Frémont, John C.

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Frémont, John C.

Excerpt from The Life of Col. John Charles Frémont, and His Narrative of Explorations and Adventures in Kansas, Nebraska, Oregon and California

By Samuel M. Smucker

Published in 1856

In 1842 John C. Frémont (1813–1890), known as "The Pathfinder," led an expedition between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains. In 1843 he led another from Independence, Missouri, along the Kansas River, across the Rocky Mountains, and over the Laramie Plain through South Pass. Frémont's description of the Salt Lake Valley inspired Brigham Young and his Mormon followers to settle there a decade later. Frémont's party eventually reached the Columbia River north of what he called the Great Basin. From there Frémont followed the Sierra Nevada range south into California. The expedition endured a brutal winter season before finally arriving at Sutter's ranch, a site that in 1849 would be overwhelmed by prospective gold seekers.

Like most military explorers, Frémont was motivated by the potential for increasing American territory. However, his findings proved significant for subsequent geographical explorations. With the aid of Charles Preuss, a Prussian cartographer, Frémont produced the first accurate map of the overall trans-Mississippi west as well as a special emigrant map of the Oregon and California trails with precise information on distances, landmarks, and river crossings. His exuberant writings encouraged many to migrate to the West. The following narrative is an excerpt from Frémont's expedition into the country between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains from May to October of 1842.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from The Life of Col. John Charles Frémont:

  • In 1843 the first major migration of emigrants staked out claims to land west of the Rocky Mountains after traveling more than two thousand miles along the Oregon Trail.
  • Frémont's nickname was not entirely accurate since he generally followed routes that had already been discovered earlier by other explorers, trappers, and traders. However, it was his accurate surveys and exciting reports that encouraged large numbers of people to settle the American West.
  • Frémont's wife, Jessie—the daughter of influential Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton—helped him write his reports.
  • Frémont's reports inspired great popular interest in the West and garnered political support for territorial expansion. More than ten thousand copies of his first report were sold.
  • In 1842 Frémont hired Kit Carson (1809–1868) as guide and hunter at one hundred dollars a month. Carson would guide three of Frémont's expeditions.
  • Frémont's accounts of his expeditions included dynamic descriptions of his guide, which brought Kit Carson fame as a hero of the West. In his first report, Frémont wrote that "mounted on a fine horse, without a saddle, and scouring bareheaded over the prairies, Kit was one of the finest pictures of a horseman I have ever seen."
  • During his first expedition, Frémont climbed Frémont Peak in the Wind River Range of Wyoming, which he thought (at the time) was the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains.

Excerpt from The Life of Col. John Charles Frémont

A Narrative of Adventures and Explorations, in the Country Lying between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains

[The third month of the journey: July 1842] To the south, along our line of march to-day, the main chain of the Black or Laramie hills risesprecipitously. Time did not permit me to visit them; but, from comparative information, the ridge is composed of the coarse sandstone orconglomerate hereafter described. It appears to enter the region of clouds, which are arrested in their course, and lie in masses along the summits. An inverted cone of black cloud (cumulus) rested during all theforenoon on the lofty peak of Laramie mountain, which I estimated to be about two thousand feet above the fort, or six thousand five hundred above the sea. We halted to noon on the Fourche Amere, so called from being timbered principally with the liard amere, (a species of poplar,) with which the valley of the little stream is tolerably well wooded, and which, with large expansive summits, grows to the height of sixty or seventy feet.


Precipitously: Quite steeply.


Conglomerate: A type of rock that is made up of pebbles, stones, and other hard materials cemented together.


Forenoon: The hours between sunrise and noon.

The bed of the creek is sand and gravel, the water dispersed over the broad bed in several shallow streams. We found here, on the right bank, in the shade of the trees, a fine spring of very cold water. It will be remarked that I do not mention, in this portion ofthe journey, the temperature of the air, sand, springs, &c.—an omission which will be explained in the course of the narrative. In my search for plants, I was well rewarded at this place.

With the change in the geological formation on leaving Fort Laramie, the whole face of the country has entirely altered its appearance. Eastward of thatmeridian, the principal objects which strike the eye of a traveler are the absence of timber, and the immense expanse of prairie, covered with theverdure of rich grasses, and highly adapted for pasturage. Wherever they are not disturbed by thevicinity of man, large herds of buffalo give animation to this country. Westward of Laramie river, the region is sandy, and apparentlysterile; and the place of the grass isusurped by theartemisia and otherodoriferous plants, to whose growth the sandy soil and dry air of this elevated region seem highly favorable.

One of the prominent characteristics in the face of the country is the extraordinary abundance of the artemisias. They grow everywhere—on hills, and over the river bottoms, in tough, twisted, wiry clumps; and, wherever the beaten track was left, they rendered the progress of the carts rough and slow....

