James Clyman

February 1, 1792–December 27, 1881

James “Jim” Clyman was a frontiersman, mountain man, and explorer who rose to prominence in the early days of the Western Fur Trade. Clyman is most famous for keeping a detailed journal that was published as “Journal of a Mountain Man.”

James Clyman, Mountain Man, Explorer

James Clyman. Image Source: Napa County Historical Society.

James Clyman Quick Facts

  • Born — James Clyman was born in Virginia in 1792.
  • Died — Clyman died on December 27, 1881, at the age of 89. 
  • Buried — He was buried in the Tulocay Cemetery in Napa, California.
  • Famous For — Clyman is famous for his role in the Western Fur Trade, his association with prominent men like William H. Ashley, Jedediah Smith, and others, and the detailed journal he kept.

James Clyman Overview

James Clyman, born on February 1, 1792, in Fauquier County, Virginia, grew up on land his father leased from George Washington. When he was 15, his family relocated to Stark County, Ohio. However, his dislike for farming prompted him to travel westward to Indiana and eventually to Illinois. In Illinois, he worked as a surveyor.

War of 1812 and Ashely’s Hundred

He fought in the War of 1812 and moved to St. Louis in 1816. In 1823, he caught the attention of General William H. Ashley, who was organizing a trapping expedition. Ashley recruited Clyman and hired him on as a clerk. This expedition, known as “Ashley’s Hundred,” is also viewed as the beginning of what became known as the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.

Arikara War

Clyman was with the expedition when it was attacked by the Arikara in the battle that started the Arikara War. Clyman played an important role in documenting events during Ashley’s expedition, including the disastrous attack by the Arikara.

Clyman Saves Jedediah Smith’s Ear

Following the conflict with the Arikara, Jedediah Smith led an expedition that included Clyman, William Sublette, Thomas Fitzpatrick, Thomas Eddie, and Edward Rose. They traveled to Fort Kiowa and then headed west toward the Rocky Mountains.

During their journey, they were the first Americans to explore the Black Hills, traveling through present-day South Dakota and the eastern portion of Wyoming.

At one point, Smith needed horses and directions, so the group went in search of the Crow tribe, who they thought would help them. 

While they were looking for the Crow, Smith was viciously attacked by a grizzly bear before he could shoot it. The bear broke some of his ribs, clawed at him, ripped one of his ears off, and had his head in its mouth when it suddenly stopped the attack and ran off.

Remarkably, Smith was able to remain calm while his men cleaned his wounds and Clyman sewed his ear back on. Smith was badly scarred from the attack and kept his hair long from then on to cover the scars.

Jedediah Smith, Mountain Man, Illustration
Jedediah Smith. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Winter in Central Wyoming

Clyman and the others spent the winter in the Wind River Valley, in central Wyoming. At some point, they located the Crow, who told them about a passage — the “South Pass” — through the Rocky Mountains that would safely take him across the Continental Divide, which ran between the Central and Southern Rocky Mountains.

The South Pass and the Oregon Trail

In February 1824, Smith, Clyman, and the others went through the South Pass and traveled to the Green River in present-day Utah. They stayed there for the spring, trapping along the river and its tributaries. The South Pass became an important part of the Oregon Trail.

Exploring and Trapping in the Mountains

While trapping near the Green River in the summer of 1824, Clyman became separated from the group. He successfully traveled through hostile Indian territory to Fort Atkinson. He set off in November 1824 for another beaver trapping expedition. He spent several years exploring, trapping, and adventuring in the mountains. 

The Great Salt Lake

In 1826, he went with Ashley to the Great Salt Lake. During this expedition, they proved the lake did not lead out to the Pacific Ocean.

Afterward, he returned to Illinois, bought a farm, and ran a store. In 1827, he took a job as a guide and led a group to St. Louis, where they arrived in October.

The Black Hawk War

Clyman fought in the Black Hawk War (1832) in the upper Middle West. He left the military in 1834 and returned to Illinois. 

Attacked by Indians

Clyman moved to Wisconsin in 1835. In November, he decided to go on an expedition with Ellsworth Burnett. However, they were ambushed by Indians. Burnett was killed but Clyman escaped. Although he was seriously wounded, he survived by hiding in the forest. He eventually recovered from his injuries, but they kept him from returning to the mountains for several years.

Oregon Trail and the Donner Party

In 1844, he joined a group heading to Oregon, guided by Moses “Black Harris” Harris. After wintering, he left for California in June 1845. He spent time at Fort Laramie where he met members of the Donner and Reed parties. Clyman tried to convince them to avoid taking the Hastings Cutoff through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but they did not take his advice.

Among the Sierra Nevada, Painting, Bierstadt
Among the Sierra Nevada, Albert Bierstadt, 1868, Image Source: Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Later Years

Clyman eventually settled near Napa in 1848. He became a successful farmer and spent his remaining years there until his death on December 27, 1881.