The Fremont Expedition Across the Sierra Nevada Range Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Having previously led an expedition to document the geography of the Platte River, Second Lieutenant John C. Fremont had been given the task of mapping the western section of the Oregon Trail, an easier and more southerly route to the Columbia River than that taken by Lewis and Clark forty years earlier. Although a few groups of families had previously used the trail, thousands were making plans to move west to Oregon Territory. The nation was eager for information about the West, and when Fremont's journals were published they were a sensation. They accurately presented information about the geography in the area where his expedition had traveled, but they also contained the story of struggles and perseverance, against incredible odds, by Fremont and his men. This “bestseller” made Fremont a national hero, and his exploits increased the push for the United States to incorporate this western territory within its boundaries.

Summary Overview

Having previously led an expedition to document the geography of the Platte River, Second Lieutenant John C. Fremont had been given the task of mapping the western section of the Oregon Trail, an easier and more southerly route to the Columbia River than that taken by Lewis and Clark forty years earlier. Although a few groups of families had previously used the trail, thousands were making plans to move west to Oregon Territory. The nation was eager for information about the West, and when Fremont's journals were published they were a sensation. They accurately presented information about the geography in the area where his expedition had traveled, but they also contained the story of struggles and perseverance, against incredible odds, by Fremont and his men. This “bestseller” made Fremont a national hero, and his exploits increased the push for the United States to incorporate this western territory within its boundaries.

Defining Moment

During the 1840s, the westward push of the United States was in full force. Manifest Destiny, which most took to mean a divine right to spread the political and social system of the United States all the way to the Pacific Ocean, was at its peak. The British in the Northwest and the Mexicans in the Southwest were rivals opposing the American expansion. Settlers from the United States were ready to move into these areas, but for many, additional information about the land through which they would travel was needed. Thus, a series of expeditions were commissioned by the United States government to explore and record the areas west of what had been acquired through the Louisiana Purchase. The Lewis and Clark expedition in 1803 had been sent to the Pacific Ocean, even though it was clear that the territory that the United States had recently bought did not go that far. This, and other early expeditions, laid the groundwork for further expansion. Within a decade, the Astor Pacific Fur Trading Company was active along the Columbia River, beginning a full scale competition with the British for the economic wealth of the region, as well as for the territory itself.

With the migration of farmers to the Willamette and Columbia River Valleys having started, John Charles Fremont was given the task of mapping the region west of where he had ventured on his previous expedition, to allow an even larger number of people to travel to Oregon. Because of Fremont's efforts, the Oregon Trail became an avenue, though dangerous and rough, to carry people to Oregon and for the policy of America's westward expansion to succeed in the Northwest. Within three years of his expedition, the number of Americans traveling to Oregon was sufficient to force the British to give up their claim. Joint control, provided for in an 1818 treaty, was changed to British control in the North (Canada) and American in the South.

Fremont's plans to return by a more southerly route, from which the excerpt included in this article is taken, was an intentional move into territory that was recognized as Mexican. Although the Republic of Texas had not yet been admitted as a state, discussions had been underway for several years, and when that happened, many talked about expanding into the Southwest, including California. Thus, when Fremont's journals were published in March 1845, not only was information about territory around the Oregon Trail made available, but so too was extensive information about what the interior areas of California had to offer. Fremont excited the imaginations of Americans and increased the political pressure on the government to take whatever steps were necessary to fulfill the dreams of Manifest Destiny.

Author Biography

John Fremont (1813–1890) was born in Georgia to unwed parents. His father, Charles Fremon (no “t”) died when Fremont was five, leaving his mother, Anne Whiting Pryor, to raise him. In the 1830s, Fremont taught for several years and then, in 1838, was commissioned in the Corps of Topographical Engineers to help survey the West. In 1841, he married Jessie Benton, daughter of a powerful senator who helped his career in many ways. Fremont led four expeditions, with the second being the most ambitious. The journals of the first two made Fremont a popular hero.

In 1845, Fremont took a group of soldiers to California to agitate against the weak Mexican authorities and fought in California during the Mexican-American War. He was court-martialed for insubordination, but his sentence commuted by the president. He served as a senator from California and also acquired wealth from the gold fields. Fremont was nominated in 1856 as the first Republican candidate for president, but lost the election to James Buchanan. He served in the Army, without distinction, during the Civil War and later served as governor of the Arizona Territory. Retiring to Staten Island, New York, Fremont died in New York City in 1890.

