John C. Fremont, The Pathfinder 

John Charles Fremont, engraving

Charles Wentworth Upham (book), unknown artist, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

One of my favorite characters in Nevada history is John C. Fremont, leader of the first and most significant exploratory expeditions through the Great Basin. He and his party were the first non-Indians to lay eyes upon such wonders as Pyramid Lake, Lake Tahoe and the fertile valleys that we now know as Nevada. It will take more than one article to tell about Fremont and the many things he has done. The series will conclude with the amazing story of the discovery of the elusive cannon abandoned by Fremont during his 1844 crossing of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

John Charles Fremont (January 21, 1813 – July 13, 1890) was an American Military officer, explorer and the first candidate of the anti-slavery Republican Party for President of the United States. In 1841, Fremont married Jessie Benton, daughter of Missouri Senator, Thomas Benton, champion of the expansionist movement. The expansionists believed that the entire North American continent, including Mexico and Canada, should belong to the citizens of the United States.

Having considerable political clout, Benton pushed Congress to perform national surveys of the Oregon Trail, Oregon Territory, the Great Basin and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This cause became known as Manifest Destiny. Through his power and influence, Benton was able to obtain for his son-in-law, John C. Fremont, the position of leading each exploratory expedition.

In his early years, Fremont attended the College of Charleston from 1829 to 1831. He was appointed a mathematics teacher aboard a navy vessel and became a lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers. Fremont led many surveying expeditions throughout the western territories in the 1830s. He first met frontiersman Kit Carson on a Missouri River steamboat in St Louis during the summer of 1842. Fremont was preparing to lead his first expedition and was looking for a guide to take him to South Pass. Carson offered his services and guided Fremont along with 25 men on a successful five-month journey.

From 1842 to 1846, Fremont and Kit Carson led expedition parties on the Oregon Trail and into the unexplored regions of the Sierra Nevada Mountains where Fremont was the first American to see Lake Tahoe and to map what we now know as the Great Basin. It was during these expeditions he searched for the legendary Buenaventura River, believed to cross through the Sierras to the Pacific Ocean. After finding there was no river crossing the Sierras, Fremont determined that the Great Basin had no outlet or river flowing to the sea and that the region was indeed a Great Basin.

As you may have noticed, there are many place names throughout the western states that have the name of Fremont. He is remembered by having cities, counties, schools and mountains named after him. In addition, he gave many geographic places the names we know today. He named the Carson River after his guide Kit Carson. Later Nevada’s Capital was named Carson City. When Fremont saw the 600’ high rock formation at Pyramid Lake, it reminded him of the Egyptian Pyramids, so he called the place Pyramid Lake.

Fremont was a prolific report writer who accurately described the areas he explored and published the reports to guide future travelers. His writings from one of his expeditions inspired the Mormons to consider Utah for their permanent settlement. Fremont’s “Report and Map,” published by Congress led to the publication of Joseph Ware’s Emigrant’s Guide to California. This became the travelers’ guide for the forty-niners through time of the California Gold Rush.

After Fremont’s remarkable explorations of the American West, he attempted to advance his military career and to dabble in politics. As it turned out, he was much better at being an explorer and pathfinder than he was at either military or political pursuits.

During the Mexican-American War, Fremont led the California battalion to capture the cities of Santa Barbara, San Francisco and parts of Los Angeles. He signed the Treaty of Cahuenga, which ended the war in California. After the war, he received the military governorship of California, but when he later refused to give up the seat, he was court marshaled and resigned from the military in 1848. He then served as a senator from California from 1850 to 1851, and ran unsuccessfully for president of the United States as the first Republican Candidate in 1856.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Fremont a major general on May 15, 1861. After Fremont made an attempt to bring Missouri into the Union Cause, Lincoln feared his actions would push Missouri to join the Confederacy. Lincoln reassigned Fremont to Virginia where he made a failed attempt to defeat Stonewall Jackson’s army at the battle of Cross Keys. Fremont was relieved of his command as a result of his own request, and never again received a command. After the Civil War, Fremont served as the territorial governor of Arizona from 1878 to 1887.

Fremont’s Great Basin expeditions 1843-1845

John C. Fremont was the son-in-law of western expansionist Sen. Thomas Benton of Missouri. With Benton’s political influence, Fremont became the leader of two of the most important surveys of the American West for the U.S. Topographic Engineers. The 1843-1844 expedition and the 1845 expeditions led by Fremont established his reputation as an important American explorer.

During the 1843-1844 expedition, Fremont was the first to scientifically map and describe the Great Basin. Congress enthusiastically printed 20,000 copies of his maps and the routes he had explored. This publication was referred to extensively by the Mormon emigrants and by opportunists seeking routes to the California gold fields. It also depicted the “Spanish Trail” through Southern Nevada.

The expedition left Kansas City, Missouri, in May 1843 with Fremont leading 39 men with mules, horses, equipment and a large bronze mountain howitzer. Charles Preuss was the cartographer and the guide was Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick. When the party reached the Rocky Mountains, they were joined by mountain men Kit Carson, Joseph Walker and Alexis Godey. The expedition followed the Oregon Trail, then it headed south of the Columbia River Basin and entered northwestern Nevada in December 1843.

