One genuine Napa County historian who has withstood the test of time is James Clyman. This early pioneer and Napa resident kept daily journals. These documents are still considered by scholars to be one of the best historical records of the frontier era of the western U.S. His literary leaning increased with time and life experiences which included being a surveyor, militia man, trapper, frontier scout, farmer, husband, father and poet.
Clyman shifted his literary focus to poetry in his later years. One of his pieces is titled “Decoration Day 1881” and is appropriate for today’s Sept. 11 remembrances. He wrote, “Strew flowers o’er the hero’s head; Who for your country fought and bled; He fought for equal rights for all; Let raining flowers on him fall; He died your country’s life to save; Strew flowers o’er the hero’s grave.”
Long before he penned that poem, Clyman lived a simple country life as a child. He was born in the Blue Ridge area of Virginia to farming parents in February 1792. Little is known about his formative years and education. He obviously knew how to read and write and also had some mathematical training. The latter aptitude was revealed during his years as a surveyor. In fact, Clyman is credited with the 1835, and first, survey and subdivision of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Clyman had also served in the military which included fighting in the War of 1812. Following his military career, 31-year-old Clyman became a successful beaver fur trapper and trader. While pursuing this career, he became friends with other notable Mountain men, such as, Jed Smith, Tom Fitzpatrick, Bill Sublette and Jim Bridger. Clyman was the “old man” of the group—being 31 years old—while Smith was 25 years old and Bridger was the “baby,” being in his teens.
During that time frame, 1823-24, Clyman wrote the following of a most horrifying ordeal endured by these men, especially Smith (sic): “A large Grssely came down the vally we being in single file men om foot leading pack horses he struck us about the center then turning run paralel to our line.
Capt Smith being in the advance he ran to the open ground and as he emerged from the thicket he and the bear met face to face. Grissly did not hesitate a moment but sprung on the capt raking him by the head pitching sprawling on the earth he gave him a grab by the middle fortunately catching him by the ball pouch (ammo bag) and Butcher Knife which he broke but breaking several of his ribs and cutting his head badly none of us having any surgical Knowledge what was to be done one Said come take hold and we wuld say why not you so it went around. I asked the Capt what was best. He said one or two go for water and if you have a needle and thread git it out and sew up my wounds around my head which was bleeding freely.”
Clyman went on for quite awhile about the actual wounds and his first experience with tending to a medical emergency. He also stated, after enduring those stitches being administered without anesthesia, Smith rode on horse back for about a mile before the men found a suitable campsite. Remarkably, Smith eventually recovered from his wounds. As for the bear, Clyman wrote, “I dispatched the bear.”
Over the next two decades, Clyman spent his time pushing further westward. Next week’s column will detail his arrival in Napa County and more of his adventurous life.