A Life Wild and Perilous: Mountain Men and the Paths to the Pacific

A Life Wild and Perilous: Mountain Men and the Paths to the Pacific

by Robert M. Utley

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Early in the nineteenth century, the mountain men emerged as a small but distinctive group whose knowledge and experience of the trans-Mississippi West extended the national consciousness to continental dimensions. Though Lewis and Clark blazed a narrow corridor of geographical reality, the West remained largely terra incognita until trappers and traders--Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, Tom Fitzpatrick, Jedediah Smith--opened paths through the snow-choked mountain wilderness. They opened the way west to Fremont and played a major role in the pivotal years of 1845-1848 when Texas was annexed, the Oregon question was decided, and the Mexican War ended with the Southwest and California in American hands, the Pacific Ocean becoming our western boundary.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781627798839
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 09/15/2015
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 581,306
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Former historian to the National Park Service, Robert M. Utley is the author of many distinguished works of history, including The Last Days of the Sioux Nation and the award-winning The Lance and the Shield. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.
Robert M. Utley, a former chief historian of the National Park Service, specializes in the history of the American West and is the author of many distinguished works of history and biography, among them Sitting Bull: The Life and Times of an American Patriot. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.

Read an Excerpt

A Life Wild and Perilous

Mountain Men and the Paths to the Pacific

By Robert M. Utley

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 1997 Robert M. Utley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62779-883-9



On March 9 and 10, 1804, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, United States Army, witnessed ceremonies that signaled the onset of their nation's expansion beyond the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. The rites took place in St. Louis, the bustling little riverfront community where the flag of Spain flew from a staff in front of the seat of government for Upper Louisiana. Most of the town's citizens were French, still loyal to their heritage forty years after the mother country relinquished her American empire. In a sudden and bewildering sequence of international power plays, however, Spain sold Louisiana back to France, and Napoleon promptly sold it to the fledgling United States.

While a detachment of United States soldiers presented arms, Captain Amos Stoddard officiated on behalf of both France and the United States. On March 9, in front of Government House, the Spanish crown's banner came down and the French republic's went up. As a concession to the patriotic sensibilities of the townspeople, Stoddard allowed the tricolor to remain aloft overnight. The next day, near noon, it descended the staff, and the Stars and Stripes was hoisted. Stoddard and the Spanish officials inscribed their signatures on the formal documents of cession. So, as witness, did Captain Lewis. In addition to his commission in the army, he had recently held the post of private secretary to the president of the United States.

The command of Lewis and Clark, already called the "Corps of Discovery," lay in winter camp on the east bank of the Mississippi opposite the mouth of the Missouri River. Since November 1803, at dank Camp Dubois, the two captains had filled out their ranks to more than forty men and labored to equip and train them for a journey across the continent.

At Camp Dubois, two members of the Corps of Discovery had already shown singular potential, one for undisciplined rowdyism, the other for staunch dependability. One was a newly enlisted soldier, John Colter, the other a mixed-blood civilian, George Drouillard.

John Colter joined the army at Maysville, Kentucky, as Lewis piloted a keelboat with a dozen men down the Ohio River in the autumn of 1803. A robust man in his late twenties, Colter claimed the rudiments of literacy and the skills of hunter and woodsman. During the tedious winter at Camp Dubois, he drew deeply enough from the whiskey jug to give his superiors more than his share of disciplinary troubles.

About the same age as Colter, George Drouillard was the offspring of a French Canadian father and a Shawnee Indian mother. Like Colter, he exhibited enough learning to qualify as literate, but to Lewis and Clark his critical value lay in his mastery of the Indian sign language and his awesome performance as a hunter. He was vigorous, decisive, courageous, resourceful, and completely reliable.

When the keelboat and two pirogues (large dugout canoes with flat bottoms) of the expedition shoved off from the Illinois shore on May 14, 1804, Colter and Drouillard were already accomplished outdoorsmen. In the next two years, as the Corps of Discovery crossed the continent to the Pacific and then trekked and boated back to St. Louis, both would learn and grow. Colter matured and quit misbehaving. Drouillard rose to top rank in the esteem of Lewis, who called him "this excellent man" and invariably chose him for special missions.

