The Mysterious Mr. Lee

Almost 200 years ago, in 1819, a scientist from England, Thomas Nuttall, journeyed up the Arkansas to near this spot, the Three Forks, the confluence of the Arkansas with the Verdigris and Grand rivers. Nuttall was exploring what had been the southern Louisiana Territory, purchased from France by the United States in 1803. He was collecting specimens of flora and fauna, making notes on the local peoples, examining the Almost Almost 200 years ago, in 1819, a scientist from England, Thomas Nuttall, journeyed up the Arkansas to the Three Forks, the confluence of the Arkansas with the Verdigris and Grand rivers. Nuttall was exploring what had been the southern Louisiana Territory, purchased from France by the United States in 1803. He was collecting specimens of flora and fauna, making notes on the local peoples, examining the geography and landscape. To help him traverse the wilderness west of here, he hired a local hunter and trapper, a man named Lee. Lee led Nuttall west along the North Canadian River to the Cimarron River to the Arkansas River. It was a harrowing journey, and Nuttall almost lost his life, save for the resourcefulness of Mr. Lee.

Hardly anything is known about the life of Mr. Lee. He is one of the billions of humans of the past about which nothing is known of their lives.

Recently, in 2015, there appeared at the theaters an action film, The Revenant, showing through sound and vision the experience of an American trapper, Hugh Glass, in the 19th century. The movie was digital storytelling at its best.

Such a dramatic movie, using computer effects to re-create a grizzly bear attack on Glass, is, in the theater, riveting, engrossing, and the viewer can hardly walk away without being affected–indeed such a movie is the kind of theatrical experience that invites the viewer to believe it is true, because, after all, the viewer has seen it with his/her own eyes.

Because I am a historian, who focuses on trying to re-create the past and past lives based on what passes as the facts, I try to be as incredulous as possible, yet this movie, like all good movies, causes me to pause and consider what it must have been like to have been such a man as Hugh Glass living such an adventurous life. In other words, the movie entraps me into its interpretation of reality, and it is very difficult indeed to separate myself from it.

The movie has hundreds of people involved in its production. It has famous, highly talented actors. It has a screenplay co-written by the director. The movie, and its screenplay is, based on a novel, a work of fiction, and the author, Michael Punke, or the publisher, Macmillan, state clearly on the copyright page that this is solely a work of fiction. It is a story, made-up.

However, the author also includes a list of sources at the back of the book, which tells us that though the work is fiction, nevertheless it is “based on a true story.” This phrase, “based on a true story,” has become a catch-all phrase in the movie industry, indeed in the general popular culture, for saying that even though a story is fiction, and turned into a more fictional and fantastic screenplay, it is still based on fact—for many people, it is therefore, the truth. But, of course, it is not.

The appendix of the novel lists the sources upon which the author re-creates the past. These are books written by historians about the old west, about mountain men, and about Hugh Glass. There are scattered records and traditions left behind about the life of Hugh Glass, which are not altogether consistent, and biographers of his life, such as Jon Coleman in a 2012 biography, and John Myers in a 1963 biography, go out of their way to indicate that the sources for the life of Hugh Glass are largely anecdotal, not direct primary source documents.

In short, The Revenant is completely fictional, not fact, but by presenting itself on the screen in so realistic a fashion, it will be taken as fact by the majority of viewers. This is what modern digital storytelling is like, it seems to me: it enlarges upon traditional oral storytelling, and traditional written storytelling, to bring the visual to bear on the viewer’s credulous mind; and with 21st century special effects, computer-generated, digital storytelling via the theater is exercising a profound impact on the mind of the simple viewer out for an evening’s entertainment.

At the same time, of course, the visual has always been part and parcel to storytelling. There are photographs of mountain men, and paintings and drawings of mountain men, and maps detailing the regions and routes of mountain men. Frederic Remington painted, sculpted, and drew dozens of images of the iconic mountain man of the Old West. Jim Bridger was one of the most famous of the mountain men, who was also a good storyteller; his stories helped to make his reputation and fame. I remember as a child being inspired by his exploits.

There were, of course, thousands more trappers, hunters, and mountain men who traversed the wilderness of the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, and mountains and deserts of the West coast and Canada. Most of these men are unknown. Their lives are unrecorded. There is no statue, book, novel, movie, even gravestone, to mark their lives. They are among the vast majority of past humans who are anonymous to us in the present. Their lives, while significant for them and their associates, no longer matter, at least in terms of present awareness of the past.

One such trapper and mountain man was unknown generally during his life and after his death save for the isolated record in a book published in 1821 by scientist Thomas Nuttall. Nuttall was arguably the greatest naturalist in early 19th century America. He explored, as a scientist, the Ohio River, Great Lakes, Mississippi River, Missouri River, and Arkansas River. In 1819 he journeyed up the Arkansas River to this region, the Three Forks, where the Verdigris and Grand rivers join the Arkansas. Here, Nuttall hired a guide, a trapper and hunter known as Lee. Nuttall did not provide his Christian name, nor describe his physical appearance, or provide hardly any details about the life of this man. He appears in the pages of Nuttall’s A Journal of Travels into the Arkansas Territory as Mr. Lee. There are no other records of his life.

There have been no movies made about Mr. Lee. There are no screenplays or novels. There is no biography of his life. His life, in short, is a mystery: Thomas Nuttall tells his readers enough to discover a bit about Lee’s life and personality, but then, after Nuttall’s two-month excursion in 1819 with Mr. Lee over the Oklahoma prairies and down the Cimarron and Arkansas rivers, nothing else is known of Lee’s life.