Historical Document

In the morning, I acquainted the men with my decision, and explained to them that necessity required us to make a great effort to clear the mountains. I reminded them of the beautiful valley of the Sacramento, with which they were familiar from the descriptions of [Kit] Carson, who had been there some fifteen years ago, and who, in our late privations, had delighted us in speaking of its rich pastures and abounding game, and drew a vivid contrast between its summer climate, less than a hundred miles distant, and the falling snow around us. I informed them (and long experience had given them confidence in my observations and good instruments) that almost directly west, and only about 70 miles distant, was the great farming establishment of Captain Sutter—a gentleman who had formerly lived in Missouri, and emigrating to this country, had become the possessor of a principality. I assured them that, from the heights of the mountain before us, we should doubtless see the valley of the Sacramento River, and with one effort place ourselves again in the midst of plenty. The people received this decision with the cheerful obedience that had always characterized them; and the day was immediately devoted to the preparations necessary to enable us to carry it into effect. Leggings, moccasins, clothing—all were put into the best state to resist the cold.

I have already said that our provisions were very low; we had neither tallow nor grease of any kind remaining, and the want of salt became one of our greatest privations. The poor dog which had been found in the Bear river valley, and which had been a compagnon de voyage ever since, had now become fat, and the mess to which it belonged requested permission to kill it. Leave was granted. Spread out on the snow, the meat looked very good; and it made a strengthening meal for the greater part of the camp. Indians brought in two or three rabbits during the day, which were purchased from them…

February 2—It had ceased snowing, and this morning the lower air was clear and frosty; and six or seven thousand feet above, the peaks of the Sierra now and then appeared among the rolling clouds, which were rapidly disappearing before the sun. Our Indian shook his head as he pointed to the icy pinnacles, shooting high up into the sky, and seeming almost immediately above us. Crossing the river on the ice, and leaving it immediately, we commenced the ascent of the mountain along the valley of a tributary stream. The people were unusually silent; for every man knew that our enterprise was hazardous, and the issue doubtful.

The snow deepened rapidly, and it soon became necessary to break a road. For this service, a party of ten was formed, mounted on the strongest horses; each man in succession opening the road on foot, or on horseback, until himself and his horse became fatigued, when he stepped aside; and the remaining number passing ahead, he took his station in the rear. Leaving this stream, and pursuing a very direct course, we passed over an intervening ridge to the river we had left. On the way we passed two low huts entirely covered with snow, which might very easily have escaped observation. A family was living in each; and the only trail I saw in the neighborhood was from the door hole to a nut-pine tree near, which supplied them with food and fuel. We found two similar huts on the creek where we next arrived; and, traveling a little higher up, encamped on its banks in about four feet depth of snow. Carson found near, an open hill side, where the wind and the sun had melted the snow, leaving exposed sufficient bunch grass for the animals to-night—

February 4—I went ahead early with two or three men, each with a led horse, to break the road. We were obliged to abandon the hollow entirely, and work along the mountain side, which was very steep and the snow covered with an icy crust. We cut a footing as we advanced, and trampled a road through for the animals; but occasionally one plunged outside the trail, and slided along the field to the bottom, a hundred yards below. Late in the day we reached another bench in the hollow, where in summer, the stream passed over a small precipice. Here was a short distance of dividing ground between the two ridges, and beyond an open basin, some ten miles across, whose bottom presented a field of snow. At the further or western side rose the middle crest of the mountain, a dark-looking ridge of volcanic rock.

The summit line presented a range of naked peaks, apparently destitute of snow and vegetation; but below, the face of the whole country was covered with timber of extraordinary size. Annexed (as a sketch in the book) you are presented with a view of this ridge from a camp on the western side of the basin.

Towards a pass which the guide indicated here, we attempted in the afternoon to force a road; but after a laborious plunging through two or three hundred yards, our best horses gave out, entirely refusing to make any further effort; and, the time, we were brought to a stand. The guide informed us that we were entering the deep snow, and here began the difficulties of the mountain; and to him, and almost to all our enterprise seemed hopeless…

Tonight we had no shelter, but we made a large fire around the trunk of one of the huge pines; and covering the snow with small boughs, on which we spread our blankets, soon made ourselves comfortable. The night was very bright and clear, though the thermometer was only at 10°. A strong wind, which sprang up at sundown, made it intensely cold; and this was one of the bitterest nights during the journey.

Two Indians joined our party here, and one of them, an old man, immediately began to harangue us, saying that ourselves and animals would perish in the snow; and that if we would go back he would show us another and a better way across the mountain. He spoke in a very loud voice, and there was a singular repetition of phrases and arrangement of words, which rendered his speech striking, and not unmusical.

