AN AMERICAN IN CALIFORNIA
A Historial Novel
Mojave Indian village on the Colorado River
He led his horse up a rocky rise overlooking the Colorado River and saw below a broad, sunlit valley, with cottonwoods and willows near the water and honey locusts in drier spots. Clusters of Indian huts were scattered along the river for two miles. Best of all, he saw what looked like patches of cultivated fields, fields from which he hoped to partake. Nearby a distinctive rock formation of needle-like pinnacles marked the location. Let’s hope the Indians are friendly, he thought.
His hopes rising, Jedediah Smith rode back to fetch his men. A lithe six footer, with a shock of dark hair hiding a scar that ran from his eye to his right ear, he was the leader of a group of trappers sixty days into an expedition. His men and horses needed rest. He expected that the trade goods they carried—awls, knives, ribbons—would be useful gifts. Equally useful might be the smatterings of Spanish and Indian dialects his crew possessed.
When the line of sixteen bedraggled trappers appeared above the village, they startled and alarmed the Indians. Dusty, dressed in patched trousers and buckskins blackened by grease and wood smoke, they were unlike anything the Indians had seen. Children stared open-mouthed at the approaching strangers until the women pulled them into their huts, round structures three feet high made of poles, grasses and mud. The men, most of them close to six feet tall and wearing loincloths, backed off but remained standing, wary and watchful.
As they entered the village, the trappers tightened their grips on their guns. Abraham Laplant, a tall, bearded trapper, who knew more Spanish than the others, stepped forward, raised his hand, and said “Habla espanol?” Then, accompanied by friendly gestures, he tried, “Amigos, pacifico, paz.” He also tried some French and a few words of Shoshone. The Indians hesitated, then responded in friendly fashion. The trappers offered brass knives and red and green ribbons as gifts. The Indians exclaimed over the knives, using a finger to test their sharpness. A couple of men tied the ribbons around their waists, which emphasized their nakedness. The women and children ventured out to receive gifts of ribbons and colored buttons. The women, considerably shorter than the men, wore only skirts made of strips of bark, which served to decorate rather than to protect or conceal.
The Indians brought out pipes and the trappers responded by sharing their tobacco. James Reed brought out a small dirty pouch and put a pinch under his lip. When he offered the pouch to an Indian, the Indian looked curiously at Reed and filled his pipe from the pouch.
“I guess that’ll work just fine,” said Reed.
Wariness disappeared as the pipes passed back and forth. They tried exchanging fragments of Spanish or venturing a phrase or two of Shoshone or Arapaho. Somehow it sufficed.
Rivulets diverted from the river irrigated irregular patches of corn, squash, melons, and beans, all of which grew green and lush. The trappers, having traveled for the past two months through arid country, relished the prospect of beans and fresh vegetables.
“Can we trade for some of your corn and beans?” asked Abraham. The Indians had grown enough to have stockpiles, and they were happy to trade.
Two months earlier, at the rendezvous, an annual gathering at which furs acquired in the previous year were exchanged for supplies and trade goods brought in from St. Louis, the trappers had been outfitted for the coming year. The rendezvous also attracted throngs of Indians and resembled a festival in the mountain wilderness. It served as an occasion for revelry before returning to trapping for another year.
For the first forty days after the last rendezvous, they had traveled down the east side of the Great Salt Lake and then continued southward along the base of the mountains, trapping the streams that flowed into the great basin. The hunt had been poor, the country rough, dry, with sagebrush and creosote plants in the basins and juniper and pinions scattered in higher elevations. They had lost horses to accidents, and others had been run off by Indians. Their stock was down to one horse for each of the men plus a couple of spares. Twenty days ago they had come upon a strong stream that tumbled out of sun-baked red bluffs and followed it until it emptied into the Colorado River, which they then followed for another ten days. Water they had, but grass grew only in patches in that rocky country. The stock was worn out from the hard going and the poor feed. The men were not much better off. The dried buffalo meat packed at the rendezvous was running low and getting tiresome, and game along the route had been scarce, just rabbits and an occasional antelope.