[July] 28th.—In two miles from our encampment, we reached the place where the regular road crosses the Platte. There was two hundred feet breadth of water at this time in the bed, which has a variable width of eight to fifteen hundred feet. The channels were generally three feet deep, and there were large angular rocks on the bottom, which made theford in some places a little difficult. Even at its low stages, this river cannot be crossed at random, and this has always been used as the best ford. The low stage of the water the present year had made it fordable in almost any part of its course, where access could be had to its bed....


Meridian: Imaginary lines that run north and south along the Earth's surface from the North Pole to the South Pole; used to locate one's place on the Earth; measured as longitude.


Verdure: Abundant green plant life.


Vicinity: Nearness.


Sterile: Unable to produce life; Frémont is noting that the landscape has become less lush.


Usurped: Overtaken.


Artemisia: Any of various aromatic plants having green or grayish foliage and numerous small flowers, including mugwort, sagebrush, tarragon, and wormweed.


Odoriferous: Aromatic, fragrant.


Ford: A shallow place in a river or stream where one can cross.


Transient: Short-lived.


Circuits: A path that circles around.

The road which is now generally followed through this region is therefore a very good one, without any difficult ascents to overcome. The principal obstructions are near the river, where thetransient waters of heavy rains had made deep ravines with steep banks, which render frequentcircuits necessary. It will be remembered that wagons pass this road only once or twice a year, which is by no means sufficient to break down the stubborn roots of the innumerable artemisia bushes. A partial absence of these is often the only indication of the track; and the roughness produced by their roots in many places gives the road the character of one newly opened in a wooded country. This is usually considered the worst part of the road east of the mountains; and, as it passes through an open prairie region,may be much improved, so as to avoid the greater part of the inequalities it now presents.

From the mouth of the Kansas to the Green River valley, west of the mountains, there is no such thing as a mountain road on the line of communication....


Bernier: Bernard Bernier, one of Frémont's most trusted men. Bernier was in charge of the land party.


Apprize: Spelled apprise; to inform.


Viz.: Namely.

[August] 24th.—We started before sunrise, intending to breakfast at Goat Island. I had directed the land party, in charge ofBernier, to proceed to this place, where they were to remain, should they find no note toapprize them of our having passed. In the event of receiving this information, they were to continue their route, passing by certain places which had been designated. Mr. Preuss accompanied me, and with us were five of my best men,viz. : C. Lambert, Basil Lajeuneese, Honore Ayot, Benoist, and Descoteaux. Here appeared no scarcity of water, and we took on board, with various instruments and baggage, provisions for ten or twelve days. We paddled down the river rapidly, for our little craft was light as a duck on the water; and the sun had been some time risen, when we heardbefore us a hollow roar, which we supposed to be that of a fall, of which we had heard a vague rumor, but whose exact locality no one had been able to describe to us. We were approaching a ridge, through which the river passes by a place called "canon," (pronounced kanyon,)—a Spanish word, signifying a piece of artillery, the barrel of a gun, or any kind of tube; and which, in this country, has been adopted to describe the passage of a river between perpendicular rocks of great height, which frequently approach each other so closely overhead as to form a kind of tunnel over the stream, which foams along below, half choked up by fallen fragments. Between the mouth of the Sweet Water and Goat island, there is probably a fall of three hundred feet, and that was principally made in the canons before us; as, without them, the water was comparatively smooth. As we neared the ridge, the river made a sudden turn, and swept squarely down against one of the walls of the canon, with greatvelocity, and so steep a descent that it had, to the eye, the appearance of an inclined plane. When we launched into this, the men jumped overboard, to check the velocity of our boat; but were soon in water up to their necks, and our boat ran on. But we succeeded in bringing her to a small point of rocks on the right, at the mouth of the canon. Here was a kind of elevated sand-beach, not many yards square, backed by the rocks on the right, and around the point the river swept at a right angle. Trunks of trees deposited on jutting points, twenty to thirty feet above, and other marks, showed that the water here frequently rose to a considerable height. The ridge was of the same decomposing granite already mentioned, and the water had worked the surface, in many places, into a wavy surface of ridges and holes. We ascended the rocks toreconnoiter the ground, and from the summit the passage appeared to be a continuedcataract, foaming over many obstructions, and broken by a number of small falls. We saw nowhere a fall answering to that which had been described to us as having twenty or twenty-five feet; but still concluded this to be the place in question, as, in the season of floods, the rush of the river against the wall


Velocity: Swiftness, speed of motion.


Reconnoiter: Inspect.


