The Fremont Discovery: explorer first spotted Tahoe 157 years ago
Millions of tourists flock to the shores of Lake Tahoe every year, but the first recorded visitor to spy Lake Tahoe never got closer than 15 air miles to the clear and boulder-strewn waters.
John Charles Fremont wasn’t exactly a tourist when, along with German cartographer Charles Preuss, he saw what he called a “mountain lake,” thus becoming the first recorded white man to see the lake Feb. 14, 1844. Nor was he inspired at the time to give it a more impressive name.
Leading his second expedition through the Western United States beginning May 29, 1843, the young explorer was searching for the Rio Buenaventura, a fabled river that purportedly ran from the Rocky Mountains to San Francisco Bay, according to Gerald Roscoe and David Larkin in their work, “Westward: The Epic Crossing of the American Landscape.”
Whether Fremont actually believed there was such a river or was simply using the myth “as an excuse for his actions,” has been debated by historians like Francis Farquhar in “History of the Sierra Nevada.”
With esteemed and experienced mountain men like Christopher “Kit” Carson and Jim Bridger, Fremont, who later received the sobriquet of “the Pathfinder,” had already explored the east side of the Sierra, having traveled south from Oregon, before he clambered up the eastern flanks of the snowy mountains. Certain that the river did not exist, Fremont was anxious to get on to the warmer and more hospitable Sutter’s Fort (present day Sacramento) when he and his party crossed the Sierra.
Already in his travels in the Nevada stretch of Mexican territory, Fremont named Pyramid Lake, first named the Truckee River “Salmon Trout River” for its sizable fish, identified the Great Basin between the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains and basically got terribly lost, according to Farquhar.
Fremont could have picked an easier route if he’d followed the Truckee River as advised by Washoe people he had met at Pyramid Lake. Instead he wandered down to Bridgeport and back before selecting a course past present-day Markleeville.
Fremont, who at the time was a lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers, a branch of the U.S. Army, had just celebrated his 31st birthday on the last day of January. His party entered the Sierra 12 days prior to when he climbed what is now generally considered to be Red Lake Peak south of Carson Pass and the lake.
Steeled the evening before by “an extraordinary dinner – pea soup, mule and dog,” Fremont and his petulant cartographer ascended “the highest peak near us, from which we had a beautiful view of a mountain lake at our feet, about 15 miles in length, and so entirely surrounded by mountains that we could not discover an outlet.”
Preuss, according to historian David Roberts in “A Newer World,” was something of a mountain snob, having climbed once in the Swiss Alps almost 15 years before, and he was even less impressed by the view of Lake Tahoe. The German curmudgeon did not make a reference in his journal about the climb or the lake.
As Fremont wrote in his journal, later published as “Narratives of Exploration and Adventure,” the climb was a smooth and fast one.
“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.”
One week later, as E.B. Scott postulates in “The Saga of Lake Tahoe, volume one,” Fremont and company saw Lake Tahoe again.
“Passing along a ridge which commanded the lake on our right, of which we began to discover an outlet through a chasm on the west,” wrote Fremont.
And with that, Fremont’s second expedition left Tahoe behind, without much of a name. Less than a month later, the expedition arrived in Sutter’s Fort and left the Sierra for good a month after that.
Later becoming a symbol of Manifest Destiny, Fremont left a legacy of names around the country, but none that stuck in the Tahoe Basin. The future Republican presidential candidate later named Tahoe Lake “Bonpland,” after, according to Scott, the French botanist who “accompanied Baron Alexander von Humboldt on his western exploration,” but that name was replaced by Lake Bigler and then eventually Tahoe (officially in 1945). Salmon Trout River soon became known as the Truckee River and so Fremont’s names were wiped away.
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