Rufus Sage’s Authentic Mountain Man Poem Opens a Window to the Past.

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.

Rufus Sage.
Rufus Sage’s authentic mountain man poem allows us a deep look at his life and thoughts.

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.

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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.

Scottsbluff Circa 1841 was God’s Country.

According to Rufus Sage, Scottsbluff, Nebraska was heaven on earth in 1841.

Do you ever find yourself gazing at our Nebraska prairies, dreaming of what they looked like in the days of old? Before civilization, before telephone poles, and before fences, what was it all like? For some of us, that dreaming is near constant. These days, the search for unadulterated landscapes can seem a bit like catching the wind with a net, hopeless. Although the land has changed, it still lies beneath our feet and retains the bulk of its original features. We can better see through the shroud of modernity if we understand what it looked like in the past. One man who gave a vivid account of the native Nebraska landscape was Rufus Sage.

Rufus Sage was an adventurous soul, who drifted west in 1841. He pitched in with a group of mountaineers who departed out of Westport, Missouri headed for the Rocky Mountains. Sage left with only one purpose in mind, the slate his “innate curiosity, and fondness for things strange and new.” Fortunately for us, Sage documented his three year expedition through The West of the early 1840’s in his journal.

By this time the first wagons had already passed over South Pass, the blessed gap in the Rockies that made mass migration possible. Not only that, but the height of the mountain man rendezvous period had passed. True enough, missionaries and families had passed over the land before Rufus Sage laid eyes on it. Even so, he gives us a glimpse into what the world looked like in days long ago.

Within his journal Sage notes many of the amusements and amazements The West of 1841 still had to offer. He notes giant herds of buffalo, unmolested rivers meandering across a vast grassland, and unforgiving elements of Mother Nature. Sage had a keen eye for beauty, and his words still convey the sense of breathlessness he must have felt when traveling under the grand skies of The West. He notes early and often about various flora and fauna, displaying his keen awareness of the subtitles of life. One place Rufus Sage left no doubt as to his feelings of awe, was his camp at Scottsbluff.

In his journal he describes Scottsbluff as, “a most romantic and picturesque scenery.” He goes on the describe the area as such.

“The spectacle was grand and imposing beyond description. It seemed as if Nature, in mere sportiveness, had thought to excel the noblest works of art, and rear up a mimic city as the grand metropolis of her empire.”

He goes on to describe the rock formations around Scottsbluff as if it were a small city. Stones were work-shops and ware-houses. Parks and pleasure grounds abounded in this venue shaped by heat, rain, and incessant wind. While on Scottsbluff’s summit, he describes the vista still afforded from this tower of the prairie as, “Command(ing) a view of the whole country, lending enchantment to the neighboring scenes”. You can still get this same commanding view from the summit today.

One point of interest Sage notes in his journal, is the wildlife that abounded in and around the bluff. He describes the area at “the favorite home of the mountain sheep, where she breeds and rears her young, secure in her inaccessible fastnesses.” Not long after he notes:

“Most of the varieties of wild fruits indigenous to the mountains are found in this vicinity, and also numerous bands of buffalo, elk, deer, sheep, and antelope, with the grizzly bear. In the summer months the prospect is most delightful, and affords to the admiring beholder an Eden of fruits and flowers.”

Near the end of his entry on the Scottsbluff area, he records the feeling of one voyageur of his party.

“I could die here, then, -certain of being not far from heaven!”

As you can see, the men were certainly impressed with this unique landscape of western Nebraska.

These days it can be hard to visualize the wild land Sage is documenting. Today this landscape is concealed beneath the varnish of civilization. Roads, buildings, farms, and railroads now dominate the scene. Even in the mostly unknown region of western Nebraska, human development now reigns supreme over the wildness that once was. We have overcome the obstacles Rufus Sage thought impossible, and settled the prairie.

Gone are the sheep in great numbers. Gone are the elk and the blackening herds of buffalo. Gone too are the grizzly bears, for bad or for good. People are now the omnipresent force shaping the land, also for bad or for good. Where once bands of sheep reared their young, we now have bustling communities where children are raised. Where once an Eden of fruits and flowers sprang up, we have fields of abundant grain and family gardens. Herds of wild buffalo have been replaced by herds of relatively tranquil cattle. The once hushed and timeless prairie, has transformed into a bustling and busy locale. These changes have improved our lives, but make envisioning the world it was seem impossible.

Although our impact has greatly shaped the land Rufus Sage witness, its has not buried it. Those equipped with a keen eye and a sense of history, may still be able to tease out a vision of the past. You can still see the bluff rising above the surrounding prairie. Many of the same native plants set their roots in its soil. A sunrise today still sets the white sandstone ablaze along with the golden prairie grasses. Mule deer today still perk their ears with the alertness they have for thousands of years. In fact, the wildness of the past may not be as far gone as we think.

Those of us who seek a window into the past may find traces of it still around. It may require some digging, some sifting, and some imagination, but the core of what Rufus Sage recorded still remains. For all of us in western Nebraska, we can learn from his journals that our lands were as inspiring as any to the adventurers of the past. Although they stayed only temporarily, their fondness for the region stuck with them. In a world where men were free to trespass across the expanse of The West and explore the lofty mountains, clear streams, and grassy meadows, the rising bluffs of western Nebraska were as much God’s Country as any of it.

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Thanks for taking the time to read this essay on western Nebraska and Rufus Sage. If you enjoy learning about the past and the mountain men, you might enjoy this article with video of a vintage mountain man journey that is sure to impress.