Now, at this Indian village with its ample food, there was a chance for respite. Jedediah decided to spend fifteen days to allow men and horses to recover. They made a camp near a meadow a couple of hundred yards upstream from the Indian village. They questioned the Indians closely about the immediate and more distant areas. What they learned was not promising; certainly no trapping grounds lay within weeks of travel in any direction. They were surrounded by a vast desert. On the second day, Abraham Laplant came to Jedediah accompanied by two Indians who were dressed in woven cloth tunics. He took the twig he was constantly chewing out of his mouth.
“Hey, Boss! These two lived at the California mission and escaped a month ago.”
Laplant introduced Pablo Tuc, who had been at the mission for a year, and Francisco, who had been there six months. Pablo Tuc spoke Spanish better than Abraham. He was of medium build, with a round face and a friendly aspect that attracted new acquaintances. When asked why they had left the mission, both explained that the priests worked them hard and sometimes beat them. They had left to see their families. They reported that the mission was two weeks distant across a rugged wasteland.
“Can we find enough water for all our men and horses?” Jedediah asked. Pablo Tuc and Francisco replied that it would be difficult, but the trappers could make it if they were willing to suffer some thirst.
“Would you show us the way?” Jedediah asked. “Help us find water?”
“Yes, I will go back,” Pablo replied.
“But you said that life was hard there?”
“They do make us work hard, but they grow much food at the mission—and much meat—and they have white man’s tools and clothing,” Pablo said. “I have seen my family, and now I can go back.”
“And he has a woman at the mission too,” Francisco added.
The trappers luxuriated in unaccustomed leisure, but soon looked for tasks to fill the time. They mended their tattered clothing and overhauled their firearms and traps. Some tried out their traps in the marshy areas of the river; others walked over the sere hills in an attempt at hunting. Some even tried bathing in the river. Peter Ranne, the one mulatto among them, found himself an object of interest. A man of average height, alert and inquisitive, but reticent and solitary, he was followed around by two or three Indians. They wanted to touch his skin or hair. When he decided to build a shelter for shade, the Indians helped gather sun-bleached driftwood. When the Indians saw trapper John Wilson taking the wood from the shelter for his fire, they gathered around and objected loudly and excitedly.
Peter, seeing the disturbance, came up and said, “Fetch your own firewood, you lazy hound.”
“What’s this rag-tag shelter for, anyway?”
“Maybe this here is a shrine, a shrine built for someone deserving.”
“Deserving of what? What’s the matter? Are you afraid of getting sun burned?” Wilson, good natured, laughed and dropped the wood.
“Deserving of their protection. These Indians are sure friendly, to me at least.”
To fill their spare time Abraham tried to teach a bit of Spanish to Martin McCoy and James Reed, a pair of Kentuckians who were almost inseparable. The smaller Reed, shaggy and ragged, trailed after the taller McCoy. The two were, if not the best shots in the group, certainly among the best. Each was seldom without his gun, walking about cradling it when not cleaning or adjusting it. Abraham, while no more fastidious than the other men about most matters, which is to say not fastidious at all, had a habit of picking his teeth with a grass stem or just chewing on a twig or massaging his teeth and gums with the frayed end. He claimed not to want to suffer again the agonies of a toothache. Despite efforts by all three, the Spanish lessons did not go well.
“I don’t know why I bother,” Abraham said. “You dumb Irishmen don’t even speak proper English.”
“I guess you can’t speak Spanish without you have a twig in your mouth,” James said.
“Maybe we need two twigs, or three,” added Martin.
“Maybe you should put them up your ass.” Abraham turned away.
Sitting at the fire after a supper of squash, beans, and dog meat, Jedediah discussed options for their future with Harrison Rogers. He had chosen Harrison as his second in command because, unlike most of the men, Harrison could write and keep books. More important, Harrison, a Missourian of Calvinist background was serious, resourceful and reliable. He was like Jedediah, save he lacked the fire that drove Jedediah.
