Arrogance on the part of the meritorious is even more offensive to us than the arrogance of those without merit: for merit itself is offensive. — Nietzsche

Trails of the Pathfinders - G. B. Grinnell




Introduction

Three centuries ago half a dozen tiny hamlets, peopled by white men, were scattered along the western shores of the North Atlantic Ocean. These little settlements owed allegiance to different nations of Europe, each of which had thrust out a hand to grasp some share of the wealth which might lie in the unknown wilderness which stretched away from the seashore toward the west.

The "Indies" had been discovered more than a hundred years before, but though ships had sailed north and ships had sailed south, little was known of the land, through which men were seeking a passage to share the trade which the Portuguese, long before, had opened up with the mysterious East. That passage had not been found. To the north lay ice and snow, to the south—vaguely known—lay the South Sea. What that South Sea was, what its limits, what its relations to lands already visited, were still secrets.

St. Augustine had been founded in 1565; and forty years later the French made their first settlement at Port Royal in what is now Nova Scotia. In 1607 Jamestown was settled; and a year later the French established Quebec. The Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts in 1620 and the first settlement of the Dutch on the island of Manhattan was in 1623. All these settlers establishing themselves in a new country found enough to do in the struggle to procure subsistence, to protect themselves from the elements and from the attacks of enemies, without attempting to discover what lay inland—beyond the sound of the salt waves which beat upon the coast. Not until later was any effort made to learn what lay in the vast interior.

Time went on. The settlements increased. Gradually men pushed farther and farther inland. There were wars; and one nation after another was crowded from its possessions, until, at length, the British owned all the settlements in eastern temperate America. The white men still clung chiefly to the seacoast, and it was in western Pennsylvania that the French and Indians defeated Braddock in 1755, George Washington being an officer under his command.

A little later came the war of the Revolution, and a new people sprang into being in a land a little more than two hundred and fifty years known. This people, teeming with energy, kept reaching out in all directions for new things. As they increased in numbers they spread chiefly in the direction of least resistance. The native tribes were easier to displace than the French, who held forts to the north, and the Spanish, who possessed territory to the south; and the temperate climate toward the west attracted them more than the cold of the north or the heat of the south. So the Americans pushed on always to the setting sun, and their early movements gave truth to Bishop Berkeley's famous line, written long before and in an altogether different connection, "Westward the course of empire takes its way." The Mississippi was reached, and little villages, occupied by Frenchmen and their half-breed children, began to change, to be transformed into American towns. Yet in 1790, ninety-five percent of the population of the United States was on the Atlantic sea-board.

Now came the Louisiana Purchase, and immediately after that the expedition across the continent by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. The trip took two years' time, and the reports brought back by the intrepid explorers, telling the wonderful story of what lay in the unknown beyond, greatly stimulated the imagination of the western people. Long before this it had become known that the western ocean—the South Sea of an earlier day—extended north along the continent, and that there was no connection here with India. It was known, too, that the Spaniards occupied the west coast. In 1790, Umfreville said: "That there are European traders settled among the Indians from the other side of the continent is without doubt. I, myself, have seen horses with Roman capitals burnt in their flanks with a hot iron. I likewise once saw a hanger with Spanish words engraved on the blade. Many other proofs have been obtained to convince us that the Spaniards on the opposite side of the continent make their inland peregrinations as well as ourselves."

Western travel and exploration, within the United States, began soon after the return of Lewis and Clark. The trapper, seeking for peltry—the rich furs so much in demand in Europe—was the first to penetrate the unknown wilds; but close upon his heels followed the Indian trader, who used trapper and Indian alike to fill his purse. With the trapper and the trader, naturalists began to push out into the west, studying the fauna and flora of the new lands. About the same time the possibilities of trade with the Mexicans induced the beginnings of the Santa Fe trade, that Commerce of the Prairies which has been so fully written of by the intrepid spirits who took part in it. Meantime the government continued to send out expeditions, poorly provided in many ways, scarcely armed, barely furnished with provisions, without means of making their way through the unknown and dangerous regions to which they were sent, but led by heroes.

For forty years this work of investigation went on; for forty years there took place a peopling of the new West by men who were in very deed the bravest and most adventurous of our brave and hardy border population. They scattered over the plains and through the mountains; they trapped the beaver and fought the Indian and guided the explorers; and took to themselves wives from among their very enemies, and raised up broods of hardy offspring, some of whom we may yet meet as we journey through the cattle and the farming country which used to be the far West.

If ever any set of men played their part in subduing the wilderness, and in ploughing the ground to receive its seed of settlement, and to rear the crop of civilization which is now being harvested, these men did that work, and did it well. It is inconceivable that they should have had the foresight to know what they were doing; to imagine what it was that should come after them. They did not think of that. Like the bold, brave, hardy men of all times and of all countries, they did the work that lay before them, bravely, faithfully, and well, without any special thought of a distant future; surely without any regrets for the past. As the years rolled by, sickness, battle, the wild beast, starvation, murder, death in some form, whether sudden or lingering, struck them down singly or by scores; and that a man had been "rubbed out," was cause for a sigh of regret or a word of sorrow from his companions, who forthwith saddled up and started on some journey of peril, where their fate might be what his had been.

At the end of forty years the first series of these exploratory journeys came to an end. Gold was discovered in California. The Mexican War took place. This was not unexpected, for in the Southwest, about the pueblos of Taos and Santa Fe, skirmishings and quarrels between the Spanish-Indian inhabitants and the rough mountaineers and teamsters from the States had already given warning of a conflict soon to come.

