Lt. John C. Fremont


Lt. John FremontHis party of twenty-five men had been away from home for nine months, they were hungry, many of their pack animals had died or been stolen by Indians; all of their topographical orders had been carried out. If he turned homeward, his job as cartographer would be brilliantly completed.

But New Year’s Day of 1844 found him slogging southward through harsh, cutting, black volcanic rock. He was a man of savage insistence, as well as a sensitive poet.

“We continued down the valley, between a dry-looking black ridge on the left and a more snowy and high one on the right. Our road was bad along the bottom, being broken by gullies and impeded by sage. The soil in many places consists of a fine powdery sand, covered with a saline effiorescence, and the general character of the country’s desert.”

The next two weeks were spent in this frightening deathlike country until the party reached a thirty-five-mile-long lake which Fremont called Pyramid Lake, and from which his men gorged themselves on salmon trout. On this newly garnered strength they pushed through to the present site of Reno, and south of that to Carson River, once again suffering from empty innards and rock-torn feet: probably the lowest point of their morale.

Fremont, who had the gift for histrionics as well as heroics, chose this moment to tell his tattered troop that they were going to force a crossing of the Sierra Nevada westward to the Sacramento Valley . The men had only to raise their eyes to see what Allan Nevins, Fremont’s biographer, so graphically describes as:

“This mighty range, in places fourteen thousand feet high, rising precipitously from the east, steep on steep, to the point where, in January, all is silent frozen waste of snow and rock, as bleak, empty and bitter as the Himalayas themselves.”

No white man and probably no Indian had ever crossed the Sierra Nevada in the depth of its winter, a fact which Fremont very well knew.

Not a man demurred; Kit Carson would have guided Fremont to hell and back, had his friend said it must be done. On January 19 they plunged boldly into the mountains. As they came into Antelope Valley, beyond which the ice barrier of the main range shot upward though the sky, friendly Indians warned them not to attempt the crossing . The snow was impassable.

Impassable and impossible, these were fighting words in the lexicon of John C. Fremont . On February 2 he gave the order to start upward. As though he did not have trouble enough, he was still dragging the army howitzer! His instruments told him that only seventy miles directly west lay Sutter’s Fort.

It was to prove one of the longest seventy miles in the history of exploration: within two days the trail that the men were hacking out was strewn with packs and personal possessions. Even the animals could go no farther. An old Indian warned them: “Rock upon rock, snow upon snow; even if you get over the snow, you will not be able to get down the mountains.”

Their last Indian guide deserted. It became clear to Fremont that he could not take his train though until he had found a trail and a pass. The next morning, leaving behind all of the party except Kit Carson and Broken Hand Fitzpatrick, these three indestructible ones went reconnoitering on snowshoes, crossed an open basin in sub-freezing cold, moved relentlessly upward for about ten miles against icy barricades.

The men matched the mountains.

Through sheer will power they forced their way. Finally: “Far below us, dimmed by the distance, was a large snowless valley, bounded on the western side, at a distance of about a hundred miles, by a low range of mountains which Carson recognized with delight as the mountains bordering on the coast.”

In the lesser distance was Marsh’s Mount Diablo. When Carson saw it he exclaimed:  “There is the little mountain. It is fifteen years since I saw it; but I am just as sure as if I had seen it yesterday.”

It took twenty days to bring the animals and supplies up to the peak. The men suffered from snow blindness, from the exhaustion of carving a road out of icy mountains, from such starvation that, inured to a lifetime of hardship as they were, they were reduced to eating their pet dog, Klamath.

One month from the day of the first attack on the salient, Fremont and Carson led the emaciated expedition though to the Sacramento Valley and Sutter’s Fort, “two human skeletons wearing Scotch caps.”

He had made the first winter crossing of the Sierra Nevada. His only loss was the cannon, which not even the army had been able to get him to abandon; It had had to be left behind in the snows.

John Fremont’s forcing of the Sierra Nevada was more than an act of individual heroism; it was a kinetic moment in history, moving the young lieutenant and his country toward what they both thought of as their “manifest destiny.” What Fremont could do with an exhausted, unprovisioned band of volunteer voyageurs, the United States Army could do any time it wished! The mountains were no longer insuperable . The last barrier had been breached.

