missouri at the generous rate of $1 a day.  At the age of 31, Clyman would be one of the oldest men ascending the Missouri this year with Ashley’s party.  One of Clyman’s first responsibilities upon being hired was to recruit additional men to join the brigade.  There were few men available in St. Louis that spring and Clyman writes that many of the men recruited were found in “grog shops and other sinks of degradation.”

On March 10, 1823, the Ashley’s second expedition left St. Louis and began to slowly and laboriously ascend the Missouri River.  By the end of May the brigade had arrived at the Arikara villages.  The Arikara Indian were in an evil mood, a result of two of their warriors having been killed recently by traders from the Missouri Fur Company.   

Ashley thought he would be able to make the Arikara understand that his brigade was not responsible for the deaths, but was not very successful in this.  There followed several days of very difficult trading.  Ashley desperately needed horses for logistical reasons for his first expedition which was still in the mountains.  On the night of the third day, being May 31, several men of the brigade, including Edward Rose, without approval had slipped into the Indian village.  There followed an altercation involving a woman, resulting in the death of one of the trappers.  The next morning the Indians opened fire from the fortifications of their village, killing fifteen of Ashley’s men, and wounding an additional nine.   

James Clyman was on the beach that morning, along with Jedediah Smith and others.  Although the fortified village was too far for certain aim, Clyman states that there were seven or eight hundred guns in the village, which made the beach a very unpleasant place to be.  Although several trips were made from the keelboat to the beach with a skiff, the rivermen in the keelboats were generally unwilling to risk exposing themselves to pick up the men on the beach.  The evacuation of the beach was haphazard and deadly.  In order to save himself, Clyman ran upstream a short distance and plunged into the river, with the intention of swimming out to the keelboats.  He misjudged the strength of the current and was swept past the keelboats. One of the skiffs had gotten loose in the battle, and Reed Gibson, who also had swum out from the shore had gotten into it.  Gibson rescued Clyman from the river, however, before the men could make their escape downstream, Gibson received a mortal wound.  Clyman managed to maneuver the skiff to the shore, where they were immediately beset by attackers. Gibson told Clyman to save himself, that he, Gibson was already as good as dead.  Clyman set off across the prairie with three Indians in pursuit.  This deadly footrace was to last for an hour (as reported by Clyman) before Clyman was able to elude his pursuers in some broken ground.  

Clyman continued across the prairie to the south, feeling vulnerable because he had lost his rifle, pistols, and knife, and didn’t even have his fire steel. He estimated the nearest assistance might be 300 miles distant.  He came up to the Missouri River, and being thirsty went down the bank to drink. Within minutes of arriving at the river, Ashley’s keelboats came floating past and picked up Clyman.  Gibson had also been rescued earlier; however he would die within an hour of the wounds he had received.   

The keelboats dropped several miles further downstream to wait for any additional survivors to come up.  After three or four days another survivor, Jack Larisson came up, “naked as the day he was born and skin peeling off of him”.  He had been wounded on the beach and left for dead.  Knowing his only hope of escape was in swimming the river, he divested himself of his clothing and took to the water.  Although the Indians fired their guns at his head as he was swimming away, he was able to make good his escape.    

After this what was left of the brigade moved about 200 miles down the Missouri River to recover and await for reinforcements.  By early August, 1823, Andrew Henry with a party had come down from the Yellowstone River area; a party of about 40 men from the Missouri Fur Company had come up river, and Colonel Leavenworth with 230 soldiers had arrived.  In addition there were about 750 mounted Sioux warriors along to score coup on their old enemies, the Arikara.  After two days of talking, feasting, speeches and Indian dances, the combined force moved up the Missouri River to the vicinity of the Arikara villages.  The Sioux, being mounted went ahead of the main force of white trappers and soldiers.  Clyman writes that when they arrived on the field, “… the plain was covered with Indians which looked more like a swarm of bees than a battle field they going in all possible directions…”  After three days of ineffective skirmishes, one of the Arikara chiefs came out to offer peace.  General terms were drawn up by Colonel Leavenworth, and were to be confirmed the following day.  (In general, however, the men of the two fur companies did not want a peace agreement, they wanted the Arikara annihilated).  When morning came it was found that the Arikara had totally abandoned their village and were no-where to be seen.   

