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Far Western Man

From an 1868 issue of Charles Dickens' magazine All the Year Round, London, England. The correspondent is unidentified.


FAR WESTERN MAN.
    The far Western American settlements of Great Britain and the United States yield us, in odd freedom from conventionalities of life and off-hand settlement of difficulties, much matter for laughter, but none for ridicule. There is a grandeur of its own in human energy that not only conquers land and wealth to the use of mankind, but proves the inner soundness of the stuff men are made of, by conquering also the bad passions of life. In regions to which lawless men are tempted, by the absence of all civilised machinery of law, the rascals are at last compelled to stand in awe of honest men. Throughout the Far West tracks of travel have been cleared of the white robber and assassin, and are safe except here and there from the hostility of native tribes. Property lying exposed to theft is, in many a new Western settlement, safer than in one of the towns of the old country. Public opinion has condemned the gambler, and condemns the idler. The foundations of a new society laid thus in the Far West, however rough they may appear, are strong and sound, and it is wonderful to see how fast the well-proportioned building rises from them. Races of North and South join in the West, and do their pioneer work in a practical hard-headed way; parted, no doubt, from some of the advantages, but also from all the overgrown hypocrisies of civilisation. I look with respect even upon "whittling," as a symptom of the restless desire to be doing as well as talking. In the North Pacific, where there are such extensive forests and odd pieces of wood are lying handy, whittling seems to be the regular occupation of men's idle hours.
    The municipality of San Francisco put up wooden posts to protect the sidewalks from fiery charioteers. Over these hung knots of eager disputants, and as mining stocks and swamp lands were being discussed, they whittled at the posts, until they became so thin that the wind blew them over. I have seen a man in a backwood church begin whittling the wood of the pew. At a trial in Grass Valley, each juryman began whittling at a piece of wood he had brought in his pocket for the purpose, regulating the energy of the action by the clearness of the evidence. The trial lasted through a second day, but as they had not expected a long sitting nobody had brought enough wood with him, and accordingly the benches suffered. First the gentlemen of the jury attacked that portion of the seat which showed between their legs, until it had assumed a Vandyke collar-like form, and the assault on the other portion had proceeded so far when the judge finished his charge, that he made a calculation that if the ends of justice had required the jury to sit for a third day there would have been nothing left for them to sit on.
    Old skippers hang about the wharf also whittling. At Coos Bay there are only two marriageable girls, and these, being run after by all the young men of the district, value themselves accordingly. Half a dozen Oregonian youths sit on the verandah in front of their respective houses during the whole of Sunday, while each lady looks out at her followers through the half-opened window. The lovers all the while are whittling bits of white pine, which is an easy wood to work, and valued for that purpose. At dark they move home, but the damsels find these visits profitable, for there is generally left behind a pile of shavings big enough to light fires for the rest of the week.
    The Western man is a being of versatile genius. If he cannot succeed in one profession he will turn to another. There are plenty of lawyers who are miners, and merchants who are doctors all over the North-West. The head of the largest mercantile firm on the Pacific Coast is one who was educated for, and practised many years in, the medical profession; and some of the most adroit politicians and "wire pullers," are styled "Doctor" from having at one time been in the same way in life. If one trade does not pay he commences in another, and if there is not an opening in Bullet City, he "vamooses the ranch," "makes tracks," or "gets up and gits" for Ground-Hogs-Glory, where there is said to be an excellent opening for either a butcher, or a lawyer, or a tavern-keeper. He will establish himself in one or other of these callings, probably to "bust up," or to make two hundred and fifty thousand dollars--he is always going to make just that particular sum. He knows thoroughly that art, without which no new country can grow great--the noble art of "coming down." Generals and brigadier generals of the great civil war are earning honest bread by industry.
    The dashing cavalry leader, to whom the young ladies wrote poems, is in the grocery trade at Chicago. One famous officer has gone back to the plough, another is a newspaper reporter, another is writing a History of Texas while practising law and photography. The photography pays best, for he has a contrivance of his own for giving the Mexicans a very pale picture, which is said to suit them exactly, as they have a desire to appear as white as possible. Of such stock comes the true Western Pioneer. Notwithstanding the banter about his being so long in the legs and short in the body that a hat and a pair of trousers make a good suit of clothes for him, he is a stalwart sinewy fellow, infinite of resource, rough in his talk, with little learning and no formal piety. Ready to work, no matter how often fortune defeats him, he is ever hopeful of "wrestling through somehow." A peculiar character has grown up in the valley of the Mississippi, which may be called the Western character. From the Mississippi it has spread, and is daily spreading more and more to Columbia. It is the outgrowth of all circumstances surrounding it, including climate and soil, and the mingling of bloods. It tends to individualism, freedom, self-reliance, and large views; there is little of narrow sectarianism in its secular life or religion; little provincialism, that is to say, little of the prejudice that lives on for generations in an untravelled community.