Now, well travelled wagon roads crossed the continent, and a stream of westward immigration that seemed to have no end. Before long there came Indian wars. The immigrants imposed upon the savages, ill-treated their wives, and were truculent and over-bearing to their men. The Indians stole from the immigrants, and drove off their horses. Then began a season of conflict which, by one tribe and another, yet with many intermissions, lasted almost down to our own day. For the most part, these Indian wars are well within the memory of living men. They have been told of by those who saw them and were a part of them.

Of the travellers who marched westward over the arid plains, during the period which intervened between the return of Lewis and Clark and the establishment of the old California trail, and of the earlier northmen who trafficked for the beaver in Canada, a few left records of their journeys; and of these records many are most interesting reading, for they are simple, faithful narratives of the every-day life of travellers through unknown regions. To Americans they are of especial interest, for they tell of a time when one-half of the continent which now teems with population had no inhabitants. The acres which now contribute freely of food that supplies the world; the mountains which now echo to the rattle of machinery, and the shot of the blasts which lay bare millions worth of precious metal; the waters which are churned by propeller blades, transporting all the varied products of the land to their markets; the forests, which, alas! in too many sections, no longer rustle to the breeze, but have been swept away to make room for farms and town sites—all these were then undisturbed and natural, as they had been for a thousand years. Of the travellers who passed over the vast stretches of prairie or mountain or woodland, many saw the possibilities of this vast land, and prophesied as to what might be wrought here, when, in the dim and distant future, which none could yet foresee, settlements should have pushed out from the east and occupied the land. Other travellers declared that these barren wastes would ever prove a barrier to westward settlement.

The books that were written concerning this new land are mostly long out of print, or difficult of access; yet each one of them is worth perusal. Of their authors, some bear names still familiar, even though their works have been lost sight of. Some of them made discoveries of great interest in one branch or other of science. At a later day some attained fame. Parkman's first essay in literature was his story of The California and Oregon Trail, a fitting introduction to the many fascinating volumes that he contributed later to the early history of America; while in Washington Irving, historian and essayist, was found a narrator who should first tell connectedly of the fur trade of the Northwest, and the adventures of Bonneville.

Besides the books that were published in those times, there were also written accounts, usually in the form of diaries, or of notes kept from day to day of the happenings in the life of this or that individual, which are full of interest, because they give us pictures of one or another phase of early travel, or hunting adventures, or of trading with the Indians. Such private and personal accounts, never intended for the public eye, are to-day of extreme interest; and it is fortunate that an American student, the late Dr. Elliott Coues, has given us volumes which tell the stories of Lewis and Clark, Pike and Garces, of Jacob Fowler, of Alexander Henry the younger, and of Charles Larpenteur—contributions to the history of the winning of the greater West whose value is only now beginning to be appreciated.

The chapters that follow contain much of history which is old, but which, to the average American, will prove absolutely new. One may imagine himself very much interested in the old West, familiar with its history and devoted to its study, but it is not until he has gone through volume after volume of this ancient literature that he realizes how greatly his knowledge lacks precision and how much he still has to learn concerning the country he inhabits.

The work that the early travellers did, and the books they published, showed to the people of their day the conditions which existed in the far West, caused its settlement, and led to the slow discovery of its mineral treasures, and the slower appreciation of its possibilities to the farmer and stock-raiser. Each of these volumes had its readers, and of the readers of each we may be sure that a few, or many, attracted by the graphic descriptions of the new land, determined that they, too, would push out into it, they, too, would share in the wealth which it spread out with lavish hand.

It is all so long ago that we who are busy with a thousand modem interests care little about who contributed to the greatness of the country which we inhabit and the prosperity which we enjoy. But there was a day, which men alive may still remember, a day of strong men, of brave women, hardy pioneers, and true hearts, who ventured forth into the wilderness, braving many dangers that were real, and many more that were imaginary and yet to them seemed very real, occupied the land, broke up the virgin soil, and peopled a wilderness.

How can the men and women of this generation—dwellers in cities, or in peaceful villages, or on smiling farms—realize what those pioneers did—how they lived? He must have possessed stern resolution and firm courage, who, to better the condition of those dearest to him, risked their comfort—their very lives—on the hazard of a settlement in the unknown wilderness. The woman who accompanied this man bore an equal part in the struggle, with devoted helpfulness encouraging him in his strife with nature or cheering him in defeat. If the school of self-reliance and hardihood in which their children were reared gave them little of the lore of books, it built strong characters and made them worthy successors of courageous parents. We may not comprehend how long and fierce was the struggle with the elements, with the bristling forest, with the unbroken soil; how hard and wearing the annoyance of wild beasts, the anxiety as to climate, the fear of the prowling savage. Yet the work was done, and to-day, from the Alleghanies to the Pacific, we behold its results.

Through hard experience these pioneers had come to understand life. They possessed a due sense of proportion. They saw the things which were essential; they scorned those which were trivial. If, judged by certain standards, they were rough and uncouth, if they spoke a strange tongue, wore odd apparel, and lived narrow lives, they were yet practising—albeit unconsciously—the virtues—unflinching courage, sturdy independence and helpfulness to their neighbors—which have made America what it is.

In the work of travel and exploration in that far West of which we used to read, the figure which stands out boldest and most heroic of all is unnamed. Bearded, buckskin-clad, with rough fur cap, or kerchief tied about his head, wearing powder-horn and ball-pouch, and scalping-knife, and carrying his trusty Hawkins rifle, the trapper—the coureur des Bois—was the man who did the first work in subduing the wild West, the man who laid the foundations on which its present civilization is built.

All honor to this nameless hero. We shall meet him often as we follow the westward trail.