FREMONT’S HEROIC EXPEDITION OF THE DISCOVERY TO THE UNTRACKED REGION OF THE NORTH-WEST, OREGON, CALIFORNIA, ETC. — 1842
Every American reader is enchanted with the narrative of those intrepid and heroic explorations of Fremont, “the Pathfinder,” which, in the language of Humboldt, — himself the greatest scientific explorer and geographer the world has ever seen, — “enriched every branch of natural science, and illustrated a vast country before entirely unknown,” and in appreciation of which he received from his admiring countrymen the highest tokens of honor, and, from kingly hands, acknowledgments inscribed on tablets of gold.
Several exploring tours of the western portion of our continent, within the geographical boundaries of the country subsequently known by the title of Oregon, took place before that which was led by the brave Fremont, but none with such rich and varied results as the latter.
It being desirable for our government to become fully acquainted with the character of the vast territory between the southern geographical boundary of the United States and the Rocky Mountains, around the head-waters of the Missouri, Fremont was appointed to superintend that exploring tour, under the direction of Colonel Abert, the chief of the topographical bureau at Washington, and by him projected and planned, with the approval of Secretary Poinsett. The great object of this expedition was to examine and report upon the rivers and country between the frontiers of Missouri and the base of the Rocky Mountains; and especially to examine the character, and ascertain the latitude and longitude of that wonderful gateway, the South Pass, the great crossing place to these mountains on the way to Oregon.
In executing his official instructions, Fremont proceeded up the Kansas river far enough to ascertain its peculiar features, and then crossed over to the Great Platte, and pursued that river to its source in the mountains, where the Sweet Water — a head branch of the Platte — issues from the neighborhood of the South Pass. He reached the Pass on the eighth of August, and found it to be a wide and low depression of the mountains, of very easy ascent, and where a plainly beaten wagon load leads to the Oregon through the valley of Lewis’s river, a fork of the Columbia. He went through the Pass, and saw the head-waters of the Colorado, of the Gulf of California; and, leaving the valleys to indulge a laudable curiosity, and to make some useful observations, Fremont, attended by four of his men, climbed the loftiest peak of the Rocky Mountains, until then untrodden by any known human being; and, on the fifteenth of August, looked down upon ice and snow some thousand feet below, and traced in the distance the valleys of the rivers which, taking their rise in the same elevated ridge, flow in opposite directions to the Pacific ocean and to the Mississippi. From that ultimate point he returned by the valley of the Great Platte, following the stream in its whole course, and solving all questions in relation to its navigability, and the features of the country through which it flows.
On the prairies which border the forks of the river Platte, the travelers bivouacked in the evening, eating their meat with a good relish; for they were all in fine health, and had ridden nearly of a long summer’s day, with a burning sun reflected from the sands.
When about sixty miles distant, the party caught the first faint glimpse of the Rocky Mountains. Though a tolerably bright day, there was a slight mist, and the snowy summit of ‘Long’s Peak,’ showing like a small cloud near the horizon, was just barely discernible. There was, however, no mistake in distinguishing it, there being a perceptible difference in its appearance from the white clouds that were floating about the sky.
Proceeding onward through hostile tribes of Indians, Fremont reached the first military frontier post — Fort Laramie; departing thence, in a short time, for the bases of the “great mountains.” With the change in the geological formation on leaving Fort Laramie, the whole face of the country appears entirely changed. Eastward of the meridian, the principal objects which strike the eye of the traveler are the absence of timber, and the immense expanse of prairie, covered with the verdure of rich grasses, and highly adapted for pasturage. Wherever they are not disturbed by the vicinity of man, large herds of buffalo give animation to this country.
Many sufferings were endured in reaching the Rocky Mountains, but the following details show that the labors of the party were amply rewarded. About six miles from their encampment brought the party to the summit of the South Pass. The ascent had been so gradual, that, with all the intimate knowledge possessed by Carson, the guide, and who had made that country his home for seventeen years, the party were obliged to watch very closely to find the place at which they had reached the culminating point. This was between two low hills, rising on either hand fifty or sixty feet. From the broken ground where this pass commences, at the foot of the Wind River Chain, the view to the south-east is over a champaign country, broken, at the distance of nineteen miles, by the Table Rock, which, with the other isolated hills in its vicinity, seemingly stands on a comparative plain. The ‘Pass’ in no manner resembles the places to which that term is commonly applied — nothing of the gorge-like character and winding ascents of the Alleghany passes in America, nor of the great St. Bernard and Simplon passes in Europe. Approaching from the mouth of the Sweet Water, a sandy plain, one hundred and twenty miles long, conducts, by a gradual and regular ascent, to the summit, about seven thousand feet above the sea; and the traveler, without being reminded of any change, by toilsome ascents, suddenly finds himself on the waters which flow to the Pacific ocean. On this short mountain-chain are the head-waters of four great rivers of the western continent, namely, the Colorado, Columbia, Missouri, and Platte rivers.