We had now begun to understand some words, and, with the aid of signs, easily comprehended the old man's simple ideas. “Rock upon rock—rock upon rock—snow upon snow—snow upon snow,” said he; “even if you get over the snow, you will not be able to get down from the mountains.” He made us the sign of precipices, and showed us how the feet of the horses would slip, and throw them off from the narrow trails which led along their sides. Our Chinook, who comprehended even more readily than ourselves and believed our situation hopeless, covered his head with his blanket, and began to weep and lament. “I wanted to see the whites,” said he; “I came away from my own people to see the whites, and I wouldn't care to die among them; but here”—and he looked around into the cold night and gloomy forest, and, drawing his blanket over his head, began again to lament.

Seated around the tree, the fire illuminating the rocks and the tall bolls of the pines round about, and the old Indian haranguing, we presented a group of very serious faces….

February 6—Accompanied by Mr. Fitzpartrick, I sat out to-day with a reconnoitering party, on snow shoes. We marched all in a single file tramping the snow as heavily as we could. Crossing the open basis, in a march of about ten miles we reached the top of one of the peaks, to the left of the pass indicated by our guide. Far below us, dimmed by the distance, was a large snowless valley, bounded on the western side at the distance of about a hundred miles, by a low range of mountains, which Carson recognised with delight as the mountains bordering the coast. “There,” said he “is the little mountain—it is 15 years ago since I saw it; but I am just as sure as if I had seen it yesterday.” Between us, then, and this low coast range, was the valley of the Sacramento; and no one who had not accompanied us through the incidents of our life for the last few months could realize the delight with which at last we looked down upon it.

It was late in the day when we turned towards the camp; and it grew rapidly cold as it drew towards night. One of the men became fatigued, and his feet began to freeze, and building a fire in the trunk of a dry old cedar, Mr. Fitzpartrick remained with him until his clothes could be dried, and he was in a condition to come on. After a day's march of 20 miles, we straggled into camp, one after another, at night fall; the greater number excessively fatigued, only two of the party having ever traveled on snow shoes before….

February 10—The elevation of the camp, by the boiling point, is 8,050 feet. We are now 1,000 feet above the level of the South Pass in the Rocky mountains, and still we are not done ascending. The top of a flat ridge near was bare of snow, and very well sprinkled with bunch grass, sufficient to pasture the animals two or three days; and this was to be their main point of support. This ridge is composed of a compact trap, or basalt, of a columnar structure; over the surface are scattered large boulders of porous trap. The hills are in many placed entirely covered with small fragments of volcanic rock.

Putting on our snow shoes, we spent the afternoon in exploring a road ahead. The glare of the snow, combined with great fatigue, had rendered many of the people nearly blind; but we were fortunate in having some black silk handkerchiefs, which, worn as veils, very much relieved the eye…

February 13—We continued to labor on the road; and in the course of the day had the satisfaction to see the people working down the face of the opposite hill, about three miles distant. During the morning we had the pleasure of a visit from Mr. Fitzpartrick, with the information that all was going on well. A party of Indians had passed on snow shoes, who said they were going to the western side of the mountain after fish. This was an indication that the salmon were coming up the streams; and we could hardly restrain our impatience as we thought of them, and worked with increased vigor.

The meat train did not arrive this evening, and I gave Godey leave to kill our little dog, (Tlamath,) which he prepared in Indian fashion; scorching off the hair, and washing the skin with soap and snow, and then cutting it up into pieces, which were laid on the snow. Shortly afterwards, the sleigh arrived with a supply of horse meat, and we had to-night an extraordinary dinner—pea soup, mule, and dog.

February 14—With Mr. Preuss, I ascended today the highest peak to the right; from which we had a beautiful view of a mountain lake at our feet, about fifteen miles in length, and so entirely surrounded by mountains that we could not discover an outlet. (According to historian Francis P. Farquhar, the mountain that Fremont and Preuss ascended was Red Lake Peak. The lake they saw from the summit was Lake Tahoe). We had taken with us a glass; but, though we enjoyed an extended view, the valley was half hidden in mist, as when we had seen it before. Snow could be distinguished on the higher parts of the coast mountains; eastward, as far as the eye could extend, it ranged over a terrible mass of broken snowy mountains, fading off blue in the distance. The rock composing the summit consists of a very coarse dark volcanic conglomerate; the lower parts appeared to be of a slaty structure. The highest trees were a few scattering cedars and aspens. From the immediate foot of the peak, we were two hours in reaching the summit, and one hour and a quarter in descending. The day had been very bright, still, and clear, and spring seems to be advancing rapidly. While the sun is in the sky, the snow melts rapidly, and gushing springs over the face of the mountain in all the exposed places; but their surface freeze instantly with the disappearance of the sun….

