Zenas Leonard left his parents’ home in Pennsylvania in the early 1830’s to seek his fortune in the west. They did not hear from him for more than five years, and he was presumed dead. Then one day he showed up at their door, fresh from the Rocky Mountains. Everyone was eager to hear his story, so he wrote it down, first publishing part of it in a local newspaper, and later the entire account as a book.
Leonard had been living as a mountain man, completely cut off from civilization, surviving for years just with his gun and traps. Although he was clearly brave and manly, Zenas did miss home:
I could not sleep, and lay contemplating on the striking contrast between a night in the villages of Pennsylvania and one on the Rocky Mountains. In the latter, the plough-boy’s whistle, the gambols of the children on the green, the lowing of the herds, and the deep tones of the evening bell, are unheard; not a sound strikes upon the ear, except perchance the distant howling of some wild beast, or war-whoop of the uncultivated savage–all was silent on this occasion save the muttering of a small brook as it wound its way through the deep cavities of the gulch down the mountain, and the gentle whispering of the breeze, as it crept through the dark pine or cedar forest, and sighed in melancholy accents…
Homesickness was the least of his worries, however, and he was constantly facing death by hostile tribes, starvation, or grizzly bears. His descriptions of the grizzlies, which were common in his day, are particularly vivid:
The Grizzly Bear is the most ferocious animal that inhabits these prairies, and are very numerous. They no sooner see you than they will make at you with open mouth. If you stand still, they will come within two or three yards of you, and stand upon their hind feet, and look you in the face, if you have fortitude enough to face them, they will turn and run off; but if you turn they will most assuredly tear you to pieces; furnishing strong proof of the fact, that no wild beast, however daring and ferocious, unless wounded, will attack the face of man.
Often witnessing bloody and vicious battles (which he describes in detail) between different Indian tribes and between Indians and whites, Leonard was understandably afraid of encounters with natives. However, there were some exceptions, and he had friendly relations with certain tribes. For example, the Flatheads were unthreatening, and Zenas became familiar with some of their practices:
The Flatheads are well accustomed to the manners and customs of the white race, and in many respects appear ambitious to follow their example. — Some years ago, they were in the habit of using a process to flatten the heads of their children, which they deemed a very essential addition to their appearance; but since they have had intercourse with the whites they have abandoned this abominable practice. The process of flattening the head is this: — Soon after the birth of the infant, it is placed in a kind of trough and a piece of bark fastened by means of strings through the trough, and pressed hard upon the forepart of the head, which causes it to grow flat. In this painful position they are kept a year, and in some instances over a year.
Leonard’s intimate and unique story is rich in such detail, and is truly high adventure.
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