“A scene…unequaled”

Here’s an excerpt from a very interesting book by Thomas James (1846) titled Three years among the Indians and Mexicans:

We arrived at the Forks of the Missouri on the third day of April, 1810, ten months after leaving St. Louis and two months and one day after quitting my cabin above the Gros Ventre village. We had now reached our place of business, trapping for beaver, and prepared to set to work. Dougherty, Brown, Ware and myself agreed to trap in company on the Missouri between the Forks and the Falls, which lie several hundred miles down the river to the north, from the Forks. We made two canoes by hollowing out the trunks of two trees and on the third or fourth day after our arrival at the Forks we were ready to start on an expedition down the river. The rest of the Americans with a few French, in all eighteen in number, determined to go up the Jefferson river for trapping, and the rest of the company under Col. Menard remained to complete the Fort and trading house at the Forks between the Jefferson and Madison rivers.

Lewis at Great Falls The Arrival of Captain Lewis at the Great Falls of the Missouri, June 13, 1805, by Charles Fritz.

On parting from Cheek, he said in a melancholy tone, “James you are going down the Missouri, and it is the general opinion that you will be killed. The Blackfeet are at the falls, encamped I hear, and we fear you will never come back. But I am afraid for myself as well as you. I know not the cause, but I have felt fear ever since I came to the Forks, and I never was afraid of anything before. You may come out safe, and I may be killed. Then you will say, there was Cheek afraid to go with us down the river for fear of death, and now he has found his grave by going up the river. I may be dead when you return.”

His words made little impression on me at the time, but his tragical end a few days afterwards recalled them to my mind and stamped them on my memory forever. I endeavored to persuade him to join our party, while he was equally urgent for me to join his, saying that if we went in one company our force would afford more protection from Indians, than in small parties, while I contended that the fewer our numbers the better would be our chance of concealment and escape from any war parties that might be traversing the country. We parted never to meet again, taking opposite directions and both of us going into the midst of dangers.

Missouri ForksThe three forks of the Missouri, where the Madison, Jefferson and Gallatin converge. Image from Road Scholar’s Lewis and Clark Photo Gallery: River Confluences.

My company of four started down the river … On the third day we issued from very high and desolate mountains on both sides of us, whose tops are covered with snow throughout the year, and came upon a scene of beauty and magnificence combined, unequalled by any other view of nature that I ever beheld. It really realized all my conception of the Garden of Eden. In the west the peaks and pinnacles of the Rocky Mountains shone resplendent in the sun. The snow on their tops sent back a beautiful reflection of the rays of the morning sun. From the sides of the dividing ridge between the waters of the Missouri and Columbia, there sloped gradually down to the bank of the river we were on, a plain, then covered with every variety of wild animals peculiar to this region, while on the east another plain arose by a very gradual ascent, and extended as far as the eye could reach. These and the mountain sides were dark with Buffalo, Elk, Deer, Moose, wild Goats and wild Sheep; some grazing, some lying down under the trees and all enjoying a perfect millenium of peace and quiet. On the margin the swan, geese, and pelicans, cropped the grass or floated on the surface of the water. The cotton wood trees seemed to have been planted by the hand of man on the bank of the river to shade our way, and the pines and cedars waved their tall, majestic heads along the base and on the sides of the mountains.

The whole landscape was that of the most splendid English park. The stillness, beauty and loveliness of this scene, stuck us all with indescribable emotions. We rested on the oars and enjoyed the whole view in silent astonishment and admiration. Nature seemed to have rested here, after creating the wild mountains and chasms among which we had voyaged for two days. Dougherty, as if inspired by the scene with the spirit of poetry and song, broke forth in one of Burns’ noblest lyrics, which found a deep echo in our hearts. We floated on till evening through this most delightful country, when we stopped and prepared supper on the bank of the river. We set our traps and before going to rest for the night we examined them and found a beaver in every one, being twenty-three in all. In the evening we were nearly as successful as before and were cheered with thoughts of making a speedy fortune. We determined to remain in this second paradise as long as our pursuits would permit.

James, Thomas. 1846. Three years among the Indians and Mexicans. Waterloo, Ill., Printed at the office of the “War Eagle”.

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5 thoughts on ““A scene…unequaled”

  1. Each generation has a diminished expectations of wilderness and natural beauty. I am struck by the similarity in the use of the “Garden of Eden” metaphor to a book I recently read about the settlement of Texas. The “Garden of Eden” metaphor was used over and over by the first settlers in referring to the Rio Grande Valley. When settlers arrived, the creeks were flowing year-round and it was very pleasant in the shade of towering live oaks. Now all the oaks are gone, the creeks are gone, brush crowds the roadsides, the wind relentlessly blows the soil from the desolate fields…nobody even remembers the live oaks anymore.

    • Indeed Matt. That’s one reason I like the literature of the early explorers–it sometimes gives us the only image we have, outside of paintings. I’m also a big believer in the value of natural beauty and its effect on people.

      What book was that? I know a fair bit about the exploration of the western U.S. …but virtually nothing about Texas. The Rio Grande valley must have been spectacular–I can only imagine what those live oaks must have been like, based on what I’ve seen along the Gulf coast in Louisiana.

    • The book is “Duel of Eagles” by Jeff Long. It is a very much unvarnished history of the founding of the state of Texas, in which we learn that the saying (I paraphrase) “if you think the Texas legislators a are colorful bunch, you should meet their constituents” has always been true!

  2. Yes, but what is natural? Many (most?) would claim that nature without man is natural, but this vista that the future General beheld was undoubtedly influenced as much by man as by the beaver, bison etc.
    “The whole landscape was that of the most splendid English park.” That reminds me of early descriptions of Botany Bay – a landscape maintained by anthropogenic fire regimes.
    Well, nature without man is one of my bêtes noires, as is ‘native’ (from the Latin for one born into slavery). Thanks for the link to a book I think I read many decades ago, but is nice to read again, especially the many descriptions of near starvation and succumbing to the elements in a state of nature.

    • Indeed, native peoples’ use of fire had enormous impacts on landscapes that would carry fire, no question whatsoever. To get a landscape that could be compared to what they saw, but not influenced by humans, you’d have to go back to the last interglacial. Of course, we don’t know exactly what James had in mind as far as a “splendid English park” goes, but certainly that wouldn’t be free from the hand of man.

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