John C Fremont’s original cannon

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.”

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.