General Ashley would now be able to move his fur brigade past the Arikara village, however the problem was not solved, but was now rather much worse. Now there were several thousand Arikara wandering the Missouri river valley, dispersed, displaced, angry, and ready to take vengeance on any white trader or trapper that they met.  Ashley chose to move his men and keelboats back down the river to Fort Kiowa, a trading establishment owned by the Missouri Fur Company.  It was now late August and Ashley and Henry were facing financial ruin if they couldn’t get their men, equipment and supplies to the mountains.  Enough horses were quickly obtained so that a small party under Andrew Henry and supplies could be sent to support those men left on the Yellowstone River.  Hugh Glass was a member of this party.   

The larger party had difficulty obtaining enough horses, and it wasn’t until the end of September that they had purchased (mostly from Sioux Indians) or borrowed (from the Missouri Fur Company) sufficient horses to set off for the mountains.  Included with this party are Jedediah Smith, Thomas Fitzpatrick, William Sublette, Moses “Black” Harris, Edward Rose, and Thomas Eddie as well as James Clyman.  It was intended that this party would winter with the Crow Indians, and then hunt and trap streams in the vicinity of the Wind River Mountains and the Seeds-ka-dee River (Green River).  

While traveling through the region south of the Black Hills, the party was attacked by a grizzly bear, specifically Jedediah Smith.  Before Smith could be rescued, the bear had broken several ribs, and nearly torn Smith’s entire scalp and one ear away.  None of the men having any surgical knowledge, there was great reluctance to aid Smith with his wounds.  Finally Clyman, with Smith’s encouragement took the lead in reattaching Smith’s scalp and ear with a needle and thread.  The party remained in camp for ten days or two weeks while Smith’s injuries healed before setting off to the west again.   Follow this link for Clyman’s description of this event.  

The party reached the Crow Indian tribe in late November of 1823 where they spent the next several months.  In early February of 1824 Smith’s party left the Crow village.  The Crow Indians had become intolerably demanding, at the instigation of Edward Rose, who had previously been adopted into the tribe.  There followed a period of weeks of hardship, cold, hunger and extremely high winds.  The winds were so continuous and so fierce that fires generally could not be lit, and even when lit, were blown away by the wind.  During this period, James Clyman saved William Sublette from freezing to death when the two of them were hunting for meat.  Before splitting up for the spring hunt, a store of powder and lead was cached at the location of the camp,  The trappers were to re-unite at this location in June of 1824.

On February 20, 1824, Smith split the party to trap the streams more efficiently.  One party included Smith and seven men, with the remaining men, which included Clyman and Fitzpatrick forming the second party. Trapping was carried on successfully by Clyman’s party, with the exception of a temporary, loss of the party’s horses to Shoshone Indians.  The same band of Indians was met five days later, and the misappropriated horses recovered.  

On June 15, Fitzpatrick, Clyman and party were back at the location of the cached supplies, but Smith’s group had not yet arrived.  Fitzpatrick and Clyman followed the Sweetwater River downstream for about 15 miles, apparently on foot, concluding that it wasn’t “navigable”  and couldn’t be used to transport their furs downstream.  Clyman proceeded downstream alone for three days.  The fur brigade was to follow three or four days behind Clyman.  When Clyman arrived at the confluence of the Sweetwater and North Platte Rivers, he found a well situated camping site.  As he was starting to set up his camp, approximately 22 Blackfoot Indians arrived on the opposite bank of the river and set up their own camp.  After several harrowing near encounters, the Indians moved off, unaware of Clyman's presence.  Clyman remained at this location for twelve days waiting for the fur brigade to show up but it never arrived.  Having plenty of powder, but only 11 balls, Clyman decided the surest course of survival would be to walk downstream to Fort Atkinson at Council Bluffs, a hike of about 600 miles. He arrived at Fort Atkinson about 80 days later famished and in a near delirious state.  During his hike he had been relieved of his gun, knife and remaining gear in an encounter with Pawnee Indians.  At one point he was able to kill two badgers, which he ate raw, by clubbing them with a horse bone.  After arriving at the fort, General Leavenworth temporarily assigned Clyman to one of the forts military companies.  As military personel, Leavenworth could provide Clyman with soldiers rations while he recovered.

