Friday, October 23, 2009

An example of something happening, from Osborne Russell's Journal of a Trapper

I'll give you a for example.

The book is Journal of  Trapper by Osborne Russell, which records the author's life and adventures as a fur trapper from 1834 to 1843.  Due to bad luck, it was not published until 1914, twenty years after the author's death.  Like Parkman in The Oregon Trail, Russell mostly just tells us how he went about his business in an unusual place.  Russell's working, not on vacation, so a lot of the book is about which river he followed, where he found beaver, and where he wintered.  Until we get to page 101 of the 1965 University of Nebraska Press edition.

Russell and his comrades are trapping in what is now Yellowstone National Park.  They're not working too hard.  They're taking a bit of a vacation, themselves, actually, hunting and admiring the geysers and mudpots.   Russell and his co-worker White are napping when:

Presently I cast my eyes towards the horses which were feeding in the Valley and discovered the heads of some Indians who were gliding round under the bench within 30 steps of me I jumped to my rifle and aroused White and looking towards my powder horn and bullet pouch it was already in the hands of an Indian and we were completely surrounded (102)

Now here, something is happening:

an arrow struck White on the right hip joint I hastily told him to pull it out and I spoke another arrow struck me in the same place but they did not retard our progress At length another arrow striking thro. my right leg above the knee benumbed the flesh so that I fell with my breast accross a log. The Indian who shot me was within 8 ft and made a Spring towards me with his uplifted battle axe (102)

Russell and White miraculously escape, but the Blackfoot Sioux have taken everything they own except for a bag of salt.  And both men have been shot in the legs by arrows.  They walk back to a fort on the Snake River, maybe 250 or 300 miles through the Rocky Mountains.

I guess this is only about 10 pages out of 120.  Still, what an adventure.  There are other reasons to read Journal of a Trapper - as an account of how the fur trade worked, it's essential, and this line is curious:

We passed an agreeable winter We had nothing to do but to eat attend to the horses and procure fire wood We had some few Books to read such as Byrons Shakespeares and Scotts works the Bible and Clarks Commentary on it and other small works on Geology Chemistry and Philosophy (109)

It's not exactly as exciting as the story of how Frederick Douglass learned to read, but the path that turns this fur trapper into a posthumous author is almost as unlikely.

The Oregon Trail is the greater book - well-written, more varied - but in Journal of a Trapper, holy cow, something happens, does it ever.


  1. Russell mention any plant foods? Tasty roots?

  2. Yes. But he's not what you would call specifically knowledgeable. Near Jackson's Hole:

    "the valley produce a luxuriant growth of vegetation among which wild flax and a species of onion are abundant" (18).

    The most detailed mention of roots:

    "Our Camp Kettles had not been greased for some time: as we were continually boiling thistle roots in them during the day" (9).

    He says, same page, his party lived on roots for ten days before their hunters killed two grizzly bears.

    There are a few other, more general references. Searchable, barely readable, text here.

  3. If any of the readers find this sort of book interesting, there are quite a number of autobiographies by mountain men that are equally breathtaking. Their life was a day to day adventure beyond what most folks could endure. A short list would include stories by Hugh Glass, Jedidiah Smith, Joseph Walker and on and on. Of course, one must always remember that these fellows may have been prone to stretch the truth a bit.

  4. This reminds me a bit of the Stapleton journals from his failed Antarctic expedition. In situations where you wouldn't necessarily expect anyone to bother trying -- ship just sunk in the pack ice, just got all shot up 250 miles from the nearest neighbor -- they just get up and start walking. Folks were pretty tough back then. (Alternative explanation: the incredibly lucky people were the ones who survived to write amazing accounts.)

    ALSO: Sorry to slap down a link for you again, but I've got a post going on The Scarlet Letter and would be interested in your thoughts -- you seem to know your way around the 19th Century about a million times better than I do.

  5. Odd to see Parkman mentioned... just thinking of him and my extreme pleasure in reading Oregon Trial long ago this am whilst reading "Following the Sea", a Nova Scotia whaleman's account of his years on various whalers out of Mass.

    I'm thinking that Michael5000 might be referring to Shackleton (captured also in "Endurance").

    Have become infatuated with 19th cent accounts on the sea, including "In the Heart of the Sea", an account of the whaleship Essex being rammed and sunk by a whale and the trials of whalemen forced to survive on the carcasses of each other (incident was model for Moby Dick).

    For my money, these first-hand accounts are great reading.

  6. Thanks for taking me seriously. Of course, I am genuinely interested in root foods, but I'm always surprised when others support my little obession/dissertation. Cheers.

  7. Right, there are so many great firsthand travel and adventure books. I haven't read the Philbrick book, but Owen Chase's own account of that boat journey is incredible. William Bligh's, too. Be sure to take a look at bibliographing nicole's seafaring roundup.

    Like 18th and 19th century seafaring, Western America seems to have more than its share of classic accounts - Lewis & Clark, Alexander McKenzie, Richard Henry Dana, all of the assorted literary cowboys and lawmen and mountain men, not to mention Mark Twain.

    And I have not even gotten to the Arctic and Antarctic expeditions - I hope to, someday. Shackleton, Nansen, The Worst Journey in the World.

    Michael5000, are you sure you want me in the comments there? The tone right now seems to be one of, how to say, glib dismissal? I mean, there's no need to like Wuthering Heights, but some of the people over there ain't reading it right. I guess this'll all come up this week, since it's Anti-Sympathetic Character week at Wuthering Expectations.

    I did write about The Scarler Letter, from a rather different point of view, here and here. Short answer: forget plot, forget realism, forget rounded characters. Keep an eye on the witch.