A Ballad of the West
Frank Waters was greatly appreciated
and honored during his long and prolific career. He was called “one of
the most distinguished western writers of the 20th century.” Twice he was
nominated for The Nobel Prize prize in literature. His The Man
Who Killed The Deer is the recognized classic on Pueblo life and, initially
published in 1942, has never been out of print. Seventeen of his twenty-five
books, written over a period of fifty-four years, remain in print. His
non-fiction studies Masked Gods, Navaho and Pueblo Ceremonialism,
and The Book of the Hopi are used today as primary source books.
Mystique: The Coming Sixth World of Consciousness is considered the
comprehensive study of the pre-Columbian culture and religion of the Toltecs,
Aztecs and the Maya in Mexico and Guatemala. He died at his home in Taos,
New Mexico June 5, 1995 at the age of 92.
Waters wrote this introduction to Seekers of the Fleece for its
initial publication in Four Winds Magazine in 1981.
The Magic of Seekers of the Fleece
by Frank Waters
Some months ago Vine Deloria, Jr. loaned me a tape-recording
of a ballad, Seekers of the Fleece, composed and sung by Bobby Bridger,
grand-nephew of the notable Mountain Man of a century and a half ago.
I put it on the shelf for a week. Not because I was only
vaguely interested in a contemporary folk-singer’s ballad of a familiar
subject. In an early book of mine, The Colorado, I too had discussed
the significance of that strange breed of Mountain Men. And now Dr. William
Fiero, geologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, was preparing
an audio-visual presentation of the book; and I was narrating for him exerpts
of the text to match his superb photographs.
This chore reminded me of Bobby Bridger’s tape. When I
finished, I finally played it, wondering what in the world he had found
new about a subject that had been exhaustibly written about in biographies,
narrative poetry and novels for more than a century.
What came out, aimed directly at my heart, was pure magic.
A magic superseding words and tunes, an invocation of deep feeling.
I heard old Jim Bridger himself telling in homey vernacular,
and singing throatily to a guitar, the experiences of his fabulous life.
The historical facts are well know. In 1822, when he was eighteen years
old, he joined the Ashley-Henry exploring party in St. Louis. Ascending
the Missouri River to its source, then striking out into the unknown mountain
wilderness. Trapping beaver. Fighting and living with various Indian tribes.
What strange and strangely possessed companions he had.
Jedidiah Strong Smith, Jed the Preacher, forever asking, “Are you ready,
son, to travel to a land no man has seen?...Can you tell me yore ambition,
Is it Heaven or is it Hell?”
Jed, the first white man to cross the continent.
There was Hugh Glass, the Vision Seeker. Mauled by a grizzly
bear and left to die by young Bridger and Fitzgerald. But miraculously
crawling with his mangled body across the plains of South Dakota for help.
Then vengefully seeking out Bridger and Fitzgerald to kill them for abandoning
him. Only to forgive them.
Of such fabulous men and fabulous stories, one after another
Bridger sings. What was it that drove them all to forsake the comforts
and confines of civilization, immuring themselves in the unknown heartland
of the continent, suffering unbelievable hardships, many of them dying
as they lived, alone? Jim Bridger sings his own answer:
“I want to see some thing no man has ever seen
Go somewhere no man has ever been
Find myself alive with every breath,
So I will know life when I meet my death...
I got to free my spirit, ‘fore my spirit’s dead.”
And he did. He discovered Great Salt Lake in 1824. The
South Pass in 1827. He visited Yellowstone in 1830. Founded Fort Bridger
in 1843. And opened the Overland Route through Bridger’s Pass to Great
Freedom of the spirit. This was the inner compulsion that
drove all these Mountain Men to explore a world unknown. There were few
of them, and their era lasted scarcely forty years, from 1822-1840. But
when it was over the face of the land was changed forever. There was not
a river, a valley, a mountain range that was not known. Their moccasin
trails were followed by gold prospectors, Army posts, trickles of settlers,
and finally by a vast flood of white Euro-Americans pouring from the Missouri
to the Pacific.
That they opened this last wild hinterland of America
to civilization is generally regarded as their one great achievement. But
it seems to me the most significant was the creation of their own unique
breed. For they were the first nonindigent men to meet on its own terms
the spirit of place of a new continent. It changed them forever. They were
born of the immensities of the wilderness, belonging to no race, no creed.
Men European on the outside and Indian inside, men neither wholly white
Surely Indians, as no others, have been immemorially attuned
to the living spirit of this ancient land. And it seems to me a tremendous
psychical fact that these Mountain Men began to grow Indian in spirit,
not only adopting many of their ritual customs but their belief that the
earth was a living entity, and that even the breathing mountains had an
invisible spiritual form as well as a material body.
How different was the concept of the land held by the
later incoming whites, gutting mountains for gold and silver, felling whole
forests, damming and draining rivers, destroying the land for material
gain. And how different was the relationship of Indians and whites as tribe
after tribe was decimated or completely obliterated. Yet these Mountain
Men had established a psychical affinity with them, still existing deep
within us today -a spark of kinship that slowly but surely is beginning
Old Jim Bridger sings all these intuitive truths in his
homey vernacular, without any fol-de-rol. Speaking directly to our hearts,
he imparts the feeling that time has not changed. It is as if he has been
resurrected after a century and a half to evoke in us that spirit of freedom
we have forgotten.
This is the magic of Bobby Bridger’s ballad of Seekers
of the Fleece. A magic that suggests the richest storied fleece we
have still to discover lies in the yet unplumbed psychic resources of America
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