Exploring the West
February 19, 2008
When Lieutenant John Charles Frmont led his haggard band of men in a desperate attempt at a mid-winter crossing of the Sierra Nevada range in 1844, the odds were stacked against them. They had little food or supplies, knew nothing of the rugged country they were entering, and storms had buried the mountains in deep snow.Frmont had chosen to ignore advice given him by the Paiute Indian, Chief Truckee, who told him to cross the mountains before the winter snows at the pass west of present-day Donner Lake. Chief Truckee had described a route up the Salmon-Trout River (Truckee), up and over a mountain pass (Donner), and then down the American and Yuba river drainages. But unlike later pioneer wagon trains, which took Chief Truckees advice and successfully followed these river systems west into the Sacramento Valley, Lt. Frmont ordered his men southward. Each week they spent trudging south along the steep eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada allowed more snow to pile up in the mountains. New Years Day 1844 came and went with Frmont and the men in his mapping expedition struggling through the bleak and frigid landscape, and the gloom of a persistent pogonip (frozen fog) obliterating the horizon. Frmont wrote, The result of our journey began to be very uncertain; the country was singularly unfavorable to travel; the grasses being frequently of a very unwholesome character, and the hoofs of our animals were so worn and cut by the rocks, that many of them were lame, and could scarcely be got along. Eventually Frmont realized there was no way the animals could make it back to the Rocky Mountains, so he decided to cross the Sierra Nevada into California. When the party reached the Walker River drainage, they made an approach up the eastern Sierra flank. At one point they became bogged down in snow and were forced to abandon the field cannon they had pulled along throughout their long journey. Despite many stories to the contrary, the Frmont cannon was never recovered. The party retreated back down to the lower elevations and proceeded north, back to the Carson River drainage to make another attempt at a Sierra crossing.Despite warnings from local Washoe Indians, Frmont and his men were resolved to reach the safety of Sutters Fort, located in the Sacramento Valley. The men rigged sleds to carry their remaining supplies of food and equipment and began climbing up the east fork of the Carson River. Their situation was critical. Frmont wrote, We suffer much from the want of salt; and all the men are becoming weak from insufficient food. They took turns breaking trail on horseback; when the snow became too deep, they pushed forward on foot. To make a path for their pack animals, they were forced to pound down the snow with wooden hand mauls. Burdened with cumbersome scientific equipment and a bulky collection of minerals and plants gathered during their exploration, the men, horses and mules were soon exhausted. Frmont wrote, we attempted in the afternoon to force a road, but after a laborious plunging two or three hundred yards our best horses gave out, entirely refusing to make any further effort. The [Indian] guide informed us we were entering the deep snow and here began the difficulties of the mountain; and to him and to almost all, our enterprise seemed hopeless.Occasional snowstorms plagued them, as did bouts of snow blindness, which they tried to mitigate by wearing scarves over their eyes. On Feb. 6, Charles Preuss, the expeditions German topographer, wrote in his diary, The snow is so horribly deep, and we can cover only a few miles each day. I am walking almost barefoot. This surpasses all the hardships that I have experienced until now. Two days later, they got their first view of the Sacramento Valley, some thirty miles away. After scanning the horizon, the groups legendary scout, Kit Carson, identified Mount Diablo looming over the San Francisco bay area more than 100 miles away. Carson remembered the ancient volcano from his exploration of California 15 years before via the Mohave River. The promise of reaching the lush green valleys of California buoyed everyones spirits and it came just in time. Their food supply was dwindling rapidly and they were just about out of provisions. On Feb. 13, Frmont wrote, We had tonight an extraordinary dinner pea soup, mule, and dog. On Feb. 14, 1844, Valentines Day, Frmont and Charles Preuss climbed the dividing ridge of the Sierra crest, where they discovered Lake Tahoe, about 20 miles to the north. History records them as the first Euro-Americans to see the magnificent lake, but celebrated trapper, Stephen C. Meek, claimed to have been the first Caucasian to see the Truckee River when he set traps on it in 1833. It seems unlikely that Meek would not have followed the relatively short Truckee River to its source, Lake Tahoe. Ironically, if Frmont had followed Chief Truckees suggestion to ascend the Truckee River drainage, he would have never seen Lake Tahoe and missed one of his claims to fame.Indicative of the stress and danger they were facing in their mid-winter mountain crossing, Preuss didnt even mention Lake Tahoe in his daily notes. Frmont also treated the event very casually. Frmonts comments offer a glimpse of that moment: With Mr. Preuss, I ascended today the highest peak to the right [Red Lake Peak]; 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. But on other occasions, Frmont did fall under the spell of the High Sierra. He wrote, Scenery and weather combined must render these mountains beautiful in summer; the purity and deep-blue color of the sky are singularly beautiful; the days are sunny and bright, and even warm in the noon hours; and if we could be free from the many anxieties that oppress us, even now we would be delighted here; but our provisions are getting fearfully scant. Two more weeks of struggling through rugged canyons and deep Sierra snow finally brought the weary expedition into the Sacramento Valley, and on March 6, Lt. Frmont and his men stumbled into Sutters Fort, where John Sutter treated them like royalty. Despite their ordeal, not one man had been lost. In his 1845 report, Frmont called the largest lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Lake, while the map Preuss drew in 1848 identified it as Lake Bonpland, in honor of the French botanist Amie Jacques Alexandre Bonpland. Although the name, Tahoe, derived from a mispronunciation of the Washoe tribal name, Da ow a ga (edge of the lake) was in common use by the 1860s, the lake was officially renamed Bigler in 1854. (John Bigler, third governor of California, had personally led a rescue party in 1852, from Placerville over Echo Summit to save a group of snowbound emigrants.) Bigler was the official name until 1945, when the lake was at last legally established as Lake Tahoe. John Charles Frmont enjoyed remarkable fame in the 19th century, enough to run as the GOP candidate for president of the United States in 1856, although he lost to Democrat James Buchanan. Considered the preeminent explorer of the uncharted American West, Frmont was known as the Pathfinder, although one biographer more correctly called him the Pathmarker. Much of Frmonts popularity was based on the official reports that he wrote up after his expeditions. Since the salary of a second lieutenant did not permit the luxury of a secretary, his wife Jessie collaborated with her husband in drafting the reports. In fact, it was really Jessie who turned out such splendid prose that the government reports were then edited and published. They became best-selling books among an American public enthralled with the Wild West. Frmonts scientific reports became literary classics, thereby inspiring countless Americans to follow the paths West. Jessie Frmont later wrote, From the ashes of his camp fires have sprung cities. Mark McLaughlins column, Weather Window, appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. He is a nationally published writer and photographer whose award-winning books, The Donner Party: Weathering the Storm, Sierra Stories: True Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 andamp; 2 and Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad andamp; the Ugly are available at local stores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.