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.

Early history and newspaper accounts of the Fremont Cannon

There have been several early historical and newspaper accounts that have mentioned the Fremont Cannon. When these are set out in a logical order, they seem to confirm my contention that the cannon barrel being displayed by the Nevada State Museum is indeed the Fremont Cannon. This has been the topic of debate among historians for many years.

Relatively recently, the iron wheel rims and original carriage hardware have been discovered and identified as having been from the Fremont Cannon. Since these components could have been used only with a M1835 Cyrus Alger mountain howitzer, it is now even more likely that the M1835 Cyrus Alger mountain howitzer possessed by the museum is the Fremont Cannon. The iron parts were found in Deep Creek Canyon, just east of the West Walker River where Fremont’s records showed the howitzer was abandoned in 1844. No bronze cannon barrel was found where the iron parts were discovered, so it can be assumed it was picked up by someone else.

A newspaper in San Andreas, California reported on November 25, 1859 that a local man had returned from Carson Valley with a report that two miners enroute from the Walker River to Genoa had discovered a small United States howitzer just before crossing the spur of mountain that forms the southwestern boundary of Carson Valley. Its presence in that secluded quarter can be accounted for upon the presumption that it is the gun mentioned in Lieutenant Fremont’s narrative as having been abandoned by him in that neighborhood.

Big Bonanza author, Dan De Quille, claimed to have been with two prospectors when they found the cannon barrel, but it was unclear if they recovered it.

According to the Second Biennial Report of the Nevada Historical Society of 1911, old settlers on the Walker River reported the cannon was found and taken by an emigrant party. They later had to abandon the heavy cannon along with some of their own wagons in order to make the crossing of the Sierras.

The Daily Alta California published at San Francisco, California, July 6, 186l reported an article from the Virginia City Enterprise: A man named Sheldon brought a brass howitzer, which he found on the east fork of Walker’s river to Carson City one day last week, and offered to sell it for $200. Failing to find a purchaser there he brought it up to Gold Hill. Some of the citizens, (of Virginia City) hearing of its arrival, went down there with purchase money and nipped it before Gold Hill folks were aware of it.

The Woodland Democrat of Woodland California, reported an article in 1864 on the use of the cannon after it arrived in Virginia City: A twelve pound cannon was discovered in an unfrequented locality near Walker’s river by a party of men and it was ascertained that it was a gun abandoned by John C. Fremont on one of his famous pathfinding expeditions when he ascended Walker’s river into California to find a way across the Sierra Nevadas. It was brought to Virginia City and has ever since been in the possession of Young American Engine Company No. 2, who have furnished it with a new gun carriage at a considerable expense. It was used only on rare occasions as firing salutes at daybreak on the Fourth of July, celebrating Federal victories, etc. The Provost Guard took it in charge yesterday and it is now in their quarters at the lower end of Union Street.

There are reports that General John C. Fremont visited Virginia City in 1875 and was told that the cannon he had abandoned in 1844 was in that City. It is said he then saw the cannon and said it was the one he had abandoned in Deep Creek Canyon. I have not yet been able to confirm this or determine if this was just another of Dan De Quille’s “whoppers.”

Sometime in the 1860s or 1870s, Captain Augustus W. Pray took possession of the cannon and took it with him to Glenbrook on the east shore of Lake Tahoe. He removed the carriage wheels that had been installed by the Young American Engine Company, and mounted the cannon on a large wooden block with short wheels. A photograph of this cannon taken on July 4, 1896 confirms this barrel is the same barrel now in possession of the Nevada State Museum.

At Glenbrook, the cannon was used to commemorate special events such as Fourth of July Celebrations and the launching of the steamer, SS Tahoe. The cannon was eventually taken by steamer to Tahoe City where it ended up being stored away until it was taken by William Bliss, who donated it to the Nevada State Museum. The museum, in cooperation with the Deschutes County Museum in Bend Oregon, are producing a program called “Finding Fremont: Pathfinder in the Great Basin.” The cannon will be on display for Nevada’s Sesquicentennial celebration.

