from:  The Year of Decision: 1846

This book, first published in 1943 and still in print today, was the first volume in Bernard DeVoto’s trilogy about the discovery and opening of the American West.  It is dedicated to Katharine Grant Sterne, a woman whom he never met in person but with whom he exchanged more than 800 letters and memoirs over a period of eleven years, before her death in 1944.


Chapter 1:  Build Thee More Stately Mansions

The First Missouri Mounted Volunteers played an honorable part in the year of decision, and looking back, a private of Company C determined to write his regiment’s history. He was John T. Hughes, an A.B. and a schoolmaster. Familiarity with the classics had taught him that great events are heralded by portents.  So when he sat down to write his history he recalled a story which, he cautions us, was “doubtless more beautiful than true.”  Early in  that spring of 1846, the story ran, a prairie thunderstorm overtook a party of traders who were returning to Independence, Missouri, from Santa Fe. When it passed over, the red sun had sunk to the prairie’s edge, and the traders cried out with one voice. For the image of an eagle was spread across the sun. They knew then that “in less than twelve months the eagle of liberty would spread his broad pinions over the plains of the west, and that the flag of our country would wave over the cities of New Mexico and Chihuahua.”

Thus neatly John T. Hughes joined Manifest Destiny and the fires that flamed in the midnight sky when Caesar was assassinated. But he missed a sterner omen.

The period of Biela’s comet was seven years. When it came back in 1832 many people were terrified for it was calculated to pass within twenty thousand miles of the earth’s orbit. The earth rolled by that rendezvous a month before the comet reached it, however, and the dread passed.  In 1839 when the visitor returned again it was too near the sun to be seen, but its next perihelion passage was calculated for February 11, 1846.  True to the assignment, it traveled earthward toward the end of 1845.  Rome identified it on November 28 and Berlin saw it two days later. By mid-December all watchers of the skies had reported it. The new year began, the year of decision, and on January 13 at Washington, our foremost scientist, Matthew Maury, found matter for a new report.

Maury was a universal genius but his deepest passion was the movement of tides.  In that January of ‘46 he was continuing his labor to perfect the basis for the scientific study of winds and current.  Out of that labor came the science of oceanography, and methods of reporting the tides not only of the sea but of the air also that have been permanent, and a revolution in the art of navigation. But he had further duties as Superintendent of the Naval Observatory, and so by night he turned his telescope on Biela’s comet. That night of January 13, 1846, he beheld the ominous and inconceivable. On its way toward perihelion, Biela’s comet had split in two.


This book tells the story of some people who went west in 1846. Its purpose is to tell that story in such a way that the reader may realize the far western frontier experience, which is part of our cultural inheritance, as personal experience. But 1846 is chosen rather than other years because 1846 best dramatizes personal experience as national experience. Most of our characters are ordinary people, the unremarkable commoners of the young democracy. Their story, however, is a decisive part of a decisive turn in the history of the United States.    Sometimes there are exceedingly brief periods which determine a long future. A moment of time holds in solution ingredients which might combine in any of several or many ways, and then another moment precipitates out of the possible the at last determined thing. The limb of a tree grows to a foreordained shape in response to  forces determined by nature’s equilibriums, but the affairs of nations are shaped by the actions of men, and sometimes, looking back, we can understand which actions were decisive. The narrative of this book covers a period when the manifold possibilities of chance were shaped to converge into the inevitable, when the future of the American nation was precipitated out of the possible by the actions of the people we deal with. All the actions it narrates were initiated, and most of them were completed, within the compass of a single calendar year. The origins of some of them, it is true, can be traced back as far as one may care to go, and a point of the book is that the effects of some are with us still, operating in the arc determined by 1846. Nevertheless, the book may properly be regarded as the chronicle of a turning point in American destiny within the limits of one year.

This is the story of some people who went west in 1846: our focus  is the lives of certain men, women, and children moving west. They will be on the scene in different groupings: some emigrants, some soldiers, some refugees, some adventurers, and various heroes, villains, bystanders, and supernumeraries.  It is required of you only to bear in mind that while one group is spotlighted the others are not isolated from it in significance.

Our narrative will get them into motion in the month of January, 1846. But the lines of force they traveled along were not laid down on New Year’s Day, and though our stories are clear and simple, they are affected by the most complex energies of their society. They had background, they had relationships, and in order to understand how an inevitability was precipitated out of the possible, we must first understand some of the possibilities. We must look not only at our characters but at their nation, in January, 1846.