    The Western character develops freedom and takes in large calculations. This is more true of the man of Western cities, than of the farmer and the frontier-man, but still the character applies to all. A Western man thinks nothing of going one thousand or one thousand five hundred miles, and has no traditional feud with any class of Jew or Gentile. The elements of various nationalities flowing together westward form a strong and tolerant community. If a man out West has his horse stolen, he mounts another and traces the thief; shoots him if he can. The extending prairies, immense lakes, grand rivers, seem to enlarge the whole conception of things. The big farm yields thousands of bushels of grain. The Western man may have twenty horses, a hundred mules, and a thousand head of cattle grazing in his pastures, and five hundred pigs fattening in his fields. He reads the price currents; knows all that is going on; forms his own opinions, and is loud and bold in the expression of them. He is a man of patient courage, who will lose thousands of dollars by the fall of the market, and make less account of it than he would of the laming of a favourite horse, or the loss of a faithful dog. If he doesn't turn his loss off with a laugh, and is pushed to speak of it, you may see the gleam of stern grit flashing from his eyes, as he tells you he will do better next time. He is full of reckless and mercurial daring. As impulsive as the Southerner, and yet practical in all things, he sees and takes always the short cut to his end. Feeling about the sacred character of ancestral acres never disturbs the mind of a man whose possessions were reclaimed from the wilds but yesterday, and may be left to-morrow. Whatever he has he will sell; and whatever you own he is willing to buy, providing he can make some "boot" on it. With him all things were made to buy and sell. A frontier man once described to me without the least idea of the strange character of the transaction, how he had "traded off a bible for a plaguey good fiddle." If anything you have on you, or about you strike his fancy, he will at once offer to buy it, and has no notion that certain pieces of property mayn't be for sale. My own experience has lain chiefly among the vanguard of these pioneers, the frontier man who paves the way for others less able or willing to cope with fortune; less traders than labourers upon the land. These are the people who are fast filling up with stern prose of the plough and the reaping machine, and the whistle of steam, what was once claimed by the pleasant poetry of the songs of the voyageur, the coureur des bois, and the hunters and trappers of the great Fur Companies. But perhaps it is better after all? Much as I have lived with the frontier man, I have grown in liking for the pioneer who is always "moving West."
    Hailing generally from some border state, early in life, he has settled down on some "donation" claim. Making it his boast that he is "half horse, half alligator, wi' a touch uv the snappin' turtle," he soon has a good farm about him, and remains until, by the miserable style of agriculture learned in the cotton lands of the Mississippi, he exhausts the soil; or until he considers himself inconveniently crowded, upon hearing that he has got a neighbour eight miles off, and "more a comin'." Then he "kalk'lates he'll move West;" and is not long before he "guess he'll locate"--still on the frontier in some Little Big Snipe Swamp, or Dead Indian Prairie. And there he does "locate," until the old causes operating, or his land becoming valuable, he sells out to some less enterprising settler, hitches up his old bullock team once more, and with his loose cattle, his horses, his long Kentucky rifle, his Douglas axe, his copper camp kettle, and his long-handled frying-pan, off he goes. Not forgetting his bouncing "gals," who rightly boast that they can "lick their weight in wild cats," his four stalwart sons, each of whom can shoot the bristles off a wolf and drive a furrow so straight that, as they tell you, if followed up, it would "knock the centre out'er the north star, colonel," he moves, and moves, still West. Rumbling every summer over the great Plains go hundreds of such teams and many such men, each fighting his way among Sioux, and Blackfoot, and Snake, until we find him in Oregon, Idaho, Nevada or Washington territory, and possibly he even roams down, open-mouthed in his wonder, to "Californy." But this part of the world is generally too civilised for him, and the polished Californians are not kindly affected to the individual in buckskin or homespun, whom they profanely style the "yaller-bellied Missourian."
    The pioneer of pioneers must have been one Jedediah S. Smith (called "Jed" for shortness), who, on the 20th of December, 1826, strayed too far into the Great Desert, and from want of provision and water to get home with, was compelled to push forward. It therefore stands upon record as one of the many triumphs of the Smith family, that one of them was the first to make the overland trip from the "States" to California. Fortunately Jedediah found American shipmasters from Boston and Nantucket who vouched for his honest intentions and perfect harmlessness. He had attempted, during the latter part of the preceding winter, to make his way up the Columbia River, but the snow was so deep on the mountains that he was obliged to return. Being informed by one of the Christian Indians that the father would like to know who he was, Jedediah wrote a letter to Father Duran, who lived at San Jose, in which he honestly confessed that he was destitute of clothing and most of the necessaries of life, that his horses had perished for want of food and water, that his object was to trap for beavers and furs, and in conclusion he signed himself, "Your strange but real friend and Christian brother." Jed has been followed since then by many thousands, scattered now along the frontier. Among them it was my pleasant lot to wander many a day, and if they were queer fellows, they were good fellows; of more use to the world, I think, than many a fine gentleman who has never lifted heavier tool than an opera-glass, or served his country with a stroke of thought.
All the Year Round,
November 7, 1868, pages 520-522



Last revised March 1, 2009