Ten days after Clyman arrived at Fort Atkinson, Fitzpatrick, and two others arrived at the fort in even worse condition then Clyman was when he arrived.  Fitzpatrick and his companions had suffered a mishap in the river, and had lost most of their supplies, two of their guns, all of the fur packs and all of their balls.  They then made an almost identical 600 mile trek. After Fitzpatrick caught up with Clyman at Fort Atkinson, they returned to the North Platte to recover the fur packs that were lost in the mishap on the river.  These were then packed on mules back to Fort Atkinson were they were sold to Lucien Fontenelle, an opposition trader, probably because Fontenelle had re-equipped Fitzpatrick.  

Late in 1824 Ashley arrived at Fort Atkinson with a license to “trade with the Snake Indians” a fiction that everyone was aware of.  In reality, Ashley’s fur brigade was going primarily to trap, furs acquired by trading were relatively few in comparison.   Ashley’s party, including Clyman, Fitzpatrick, Zacharias Ham and James Beckwourth left Fort Atkinson for the mountains early in November 1824.  It included a total of 25 men, 50 horses and one wagon, which probably didn’t make it too far.  The trek quickly became a nightmare, with knee-deep snow and fierce winds.  Food and fodder were in short supply.  In addition, the village of Loup Pawnee, where Ashley had hoped to obtain food and additional horses couldn’t be found.  Rations were reduced to a half-pint of flour per man per day, along with the meat from the horses that had died of starvation or exposure thrown in.  

At the Forks of the Platte River, they caught up with the Loup Pawnee, and were able to obtain food, horses and buffalo robes.  Up to this point they had been following the route taken by Clyman, and later by Fitzpatrick the previous summer.  Ashley now decided that they would follow the South Platte and thence up the Cache la Poudre, a route that none in the party had ever traveled.  This route is at high elevations and rough even under good conditions.  When Ashley’s party passed through it must have been choked with ice and snow.  Somehow they succeeded in passing through the mountains and arrived on the Laramie Plains, where there was fodder for the
horses, and herds of buffalo, antelope and mountain sheep for food.  They were able to start trapping beaver, however, the going was slow because of the poor condition of the horses.  They progressed generally to the north and west, and by late March were at the continental divide near South Pass.

On April 22, 1825, Ashley split his party into four groups.  Clyman was chosen as a leader of a group of six men, including Jim Beckwourth, with the purpose of trapping the headwaters of the Seeds-ka-dee (Green River) to the north and west.  In addition to trapping the headwaters of the Seeds-ka-dee, Clyman was try and find parties headed by Jedediah Smith or John H Weber, who had wintered over in the mountains.  In choosing Clyman as a leader Ashley called him one of his “most intelligent and efficient” men. The parties were to gather on or around July 1, 1825 at a location Ashley would indicate with markings at some prominent location along the Seeds-ka-dee. This was the first rendezvous.

Clyman’s group was at first successful in trapping beaver.  His group was then attacked by Indians who had at first been friendly and were camping with the trappers.  One of the trappers (LaBarge) was killed in the initial attack.  After the Indians had withdrawn, Clyman realizing that his group was too small to present an effective defense, backtracked to where Fitzpatrick and his party were trapping to join forces.  Clyman wintered over in the mountains during the winter of 1825-1826.  In the spring of 1826 he was one of three men who circumnavigated the Great Salt Lake in skin canoes, searching for an outlet and the mythical Rio Buenaventura, a river rumored to extend to the Pacific Ocean.  They were unsuccessful in finding an outlet, and suffered greatly from thirst on the salt water lake.

Clyman’s whereabouts for the remainder of 1826 are not known, however, he often traveled with William Sublette.  If so, he may have traveled into the Jackson Hole, Yellowstone, the Three Forks areas.  Clyman probably remained in the mountains through the spring and summer of 1827, trapping along or in the vicinity of the Seeds-ka-dee.   