Still plenty of room at John C. Fremont Symposium, July 25-26

There’s still room to sign up for the John C. Fremont Symposium, July 25-26. My team and I will be cooking a delicious Dutch-oven lunch of smoked chicken breasts, buffalo chili, salad, roasted vegetables, cornbread and fruit cobbler. This should an amazing and educational event, and definitely lots of fun.

Signup information is below, as well as links to media stories with further details. Be sure to help spread the word!

Call Deborah Stevenson, Curator of Education, at 775-687-4810, ext. 237.

John Charles Fremont, The Pathfinder

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.

Sign up for the John C. Fremont Symposium, July 25-26

2014 is the Sesquicentennial year of Nevada Statehood. I can still remember celebrating the Centennial year in 1964 when I grew my one and only beard in celebration of the event. Now, it is the 150th birthday of Nevada, and I will celebrate it by growing a set of gray sideburns and cooking a dutch oven lunch for 80 people at Mills Park in Carson City on July 25th. To celebrate the event, the Nevada State Museum where I am a volunteer tour guide and part-time cook, is presenting a John C. Fremont Symposium.

One of the many events of this two-day extravaganza is a lunch like western explorer John C. Fremont may have had along the trail in 1844 when he entered our own area here in the Great Basin. I would really like to meet all those of you who read my History of the Comstock column and serve you a delicious Dutch oven lunch of smoked chicken breasts, buffalo chili, salad, roasted vegetables, cornbread and fruit cobbler.

My team and I have seasoned up about 20 Dutch ovens and are raring to serve you the greatest frontier grub this side of the Oregon Trail. Fremont’s crew used Dutch ovens for cooking on their 1843-1844 expedition through western Nevada where he discovered Pyramid Lake, Truckee River, Carson River, Lake Tahoe and disproved the myth of the legendary Buenaventura River thought to drain the Great Basin to the Pacific Ocean.

For those of you who may not know, the elusive Fremont Cannon that he abandoned along a deep creek near the West Walker River has been found. The Fremont Cannon Recovery Team found three of the cannon carriage iron wheels and the cannon mounting hardware from one side of the cannon carriage after an exhaustive search lasting several years.

It also appears the bronze 1835 Cyrus Alger cannon barrel long in possession of the Nevada State Museum is likely the same one that had been abandoned in the canyon, and was re-discovered in the mid-1800’s. It was then possibly sold where it made the rounds of several locations in western Nevada including Virginia City and Glenbrook at Lake Tahoe. Everywhere it traveled, it was referred to as the Fremont Cannon. When John C. Fremont visited Virginia City in the 1870s, he was shown the bronze barrel and identified it as the one he had abandoned in the winter of 1844.

The John C. Fremont Symposium to be held July 25th and 26th is a gathering of top Fremont scholars, archaeologists and authors from around the world, offering two days of lectures and panel discussions at the museum. You will be able to meet and talk to the members of the Fremont Howitzer Recovery Team and cannon experts who will tell about the amazing discovery of these artifacts.

Two special galleries have been set up at the Museum to contain the many artifacts and photographs from the Fremont Expedition. These include Fremont’s presidential campaign flag, maps drawn by cartographer, Charles Preuss, The original cannon carriage parts discovered near the Walker River, and a replica vintage cannon carriage with the bronze Fremont cannon mounted on it. Many of the original surveying instruments and equipment used on the expedition are shown, including the remains of a Dutch oven found at one of Fremont’s camp sites in Oregon.

Breakfast of coffee, tea and pastries will be served each day. The Dutch oven lunch that I will be serving at Mills Park will be at noon on the 25th. We are trying to arrange for a surprise presentation of some cannons firing blanks following lunch. On the 26th, the festivities extend into the evening hours with a theatrical presentation by actor Alastair Jaques in the Nevada Room at the Governor’s Mansion. This will be followed by a catered dinner at the mansion and songs of Nevada and Cowboy Poetry by Richard Elloyan, singer and songwriter, raised in Virginia City.

And now, what will all this cost? When you consider all the meals, outstanding speakers, and a chance to meet your favorite historian, (Me), the Symposium is a bargain at just $100 per person. For $40 you can attend just the dinner and entertainment at the Governor’s Mansion on the 26th. Call soon to make your reservations, since there is a limit of just 80 participants. Call Deborah Stevenson, Curator of Education, at 775-687-4810, ext. 237.

See you there.