Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Moses Black Harris and the "Putrified Forest"

The following "lie" is recorded by George Frederick Ruxton in Life in the Far West.  Life in the Far West is fictionalized history.  However, according to Ruxton, the incidents and people described in the book are all factual but somewhat modified in time and place to allow him to stitch them altogether in the form of a story.  There is no reason to believe that Ruxton found it necessary to modify or exaggerate Moses "Black" Harris' story of the "Putrified Forest," who Ruxton characterizes as "The darndest liar....for lies tumbled out of his mouth like boudin out of a buffler's stomach."  Follows is the story of the "Putrified Forest" as related by Ruxton:

Black Harris come in from the Laramie; he'd been trapping there year an' more on Platte and the 'other side'; and, when he got into Liberty, he fixed himself right off like a Saint Louiy dandy.  Well, he sat to dinner one day in the tavern, and a lady says to him:

"Well, Mister Harris, I hear you're a great travler."

"Travler, marm," says Black Harris, "this niggur's no travler; I ar' a trapper, marm, a mountain-man, wagh!"

"Well, Mister Harris, trappers are great travlers, and you goes over a sight of ground in your perishinations, I'll be bound to say."

"A sight, marm, this coon's gone over, if that's the way your stick floats.  I've trapped beaver on Platte and Arkansa, and away up on Missoura and Yaller Stone, I've trapped, marm, on Grand River and the Heely [Gila].  I've fout the 'Blackfoot' (and d____d bad Injuns they are); I've 'raised the hair' of more than one Apach, and made a Rapaho 'come' afore now; I've trapped in heav'n, in airth, and hell, and scalp my old head, marm, but I've seen a putrified forest"

"La, Mister Harris, a what?"

"A putrefied forest, marm, as sure as my rifle's got hindsights, and she shoots center.  I was out on the Black Hills, Bill Sublette knows the time-the year it rained fire-and every body knows when that was.  If thar wasn't cold doin's about that time, this child wouldn't say so.  The snow was about fifty foot deep, and the bufler lay dead on the ground like bees after a beein'; not war we was tho', for thar was no bufler, and no meat, and me and my band had been livin' on our moccasins (leastwise the parflesh), for six weeks; and poor doin's that feedin' is, marm, as you'll never know.  

One day we crossed a 'canon' and over a 'divide,' and got into a periara, whar was green grass, and green trees, and green leaves on the trees, and birds singing in the green leaves, and this in Febrary, wagh!  Our animals was like to die when they see the green grass, and we all sung out, 'hurraw for summer doin's.'

Hyar goes for meat,' says I, and I jest ups old Ginger at one of them singing birds, and down come the crittur elegant; its darned head spinning away from the body, but never stops singing, and when I takes up the meat, I finds it stone, Wagh! 'Hyar's damp powder and no fire to dry it,' I says quite skeared.

'Fire be Dogged,' says old Rube [Valentine "Rube" Herring] 'Hyar's a hos as'll make fire come'; and with that he takes his axe and lets drive at a cottonwood.  Schr-u-k goes the axe agin the tree, and out comes a bit of the blade as big as my hand.  We looks at the animals, and thar they stood shaking over the grass, which I'm dog-gone if it wasn't stone, too.  

Young Sublette comes up, and he'd been clerking down to the fort on Platte, so he knowed something.  He looks and looks, and scrapes the tree with his butcher knife, and snaps the grass like pipe stems, and breaks the leaves a-snappin' like Californy shells.  

'What's all this, boy?' I asks.

'Putrefactions' says he, looking smart, 'putrefactions or I'm a niggur.'"

"La, Mister Harris," says the lady; "putrefactions, why, did the leaves, and the trees, and the grass smell badly?"

"Smell badly, marm," says Black Harris, "would a skunk stink if he was froze to stone?  No, marm, this child didn't know what putrefactions was, and young Sublette's varsion wouldn't 'shine' nohow, so I chips a piece out of a tree and puts it in my trap-sack, and carries it in safe to Laramie.  

Well, old Captain Stewart [Sir William Drummond Stewart] (a clever man was that, though he was an Englishman), he comes along next spring, and a Dutch doctor chap [this may have been Frederick A Wislizenus a German doctor who traveled for a while with Harris in 1839], was along too.  I shows him the piece I chipped out of the tree and he called it a putrefaction too; and so marm, if that wasn't a putrefied peraira, what was it?  For this hos doesn't know, and he knows 'fat cow' from 'poor bull,' anyhow.  

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