And, for the first time since Commodore Jones had come ashore at Monterey in October of 1842 to accept the premature surrender of the Far West, the United States armed forces were represented on California soil.

Captain John Sutter immediately set about provisioning the twenty-five men, supplying them not only with food but with cattle and fresh mounts, horseshoes, bridles, pack saddles. He made a present to Fremont of a beautiful white horse called Sacramento.

Fremont could allow himself and his men only two weeks of rest; he was in California without passport or permit, and word had been brought that Governor Micheltorena was sending his military commander, Jose Castro, to the fort to investigate Fremont’s reason for being there.

John Fremont was only three hundred miles more illegal at this point than he had been when he stepped across the Oregon border into Nevada: according to the maps of the time, California extended eastward at least halfway though present Colorado. In fact, as three California historians have pointed out, Underhull, Goodwin and Scherer, California and the entire Far West were one and the same. “This ‘island’ of California had no eastern boundary until the California government set it up in 1849. Though California was roughly thought of as extending to or through the Sierra Nevada, actually that natural boundary was not a legal, mapped, or designated boundary . The Fremont-Preuss map of ‘48 includes most of the Far West in the California area, and at the Constitutional Convention at Monterey in 1849 there was a strong movement, almost successful, to include all of Nevada and a sufficient portion of Utah to include Salt Lake and the twenty thousand Mormons living in the Salt Lake Valley. Actually California extended to the very foothills of the Rocky Mountains. .

Fremont’s official instructions were to map and explore. The western-expansionist group had urged him to learn how large an American force would be needed to capture the country . He discreetly stayed away from the California coastline, about which the Mexican authorities were sensitive, and made his way south along the western base of the Sierra Nevada. An Indian guide told him of an unused pass, the Tehachapi. On approximately April 1, 1844, he and his troop once again crossed the mountains, this time heading eastward.

The next time he would move into California with a well-armed band of sixty-five to seventy trained mountain men, to play a stormy, disputed, decisive role in its conquest.




This was the first acknowledgment on the part of the United States that there was a government existing in California; and more important, that anything going on in that aboriginal region could conceivably require the presence of an American official, though the British had named James Forbes to be their consul at San Jose in 1844, and a little later the French instructed one of their officials to proceed to Monterey and open an office of the French government there.

April 2,, 1844, was the proudest day of Thomas 0. Larkin’s life; he was convinced that now, with the government in his hands, he could in time effect a peaceable transition to American ownership. He so deeply loved his job that, although the spending of money was to him an exquisite mixture of pleasure and pain, he nonetheless wrote to his friend Alfred Robinson, in New York, asking Robinson to order him a resplendent uniform with gold epaulets. Apparently he did not stipulate what kind of uniform, there being none for a consul; just any handsome uniform would do. The symbol of authority in California had always been a cane, and Robinson, who dearly loved a practical joke, ordered Consul Larkin two canes with solid gold heads, the bill for which elicited screams of mortal agony that could be heard all the way from Monterey to New York.

Consul Larkin’s duty was to represent the United States in all the land between the Pacific coast and the Rocky Mountains, the southern border of Oregon and San Diego. While his chief task was to facilitate trade he soon found himself officiating at marriages and funerals of the Protestant residents, sitting as judge over quarrels between Americans on ships on the high seas. His immediate duty became the caring for sick sailors off American vessels, many of whom he took into his own home, literally feeding them out of his own pocket. When their number grew too large he built the first hospital in California. His major difficulty was that there were no doctors available.

Dr. John Marsh’s informal entry into the profession without benefit of the Hippocratic Oath had been followed by two more practitioners: Joe Meek, a colorful Rocky Mountain character, said to his companions while coming down from Oregon with an emigrant train in 1843: “Boys, when I get down among the greasers, I’m going to be a doctor.” Though Meek could neither read nor write, his friends promptly called him “Doctor” Meek, and when he reached Monterey he found a following: for in one of his first cases, that of a Mexican boy who had cut off his toe with an ax, Meek stuck the boy’s toe back on with mud, and it grew.

