This mountain man poem opens a window to the heart and mind of someone who lived the life of a mountaineer.
Primary sources are invaluable for learning about the past. From them, we can learn about the past most accurately and get a real sense of a time period. Journals, newspapers, artifacts, and photos all can offer up tidbits of insight about human life in a different time. Art is another category of primary source that can teach us a considerable amount. Art, such as poetry and song, can not only teach us about life in the past, but also about what was going in the mind of the people. In addition we can imagine how they saw themselves, the world, and the people around them.
One era of history where the use of primary sources is widely practiced for research, is the mountain man era of the western fur trade. During this era, many diaries were penned, inventories kept, and a generally plentiful supply of primary sources exist. While reading the journals of Rufus Sage, I happened upon a bit of a gem within its pages. During his time out west, Sage penned a poem he titled, The Wanderer’s Grave. From it we can learn not only about his life, but perhaps the thoughts that coursed through the mind of a mountaineer.
His authentic mountain man poem goes like this:
A Wanderer’s Grave
Away from friends, away from home
and all the heart holds dear,
A weary wand’rer laid him down,
Nor kindly aid was near.
And sickness prey’d upon his frame
And told its tale of woe,
While sorrow mark’d his pallid cheeks
And sank his spirit low.
Nor waiting friends stood round his couch
A healing to impart,-
Nor human voice spoke sympathy,
To sooth his aching heart.
The stars of night his watchers were,
His fan the rude winds’ breath,
And while they sigh’d their hollow moans,
He closed his eyes in death.
Upon the prairie’s vast expanse
This weary wand’rer lay;
And far from friends, and far from home,
He breath’d his life away!
A lovely valley marks the spot
That claims his lowly bed;
But o’er the wand’re’s hapless fate
No friendly tear was shed.
No willing grave received the corpse
Of this poor lonely one;
He bones, alas, were left to bleach
And moulder ‘neath the sun!
The night-wolf howl’d his requiem,
The rude winds danced his dirge;
And e’er anon, in mournful chime,
Sigh’d forth the mellow surge!
The Spring shall teach the rising grass
To twine for him a tomb;
And, o’er the spot where he doth lie,
Shall bid the wild flowers bloom.
But, far from friends, and far from home,
Ah, dismal thought, to die!
Oh, let me ‘mid my friends expire,
And with my fathers lie.
The author of this poem, Rufus Sage, was a greenhorn by all accounts. He had traveled west to chase adventure and see The West in its splendor. In his journal, this poem marks the end of his time at Scottsbluff. Most western Nebraskans know the story of how a trapper named Hiram Scott died at the spot in 1830. While encamped at the same location 11 years later, Sage looked around and reflected on the circumstances of the man’s death. All alone. Prairie in all directions. Nothing but the prairie wolves and wind for a burial party. While standing there, enveloped in isolation, Rufus Sage appears to have stood in Scott’s moccasins for a time, and contemplated his final moments.
As you can tell from the poem, Rufus Scott had no romantic desire to die on the plains. While envisioning his own death on the prairie, he noted he would long for one thing; his family. This brief exposure of his psyche can help possibly break a few of the old sterotypes we are sometimes fed about America’s wild mountain men.
For starters, most mountaineers weren’t traipsing around the mountains with no hopes of ever returning home. Mountaineers streamed to the Rockies for lots of reasons; adventure, allure of money, curiosity, intrigue, and a host of others. Like Sage, most of the men didn’t have plans to die a glorious death on the windswept plains. This seems like a no brainer, but sometimes is seems we cast these men as having some wish to vanish forever into the mountains. While possibly true for some, unlikely the wish of many.
Secondly, it can possibly reveal the breathtaking, yet fearsome, scope of the prairie. The huge grassland of our nation seemed to really engulf him for a moment, and intimidated him to a degree. You can imagine the feeling of standing in over a half million square miles of prairie with no lifeline to the world you came from. For Sage, he seemed to realize the reality of the vastness of the plains. When paired with his thoughts of death, you can tell it sort of rattled him.
Rufus Sage’s authentic mountain man poem is not only a good read, but, like other primary sources, it offers a glimpse into the past. As art, rather than fact, it also opens up another layer in the story of his life. We not only can learn about his experiences, but what he was thinking and feeling on a deeper level. When you take the time to read his words, think about the context. You might be surprised at where your own thoughts wander if you look at it from his moccasins.
Thanks for taking the time to read this essay on an authentic mountain man poem. If you find this sort of thing interesting, you might enjoy reading this essay on Rufus Sage’s thought on Scottsbluff in 1841.