MID-NINETEENTH-CENTURY PATTERNS OF INDIVIDUALISM
ON A WINTER DAY IN THE 1850's, according to a tradition of the West, a party of mountain men, fleeing a band of hostile Sioux, sought refuge in an isolated canyon whose entrance was concealed by a growth of cedar. To their astonishment they saw in a clearing beneath a cliff a starving horse, facing a numbing wind. One of the party recognized the mustang as Nez Perce, the mount of the lonely trapper, Bill Williams. Not far away they found the body of the old hunter, reclining against a tree, the feet stretched toward some charred pine logs half buried in snow. Bill Williams had died, as he had lived, alone. His fellows among the fraternity of free trappers normally went in small companies into the wilderness for mutual assistance against the dangers of nature and of the Indians. Williams' success in meeting single-handed the hazards of the mountains made his name a legend. His exploits and his death became part of the oral literature of the West. A peak in Arizona was named in his honor. Bill Williams personified the ideal of the American frontier. He was the individualist who never surrendered his independence.
In the western mountains the prospector followed the trapper. First in California and then in the broken country to the eastward mining towns appeared. Silver City in the high Sierras reached in the 1850's a population of some ten thousand in a few weeks after the first news of the strike. For months it was a center of feverish activity. Then it vanished and its name was added to a long and growing list of mountain ghost-towns. Silver City illustrates a contrast between Europe and America. In the upland hamlets of Switzerland the same families have lived for generations. There individual men are born and die, but the community goes on through decades