Cataract: A large or high waterfall.

would produce a great rise; and the waters, reflected squarely off, would descend through the passage in a sheet of foam, having every appearance of a large fall. Eighteen years previous to this time, as I have subsequently learned from himself, Mr. Fitzpatrick, somewhere above the river, had embarked with a valuable cargo of beaver. Unacquainted with the stream, which he believed would conduct him safely to the Missouri, he came unexpectedly into this canon, where he was wrecked, with the total loss of his furs. It would have been a work of great time and labor to pack our baggage across the ridge, and I determined to run the canon. We all again embarked, and at first attempted to check the way of the boat; but the water swept through with so much violence that we narrowly escaped being swamped, and were obliged to let her go in the full force of the current, and trust to the skill of the boatmen. The dangerous places in this canon were where huge rocks had fallen from above, and hemmed in the already narrow pass of the river to an open space of three or four and five feet. These obstructions raised the water considerably above, which was sometimes precipitated over in a fall; and at the other places, where this dam was too high, rushed through the contracted opening with tremendous violence. Had our boat been made of wood, in passing the narrows she would have been staved; but her elasticity preserved her unhurt from every shock, and she seemed fairly to leap over the falls.

In this way we passed three cataracts in succession, where perhaps 100 feet of smooth water intervened; and, finally, with a shout of pleasure at our success, issued from out tunnel into the open day beyond. We were so delighted with the performance of our boat, and so confident in her powers, that we would not have hesitated to leap a fall of ten feet with her. [Smucker, pp. 134–35, 140–41, 174–76]

What happened next . . .

Mapping and explorations of the North American continent continued. During the Mexican-American War (1846–1848) and as hostilities increased between the federal government and Plains Indians, the U.S. Army explored and mapped large portions of the West for reconnaissance purposes. In other words, scouts produced maps that identified the locations of water holes and mountain passes. These maps were then used to deduce enemy movements. In 1854 G. K. Warren compiled all known research from the previous half-century to produce an exhaustive map of the United States from the Mississippi to the Pacific. Geographers agree that Warren's publication marked the official end of geographic exploration and the beginning of a new research stage: the detailed survey, which John Wesley Powell pioneered in the 1870s.

Following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War and established the official border between the United States and Mexico, the U.S. Topographical Corps surveyed the length of the Rio Grande, producing studies that proved valuable in later railroad development. At individual military posts, army surgeons wrote descriptive reports of the local terrain and flora and fauna as well as detailed accounts of health and sanitation levels of the troops and neighboring civilian communities. Government employees—engineers, soldiers, and topographers—also prospected for water, mapped rivers and harbors, built dams, and supervised road construction. These early efforts represented an alliance between science and government that continues to the present day.

Did you know . . .

  • Frémont's report of his first two expeditions contradicted Zebulon Pike's view that the Plains were the "Great American Desert." Instead Frémont described the possibilities of this region. His report attracted many pioneers westward.
  • Frémont's survey of the northern shores of the Great Salt Lake in 1843 encouraged the Mormons under Brigham Young to settle there four years later.
  • Frémont's excursion into California from 1845 to 1846 played a major role in the U.S. taking control of that territory from Mexico. Frémont led a group of American settlers in California in their revolt against Mexico and set up California as an independent republic. California Territory became part of the United States after the Mexican-American War.
  • Frémont became territorial governor of California, but his authority was quickly revoked by a regular army force under General Stephen Kearny. When Frémont refused to give up his post, he was arrested and sent back east as a prisoner. There he was found guilty of mutiny and disobedience at a court-martial and dismissed from the army, but President James K. Polk remitted the sentence. Frémont, however, was furious at his treatment and quit the army anyway.
  • After Frémont quit the army, he made a fortune in the California gold rush.
  • Frémont briefly served as a U.S. senator from California and unsuccessfully ran for president as the first candidate of the newly established Republican Party in 1856.
  • During the Civil War, Frémont briefly commanded all Union forces in the West. President Lincoln dismissed Frémont when Frémont overstepped his authority by issuing an order freeing all slaves in Missouri. Frémont lost his fortune in several ill-fated railroad schemes. President Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–1893) appointed Frémont governor of the Arizona Territory in 1878.

Consider the following . . .

  • Why did Frémont decide to run the rapids of the river?
  • How did Frémont describe the prairies?
  • What was the major difference between the landscape of the prairies and the land farther west?
  • What aspects of Frémont's reports would inspire someone to travel west?

For More Information

Frémont, John C. Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains. Washington D.C.: United States government, 1845.

Harris, Edward D. John Charles Frémont and the Great Western Reconnaissance. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.

Preuss, Charles. Exploring with Frémont. Edited by Erwin G. and Elizabeth K. Gudde. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958.

Sanford, William R., and Carl R. Green. John C. Frémont: Soldier and Pathfinder. Springfield, New Jersey: Enslow Publishers, 1996.

Smucker, Samuel M. The Life of Col. John Charles Frémont, and His Narrative of Explorations and Adventures in Kansas, Nebraska, Oregon and California. New York: Miller, Orton and Mulligan, 1856.

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Frémont, John C.

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