* * *

Early in 1801, even before his inauguration as third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson had invited Captain Lewis, twenty-seven and thus roughly the age of Colter and Drouillard, to join his household as private secretary. Seven years of military service had equipped Lewis with knowledge in two realms with which the president had to deal. One was the frontier West, already drawing Americans across the Appalachian Mountains and down the great valleys descending to the Mississippi River; Jefferson himself had never traveled far beyond Virginia's Blue Ridge. The other was knowledge of the regular army, an institution for which Jefferson, steeped in the militia tradition, had little sympathy.

In earlier years, Jefferson had shown interest in the remote reaches of North America and had even participated in abortive attempts to have them explored. He did not, however, select Lewis with the intention of sending him to explore the Far West. For nearly two years, neither Lewis nor Jefferson gave much attention to that West. For them, West meant the Trans-Appalachian West.

What turned Jefferson's attention once more to the Far West was the publication in London in 1801 of Alexander Mackenzie's Voyages from Montreal. In 1789 the North West Company's veteran fur trader, seeking a way across the continent, had descended the river that took his name and found himself at the Arctic Ocean rather than the Pacific. In 1793 he had tried again and this time surmounted the great mountain barrier to the head of a river that flowed toward the Pacific. He did not explore it but struck directly to the coast.

Jefferson read Mackenzie's book at his Monticello mountaintop in the summer of 1802. Mackenzie's geography, lacking a final water link to the Pacific, interested Jefferson less than the challenge Mackenzie posed for his own nation: to discover the continental passage, colonize the Pacific Coast and tap its fur resources, and establish commerce with the Orient. That, Thomas Jefferson believed, ought to be done by the United States, not Great Britain.

Jefferson's vision of the United States as an agrarian republic numbered him among the earliest of the young nation's expansionists. An increasing population of small farmers moving west would ensure agrarian supremacy, he believed, but it depended on a constant supply of arable land. At first, Jefferson foresaw one or more new republics beyond the Mississippi, but they would be American in population, institutions, and affinity for the mother country. Later, his views edged ever closer to the idea of a single continental nation. A major purpose of the Lewis and Clark expedition, therefore, was to beat the British to the Pacific — to match the transcontinental feat of Alexander Mackenzie and counter the design that he urged on his countrymen.

By the end of 1802, the president had sounded out a suspicious Spanish envoy in Washington about a scientific expedition into Spanish Louisiana and had sought congressional authority. By the spring of 1803, Congress having assented, he had commissioned his private secretary to organize such an expedition.

To help lead it, Lewis called on an old army comrade. Younger brother of George Rogers Clark of Revolutionary War fame, redheaded William Clark was a veteran frontiersman and Indian fighter, four years older than Lewis, less learned but more open and jovial. He had left the army to manage the family's Kentucky lands.

Although the venture that Jefferson and Lewis began planning late in 1802 would trespass on Spanish territory, at first it had nothing to do with the Louisiana Purchase, which Jefferson's emissaries were simultaneously negotiating. The diplomatic exchanges with France over Louisiana centered on the traditional friction with Spain over New Orleans. The aim was not the acquisition of a huge western territory but free access to the port of New Orleans and thus the free navigation of the Mississippi River on which the economy of Trans-Appalachian America depended. The sudden and unexpected offer of all Louisiana (whatever that might be) presented an opportunity of momentous potential. To his lasting credit, Jefferson seized it. Thus, he did not buy Louisiana and send Lewis and Clark to explore it. By the time of the purchase, he had already determined on the expedition, secured congressional authorization, and selected the personnel. Fortuitously, they ended up exploring American territory rather than Spanish or French.

