Fremont a bold, reckless explorer

A portrait of John C. Fremont, taken from his memoirs. Public domain photo



In January of 1854, John C. Fremont led 22 explorers across the ice-rimmed Gunnison River — which he and other explorers then called Grand River — near present-day Delta. It wasn’t easy.

The ice on the edges was about 18 inches thick, wrote Simon Nunes Carvalho, an expedition member. Then there were 200 yards of open water to cross, so deep that the horses had to swim.

“The weather was excessively cold,” Carvalho recalled. “The animals could scarcely keep their footing on the ice … the greatest difficulty was in persuading them to make the abrupt leap from the ice to the roaring gulph (sic), and there was much danger from drowning in attempting to get on the sharp ice on the other side.”

Despite the danger, “The whole party crossed without any accident,” Carvalho said. “Col. Fremont was the first of our party to leap his horse into the angry flood, inspiring his men, by his fearless example to follow.”

This was the last of Fremont’s five expeditions across the West, four of which crossed parts of western Colorado. And it demonstrates both his boldness and his recklessness.

Five years earlier, he had attempted another winter crossing of the Rocky Mountains, against the advice of his guides. He had lost 10 men to starvation and hypothermia in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.

Even so, he was determined to prove a winter expedition could succeed and pave the way for a central rail route across the country. Hence the miserable crossing of the Gunnison River.

He made it to California in 1854, but no railroad to the Pacific was built on the route he took.

Although he rarely pioneered new trails, Fremont was the first to effectively map and record some of the most important routes in the West. He was a national hero, for a time more acclaimed than Lewis and Clark.

Brigham Young used Fremont’s reports and maps to decide that persecuted Mormons should move to the Salt Lake Valley.

Fremont recorded items great and small. He was the first to name and delineate the boundaries of the Great Basin, and perhaps the first to give a written description of the humpback chub.

Fremont had hired Carvalho to make daguerreotype images of his fifth trip, the first attempt to include a photographic record of a Western trip.

Fremont was born in South Carolina to a woman who had left her plantation-owner husband for her French tutor. Despite his illegitimate status, Fremont was smart and attracted several powerful mentors.

He obtained his military rank when he was assigned to the U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers, about 1838. 
    But his most important status was that of son-in-law to Missouri Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, one of the most powerful politicians of the time. Benton financed Fremont’s final two expeditions.

Fremont’s first excursion in 1842 missed Colorado. He traveled to western Wyoming, where he and his crew mapped critical parts of the Oregon Trail. He met Kit Carson then and used him as a guide on subsequent expeditions.

His second trip of 1843-44 took him to California by way of northwestern Colorado and northern Utah. On that trip, he was likely the first explorer to use an inflatable rubber raft.

“Among the useful things which formed a portion of our equipage was an India-rubber boat, eighteen feet long, made somewhat in the form of a bark canoe of the northern lakes,” he wrote in his memoirs.

They used it to float rivers in northern Utah.

The expedition continued to Oregon, then south to Southern California. They circled back eastward on the Old Spanish Trail, across southern Nevada and into Utah.

They arrived at Utah Lake, then headed northeast over the Wasatch Range. In early June 1844, they reached Brown’s Park, then the Yampa River.

“The country we were now entering is constantly infested by war parties of the Sioux and other Indians, and is considered among the most dangerous war-grounds in the Rocky Mountains,” he wrote.

Even so, they crossed northern Colorado without incident and arrived at the Continental Divide.

“The country had now become very beautiful — rich in water, grass, and game; and to these were added the charm of scenery and pleasant weather,” Fremont wrote.

From there, it was on to Bent’s Fort and St. Louis.

Fremont’s third expedition, in 1845-46, was the most politically charged. It began as war with Mexico was expected, and like his second expedition, crossed territory claimed by Mexico.

He was only supposed to survey the headwaters of the Arkansas River. But he said he had unwritten instructions from Benton and President James Polk to continue west and help acquire California for the United States.

War was declared in April 1846, and that summer, Fremont joined California settlers in the Bear Flag Revolt to wrest the region from Mexico. In June, Fremont declared himself the U.S. commander of California.

That didn’t sit well with Gen. Stephen Kearney, who arrived later in the year. Kearney had Fremont arrested and court- martialed on charges of mutiny and insubordination.

Although his sentence was commuted, Fremont resigned from the Army. He moved to California and became one of its first senators in 1850, in between his final two expeditions. He also acquired gold field property that made him wealthy.

In 1856, Fremont was the first presidential nominee of the newly formed Republican Party, losing narrowly to James Buchanan.

In 1861, as President Abraham Lincoln’s commander of the Department of the West during the Civil War, he issued the first Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in the state of Missouri.

When he refused to rescind the proclamation that predated Lincoln’s by more than a year, the president fired him.

In 1878, Fremont was named territorial governor of Arizona.

He died in New York in 1890. Much of what he accomplished is forgotten, but his name is not. Places like Fremont County, Colorado, Fremont, California, and the Fremont River in Utah remind us of his journeys across the West.

Information from: “Incidents of Travel and Adventure in the Far West,” by S.N. Carvalho. “Memoirs of My Life, Volume I,” by John Charles Fremont; “On Roads Hard Won: A Meditation on Greatness and Legacy,” by Mark Berry, College of Charleston Magazine; “John C. Fremont’s Expeditions into Utah,” by Alexander Baugh.

Bob Silbernagel’s email is .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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