A scene of characteristic adventure was that of reaching the summit of these mountains. Putting hands and feet in the crevices between the blocks, Fremont succeeded in getting over it, and, on attaining the top, found his companions in a small valley below. Descending to them, they continued climbing, and in a short time reached the crest. He sprang upon the summit, and unfurled the national flag to wave in the breeze where never flag waved before.
During the morning’s ascent, no sign of animal life was met with, except a small sparrow-like bird. A stillness the most profound and a solitude the most terrible forced themselves constantly on the mind as the great features of the place. Here, on the summit, where the stillness was absolute, unbroken by any sound, and the solitude complete, the explorers thought themselves beyond the region of animated life; but, while they were sitting on the rock, a solitary bumble-bee came winging his flight from the eastern valley, and lit on the knee of one of the men. It was a strange place, the icy rock and the highest peak of the Rocky Mountains, for a lover of warm sunshine and flowers. The barometer stood at 18.293, the attached thermometer at 44 degrees; giving for the elevation of this summit 13,570 feet above the sea, it may be called the highest known flight of the bee. From this presumed loftiest peak of the great mountain range, — since known as Fremont’s Peak, — could be seen innumerable lakes and streams, the spring of the Colorado of the Gulf of California, on the one side; on the other, was the Wind River valley, where were the heads of the Yellow Stone branch of the Missouri; far to the north could be faintly descried the snowy heads of the Trois Tetons, where were the sources of the Missouri and Columbia rivers; and at the southern extremity of the ridge, the peaks were plainly visible, among which were some of the springs of the Nebraska, or Platte river. The whole scene around had one main striking feature, which was that of terrible convulsion. Parallel to its length, the ridge was split into chasms and fissures; between which rose the thin lofty walls, terminated with slender minarets and columns.
Fremont’s next tour was devoted to Oregon and California. On arriving at the Utah lake, he had completed an immense circuit of twelve degrees diameter north and south, and ten degrees east and west. They found themselves in May, 1844, on the same sheet of water which they had left in September, 1843. The Utah is the southern limb of the Great Salt Lake; and thus they had seen this remarkable sheet of water both at its northern and southern extremity, and were able to fix its position at these two points. In this eight months circuit, the explorers found that the mountains on the Pacific slope are higher, more numerous, and more distinctly defined in their ranges and directions, than those on the Atlantic side; and, what is contrary to the natural order of such formations, one of these ranges, which is near the coast — the Sierra Nevada and the Coast Range — presents higher elevations and peaks than any which are to be found in the Rocky Mountains themselves. During all this circuit, the party were never out of sight of snow; and the Sierra Nevada, where they crossed it, was nearly two thousand feet higher than the famous South Pass. Peaks are constantly seen which enter the region of eternal snow.
Differing so much from the Atlantic side of our continent in coast, mountains, and rivers, the Pacific side differs from it in yet another most rare and singular feature — that of the Great Interior Basin. The structure of the country would require this formation of interior lakes, for the waters which would collect between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, not being able to cross this formidable barrier, nor to get to the Columbia or the Colorado, must naturally collect into reservoirs, each of which would have its little system of streams and rivers to supply it. The Great Salt Lake is a formation of this kind, and quite a large one, having many streams, and one considerable river, four or five hundred miles long, falling into it. Fremont saw this lake and river, and examined them; he also saw the Wahsatch and Bear River mountains inclosing the waters of the lake on the east, and constitute, in that quarter, the rim of the Great Basin. Afterwards, along the eastern base of the Sierra Nevada, where the party traveled for forty-two days, they saw the line of lakes and rivers which lie at the foot of that sierra, and which sierra is the western rim of the basin. In going down Lewis’s Fork, and the main Columbia, they crossed only inferior streams coming in from the left; and often saw the mountains at their heads, white with snow, which divided the waters of the desert from those of the Columbia, — the range of mountains forming the rim of the basin on its northern side. In returning from California along the Spanish trail, as far as the head of the Santa Clara Fork of the Rio Virgen, the party crossed only small streams making their way south to the Colorado, or lost in sand, as the Mo-hah-ve; while to the left, lofty mountains, their summits white with snow, were often visible — and which, Fremont , concluded, must have turned water to the north as well as to the south, thus constituting, on this part, the southern rim of the basin. At the head of the Santa Clara Fork, and in the Vegas de Santa Clara, they crossed the ridge which parted the two systems of waters. They entered the basin at that point, and continued for some time to travel in it, having its south-eastern rim — the Wahsatch mountain — on the right, and crossing the streams which flow down into it.