At the last rendezvous, which had been held at Bear Lake, three days travel north of the Great Salt Lake, Jedediah had undertaken a new role in the mountain fur trade. At the age of twenty-six, he had already spent four years in the trackless regions, starting out as a meat hunter with General William Ashley’s fur brigade on the upper Missouri. After one year, he was the acknowledged leader of a squad of trappers. He had crossed and recrossed the continental divide over passes only Indians had used. He drove himself and his men as they ventured across deserts or snowy mountain trails. He had a reserve and an austerity that commanded the respect of his peers. They naturally turned to him when words were needed to memorialize a colleague. who had been killed by Indians or had succumbed to a freezing winter. At the Bear Lake rendezvous, General Ashley, having noted Jedediah’s leadership, had suggested a change in their business practices. He proposed that Jedediah and two partners take over fur-gathering operations in the mountains and to the west. Jedediah, happy both with the prospect of increased rewards and the opportunity to continue his unfettered life in the wilderness, had accepted readily.
In previous years, Jedediah had trapped along the upper Missouri and the northern Rockies; under the new arrangement he had decided to go southward. He hoped to find rich fur grounds, but he also wanted to explore new lands. He knew that the Spanish had established outposts in the mountains in Taos and Santa Fe and missions along the Pacific coast, but the territory between those places and the Great Salt Lake had been probed only by the rare straggler. If he got too close to the missions, he would be infringing on Mexican sovereign territory. But he was curious about the missions, and he hoped to see the Pacific Ocean.
“There is no point in going back the way we came,” Jedediah said. “We had to fight rough country and there was not much beaver.”
“But the Indians say any other direction would be just as tough or tougher,” Harrison said.
“Yes, but only one direction leads to where we can get help.”
“I know you.” Harrison chuckled, and leaned back. “You want to see the Spanish. You want to go to the missions where they grow fruit—and grapes—and make wine.”
“You know I’m not given to drink. But where else can we go? The mission is the closest, surest goal. We’re not in any great shape to venture into the unknown.”
“We don’t have a license to go into Spanish territory,” Harrison reminded him. “We’re already trespassing here and have been for I don’t know how long.”
“They are God-fearing Catholics, those Spanish. They’ll take us in, fellow human beings in need.”
“They’ll take us in and jail us, maybe shoot us as spies.”
“You don’t believe that,” Jedediah said.” We’ll be coming in as forlorn travelers from a friendly country.”
“I’m just twitting you, Jedediah.” Harrison laughed. “I wanted to see how set you are on going to the missions.”
“I have to admit I do have a hankering.”
“Actually, I’m not averse myself,” Harrison said.
Abraham had been listening. “It would be nice to get some wine. Perhaps they make brandy too. Luckily we have the two wayward converts ready to help guide us.”
“Fruit and wine are well and good, but what we really need to get is new horses,” Jedediah said.
Led by Pablo Tuc and Francisco, they left the Colorado River and followed the sun west. The land became as barren as any they had seen. They reached a dried-out lake bed, as flat as a billiard table, but covered with a salt crust that broke under their feet. Then more dust, gravel and yucca plants; the sun constant and punishing though it was already November. To escape the heat they traveled mostly at night or in the early morning hours. But still the men and the horses suffered. Everyone suffered from thirst, and for the men that elemental need was compounded by the uncertainty of not knowing when—or whether—the next source of water would be found. They relied on Pablo Tuc’s and Francisco ‘s memories, but the water sources still seemed to be separated by torturous distances. They trudged onward day after weary day. They came upon a river that disappeared underground and reappeared to be marked by willows and cottonwoods, which contrasted with the characteristic expanse of cactus and yucca. This, the Mojave River, Jedediah called the Inconstant River. They followed it for four days to its source in the San Bernardino mountains.
“Over on the other side we’ll find plenty of grass and water,” said Pablo Tuc. “Just one more day.”
With renewed energy, they crossed the mountains, they saw green grass carpeting thousands of acres of the broad valley, and trees throughout—live oaks dotted the hillsides to the south and courses of trees marked the waterways in the valley. After what they had been through, it seemed like an alien world. To the north, high mountains, timbered in pine and cedar, formed a rampart.