February 16—We had succeeded in getting our animals safely to the first grassy hill; and this morning I started with Jacob on a reconnoitering expedition beyond the mountain. We travelled along the crests of narrow ridges, extending down from the mountain in the direction of the valley, from which the snow was fast melting away. On the open spots was tolerably good grass; and I judged we should succeed in getting the camp down by way of these. Towards sundown we discovered some icy spots in a deep hollow and, descending the mountain, we encamped on the head water of a little creek, where at last the water found its way to the Pacific.

The night was clear and very long. We heard the cries of some wild animals, which had been attracted by our fire, and flock of geese passed over during the night. Even these strange sounds had something pleasant to our senses in this region of silence and desolation.

We started again early in the morning. The creek acquired a regular breadth of about 20 feet, and we soon began to hear the rushing of the water below the ice surface, over which we travelled to avoid the snow; a few miles below we broke through, where the water was several feet deep, and halted to make a fire and dry our clothes. We continued a few miles father, walking being very laborious without snow shoes.

I was now perfectly satisfied that we had struck the stream on which Mr. Sutter lived; and , turning about, made a hard push, and reached the camp at dark. Here we had the pleasure to find all the remaining animals, 57 in number, safely arrived at the grassy hill near the camp; and here, also, we were agreeably surprised with the sight of an abundance of salt. Some of the horse guard had gone to a neighboring hut for pine nuts, and discovered unexpectedly a large cake of very white fine-grained salt, which the Indians told them they had brought from the other side of the mountain; they used it to eat with their pine nuts, and readily sold it for goods.

February 20—we encamped with the animals and all the materiel of the camp, on the summit of the Pass in the dividing ridge, 1,000 miles by our travelled road from the Dalles of the Columbia.

February 23—This was our most difficult day; we were forced off the ridges by the quantity of snow among the timber, and obliged to take to the mountain sides, where, occasionally, rocks and a southern exposure afforded us a chance to scramble along. But these were steep, and slippery with snow and ice; and the tough evergreens of the mountain impeded our way, tore our skins, and exhausted our patience. Some of us had the misfortune to wear moccasins with parfleche soles, so slippery that we could not keep our feet, and generally crawled across the snow beds. Axes and mauls were necessary to-day, to make a road through the snow. Going ahead with Carson to reconnoitre the road, we reached in the afternoon the river which made the outlet of the lake. Carson sprang over, clear across a place where the stream was compressed amount rocks, but the parfleche sole of my moccasin glanced from the icy rock, and precipitated me into the river. It was some few second before I could recover myself in the current, and Carson, thinking me hurt, jumped in after me, and we both had an icy bath. We tried to search a while for my gun, which had been lost in the fall, but the cold drove us out and we went back to meet the camp. We afterwards found that the gun had been slung under the ice which lined the banks of the creek.

Using our old plan of breaking the road with alternate horses, we reached the creek in the evening, and encamped on a dry open place in the ravine.

Another branch, which we had followed, here comes in on the left; and from this point the mountain wall, on which we had travelled to day, faces to the south along the right bank of the river, where the sun appears to have melted the snow; but the opposite ridge is entirely covered. Here, among the pines, the hill side produces but little grass—barely sufficient to keep life in the animals. We had the pleasure to be rained upon this afternoon; and grass was now our greatest solicitude. Many of the men looked badly, and some this evening were giving out.

Glossary

Carson, Kit: mountain man/scout since 1825

Fitzpatrick, Thomas: a mountain man since 1823

nut-pine tree: the piñon pine

parfleche: dried, untanned rawhide

Preuss, Charles: a German cartographer

Sutter, Captain John: settler, owner of Sutter's Mill.

