Sunday, December 13, 2015

Inspiring Tales From The Frontier

I love reading history . . . because of stories like this--the one the new movie "The Revenant" is about; about mountain man Hugh Glass and his grizzly bear attack, his being pretty much left for dead . . . and his tale of recovery and survival in the wilderness and lone trek back to "civilization".

I've always thought that pathetic Hollywood ought spend more time making great movies about the incredible past, with so many amazing true tales to be dramatized . . . as there is no end to such fantastic material.  What I love reading about past heroes and heroines is to see the many instances of  astounding courage, fortitude, strength, determination, wit etc., in their various lives as they pioneered, fought battles, stood for causes and peoples etc.  It is hard to believe sometimes just how much a person can go through, physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally . . . and yet survive and flourish in the end.  Compared to the weak, dumbed-down, insipid, overly sensitive, complaining, ungrateful stock that is being produced these days . . . I regularly turn to past tales for inspiration and remembrance of just how much people have done and are capable of. . . .

It was about a year ago, when I was alone working in St. George, that I took several books on the 1800s mountain men and fur trappers and Indians from that time to read and study, and this is when I first came across the Hugh Glass story, in a biography on Jim Bridger (who was one of the ones that left Glass to perish after the bear attack).

The women of those times were just as tough, courageous and "ingenuitive" as the men, of course.  As far as being "can-do" . . . "independent" . . . "strong" . . . brave . . . quick witted . . . they put modern day "feminists" to shame in most cases I dare say . . . WHILE retaining femininity and not needing to necessarily hate and put down men along the way.  There are exceptions, of course, but in the main these pioneering and homesteading women--wives, sisters, lovers, mothers, friends--of that time were as hard-working, tough, resourceful, strong-willed as could be.  While taking care of and raising their children--oftentimes alone for long stretches, surrounded by wilderness and angry tribes, wild animals, harsh environment, outlaws . . . they maintained motherly qualities of nurture and protection and good graces. . . .

There are so many awe-inspiring stories of men and women, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters working together as a team, with Godly faith and upright valor from that era, that putting aside all the other similar epochs through the ages in other contexts . . . the "old west" and "frontiersman" time alone could provide decades of instructive and edifying content. . . .

Another of my favorite stories from that time is the remarkable and oft recounted survival tale involving John Colter's escape from the Blackfeet Indians, known as "Colter's Run". . .

 Here is the version told by Thomas James around 1809-10.  To get you in the mood, if you plan to see the movie "The Revenant" . . . or just to enjoy some of the raw adventure that was common those days, go ahead and read this recounting of the exceptional event:

WHEN COLTER was returning in 1807 with Lewis & Clark, from Oregon, he met a company of hunters ascending the Missouri, by whom he was persuaded to return to the trapping region, to hunt and trap with them.  Here he was found by Liza (Manual Liza) in the following year, whom he assisted in building the Fort at the Big Horn. 

 In one of his many excursions from this post to the Forks of the Missouri, for beaver, he made the wonderful escape adverted to in the last chapter and which I give precisely as he related it to me.  His veracity was never questioned among us and his character was that of a true American backwoodsman.  He was about thirty-five years of age, five feet ten inches in height and wore an open, ingenious, and pleasing countenance of the Daniel Boone stamp.  Nature had formed him, like Boone, for hardy endurance of fatigue, privations and perils.  

He had gone with a companion named Potts to the Jefferson river, which is the most western of the three Forks, and runs near the base of the mountains.  They were both proceeding up the river in search of beaver, each in his own canoe, when a war party of about eight hundred Black-Feet Indians suddenly appeared on the east bank of the river.  The Chiefs ordered them to come ashore, and apprehending robbery only, and knowing the utter hopelessness of flight and having dropped his traps over the side of the canoe [opposite] from the Indians, into the water, which was here quite shallow, he hastened to obey their mandate.  On reaching the shore, he was seized, disarmed and stripped entirely naked.  Potts was still in his canoe in the middle of the stream, where he remained stationary, watching the result.  Colter requested him to come ashore, which he refused to do, saying he might as well lose his life at once, as be stripped and robbed in the manner Colter had been.  

An Indian immediately fired and shot him about the hip; he dropped down in the canoe, but instantly rose with his rifle in his hands. "Are you hurt," said Colter.  "Yes, said he, too much hurt to escape; if you can get away do so.  I will kill at least one of them."  He leveled his rifle and shot an Indian dead.  In an instant, at least a hundred bullets pierced his body and as many savages rushed into the stream and pulled the canoe, containing his riddled corpse, ashore.  They dragged the body up onto the bank, and with their hatchets and knives cut and hacked it all to pieces, and limb from limb.  The entrails, heart, lungs, &c., they threw into Colter's face.  

The relations of the killed Indian were furious with rage and struggled, with tomahawk in hand, to reach Colter, while others held them back. He was every moment expecting the death blow or the fatal shot that should lay him beside his companion.  A council was hastily held over him and his fate quickly determined upon.  He expected to die by tomahawk, slow, lingering and horrible.  But they had magnanimously determined to give him a chance, though a slight one, for his life.  After the council, a Chief pointed to the prairie and motioned him away with his hand, saying in the Crow language, "go--go away."  He supposed they intended to shoot him as soon as he was out of the crowd and presented a fair mark to their guns.  He started in a walk, and an old Indian with impatient signs and exclamations, told him to go faster, and as he still kept a walk, the same Indian manifested his wishes by still more violent gestures and adjurations.  When he had gone a distance of eighty or a hundred yards from the army of his enemies, he saw the younger Indians throwing off their blankets, leggings, and other encumbrances, as if for a race.  

