They went with axe and rifle, when the trail was still to blaze,
They went with wife and children, in the prairie-schooner days,
With banjo and with frying pan—Susanna, don’t you cry!
For I’m off to California to get rich out there or die!
We’ve broken land and cleared it, but we’re tired of where we are.
They say that wild Nebraska is a better place by far.
There’s gold in far Wyoming, there’s black earth in Ioway,
So pack up the kids and blankets, for we’re moving out today!
The cowards never started and the weak died on the road,
And all across the continent the endless campfires glowed.
We’d taken land and settled but a traveler passed by—
And we’re going West tomorrow—Lordy , never ask us why!
We’re going West tomorrow, where the promises can’t fail.
O’er the hills in legions, boys, and crowd the dusty trail!
We shall starve and freeze and suffer. We shall die, and tame the lands.
But we’re going West tomorrow, with our fortune in our hands.
Stephen Vincent Benet
Something for a New Year weekend. The theme song from the movie How the West Was Won (1962). The death of Debbie Reynolds drew my attention to this film, which featured her in a starring role. The film itself is an uneven work, but it has a magnificent score which captures something of the spirit of the pioneers. The settlement of the West, from the Appalachians to the Pacific, is perhaps the defining event in the history of our nation and it receives too little historical comment. Thomas Jefferson thought it would take one hundred generations to settle the land beyond the Mississippi. Instead, from the ending of the American Revolution to the census of 1890 which proclaimed that the frontier no longer existed, barely five generations had passed, and there were a handful of Americans at the end still living who had lived through almost all of it. This epic tale is perhaps too large for the historians and thus today I have picked out two poems written by Stephen Vincent Benet that convey a small fragment of the passion, grandeur, tragedy and wonder of it all.
THE BALLAD OF WILLIAM SYCAMORE
MY FATHER, he was a mountaineer,
His fist was a knotty hammer;
He was quick on his feet as a running deer,
And he spoke with a Yankee stammer.
My mother, she was merry and brave,
And so she came to her labor,
With a tall green fir for her doctor grave
And a stream for her comforting neighbor.
And some are wrapped in the linen fine,
And some like a godling’s scion;
But I was cradled on twigs of pine
In the skin of a mountain lion.
And some remember a white, starched lap
And a ewer with silver handles;
But I remember a coonskin cap
And the smell of bayberry candles.
The cabin logs, with the bark still rough,
And my mother who laughed at trifles,
And the tall, lank visitors, brown as snuff,
With their long, straight squirrel-rifles.
I can hear them dance, like a foggy song,
Through the deepest one of my slumbers,
The fiddle squeaking the boots along
And my father calling the numbers.
The quick feet shaking the puncheon-floor,
And the fiddle squealing and squealing,
Till the dried herbs rattled above the door
And the dust went up to the ceiling.
There are children lucky from dawn till dusk,
But never a child so lucky!
For I cut my teeth on “Money Musk”
In the Bloody Ground of Kentucky!
When I grew as tall as the Indian corn,
My father had little to lend me,
But he gave me his great, old powder-horn
And his woodsman’s skill to befriend me.
With a leather shirt to cover my back,
And a redskin nose to unravel
Each forest sign, I carried my pack
As far as a scout could travel.
Till I lost my boyhood and found my wife,
A girl like a Salem clipper!
A woman straight as a hunting-knife
With eyes as bright as the Dipper!
We cleared our camp where the buffalo feed,
Unheard-of streams were our flagons;
And I sowed my sons like the apple-seed
On the trail of the Western wagons.
They were right, tight boys, never sulky or slow,
A fruitful, a goodly muster.
The eldest died at the Alamo.
The youngest fell with Custer.
The letter that told it burned my hand.
Yet we smiled and said, “So be it!”
But I could not live when they fenced the land,
For it broke my heart to see it.
I saddled a red, unbroken colt
And rode him into the day there;
And he threw me down like a thunderbolt
And rolled on me as I lay there.
The hunter’s whistle hummed in my ear
As the city-men tried to move me,
And I died in my boots like a pioneer
With the whole wide sky above me.
Now I lie in the heart of the fat, black soil,
Like the seed of the prairie-thistle;
It has washed my bones with honey and oil
And picked them clean as a whistle.
And my youth returns, like the rains of Spring,
And my sons, like the wild-geese flying;
And I lie and hear the meadow-lark sing
And have much content in my dying.
Go play with the towns you have built of blocks,
The towns where you would have bound me!
I sleep in my earth like a tired fox,
And my buffalo have found me.
Stephen Vincent Benet