If we wish to re-create what we can of his life, to resurrect, as it were, his life, we have to rely on more traditional means of storytelling: maps, journals, narrative histories, the spoken word. For the former, maps, there is no better map of the region in which we first encounter Mr. Lee than Tom Meagher’s Sketch Map of the Three Forks. Meagher was a student at Bacone College (Indian University) in the 1890s, was a veteran of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, and was a local historian in Tulsa; he produced a map of the Three Forks in 1940. It illustrates the environs in which Thomas Nuttall first encountered Mr. Lee, at Bougie’s Trading Post on the Verdigris River. Meagher’s map is unique in its combination of history, legend, and storytelling by means of drawings of places and peoples.

The next means by which we might resurrect the life of Mr. Lee is through Nuttall’s published journal. In it, we read that on August 11th, 1819, “I left the trading establishment of the Verdigris to proceed on a land journey up the Arkansas, accompanied by a trapper and hunter named Lee, who had penetrated across this country nearly to the sources of the Red river, and followed his present occupation for upwards of eight years.” We learn further, on the 14th that “Mr. Lee . . . began to trap for beaver, and the last night caught four of these animals.” On the 26th, Lee informed Nuttall that he had “nearly lost his life, and all his property, last autumn, by falling in with the Cherokees near the banks of the Canadian.” Lee was a very resourceful man, who, after they had reached the Cimarron River, and having lost his horse to quicksand, “no resource for proceeding remained for my companion, but to construct a canoe, and so descend by water.” Around the region of modern Tulsa, they arrived at an Osage camp. “One of the men was a blind chief, not unknown to Mr. Lee, who gave him some tobacco, with which he appeared to be satisfied.” But others of the Osage were not. When Lee and Nuttall departed the Osage camp, “Mr. Lee, as he descended, now observed two men on the shore, who hid themselves at his approach, and began to follow him as secretly as possible. They continued after us all the remainder of the day, till dark. We knew not whether they intended to kill or to rob us, and endeavouring to elude their pursuit, we kept on in the night, amidst the horrors of a thunder storm, the most gloomy and disagreeable situation I ever experienced in my life.” They escaped, but because Lee was in a canoe and Nuttall on horseback, “unable to keep up with Lee and his boat,” “at noon we agreed to part.” Nuttall went overland to the Verdigris, and Lee followed the descending Arkansas to the Three Forks. We never hear of Lee again, either in Nuttall’s journal or any other source. He disappears from the pages of history.

A good story is based in part on fact. Homer used snippets of the past to re-create the story of the Trojan War, the Iliad, and the story of Odysseus’s journey back to Ithaca, the Odyssey. When I wrote my narrative history retracing Thomas Nuttall’s journeys, in particular his ascent of the Arkansas and journey across Oklahoma, I relied on his journal and other sources, which I elaborated upon by examining the places that he went to, and using my imagination, tempered by my understanding of the time and place, I endeavored to re-create the past in as consistent a way as possible with what I expect actually happened. I used this historical imagination in particular in my account re-creating experiences of Mr. Lee in my book, The Land Between the Rivers: Thomas Nuttall’s Ascent of the Arkansas, 1819.

Here is an example of what I wrote:

Lee’s grandest moment came in late August, 1819, when he and Nuttall were descending the Arkansas River and just departed the Osage camp but realize they were being followed by at least two warriors. Nuttall was on horseback, Lee in his canoe. Late afternoon brought billowing clouds building upward and outward. The rolling mass, reflecting the light of the late day sun, rose to an astonishing height. Observation gave way to imagination, as the massive anvil grew closer, and awe as it darkened the sky and halted the hot southern wind. A brief calm and distant rumbles exploded into a sharp north wind and claps of thunder, lightning piercing all in its path. The glare of the noon sun was a distant memory during the twilight of day. Massive thunderheads, white and gray mushrooms in the sky, filled the horizon. Dusk had an eerie, green look about it. The fascinating show of light streaking across and within the thunderheads became the immediate peril of dancing bolts of lightning, sporadically and unpredictably erupting into terrifying concussions of sound and light. Torrents of rain and hail blasted shrubs and turned the driest earth into sticky mud. Rushing runoff had its way with the soil, creating deep furrows, eroding a path toward neighboring gullies and instant creeks, soon filled with the dull, red water. The two men knew the peril of the storm, but they welcomed its onset all the same. Lee paddled his dugout canoe furiously in apparent utter futility considering that escape from the randomness and instantaneity of the lightning stroke was impossible—especially when the level plane of the river made a canoe and its occupant stand out, a perfect target for the thunderbolt. The situation of Nuttall was even worse. Nuttall urged his horse on in the storm, through sandy beaches, uncertain shallows, and the ever-present danger of quicksand. The unaccommodating riverbank forced man and horse to cross the river repeatedly. The scientist found everything equally terrifying. The principles of electricity, he knew, made he and his horse perfect conductors for the electric charge. The river was, however, as threatening. Its current was still lazy enough, and the water was shallow. But the bottom was completely uncertain. The horse repeatedly stumbled, fell in deep holes, dunking both beast and rider. Then the hapless animal became stuck in quicksand, which unmercifully sucked in both man and horse, their cries for help being drowned out by the sounds of the storm. Fortunately, the hunter Mr. Lee had developed a protective attitude toward his inexperienced companion. Lee was ever watchful for Nuttall’s safety. Nuttall soon felt the rope and heard Lee’s command to tie it around the horse’s neck. With difficulty Lee pulled them to safety. They escaped the storm and the Osage warriors. Somehow, amid all this action, Lee contrived to kill a buck; that night they feasted on venison around the dim light of a campfire, which Lee knew was a beacon to their enemies.

Telling a story of the past is almost old as writing itself. To tell a story of the past in the present enables the listener, the reader, the watcher, to re-live the past, to engage in a sort of dialogue with past lives, to rescue, as it were, the past in the present.

About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
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