Now he knew their object.  He was to run a race, of which the prize was to be his own life and scalp. Off he started with the speed of the wind. The war-whoop and yell immediately arose behind him; and looking back, he saw a large company of young warriors, with spears, in rapid pursuit.  He ran with all the strength that nature, excited to the utmost, could give; fear and hope lent a supernatural vigor to his limbs and the rapidity of his flight astonished himself.  The Madison Fork lay directly before him, five miles from his starting place.  He had run half the distance when his strength began to fail and the blood to gush from his nostrils.  At every leap the red stream spurted before him, and his limbs were growing rapidly weaker and weaker.  He stopped and looked back; he had far outstripped all his pursuers and could get off if strength would only hold out.  

One solitary Indian, far ahead of the others, was rapidly approaching, with a spear in his right hand, and a blanket streaming behind from his left hand and shoulder. Despairing of escape, Colter awaited his pursuer and called to him in the Crow language, to save his life.  The savage did not seem to hear him, but letting go his blanket, and seizing his spear with both hands, he rushed at Colter, naked and defenseless as he stood before him and made a desperate lunge to transfix him.  Colter seized the spear, near the head, with his right hand, and exerting his whole strength, aided by the weight of the falling Indian, who had lost his balance in the fury of the onset, he broke off the iron head or blade which remained in his hand, while the savage fell to the ground and lay prostrate and disarmed before him.  

Now was his turn to beg for his life, which he did in the Crow language, and held up his hands imploringly, but Colter was not in a mood to remember the golden rule, and pinned his adversary through the body to the earth one stab with the spear head.  He quickly drew the weapon from the body of the now dying Indian, and seizing his blanket as lawful spoil, he again set out with renewed strength, feeling, he said to me, as if he had not run a mile.  A shout and yell arose from the pursuing army in his rear as from a legion of devils, and he saw the prairie behind him covered with Indians in full and rapid chase. Before him, if any where was life and safety; behind him certain death; and running as never man before sped the foot, except, perhaps, at the Olympic Games, he reached his goal, the Madison river and the end of his five mile heat.  

Dashing through the willows on the bank he plunged into the stream and saw close beside him a beaver house, standing like a coal-pit about ten feet above the surface of the water, which was here of about the same depth.  This presented to him a refuge from his ferocious enemies of which he immediately availed himself.  Diving under the water he arose into the beaver house, where he found a dry and comfortable resting place on the upper floor or story of this singular structure.  The Indians soon came up, and in their search for him they stood upon the roof of his house of refuge, which he expected every moment to hear them breaking open.  He also feared that they would set it on fire.  

After a diligent search on that side of the river, they crossed over, and in about two hours returned again to his temporary habitation in which he was enjoying bodily rest, though with much anxious foreboding.  The beaver houses are divided into two stories and will generally accommodate several men in a dry and comfortable lodging.  In this asylum Colter kept fast till night.  The cries of his terrible enemies had gradually died away, and all was still around him, when he ventured out of his hiding place, by the same opening under the water by which he entered and which admits the beavers to their building.  He swam the river and hastened towards the mountain gap or ravine, about thirty miles above on the river, through which our company passed in the snow with so much difficulty.  

Fearing that the Indians might have guarded this pass, which was the only outlet from the valley, and to avoid the danger of a surprise, Colter ascended the almost perpendicular mountain before him, the tops and sides of which a great way down, were covered with perpetual snow.  He clambered up this fearful ascent about four miles below the gap, holding on by the rocks, shrubs and branches of trees, and by morning had reached the top.  He lay there concealed all that day, and at night proceeded on in the descent of the mountain, which he accomplished by dawn.  He now hastened on in the open plain towards Manuel's Fort on the Big Horn, about three hundred miles a head in the north-east.  He travelled day and night, stopping only for necessary repose, and eating roots and the bark of trees for eleven days.  

He reached the Fort, nearly exhausted by hunger, fatigue and excitement.  His only clothing was the Indian's blanket, whom he had killed in the race, and his only weapon, the same Indian's spear which he brought to the Fort as a trophy.  His beard was long, his face and whole body were thin and emaciated by hunger, and his limbs and feet swollen and sore.  The company at the Fort did not recognize him in this dismal plight until he had made himself known.  Colter now with me passed over the scene of his capture and wonderful escape, and described his emotions during the whole adventure with great minuteness.  

Not the least of his exploits was the scaling of the mountain, which seemed to me impossible even by the mountain goat.  As I looked at its rugged and perpendicular sides I wondered how he ever reached the top--a feat probably never performed before by mortal man.  The whole affair is a fine example of the quick and ready thoughtfulness and presence of mind in a desperate situation, and the power of endurance, which characterize the western pioneer.  As we passed over the ground where Colter ran his race, and listened to his story an undefinable fear crept over all.  We felt awe-struck by the nameless and numerous dangers that evidently beset us on every side.

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