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. Mexico 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. Mr. 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 Salt Lake.

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 nor red.

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 to flame.

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 today.