To casual readers of the early American west the name James Clyman may not be known. But it is because of Clyman that we know as much as we do about the mountain man period. Clyman kept journals and many years later wrote the story of his time in the Rocky Mountain West. Clyman had what he called, “a smattering of education,” but from the mountains, at that time, he was well educated.
Clyman was born in Virginia in 1792, grew up to be a farmer, fought in the war of 1812, later worked as a store keeper and surveyor in Indiana and Illinois. In 1823, at the end of a surveying job, he found himself, at age 31, unemployed and unmarried in Saint Louis where he met William Ashley, a meeting that changed his life.
Clyman joined the Ashley party, became a mountain man and stayed with Ashley until 1827. During this time he fought the Arikara, saved the life of two famous mountain men, Jed Smith and Sublette, and walked 600 miles across Wyoming and Nebraska, packing a rifle and only 11 bullets. The long walk must have been enough for Clyman. He moved back to Illinois and set up a store in late 1827 or early 1828. When the Blackhawk War broke out in 1832 he joined up.
The war may have whetted his appetite for adventure or danger and he soon went back west. This time he lasted three years before moving far west and settling permanently in the Napa Valley in 1845. Clyman lived another 36 years, passing away in 1881 at the age of 88.
James Clyman’s book, Journal Of A Mountain Man, edited by Linda Hasselstrom and reprinted in Win Blevins, Classics of the fur Trade Series, is an invaluable read for those looking for fur trade information. There are so many terrific stories of mountain man life in this book, I wish I could tell them all, and in this book the truth is stranger, and a great deal more exciting, than fiction.