The party traveled through High Rock Canyon and reached the Black Rock Desert on New Year’s Day 1844. On Jan. 10, 1844, Fremont found a lake he named Pyramid Lake, due to the pyramid shaped formation that reminded him of the Egyptian pyramids. They then followed the Truckee River south to the Wadsworth area and continued south to the Carson River. Fremont called the Truckee River the Salmon Trout River due to the large cutthroat trout caught there. Fremont named the Carson River in honor of his friend and guide, Kit Carson.

After reaching the area near present Bridgeport, the expedition realized there was no river that crossed the Sierra Nevada mountains to the Pacific Ocean. With this discovery, Fremont declared the region to be a “Great Basin.” He then decided it was best to attempt a crossing of the Sierra before the winter snows isolated them from the Sacramento Valley. The expedition headed west toward present Markleeville and started up the East fork, then the West Walker River Canyon toward Carson Pass. 

Deep snow slowed their progress and the pack animals had difficulty making their way through the snow, rocks and ice. Some friendly Washoe Indians warned them they probably wouldn’t be able to make the crossing over Carson Pass in the winter. Fortunately, the Indians had pine nuts and other food items to trade with the travelers. They also showed them how to make some snowshoes to make walking through the deep snow easier.

As the party made its way through a steep, rocky canyon they called Deep Creek Canyon, they made the decision to give up on the effort to carry the bronze mountain howitzer any further, so they abandoned it on Jan. 29, 1844. It has since been rediscovered and is on a rotating display in the states Fremont explored.

By following ridge tops to keep out of the deeper snow drifts, the expedition was finally able to reach Carson Pass. Fremont was able to gaze out over the trees and mountains to see the Sacramento Valley and in the clear winter air, he saw the Coast range in the distance. Within a few days, part of the group reached Sutter’s fort and waited for the others to make their way down. 

After rest and stocking up on provisions, the Fremont expedition resumed its travels, but this time it took the southern route along the Old Spanish Trail through Southern Nevada and Las Vegas. It then headed north to complete its journey back to Oregon. The following year, in 1845, Fremont made another expedition to Nevada where he explored the Great Basin and much of the interior of what is now the state of Nevada. 

John Fremont’s first New Year’s Eve in Nevada

It has been more than 50 years since I took my first hunting trip into the vast, desert country of northwestern Nevada. This is the area of northern Washoe County that includes the Black Rock Desert, Soldier Meadows and the dry expanse of Massacre Lake. A few miles closer to the California border lies the slender marsh called New Year Lake. For thousands of years, this region had been inhabited only by hunting and gathering bands of wandering Indian tribes. Then, in December 1843, the expedition led by John C. Fremont arrived searching for the legendary Buenaventura River and the elusive Mary’s Lake.

It was a discouraged little band of explorers on New Year’s Eve 1843 who wished each other “luck.” For days, Fremont’s band of half-frozen men had been sure it was nearing Mary’s Lake. Now, it was wading in the snow and salt grass of Soldier Meadows, and Mary’s Lake still was unfound. To make matters worse, the hooves of the animals were so worn and cut by rocks, many of them could barely stagger along.

Five nights before, Kit Carson’s horse had been stolen by the Indians. The next day, the party had surprised an Indian family in wickiups, captured the squaw and questioned her. So terrified had she been by her first glimpse of white men, she had closed her eyes to ward off the sight, and screamed. Eventually, she calmed down and spoke in a Snake dialect, but had little news or information to give them.

This day, the band had wandered down the magnificent gorges of High Rock Canyon, a “strip of grass underfoot … a strip of sky above,” almost a crack in the towering rock above. Spirits soared. High Rock Creek was running full, and the lush grass, willow groves and the slope of the land made them confident the canyon would lead them to Mary’s Lake. The steep rock walls echoed their shouts and calls.

Suddenly, the colorful canyon had ended, flaring out into a small valley, floored by an alkali lake (High Rock Lake) and rimmed with tall sagebrush. Fremont realized this was no “Mary’s Lake,” and sent scouts out, combing the sloping hillsides and probing Little High Rock Canyon to the right. Finally, a scout reported an ancient Indian trail over the brow of the hills to the left, and told of a deep pothole filled with sweet water in the sandstone.

Beyond each hill always lay the possibility of finding the elusive Mary’s Lake. But beyond this hill lay only another of the thousands of gently rolling, sage-covered valleys of the Great Basin Desert. Bitterly disappointed, the shambling line of men and animals moved slowly down the long slope into Soldier Meadows.

In the chilly late afternoon, they reached the bottom of the valley at a junction of small streams. The streams were tightly frozen and had to be cut to water the stock. Here would be a cold camp for their first New Year’s Eve in what would become Nevada. Captain Fremont logged another wasted day in the futile search for Mary’s Lake. Even the grass was salty and unpalatable.

By now, Fremont was beginning to realize why this great area had been so studiously avoided by the Spaniards, Mexicans, mountain men and others. These vast desert valleys and barren wastes seemed to fill him with uneasiness and foreboding. He noted the “country was singularly unfavorable to travel.” His notes seem more and more concerned with survival, and less with the legendary Mary’s Lake and Buenaventura River he was seeking. New Year’s Eve was but a sample of what was yet to come.

Fremont and his expedition never did find the mythical lake and river they had set out to find. Later on, however, he did discover other treasures, including Pyramid Lake, the Truckee River and Lake Tahoe. These explorers truly were the pathfinders for this part of the American West, despite the discouragement they felt on New Year’s Eve of 1843.