Chapter Sample Text
INTO THE OPEN WEST
He left St. Vrain’s Fort with several boats in July, 1842, at age 37. Jean Baptiste again was charged with transporting furs and hides down the quicksand-ridden, murky South Platte River to St. Louis. This was virtually the same route he took in 1839 with journalist Willard Smith, although the river channel meandered differently each year. The journey was underway with speed in mind when it became clear the river’s depth was insufficient.
Even after transferring the cargo to lower-drafting bullboats, the flotilla ran completely aground. There simply was no water. A large, comfortable camp was set up on an island in the middle of long sandbars, only 50 miles east of Fort St. Vrain. An ocean of golden plains to the north, east and south stretched as far as the eye could see. To the west, behind them, the great wall of the Rocky Mountain front reminded them that they had made a big mistake in trying to outguess the Platte.
Remarkably, while everyone was idling in camp, along came Captain John C. Fremont, seemingly out of nowhere, amidst the sounds of horse hooves and clanking equipment. The 29-year-old Fremont was following the river on his first western topographical expedition. With him was Kit Carson, who had found himself an enthusiastic, well-funded employer. Fremont wrote, “I met the first Spaniard [sic] I had seen in the country, Mr. Charbonneau, working in the service of Bent and St. Vrain. He’d left their fort some forty or fifty miles upriver in the spring, with boats laden with furs [hides] of last year’s trade . . . finding it impossible to proceed, he had taken up his summer residence at an island he called St. Helena [a clever reference by Jean Baptiste to Napoleon’s exile on St. Helena] . . . tents were pitched, there were large cottonwoods and a large drove of horses, smoke was rising from the scattered forts [tents] and the encampment had quite a patriarchal air. Mr. C. received us hospitably.”
“One of the people was sent to gather mint, with which he concocted very good julep; and some boiled buffalo tongue, and coffee with the luxury of sugar, were set before us. People in his employ were generally Spanish [part Indian], included a mulatto [Métis] Jim Beckwourth and his wife. July 10: We parted with our hospitable host after breakfast next AM.”
Jean Baptiste’s party was marooned and could not move the precious cargo. Seven weeks later, on August 30, 1842, Rufus B. Sage, a former newspaper reporter and trader heading south to Pueblo in present-day Colorado, also stopped at his “exile.” He wrote, “The camp was under the direction of a half-breed named Charbonneau, who proved to be a gentleman of superior information. He’d acquired a classic education and could converse quite fluently in German, French, English, as well as several Indian languages. His mind, also, was well stored with choice reading, and enriched by extensive travel and observation.”
“Having visited important places, both in England, France and Germany, he knew how to turn his experience to good advantage. There was a quaint humor and shrewdness of his conversation, so garbed with intelligence and perspicuity, that he at once insinuated himself into the good graces of listeners, and commanded their admiration and respect. About noon we bade farewell to our new friends, by whom we had been kindly entertained.” The Sage party moved on, but Jean Baptiste and his crew had no place to go.
It is not known what became of the voyage and its freight. The men somehow may have completed the mission, with much of the cargo being lost to heat, rot and insect larva. Nevertheless, Sage’s observations about Jean Baptiste were not surprising. There he was—camped on an island in the middle of the dessicated South Platte River—receiving guests in the same genteel fashion as Clark and Wilhelm. At the same time, as a man of two worlds, he was an accomplished mountain man, plainsman, hunter and river pilot.
His time was spent outdoors where his roof was the sky, sun and stars. For his own reasons he needed to be in nature, and possibly even confront it, if only to measure his place in it. Simultaneously, as a social person he relished the company of others, perhaps especially those who had strong affinity for the wilderness.
Conceivably for him, the natural world and people who lived in it were somewhat free of complex human intrigue, politics, envy and the foolishness, to some philosophers of his time, of overvaluing material progress. Jean Baptiste may have sought a way to balance his place in nature with the incessant Anglo impulse to override it. Perhaps he gained insight from Clark and Wilhelm, who both understood the clash between urban values, wilderness and the people who lived in it.
Clark meshed with nature in a gritty, adaptive way because he had survived in it with others under hugely challenging circumstances. He certainly recognized nature’s power over people, and the need to create harmony and rudimentary order while in it.