The nation began the year in crisis. It was a crisis in foreign relations. The United States was facing the possibility of two wars —  with Great Britain and with Mexico. But those foreign dangers had arisen out of purely domestic energies. They involved our history, our geography, our social institutions, and something that must be called both a tradition and a dream.

Think of the map of the United States as any newspaper might have printed it on January 1, 1846. The area which we now know as the state of Texas had been formally a part of that map for just ; three days, though the joint resolution for its annexation, or in a  delicate euphemism its “reannexation,” had passed Congress in February, 1845.  Texas was an immediate leverage on the possible war with Mexico. Texas had declared itself a republic in 1836 and ever since then had successfully defended its independence. But Mexico had never recognized that sovereignty, regarded Texas as a Mexican province, had frequently warned the United States that annexation   would mean war, and had withdrawn her minister immediately on the passage of the joint resolution which assured it.


Two years before, in the summer of 1844, the first telegraph line brought word to Washington that the Democratic convention, meeting in Baltimore, had determined to require a two-thirds vote for nomination. The rule was adopted to stop the comeback of ex-President Martin Van Buren, who had a majority. That it was adopted was extremely significant — it revealed that Van Buren had  defeated himself when he refused to support the annexation of Texas.   The convention was betting that the spirit of expansionism was now fully reawakened, that the annexation of Texas was an unbeatable issue, that the Democrats would sweep the country if factionalism could be quelled. Smoke-filled rooms in boarding houses scorned  President Tyler (whose renomination would have split the party in two), and would not take General Cass, John C. Calhoun, or Silas Wright, all of whom were identified with factions that were badly straining the party. Factionalism, it became clear, was going to be quelled by the elimination of every prominent Democrat who had ever taken a firm stand about anything. So presently the telegraph  announced that George Bancroft, with the assistance of Gideon Pillow and Cave Johnson and the indorsement of Old Hickory in the Hermitage, had brought the delegates to agree on the first dark horse ever nominated for the Presidency, Mr. Pillow’s former law partner,  James K. Polk.

“Who is James K. Polk?” The Whigs promptly began campaigning on that derision, and there were Democrats who repeated it with a sick concern. The question eventually got an unequivocal answer.  Polk had come up the ladder, he was an orthodox party Democrat.  He had been Jackson’s mouthpiece and floor leader in the House of  Representatives, had managed the anti-Bank legislation, had risen to the Speakership, had been governor of Tennessee. But sometimes the belt line shapes an instrument of use and precision. Polk’s mind was rigid, narrow, obstinate, far from first-rate. He sincerely believed that only Democrats were truly American, Whigs being either the dupes or the pensioners of England— more, that not only wisdom and patriotism were Democratic monopolies but honor and breeding as well. “Although a Whig he seems a gentleman” is a not uncommon characterization in his diary. He was pompous, suspicious and secretive; he had no humor; he could be vindictive; and he saw spooks and villains. He was a representative Southern politician of the second or intermediate period (which expired with his Presidency), when the decline but not the disintegration had begun.

But if his mind was narrow it was also powerful and he had guts.  If he was orthodox, his integrity was absolute and he could not be scared, manipulated, or brought to heel. No one bluffed him, no one  moved him with direct or oblique pressure. Furthermore, he knew  how to get things done, which is the first necessity of government, and he knew what he wanted done, which is the second. He came into office with clear ideas and a fixed determination and he was to  stand by them through as strenuous an administration as any before Lincoln’s.  Congress had governed the United States for eight years  before him and, after a fashion, was to govern it for the next twelve years after him. But Polk was to govern the United States from 1845 to 1849. He was to be the only “strong” President between  Jackson and Lincoln. He was to fix the mold of the future in America down to 1860, and therefore for a long time afterward.  That is who James K. Polk was.

The Whigs nominated their great man, Henry Clay. When Van Buren opposed the annexation of Texas, he did so from conviction.  It was only at the end of his life, some years later, that Clay developed a conviction not subject to readjustment by an opportunity. This time he guessed wrong — he faced obliquely away from annexation. He soon saw that he had made a mistake and found too clever a way out of the ropes which he had voluntarily knotted round his wrists. Smart politics have always been admired in America but they must not be too smart. The Democrats swept the nation, as the prophets had foretold.  It was clear that the Americans wanted Texas and Oregon, which the platform had promised them. Polk, who read the popular mind better than his advisers did, believed that the Americans also wanted the vast and almost unknown area called New Mexico and California.        […]

Shortly after he was inaugurated, he explained his objectives to George Bancroft, the scholar, historian, and man of letters who had been a Democratic Brain-Truster since Jackson’s time, and whom Polk would make acting Secretary of War, Secretary of the Navy, and finally Minister to Great Britain.  His objectives were: revision of the protective tariff of 1842, the re-establishment of the independent treasury, the settlement of the Oregon question, and the acquisition of California.  He was to achieve them all.