The fantasy that represented conceptions of the West in 1803 provided the ethereal foundation on which Jefferson constructed his written instructions to Lewis. The president's image of the western half of the continent, representing the best thought of the time, dramatizes how much had to be learned before the United States could become a continental nation.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Pacific Coast had been defined from Spanish California to Russian Alaska, and the mouth and lower course of the Columbia River had been identified. On the east, the Missouri River had been traced with fair accuracy as far as the earthen towns of the Mandan Indians. To the north, Alexander Mackenzie and other wide-ranging partisans of the North West and Hudson's Bay Companies had given rough form to the lakes, rivers, and plains between Hudson Bay and the Rocky Mountains, but the water connections from the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean remained to be worked out. Between the Missouri and the Pacific, literature and maps portrayed a jumbled image drawn from inference, speculation, theoretical geography, wishful thinking, and fancy.

Grounded largely in French travel literature beginning with Father Jacques Marquette in 1673, the image evolved from two basic ideas: "Garden" and "Passage to India." The Garden, applying descriptions of Lower Louisiana to all Louisiana, embraced a fertile, well-watered soil and mild climate ideally suited to agriculture — a prospect highly appealing to Jefferson, who saw the Republic's success bound to a population of yeoman farmers. The Passage to India postulated a height of land in which all the major rivers of western North America sprang from a common source. The Missouri headed there and could be easily navigated all the way to its mouth. A great "River of the West" also headed there, only a half day's easy portage from the source of the Missouri, and offered ready navigation westward to the Pacific. In some formulations, the height of land was mountainous, in others merely an elevated plateau. The mountains assumed varying shapes on the maps, but in most they were shown as a single ridge, either in north and south configurations or in an unbroken range extending from the far north to the Spanish possessions. In most too they appeared but a short distance from the Pacific, which greatly narrowed the continent's true width. Wherever placed, in nearly all calculations the western mountains rose no more than about three thousand feet from their base and could not compare in height or complexity with the Blue Ridge of Virginia.

Jefferson's instructions to Lewis touched on many topics: mapping, relations with the Indian tribes, collection of information and specimens in all the branches of natural science, agricultural suitability, fur and other resources. Their essence, however, contemplated commerce with the Orient and drew on his distorted notion of continental geography. A single sentence etched his dream and revealed a preconception that Father Marquette, 130 years earlier, would have understood: "The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream of it, as, by it's course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregan, Colorado or any other river may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce."

Through the vast fantasyland that the Far West formed in the learned mind of 1804, the Lewis and Clark expedition blazed a narrow corridor of geographical reality. The two captains discovered the true character of the Missouri's headwaters, so different from the prevailing notion. They learned the magnitude and complexity of the northern Rockies. They dashed forever the idea of navigation to the Pacific by way of the Missouri (although Clark clung to a vague hope of some alternative). They revealed a continent much wider than anyone supposed. This and much more to revise the conventional understanding they reported to Thomas Jefferson on their return in 1806.

* * *

In the continental crossing of Lewis and Clark, both John Colter and George Drouillard ranged widely as hunters, and both frequently received special assignments. For all Colter's feats, however, it was Drouillard whose talents proved most in demand and in the end most important to the success of the expedition.

The most prolific and dependable of all the hunters, Drouillard performed prodigies of hunting. Grizzly bears seemed to offer a personal challenge. Huge, belligerent, swift, deadly, and exceptionally hard to kill, they roamed the plains and mountains in large numbers and posed a constant danger to the corps. Confronting a grizzly, Drouillard behaved as aggressively as the beast itself, rushing to the attack despite the risk or the state of his weaponry.

One such example occurred late in June 1805. After wintering with the Mandan Indians, the leaders had sent the keelboat back downriver and early in April embarked upstream in two pirogues and six smaller dugout canoes. Two months later, the Great Falls of the Missouri forced a laborious portage of nearly a month's duration through a country teeming with grizzlies.