Wilhelm repeatedly sought contact with the natural world, both as scientist and poet. Jean Baptiste became his own creature of the outdoors, capable of integrating himself with it. Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays on self-reliance and the self-determinative aspects of Transcendentalism, available for study at the time, may have motivated him. Perhaps he traveled the West with essays by Goethe, Schiller and Jean-Jacques Rousseau or carried William Wordsworth’s poetry in his saddlebags.
Some who met him wrote about his unique background and qualities, discerning and primal as they were. Over time, a successful reconciliation of these differences may have taken place for him. His answer in the early 1840s to functioning in two disparate worlds was mainly to stay busy in one of them, the natural world, in a social way.
How easy it was to greet each day with a singular, clear mission, such as piloting a hide-laden boat from the Rockies to a distant river port. Or he could lead a group of men across formidable, dangerous, even exciting country on an important mission. Most of his activities involved physical work, a great elixir for any questioning soul. So toil he did while each job lasted, which in the West of the 1840s mostly was a very short time.
Jean Baptiste’s South Platte camp was abandoned, as his days in the river transport business were over. The instability of the economy had wrought change again, and it was time for something different. The boom-bust economic cycle and challenge of retaining employment—a predictable, haunting specter of unbridled capitalism, especially in the West—was busily affecting people. Moreover, the history of western settlement largely was the story of people seeking necessities such as water, salt, timber or better living conditions, and improved economic reward for their efforts.
Mountain men and traders with well-rounded outdoor skills found work, but those without proficiency, ingenuity, and more importantly, a network of social and business contacts, had to work at menial tasks, such as skinning animals. There were few secure jobs to report to every day. Many had to leave the West and return to Eastern towns and villages where the economy was slightly more stable. Some went to the Oregon country to try farming and a few went to Taos in Mexican territory. Several took unrewarding jobs with trading companies, floundered until they tired of failure, or simply got into trouble from horse stealing and other crimes. Many mountain men abandoned their mixed blood Indian families for lack of an income source. Like everyone else, in order to stay in the West, Jean Baptiste had to seek another position.
LEADING THE MORMON BATTALION
As he scouted, Jean Baptiste constantly had to keep the condition and capability of the command's livestock in mind. An ongoing debate among wagon drivers and wranglers concerned the merits of using mules instead of oxen. Bovines were stronger but had hoof problems that required fitting with metal shoes or buffalo hide moccasins. They also had to haul their own grain, which added weight and took up space in the wagons, and they needed extra water. Mules, on the other hand, could eat weeds, grama and buffalo grasses, and walk more sturdily. But they were not as strong. The trail men did their best to balance the differences and keep the wagons moving.
Cooke naturally wanted to move directly west, but only on the flat lands, far behind them, was he able to move in a straight line. Following rivers, dry flood plains and creeks was the best way to proceed, as they offered both a flatter travel route and occasional sustenance for men and livestock.
The command followed the Rio Grande from Sante Fe for about 260 miles as the great river twisted south. It then turned southwest toward the extreme southern border between present-day New Mexico and Mexico, as Cooke sought a way to make progress where no army wagons had ever gone before. Neither Jean Baptiste nor the other guides knew exactly where they were going, as none had reconnoitered the region. There were no documents indicating water or browse in the arid, open land. Cooke wrote, “Where is our water or our most advisable course? Heaven knows! We are exploring in an unknown country with wagons.” This was the least desirable way to get to any destination.
It was nearly impossible to proceed with the 20 massive vehicles. To cross ravines too steep, narrow or boulder-strewn for wheels, Cooke's exhausted men had to unload each one, remove its axles and separate and lower every wagon bed with ropes. Then they had to haul the beds up the other side, reassemble the parts and reload the cargo.
The march became a test of endurance. Some of the animals struggling in sand and on rocky terrain dropped from exhaustion, making it paramount that Jean Baptiste and the guides find water and food. Distances seemed to increase the further they went. It seemed as if the terrain was purposely trying to defeat them, as stark, dry mountains loomed ahead. Then the convoy came to a complete halt, since none of the former mountain men had been south of 32 degrees north latitude at the present-day border. Remarkably, the column encountered a tiny Mexican trading party, so small it seemed at first to be an apparition. Its leader told a grateful Cooke to continue south until he reached the southern tip of the Sierra Membres Mountains.
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