In 1835, Clyman told a friend of one of his experiences in the mountains with Blackfoot Indians.  Clyman and one other trapper were trapping in Blackfoot country.  To avoid detection, they would visit their traps only during the late evening, or at dawn, and would hide out during the day.  Early one evening, while riding through some thick timber, they found themselves in the midst of a Blackfoot encampment.  Clyman, cool and self-possessed, rode straight up to the chief’s lodge, and made signs indicating friendship, and claimed that the two had ridden into the camp deliberately to pass the night. The chief wasn’t exactly friendly, but his women did serve food to the two trappers.  As they ate and smoked their pipes, Clyman, who understood some of the Blackfoot language, heard the chief tell some of the warriors the two trappers should be killed.  Clyman warned his companion.  As soon as it was almost dark, Clyman and his companion leaped to their feet and ran for the river, followed closely by the Blackfoot Indians, who fired arrows and balls at the retreating trappers.  Clyman got to the river, swam across and hid under a bank on the opposite side where he waited until the Indians gave up searching and returned to their camp.  His fellow trapper apparently did not survive the experience because he was never seen or heard from again.

Clyman returned to St. Louis in the fall of 1827.  He sold 278 pounds of beaver skins to Wilson P Hunt on October 17, 1827 at $4.50 a pound, for a total of $1,251.  This was a very large sum of money at a time when $200 a year was considered a very well paying position.

Clyman moved into the Illinois-Wisconsin area where he remained for the next 17 years.  He first returned to Danville, Illinois, where he bought land which he used to set up his two brothers with farms.  Clyman then became partners with Daniel Beckwith, in setting up one of the first general stores in Danville.  He later was partners in a sawmill near Milwaukee, and speculated in land further to the north.  Clyman served in various positions in the military during the Black Hawk War.  After the war was over, he was appointed Colonel of the Wisconsin Militia by Governor Dodge.

In the spring of 1844, Clyman packed up “to see the country and try to find a better climate”.  This was four years before Wisconsin became a state, and it was becoming too “settled up” for the mountain man.  Clyman made his way down into Arkansas and thence to Independence, Missouri where he found emigrants assembling for the passage to Oregon.  For whatever reason, Clyman joined with one of the emigrant parties bound for Oregon. After arriving in Oregon in October 1844, he spent the next year and a half  playing tourist, traveling, meeting people and site-seeing in western Oregon, and California as far south as the San Francisco area.  Clyman was in California during the same period that John Fremont and his expedition of military “explorers” were there.  

Clyman left California in April of 1846, to return to Missouri and thence Wisconsin.  The return journey followed a path similar to the proposed Hastings Cutoff route.  On the return trip, he met many parties of emigrants bound for Oregon and California.  In late June, along the North Platte, he spent an evening talking with an emigrant group which included members of the Donner Party.  In conversations with the emigrants he strongly advised against following the Hastings Cutoff.  However, the members of the Donner Party chose to follow the wild speculations of someone who had never traveled in the west, as opposed to the advice of someone who had traveled the route in the previous two months, gaining a certain infamy by their experience.   

After his return to Wisconsin, Clyman spent the next year and a half talking with friends and settling his affairs.  By the spring of 1848, Clyman was back in Independence, Missouri, where he became a guide for a small party of emigrants, mostly the extended family of the McCombs, bound for California.  After arriving in California, James Clyman, at the age of 57, would marry Hanna McCombs, a woman who was more than 30 years younger than he.  Clyman settled down to become a farmer in the Napa region of California.  He would have five children, four of who would died of scarlet fever.

In his later years he remained active running a fruit and dairy farm, and occasionally hunting deer.  He died on December 27th, 1881.  He was 89 years old.   

To learn more about James Clyman see the following references:

Journal of a Mountain Man, by James Clyman, edited by Linda M Hasselstrom.  Published by the Mountain Press Publishing Company, Missoula, 1984.  This book is a compilation of the journals, notebooks, diaries and memoirs of James Clyman.  The book provides us a picture of life in the first half of the 1800’s as well as a look at a man who was willing to follow opportunities where-ever they would lead, who never allowed himself to be trapped by his own past, doing whatever was necessary to survive.  

James Clyman, Frontiersman, 1792-1881, edited by Charles L Camp 1960.  This book is based on the journals, notebooks, diaries and memoirs of James Clyman, contains voluminous footnotes and analysis.   

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