The second to enter the field was G. M. de Sandels Waseurtz, who wrote a colorful description of his journey through California in 1842 and 1843. Waseurtz was a mining engineer who visited with John Sutter in 1843, studied the countryside, and informed his totally disbelieving host, who had long ago heard the Indian’s tale of Coloma’s Lake of Gold ruled over by a carnivorous monster, that there was unquestionably gold in the region of the Sacramento. He then went on to Monterey, which he described as “not yet grown out of its quilts, though the inhabitants, both Creole and foreigners, are a very kind, hospitable, and merry sort.” here, because of his botanizing and mineralizing, the rumor got around that Waseurtz was a “medico.”

“I had studied the Matcria Medica, I could look grave and wanted business, so I became a doctor. I laid down some broad principles, one was to charge well, the other, never to prescribe anything that was not disagreeable to take.”

The California Medical Association now consisted of “Doctor” John Marsh, “Doctor” Joe Meek, and “Doctor” C. M. Waseurtz, all of them charging high prices and apparently only mildly impeding nature in its cures.

By one of the ironic coincidences which turns history into fascinating melodrama, at the same moment that Thomas 0. Larkin became United States consul for California, Governor Micheltorena issued the most forward-looking set of ordinances the long-neglected territory had known since the progressive regime of the Spanish Governor Borica in 1800.. He ordered the establishment of the first public school system in the Far West, with schools at San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara , San Jose, Yerba Buena and Sonoma. Attendance was compulsory for both sexes between the ages of six and eleven, the parents to be fined in case of absence; the teachers’ salaries were set at $480 a year. He passed laws regulating excessive medical fees, declared Yerba Buena an official port of entry, where foreign ships could pay fair landing fees and duties, and tried to put an end to smuggling and the bribery of Mexican officials. He also returned the missions to the padres, though for exclusively religious purposes, in an effort to stop the beautiful buildings from falling into utter ruin.

Micheltorena is the last of the Mexican governors to play an important part in the pageant of the Far West. He was probably the handsomest man to enter California, tall, slender, with a warm personality in spite of a military bearing, gray kindly eyes, light complexion and brown hair; wealthy, well read, well disposed to all the people under him . Had the Mexican government been seriously interested in retaining California, had it provided Micheltorena with an army of one hundred well-armed, trained soldiers instead of convicts and marauders, the conquest of the Far West might have changed radically in character.

In honor of becoming an official port, and Governor Micheltorena’s appropriating the sum of $8oo for the building of a customs house, the fifty residents clustered along the little cove of Yerba Buena petitioned to become a pueblo or town. By 1844 Yerba Buena had only a dozen houses. It was not merely the cold fog, nor was it the lack of vessels coming through the strait; more and more whaling vessels were anchoring in the bay though they preferred the north side of the strait where there was good water, abundant wood, proximity to the ranchos and fresh food. Nor was it that the inhabitants were too somber, for Marsh in an irascible moment described their chief activity as: “Getting drunk, and running up and down hills.”

Richard Henry Dana , in a book called Two Years Before the Mast, recently published in Boston, was saying: “The Californians are an idle, thriftless people, and can make nothing for themselves. The country abounds in grapes, yet they buy bad wine made in Boston, and buy shoes made of their own hides and carried twice around the Horn.”

Somehow the town had not caught on: it had become mainly a trading outpost for the Hudson’s Bay Company, which American and European settlers did not enjoy. The Mission Dolores, four to five miles out from the cove, was falling into ruins, the presidio overlooking the strait, built by the Spaniards in 1776, had been pilfered almost down to its foundation by people wanting free adobe brick and lumber for their own buildings.

It was not a bad place in which to settle; there were wild strawberry patches on the hills out toward the ocean, and each spring when the berries ripened families would come in from as far south as San Jose, and Sonoma to the north, and the entire town of Yerba Buena would pack its blankets and cooking apparatus and move out onto the dunes for a week



Copyright @ 1956. By Irving Stone. (Pgs. 45-50)

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