On the evening of June 27, Drouillard and Joseph Field came in with nine elk and three bears. One of the bears was huge, "as large as a common ox," with hind feet nearly a foot long ("exclusive of the tallons") and seven inches wide. In later years even the most experienced trapper shrank from entering a thicket thought to harbor a grizzly. But Drouillard and Field had followed bear tracks into a brushy river bottom. Climbing a tree (which grizzlies could not do), they edged out on a limb about twenty feet above the ground. Then they gave a "hoop," and the bear, quietly hidden in the foliage, dashed toward the noise, paused immediately beneath the tree to look around, and fell with a bullet in the head from Drouillard's rifle.

Although he brought in literally tons of meat for the sustenance of the corps, Drouillard's pivotal role lay not in hunting but in the duty for which he had been hired — Indian interpreter. As the corps neared the Rocky Mountains in the summer of 1805, his proficiency with the sign language became indispensable.

As the Missouri plunged over the Great Falls and, farther up, snaked ever more narrowly among mountain chasms, the Jeffersonian image of a great river navigable to its source dissolved. At the Three Forks of the Missouri — the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin — the corps turned west, up the Jefferson toward looming mountains that hardly resembled Virginia's Blue Ridge. Clearly, canoes could not go much farther. Progress now depended on transferring men and equipage to horseback, and that in turn depended on finding Indians who would part with horses.

Scarcely less important, the captains needed to tap into the geographical knowledge of resident Indians about the lay of the mountains and rivers, especially how to find the westward-flowing stream that would carry them down to the ocean.

The corps had passed the winter of 1804–05 with the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians, who dwelt in earth lodges along the Missouri River. From the Hidatsas they had learned much, for alone of the village tribes they raided westward as far as the Rocky Mountains. The Hidatsas told of the Shoshones, people who harvested salmon from the mountain streams in the summer and in the fall moved east to the plains to hunt buffalo. With the corps traveled Toussaint Charbonneau and his wife and infant son. A resident trader with the Hidatsas, he had bought the young woman, Sacagawea, from these people, who had captured her five years earlier in a raid against her Shoshone band. With summer swiftly waning, Lewis and Clark searched ever more urgently for Shoshones who could furnish horses and geographical guidance.

Drouillard and two others formed the advance party that under Lewis at last made contact. As they searched, they became the first known Americans to cross the Continental Divide — at Lemhi Pass in the Beaverhead Mountains. Beyond, in the Lemhi River valley, they found the Shoshone village of Chief Cameahwait, who turned out, when the entire corps had been reunited, to be the brother of Sacagawea. She helped with communication, but awkwardly at best; she translated her brother's words from Shoshone to Hidatsa, her husband translated Hidatsa to French, and another rendered the French into English. Here and later, therefore, Drouillard's sign language came into play as a supplementary if not a better means of interpretation.


Excerpted from A Life Wild and Perilous by Robert M. Utley. Copyright © 1997 Robert M. Utley. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
1. Colter and Drouillard: Continental Crossing,
2. Colter and Drouillard: Mountain Man Prototypes,
3. Robinson, Hoback, and Reznor: Doomed Trio,
4. Jedediah Smith: Atypical Mountain Man,
5. Jedediah Smith: South Pass and the Siskadee,
6. Étienne Provost: L'homme des montagnes,
7. Jedediah Smith: California, Oregon, and the Cimarron,
8. Ewing Young: Gila Trails to California,
9. Joe Walker: The Great Basin and the Sierras,
10. Bill Sublette: Struggle of the Fur Giants,
11. Warren Ferris: Trapper as Cartographer,
12. Tom Fitzpatrick: Missionaries to Oregon,
13. Jim Bridger: End of an Era,
14. Kit Carson: Mapping the Way West,
15. Joe Meek and Doc Newell: Trappers as Colonists,
16. Kit Carson: Frémont's Third Expedition,
17. Kit Carson: The Continent Spanned,
18. Jim Bridger: Filling in the Map,
The Maps, by Peter H. Dana,
About the Author,
Also by Robert M. Utley,

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