Exploring the West
February 4, 2008
The men in Lieutenant John Charles Frmonts command were a bit confused. They spent the spring and summer of 1843 trekking west into the Oregon Territory (Pacific Northwest), exploring and mapping as they went. Their orders seemed clear enough. Survey the Oregon Trail by carrying a line of astronomical and barometric observations through to the Columbia River (for a possible transcontinental railroad route), and retrace their steps back to Missouri. Why did Frmont order his scruffy band of mountain men to head south, down along the eastern side of the Cascades and the Sierra Nevada on their return from the Pacific? The decision could have been simply that Frmont, a natural explorer, preferred not to backtrack along the same route. Dropping south along the western rim of the Great Basin could afford him the opportunity to traverse unknown lands, maybe discover some important rivers before making the turn east back toward the Rocky Mountains, and eventually to his wife, Jessie, waiting for him in Washington, D.C.Although Frmonts motives will remain a bit of a mystery, he was most likely following orders from his father-in-law, Senator Thomas H. Benton. Sen. Benton, one of the most politically powerful men in Washington, was an ardent expansionist and strong proponent of Manifest Destiny. Two years before, in 1841, Frmont had fallen in love with Sen. Bentons 16-year-old daughter Jessie. Despite heated objections by her parents, the couple was soon married. Later, the senator chose his new son-in-law, a topographical engineer, as the point man for the U.S. governments ongoing strategy of westward expansion. The plan included military aggression against and forced land acquisition from Mexico. California would be the greatest prize of all, but to get it Sen. Benton wanted Frmont to gather detailed knowledge of the western landscape, and if possible, some idea of Mexican troop strength. In his report, Frmont mentioned he was searching for the Buenaventura River, a mythical ribbon of water that purportedly drained west from near the Great Salt Lake and flowed all the way to the San Francisco Bay. The erroneous belief in the nonexistent Buenaventura River, as well as other crucial misconceptions of the region, would be corrected by Frmonts expedition. As the men explored what today is western Nevada, it quickly became obvious the Sierra Nevada range blocked the possibility of any westbound river from reaching the Pacific Ocean. There was an assortment of maps of the region available before 1843. Ultimately, Frmonts explorations produced the first reliable maps of the West and placed western cartography on a scientific foundation. Frmont was also the first to comprehend all the rivers in this region of the country fail to reach the sea and evaporate in desert sinks, inspiring him to name it the Great Basin.John Frmont was a skilled leader, navigator, cartographer and wilderness survivalist. Born Jan. 21, 1813, the illegitimate child of his French immigrant father and the young wife of an elderly military officer, Frmont excelled in school. His precocious scholastic abilities in Greek and Latin attracted wealthy, influential mentors who paid for him to attend prep school and then college, where he studied astronomy and mathematics.Frmont was also trained in surveying, meteorology, geology and the botanical field. His strong background in the sciences ultimately gave him the ability to be the first to navigate, interpret, and map the rugged western topography with skill and confidence.When Lt. Frmont outfitted his 1843 expedition, he included in his supplies a 12-pound field howitzer and a spring-loaded wagon full of scientific instruments. The cannon was to help keep hostile Indians at bay and the barometers, thermometers, compasses, sextants and telescope would provide the data necessary to produce an accurate map of the territory covered. The cannon proved to be more of a burden than an asset as it was usually only fired to celebrate holidays. In late December 1843, Frmont wrote, We were roused, on Christmas morning, by a discharge from the small arms and howitzer. Always, on days of religious or national commemoration, our voyageurs expect some unusual allowance; and, having nothing else, I gave to them each a little brandy, which with some coffee and sugar was sufficient to make them a feast. The field howitzer was eventually abandoned in deep snow in the Walker River canyon. The scientific instruments, however, proved invaluable in providing distances, angles and elevations for their definitive cartography. So committed to accuracy was Frmont, that when the last barometer broke (he used them as an altimeter), he continued to determine altitude by using the boiling point of water. At each camp, pass, or mountain peak, Frmont would set a pot of water over a fire and by measuring the temperature when the water boiled, he was able to convert the temperature in degrees to an elevation above sea level. The higher the altitude, the lower the boiling point of water. Frmonts observations of the climatic influence generated by the Sierra Nevada indicates a remarkable understanding of atmospheric processes. In an 1848 report, he wrote, Stretching along the coast, and at a general distance of 150 miles from the ocean, this great mountain wall receives the warm winds, charged with vapor, which sweep across the Pacific Ocean, precipitates their accumulated moisture in fertilizing rains and snows upon its western flank, and leaves cold and dry winds to pass on to the east. Hence the characteristic differences of the two regions [California andamp; the Great Basin] mildness, fertility, and a superb vegetable kingdom on one side, comparative barrenness and cold on the other. Frmonts expeditions left a legacy of noted topographic landmarks in the Far West, and the Tahoe-Truckee region was no exception. In December 1843, Frmont and his band of 39 hardy men, which included the famous scouts Christopher Kit Carson and Thomas Broken Hand Fitzpatrick, were exploring south through present-day northwestern Nevada. When the expedition reached the body of water at the terminus of the Truckee River, Frmont named it Pyramid Lake in honor of the unusual triangle-shaped rock island located on the lakes eastern side. When he observed the monstrous Lahontan cutthroat trout swimming in Pyramid Lakes feeder stream, he called it the Salmon Trout River, but it was later re-named the Truckee River by the Stephens Party in 1844.Near Pyramid Lake Frmont met a friendly Paiute Indian, Chief Truckee, who explained if they followed this river they would come to a lake. Cross the mountains (Sierra Nevada crest) and the men would reach two rivers flowing west. Chief Truckee was describing the Truckee River, Donner Lake or Lake Tahoe, and the American and Yuba rivers. But unlike the Stephens Party, which took Chief Truckees advice less than a year later and successfully followed these rivers west into the Sacramento Valley, Lt. Frmont chose not to cross the mountains at that point and ordered his men south, along the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada range. New Years Day 1844 came and went, with Frmont and his men struggling through the bleak and frigid landscape, with the gloom of a persistent pogonip (frozen fog) obliterating the horizon. A troubled 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. At that point, Frmont realized that there was no way the animals could make it back to the Rocky Mountains, so he decided to force a mid-winter crossing of the Sierra Nevada into California.Mark McLaughlins column, Weather Window, appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. He is a nationally published writer and photographer whose books are available at local stores. Mark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.