So this is probably what comes from being over-educated.
When I read the above entry in William Swain’s diary for Sept. 13, 1949, I thought ‘catamount?’ Isn’t that an archaic term for gay man?
Were there gay men on the trail for California in 1849? Of course, there probably were, most certainly there were, but there’s no proof . Is this evidence? I thought. What’s the story of this lone man? How did the other men know he was gay? Why is he on his own wondering the trail in the early hours of the morning? Would they have shot him if they had brought their guns? Some other group must have kicked him though at this point on the trail, as the wagon trains closed in on California, many men were leaving their groups thinking they could travel faster on their own and get to the gold fields that much sooner.
So, I looked up the term just to be sure.
Catamount: any kind of wild cat such as a cougar or a lynx, Merriam-Webster.
I was thinking of catamite which is an ancient Greek term for a kept boy. Ganymede the lover of Zeus for example. There went my theory and what could have made for a great story. Sorry sir, you turned out to be a cougar. Calling the cougar “the fellow” didn’t help me any either.
I looked further and found that “cata” from the Greek means downward or wrongly. Thanks a lot, ancient Greeks. As an English professor of mine used to say, “Those fucking Greeks!” But this root doesn’t make sense with the word cougar so I looked some more to find that “Catamount” is a Middle English word for “cat of the mountains.” So the word catamount has no relation with a catamite at all.
Isn’t etymology fun?
I still say that taking a history book two chapters at a time has been an excellent way to read and retain information. The World Rushed In, which I’ve been reading for a while now, is a first hand account of life on the trail and in the camps during the California Gold Rush. Made up of diaries and letters, it offers a unique personal view of the experience in part because both sides of the main correspondence have been preserved–Swain’s letters home to his wife and family along with their letters to him.
In the section I read this weekend, Swain’s group is on the downward slope into California, travelling along the Truckee River. What I still find remarkable is how they have stayed together so long. Other groups have broken up, some going forward others returning home. Men are starting to abandon their groups so they can rush ahead and get a claim before the others, even a few of Swain’s group have done this. But overall, Swain’s group has stayed together, gotten along without much argument and supported each other when one was sick or injured. They even still have Sunday services each week, though they do not take the full day off for rest anymore.
Other than the hardships of a long camping trip, and a few run-ins with geography, a few rivers have proven deadly to cross, they’ve made the journey unmolested. The Native Americans they’ve met have all wanted to trade, beg for food or other items, or engage in a handful of thefts. None of the other groups have bothered them; Swain remarks that there is nothing left to steal so there is no theft. The men have emptied their wagons of every extra item by this point, even thrown more than a few guns out along the side of the trail to lighten their load.
That really shocked me, that they would toss guns aside as unnecessary. I image these are all second guns, but still. Weren’t guns supposed to be ubiquitous in the American West.
Even the wild animals have left them alone. Cougars are notoriously shy animals, I’m sure that they didn’t have to do much more than speak loudly to the catamount to get it to leave their cattle alone on Sept. 13, 1849.
I expect to find Swain in the gold fields soon as I am just over halfway through The World Rushed In. Should I run into anymore discoveries, I’ll be sure to look them up first before I get too excited.