Document Analysis

Exploring is intended to be a round-trip journey. While Fremont and his expeditionary party were well prepared to travel west to the Oregon Territory, when Fremont decided to take an indirect route home, leaving the Columbia River on November 25, 1843, it was a much different story. The provisions included cattle and plenty of horses and mules, but Fremont underestimated the severity of the journey and weather along the east side of the Cascades and Sierra Nevada Mountains. However, his optimistic outlook on life and his confidence that it would all work out allowed him to continue when others might have changed course. The excerpts from his journal that are reproduced here demonstrate how even in the midst of great hardship Fremont was confident. Recognizing the problems that winter travel was causing for his expedition, he decides to head west to California. The most desperate days of the trip were those at the end of February, as they cross through what is now called Carson Pass in the Sierra Nevada range. However, by the end of the first week of March, they were at Captain Sutter's estate recuperating from their arduous journey, but still with a long way to go.

Opening with Fremont's decision to cross the mountains to the Central Valley of California, the optimist saw that there were only seventy miles to travel. However, that distance was the case only “as the crow flies,” i.e., only if they could have flown directly. Going across the mountains, on the other hand, it took more than a month to travel a much greater distance to make it to the Central Valley. In retrospect, Fremont's decision not to winter in what is now Nevada could be called into question. The difficulty in moving forward, getting enough food, and the harsh weather are dramatically illustrated by Fremont in his journal. Even though many of the friendly Native Americans thought Fremont and his men crazy for trying to cross the mountains in winter, many helped by trading food. Others who were traveling themselves gave hope to the men that it was possible to make it across. Finding forage for their animals was, of course, as important as obtaining food for themselves.

Virtually every paragraph of this section of the journal contains a reference to snow, with the cold conditions referenced just as often. What might have seemed to be an obsession was actually Fremont facing the realities of the situation. The cold and snow were the party's unrelenting enemies as they strove to make it to California. Although none of the incidents mentioned was fatal, things easily could have turned out otherwise. Fremont's lack of accurate knowledge of the terrain through which they were passing could have led to an unfortunate end for all of them. However, the skills that the leaders had developed over the years allowed them to survive, although not comfortably.

The rain mentioned at the end of this excerpt indicated that they were finally getting to a lower elevation, where the warmer Pacific air might assist them in their survival. They still had some days to reach Sutter's estate, but at least the constant fear of freezing was gone. The warmer conditions also meant that game could be found in the forest, even if grass for their animals was not yet plentiful. The main struggle was over, and Fremont's seemingly endless hope had been justified.

Essential Themes

John Fremont, with the editorial assistance of his wife Jessie, helped open the West to Americans from all parts of the country. While relatively few would follow in his footsteps, the writings, maps, and illustrations gave them a picture of what lay in the region from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. His upbeat temperament and picturesque language gave a new vision to the people. Before the end of the decade, the United States would own all the territory through which Fremont had passed. His writings helped gain support for this expansion. The maps that he and Charles Preuss created were an essential item in the packs of travelers through this region for decades. While a few might have decided not to head west after reading his journals, for many others they created a vision of great possibility. For example, because of his description of the area around the Great Salt Lake, Mormon leaders began to consider moving to that part of the Great Basin.

The publication of his journals, with support by the government, helped clarify some mistaken beliefs that had arisen about the West. For example, although a few others had circled to the Great Salt Lake to verify that there was no outlet to the ocean, Fremont's travels and his journals finally put this belief to rest for the general public. By 1846, Preuss had printed several maps representing the full length of the Oregon Trail. The information that the expedition had acquired continued to have wider and wider distribution. Things mentioned in passing, such as viewing Lake Tahoe from the south, or in a previous passage, Pyramid Lake, allowed explorers, scholars, and the general public, to gain insights into this relatively unknown territory.

Fremont and his men were lucky that the weather was not severe for that time of year. As difficult as their journey across the mountains was, in many years it would have been impossible. For any who were considering a journey west, the journal served as a cautionary tale about getting through the mountains before winter and having the proper equipment to deal with the snow. However, his nearly miraculous journey, and his easily-read description of the events made Fremont a superstar of his time. For better or worse, Fremont's work also helped the United States further realize its goal of Manifest Destiny.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Chaffin, Tom. Pathfinder: John Charles Fremont and the Course of American Empire. 2002. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 2014. Print.
  • Fremont, John C., with Anne F. Hyde (introduction). Fremont's First Impressions: The Original Report of his Exploring Expeditions of 1842–1844. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2012. Print.
  • Fremont, John C., Donald Jackson, & Mary Lee Spence, eds. The Expeditions of John Charles Fremont. Vol. 1 “Travels from 1838 to 1844.” Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1970. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.
  • Roberts, David. A New World: Kit Carson, John C. Fremont, and the Claiming of the American West. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. Print.
  • Spence, Mary Lee. “John Charles Fremont” Utah History to Go. State of Utah, 2014. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.
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