Everyone loves a treasure hunt. The treasure I am talking about in this article is the elusive mountain howitzer abandoned during a snowstorm in the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1844 by John C. Fremont. Otherwise known as the Fremont Cannon, this priceless artifact has been sought by treasure hunters, archaeologists, Forest Service employees and others for 170 years. By Nevada Day (October 31st) of 2013, we were finally able to see the remains of the lost Fremont Cannon at the Nevada State Museum.
A special Exhibit of artifacts from the Fremont expedition of 1843 – 1844 was opened and remained on display for over a year. Being a tour guide at the Museum, I spent many days taking visitors to see the displays. Archaeologists have determined that the bronze cannon barrel that has been on display at the Museum for many years was the same barrel abandoned by the Fremont Expedition in 1844. The barrel was mounted on a replica carriage built for the display, similar to the original. Also included were many other artifacts, including three of the iron carriage wheels and parts of the original carriage that were found in Deep Creek near the West Walker River where Fremont said he had abandoned the cannon.
According to Col. Paul Rosewitz and Nevada State Museum Archaeologist, Eugene Hattori, the metal parts and iron tires recovered from Deep Creek could have come only from one of the 13 original model M1835 Cyrus Alger mountain Howitzers. These were the carriage parts from the Fremont Mountain Howitzer.
The following is the St. Louis Arsenal Requisition for ordinance stores, by John C. Fremont for his expedition into Oregon Territory: Required May 8, l843, mountain howitzer, 1; (gun) carriage complete with harness, 1; pistols, 4; pairs holsters, etc., 2; carbines, 33; kegs of rifle powder, 5; pounds of artillery ammunition, 500; tubes, filled, 200, Signed by: J.C. Fremont, 2d Lieut., Topographical Engineers.
John C. Fremont had political backing for the things he wanted to accomplish on his expeditions, (Senator Benton of Missouri). He also had definite ideas of the things and personnel, including his guide and friend, Kit Carson, who he wanted to take along with him. Fremont knew he would be traveling through largely unexplored and uncharted territory. Being a military man, Fremont wanted to be sufficiently armed to defend his expedition from any hostile activity they might encounter. Fremont followed the Oregon Trail and originally had planned to return to Missouri by the same route he had traveled.
After arriving in Oregon, however, Fremont made the decision to return by a different route that would take him south into the Great Basin of Nevada in search of the legendary Buenaventura River believed by many to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. He was thus the first person to prove that no such river existed and coined the term Great Basin to describe the area.
In addition to plenty of small arms and ammunition, he wanted to take along a mountain howitzer similar to those of French design familiar to him. The reasons for this choice included the ability to impress native people he encountered with the superior military capabilities of his group as a deterrent against hostile activity. Another reason was to show that a wheel mounted vehicle could be taken through the mountain and desert trails where none had ever traveled before.
The mountain howitzer delivered to Fremont to fill his requisition was known as a model M1835 bronze cannon (mountain howitzer), cast by the Cyrus Alger Iron Company in South Boston, Massachusetts. This became the largest foundry in the country and produced many of the munitions later used for the Civil War. Only thirteen of the model M1835 mountain howitzer barrels were cast and of these, it is believed only one still exists today.
The mountain howitzer used by Fremont during the 1843-1844 expedition was known as a “12 pounder.” This means that the maximum charge to be loaded should not weigh more than 12 pounds. This could be either a cannon ball, or more likely, a shell such as a hollow projectile containing either an explosive bursting charge with a fuse or canister tubes filled with musket balls.
The 223 pound barrel of the cannon measured 37.2” in length with an inside bore diameter of 4.62 inches. The wooden carriage for the cannon was made to be towed by a horse or mule. It had iron rimmed 12-spoke wooden wheels approximately 36 inches in diameter. The cannon barrel was attached to the carriage with iron straps that were forged to fit snugly around the trunions (round bronze extensions protruding from the sides of the barrel). The barrel or tube rotated on the trunions when firing to achieve the desired elevation. Ammunition for the howitzer was carried separately on pack frames loaded on pack animals.
There is no doubt the howitzer was used during the expedition according to the following written accounts: Theodore Talbot, June 15, 1843: “Our cannonier was very successful in practice with the Howitzer, striking a post 4 feet high at nearly a quarter of a mile with a bomb shell.” Charles Preuss, August 10, 1843: “Shooting buffalo with a howitzer is a cruel but amusing sport.”
Fremont, December 10, 1843: “I directed the howitzer to be fired. It was the first time our guides (Walla Walla Indians) had seen it discharged; and the bursting of the shell at a distance, which was something like the second fire of the gun, amazed and bewildered them with delight.”