In this eventful exploration, all the great features of the western slope of our continent were brought to light the Great Salt Lake, the Utah Lake, the Little Salt Lake — at all which places, then desert, the Mormons now are; the Sierra Nevada, then solitary in the snow, now crowded with Americans, digging gold from its banks; the beautiful valleys of the Sacramento and San Joaquin, then alive with wild horses, elk, deer, and wild fowls, now smiling with American cultivation. The Great Basin itself, and its contents; the three Parks; the approximation of the great rivers which, rising together in the central region of the Rocky Mountains, go off east and west towards the rising and the setting sun, — all these, and other strange features of a new region, more Asiatic than American, were brought to light and revealed to public view in the results of this exploration. But the great pathfinder was to win laurels in still another field.
It was in May, 1845, that Fremont set out on his third expedition for the exploration of the Great West, and he was soon at the north end of the great Tla-math lake, and in Oregon. Hostilities being likely to break out between the United States and Mexico, Fremont, in order to avoid exciting any unjust suspicion as to the character of his movements, obtained leave of the Mexican general at Monterey, to encamp during the ensuing winter, in the San Joaquin valley. It was not long, however, before open diplomatic hostilities broke out between the two republics, and Fremont received word from his government to keep an eye upon Mexican and other designs upon California. General Kearney, by order of government, was constituted head of the army of the west, which was to retaliate sternly upon Mexico, for her assumed aggressions. New Mexico was soon prostrate before American arms. On the fifth of July, 1846, under the lead of Fremont, a band of Americans declared their independence of Mexico at Sonoma, a small town near San Francisco, and, not long after, they joined Commodore Sloat, who had recently reduced Monterey. The successor of Sloat was Stockton, who, in connection with Fremont, at once gained possession of Ciudad de los Angelos, the capital of Upper California; and one event speedily succeeded another, until, seemingly as inevitable as the gravitation of fate, the loss of California was consummated, and Fremont was appointed governor of the territory, which, largely through his efforts, had now become a permanent possession of the United States.
So curious a link in this chain of events, as the throwing off of the Mexican yoke at Sonoma, and illustrating so aptly, as it does, the intrepidity of the great explorer, possesses an interest peculiarly appropriate to this narrative. Having aided in clearing the enemy from the country north of the bay of San Francisco, Fremont returned to Sonoma on the evening of the fourth of July, and, on the morning of the fifth, called the people together, explained to them the condition of things in the province, and recommended an immediate declaration of independence. The declaration was made, and he was selected as governor, or chief director of affairs.
From Sonoma to Yerba Buena, (says one who accompanied him,) the little hamlet where now stands the queen city of the Pacific, Fremont augmented his stock of horses to the number of fifteen hundred, completely clearing the country; and then commenced one of the most peculiar races for a fight ever probably known. Rarely speaking but to urge on his men, or to question some passing native, taking the smallest modicum of refreshment, and watching while others snatched a moment’s repose, was he wrapped up in his project and determined to have some of the fight. Through San Pablo, and Monterey, and Josepha, they dashed like the phantom riders of the Hartz mountains, startling the inhabitants, and making the night-watcher cross himself in terror as their band flew on. The river Sacrificios was reached; swollen by the rains, it rolled on, a rapid, muddy stream; his men paused.
“Forward! Forward!” cried Fremont.
Dashing in himself, the struggle is a fierce one, but his gallant mustang breasts the current, and he reaches the opposite shore in safety; his men after a time join him, two brave fellows finding a watery grave, and many horses being carried down the stream; but nothing can now stop him — the heights adjacent to the Puebla appear — now a smile might be seen on the imperturbable visage of the leader — ’tis the sixth day, and the goal is won!
With ninety men on the last of his caravan of horses, he fell like a thunderbolt on the rear of the Mexicans. The day was with them; the little band of stout hearts guarding the presidio, taken by surprise, and not having the advantage of the Mexicans in regard to horses, were beginning to waver. But cheer up, cheer again — succor is at hand. On come those riders of Fremont — nothing can withstand their shock. With shouts of triumph they change the battle to a rout. The field is won! The rout of the enemy was complete, and so ended the ride of the one hundred. Thus did Fremont display, by the rarest achievements, the character of a consummate scientific explorer and brave soldier; and, for his pre-eminent services in behalf of geographical science, he received the highest honors from the learned societies of Europe and America, and a rich and massive gold medal from the king of Prussia, through the hands of Baron Humboldt.