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Book of the Week — Life in the Far West

Apart from the feeling of loneliness which any one in my situation must naturally have experienced, surrounded by stupendous works of nature, which in all their solitary grandeur frowned upon me, and sinking into utter insignificance the miserable mortal who crept beneath their shadow; still there was something inexpressibly exhilarating in the sensation of positive freedom from all worldly care…my sporting feelings underwent a great change when I was necessitated to follow and kill game for the support of life, and as a means of subsistence; and the slaughter of deer and buffalo no longer became sport when the object was to fill the larder…

 Life in the Far West
George Frederick Ruxton (1820-1848)
New York: Harper & Bros, 1849
First American edition
F592 R97

Originally published in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1848, this is the adventure of British sportsman George Ruxton, who witnessed firsthand the relationship between the U.S. Army and the Comanche and the lifestyle of the Colorado mountain men.

When the United States went to war with Mexico in May 1844, Ruxton secured an appointment as a British commercial attaché, in charge of protecting the lives and property of British citizens in Mexico. In this capacity, he almost certainly acted as a spy.

In July 1946, he travelled from Vera Cruz into New Mexico, where he encountered Lt. James Abert of the US Corps of Topographical Engineers. He continued to travel throughout the southwest, eventually arriving home in England in 1847, where he put together the notes from his journal for publication.

From his year-long adventure, Ruxton developed an intimate acquaintance with the trappers and traders of the American West. He wrote, “Nothing can be more social and cheering than the welcome blaze of the camp fire on a cold winter’s night, and nothing more amusing or entertaining, if not instructive, than the rough conversation of the single-minded mountaineers, whose simple daily talk is all of exciting adventure, since their whole existence is spent in scenes of peril and privation; and consequently the narration of their every-day life is a tale of thrilling accidents and hair-breadth escapes, which, though simple matter of fact to them appear a startling romance to those who are not acquainted with the nature of the lives led by these men who with the sky for a roof and their rifles to supply them with food and clothing, call no man lord or master and are as free as the game they follow.” In this romantic parlance, he recounts the story of two of the most adventurous of these hardy pioneers, named Killbuck and La Bonte, whose daring and bravery in the midst of Indian and Spanish enemies were legend among their fellow-frontiersmen.

Along with companions Old Bill Williams, “Black” Harris, William Sublette, Joseph Walker and others Ruxton followed Killbuck and La Bonte across prairies and through forests, west from Bent’s Fort, into dangerous Arapaho country near the headwaters of the Platte. Ruxton wrote of the culinary delights of their campfires – buffalo “boudins” and beaver tails – and humorous tales of trading, all in mountaineer dialect, which was adopted by future storytellers. Alfred Jacob Miller, Ruxton’s fellow traveler, contributed watercolors and sketches depicting Ruxton’s dramatic scenes in detail.

For more on the European encounter with the American West, see our exhibition, The Roar of Distant Breakers.

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