Chapter 2: The Mountain Man

Outline of American history.  James Clyman was born in Fauquier County, Virginia, in 1792, during the administration of George Washington, on a farm that belonged to the President, whom he saw in the flesh. He died on his ranch at Napa, California, in 1881, during the administration of Chester Arthur. Jim Clyman was a man who went west.

He was fifteen when his father became a mover, first to Pennsylvania, then to Ohio. The family settled in Stark County just when William Henry Harrison shattered the Shawnee under the Prophet at Tippecanoe, in 1811. Next year the Indians were up again, and Clyman, already a practised frontiersman, became a ranger. This war merged with the troubles of 1812-1814, and he was both a volunteer and a regular.  After the war his needle settled west. He cleared a planting in Indiana and traded with the local Indians. By 1821 he was a surveyor, working toward the Vermillion River of Illinois. Alexander Hamilton’s son, who was running government surveys, hired him to make traverses along the Sangamon. Clyman was back on the Sangamon the next summer, 1822.

In the spring of 1823 he went to St. Louis to collect his pay. There he met William H. Ashley, whose company of trappers and traders was to open the Great Basin. Clyman joined the Ashley expedition of 1823, the second one. Thus he began to shape the future of the United States. And thus he became a mountain man.

Foremost of all American explorations was the one begun by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark at St. Louis just nineteen years before Clyman went there to get his pay. Second only to it in brilliance and importance were the explorations made by the employes of William Ashley—lead miner, lieutenant governor of Missouri, general of its militia, member of Congress, student and propagandist of the West, expansionist— during the two years after Clyman joined him.  And during the following fifteen years these explorations became, as Ashley’s employes bought him out, set up their own businesses, and interchanges and joined other firms, the discovery, the exploration, and the possession of the big unknown. Of the country we have sketched in names.

Between Benton or Polk or Longfellow and the West stretched a black curtain of the unimaginable, but the mountain men knew the country. They took Frémont across it in comfort, showing the Pathfinder paths they had had by heart for twenty years. They took Lansford Hastings through the West, and Kearny, Abert, Cooke, all the officers, all the travelers. They made the trails.

From 1823 to 1827 Clyman was in the mountains with Ashley’s men. He fought in the battle with the Aricara that made Ashley determine to forsake the known road to the West, the river route which Lewis and Clark and their successors had traveled, and to blaze a trail south of the dangerous Indians, an overland trail, the trail up the valley of the Platte by which the entire emigration was to move.  He was with Jedediah Smith and Thomas Fitzpatrick when they | made such a trail possible by finding South Pass, the one opening through which wagons could cross the mountains, the door to Oregon and California, the true Northwest Passage.  He was one of the  party of four who paddled round Great Salt Lake, and so laid forever the old myth of the River Buenaventura which was supposed to flow salt water westward to San Francisco Bay— though the Pathfinder still half believed it twenty years later. . . .  But these are details and the whole is vastly greater than its parts. From 1823 to 1827, Clyman was a mountain man and a good one, a peer of Carson, Fitzpatrick, Bridger, Harris, Provost, Ogden, the Sublettes,  Fontenelle, or any of the other resounding names. It is enough to say, without decoration, that he was a mountain man.

Unlike most of his fellows he saved money and came out of the mountains. He bought a farm near Danville, Illinois, and set up a store. This is the phase of prairie farming while the land fills up.    Then Illinois rose to the Black Hawk War, and Clyman joined Captain Early’s company. This is an outline of American history: another private in Captain Early’s backwoods fusileers was named Abe Lincoln. Still another private of that company is a person of our drama, James Frazier Reed.  Born in Ireland of a noble Polish line, Reed settled near the Sangamon, made money, and in 1846 helped a townsman of his, George Donner, organize a wagon train for California. In June we shall see Clyman, moving eastward, meet him    after fourteen years, in a moment of decision at Fort Laramie.


In February they tried to cross the range but could not and moved southward looking for a gap. (This was  the trip that, as an incident merely, was to reveal South Pass.) One morning Jim and the Bill Sublette whom he was to meet again at  Independence in ’44 saddled their winter-worn horses and went out  to hunt. Nothing showed in that arctic air till at sundown they sighted some buffalo. Their horses were too broken-down to make a  run and they had to crawl on their bellies for nearly a mile over frozen snow. The buffalo scented them and bolted but they wounded  one. Sublette went back for the horses and Clyman followed the wounded buffalo, finally killing it in a small arroyo, whence he could  not get it out alone. Sublette came up at nightfall, they got a small  fire going, and were able to butcher some meat. But a blizzard came  out of the north. There was no wood and but little sage; their fire was blown away. They pulled their robes over them and the gale battered them till morning. At daylight Clyman was able to pull some sage but they could not ignite it, either by flint and steel or by rifle fire. Jim got the horses.  Sublette was too weak to mount. Jim found a single live coal left from their fire of the night before and got the sage lighted. They warmed themselves and Sublette was able to mount his horse — but soon turned numb and began to die. Jim dismounted and led his friend’s horse through snow a foot deep into the teeth of the gale. Four miles away he found a patch of timber where one wall of an Indian bark lodge was standing. Behind this shelter he got a fire going at last, then “ran back and whoped up my friends horse assisted him to dismount and get to the fire he seemed to [have] no life to move as usual he laid down nearly assleep while I went Broiling meat on a stick after awile I roused him up and gave him his Breakfast when he came to and was as active as usual.”

Jim says, “I have been thus particular in describing one night near the sumit of the Rockey mountains allthough a number simular may and often do occur.”

The following June, coming east, Clyman pushed ahead of his companions, among them Fitzpatrick, and moved down the Sweetwater to wait for them on the Platte. Near Devil’s Gate he suddenly found Indians on all sides. He holed up like a prairie dog in the rocks for eleven days, the Indians having set up their village. Then he “began to get lonesome.” He had “plenty of powder but only eleven bullets.”  Since this was a wholly new country he did not know “whether I was on Platt[e] or the Arkansas,” but he decided to get out. Note his course: “On the 12th day in the afternoon I left my lookout at the mouth of Sweetwater and proceeded downstream knowing that civilization could be reached Eastward.”  Eastward about six hundred miles in an air line.

He started out. He killed a buffalo. He kept close to the streams.  He found an abandoned bull boat and so knew that either whites or Indians had passed this way. Once he saw some martins and lay listening to them — “it reminded me of home & civilization.”  Encountering some wild horses, he tried to crease one but broke its neck. Some Indians overtook him, robbed him of his blanket, powder, and lead, and bore him to the village, intending to kill him. But  a friendly chief led him out of camp, restored his rifle, and gave him some parched corn. Game failed, water failed, and Clyman grew weak. He saw two badgers fighting. His gun misfired but he picked  up some bones, “horse brobly,” and killed the badgers. It rained for some days and the wet grass made walking easier but brought out  the prairies’ deadliest wild life, the mosquitoes. The going was  harder, food scarcer, time stretching out:

I could not sleep and it got so damp I could not obtain fire and I had  to swim several rivers at last I struck a trail that seamed to lead in the  right direction which I determined to follow to its extream end on the  second day [on this trail] in the afternoon I got so sleepy and nervous  that it was with difficultly I kept the trail a number of times I tumbled down asleep but a quick nervous gerk would bring me to my feet again  in one of these fits I started up on the trail travelled some 40 rods when I hapened to notise I was going back the way I had come turning right around I went on for some time with my head down when raising my  eyes with great surprise I saw the stars and stripes waving over Fort Leavenworth [really Fort Atkinson, 150 miles up the Missouri from Fort Leavenworth] I swoned emmediately how long I lay unconscious I do not know. . . .

So there entered into Captain Bennett Riley’s quarters a bearded, hatless, all but starved mountain man, his buckskins and moccasins in tatters, his powder used up, after eighty days and at least seven hundred miles of solitary journeying. Ten days later Fitzpatrick and two others reached the fort after even harder going. . . .  This was misadventure after accident, a commonplace risk in the mountain trade.

Much of the routine could be repeated here from Clyman’s recollections: drifting downstream with a log to escape the Aricara, watching a Dakota tear the flesh of a dead enemy with his teeth, sewing Jedediah Smith’s scalp and ear in place after a grizzly had lacerated them, starving in winter canyons, purged by alkali water, feasting with the Crows on a buffalo hunt, battling the Arapaho on Green River, captured by Blackfeet but escaping the, But the routine may be assumed.