Commonplace · vol. 4 · no. 4 · July 2004

Tom Rea
The Pathfinder’s Lost Instruments
John C. Frémont's cavalier attitude toward his scientific apparatus
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

Frémont now led the party northwest up the west side—the Oregon side—of the Wind Rivers. Off the established trail now, he relied more heavily on the wilderness skills of his best men: Kit Carson, a Taos-based former fur trapper whom Frémont’s reports would make famous, and the most competent of the St. Louis-based voyageurs: Basil Lajeunesse and Clément Lambert. From the west side the mountains rose more steeply from the plains at their feet and appeared more dramatic than they had on the long approach from the east. Frémont admitted they were beginning to appeal to his ideas of alpine beauty, though Preuss, German by birth, remained skeptical. Soon they turned their mules east and headed into the mountains. More than anything, it seems—certainly more than he wanted to follow orders—Frémont wanted to know how tall these mountains were.

Finally came the moment of truth. Carefully, he turned the barometer right side up.

And then, near the end of a day, they crossed the outlet of a lake. The stream was wide, swift, deep, and cold, and the rocks were sharp. The mule carrying the barometer must have slipped; perhaps it fell. In any case, the barometer broke—a "great misfortune," Frémont reported later in his published report. The entire party supposedly felt the loss. Trappers, travelers, hunters, and traders had been arguing so long about the mountains’ true height that "all had looked forward with pleasure to the moment when the instrument, which they believed to be true as the sun, should stand upon their summits, and decide their disputes." They camped on the north shore of the narrow lake. Frémont took latitude and longitude readings, took compass bearings to the various mountain peaks, and settled in to fix the barometer.

The main tube was still intact, but the glass cistern had broken. To replace it, he tried to cut the bottom out of an extra glass beaker. But he had only a rough file to cut with and the beaker broke, as did two more. Then he stored the barometer for the night in a groove the men had cut in a tree trunk, and in the morning he began again. He commandeered a powder horn from one of the men. The powder horn was worn thin by years of use and nearly transparent. Frémont boiled it to make it soft and workable, scraped it thinner for greater transparency, stretched it on a piece of wood to exactly the diameter he needed, bound it to the bottom of the instrument with stout thread, and glued it snug with buffalo glue. A piece of leather that had served as a cover for one of the glass beakers made a good adjustable pocket for the bottom of the powder horn-cistern. He next took mercury from one of his artificial horizons, heated it to drive off any excess moisture, and filled the cistern with the bright, heavy, liquid metal. Then he left the instrument upside down for several hours while the glue dried. Finally came the moment of truth. Carefully, he turned the barometer right side up. Everything held, nothing leaked, the vacuum stayed intact.

Time to climb the mountain. Leaving eleven men and twenty or so mules in a little fort-corral they built by the lake, the other fourteen men took fifteen of the best mules, and headed out.

The climb eventually cost them six days and five nights, and a sharp quarrel between Carson and Frémont. Eventually it was Lajeunesse, not Carson, who found the route up. Six men made it to the summit: Frémont, Preuss, Lajeunesse, Lambert, a voyageur named Descoteaux, and Auguste Janisse, called by the men Johnny, a mulatto and the only African-American in the group. Descoteaux and Lambert at one point extended a ramrod from above to help the others over a steep, slick slab. Janisse carried the barometer.

At the top, large enough for only one person to stand at a time, they unfurled an American flag, fired off pistols, and cheered. Then someone set up the tripod and hung the precious barometer. Preuss took two readings; later computations produced an estimated altitude of 13,570 feet, only 160 feet below the true height of the mountain, subsequently named Frémont Peak. Frémont was elated, and convinced (incorrectly) that he had climbed the highest peak of the Rocky Mountains. Preuss was, as usual, less impressed. "As on the entire journey," he wrote later, "Frémont allowed me only a few minutes for my work. When the time comes for me to make my map in Washington, he will more than regret this unwise haste. After about fifteen minutes we started on our return trip."

The barometer broke for a final time on the last afternoon of their march out of the mountains, before they had even returned to their camp by the lake. Frémont was chagrined, as he had hoped to be able to compare the instrument’s readings with those of another scientist’s barometer back in St. Louis, for a better read on his accuracy. He does not say whether he decided to leave his broken barometer behind. His other instruments still worked fine—sextants, reflecting circle, artificial horizon, telescope, chronometer, several compasses and probably a couple of thermometers—and he continued recording latitudes and longitudes.

Jessie Fremont
Fig. 6. Jessie B. Frémont, lithograph, circa 1856. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

On August 22, they again reached Independence Rock on the Sweetwater. Hoping for the best, Frémont unpacked yet another piece of remarkable equipment—an India rubber boat. It was twenty feet long and five wide, Frémont tells us, and appears to have had separate compartments, each inflatable with a bellows. He had ordered it the previous March, and it was delivered a few weeks later to the household of Senator Benton, in Washington, where Frémont lived with Jessie Benton Frémont, his bride of a few months. Its maker, Horace Day of New York, uncrated it on a broad gallery that opened off the Benton dining room, apparently for the admiration of friends and family, warning everyone as he did so that the new rubber might give off a strong odor. This proved to be the case. It was so bad everyone at the party had to leave, and the boat—still uninflated, apparently—was hustled out to the barn. To fumigate the house, servants hustled among the rooms and hallways, carrying ground coffee on hot shovels to cut the stench with something more pleasant. Sixty years later, Jessie told her biographer that though she barely remembered the boat, she clearly recalled its smell; she was newly pregnant at the time and the odor brought on an enormous nausea.

Frémont says he brought the boat along specifically to survey the Platte, but its purchase really shows his affection for everything newfangled. The men had used it first to cross the unexpectedly swollen Kansas River in early June. With the resourceful Basil Lajeunesse swimming out ahead, bow rope in his teeth, until he reached the far shore, it had worked fine on six cart-ferrying trips. But in his haste, with dark approaching, Frémont had the men load two carts on for the last trip, and the boat capsized. They lost a lot of sugar and nearly all the coffee, and two men nearly drowned. Frémont blamed the man who was steering the boat for being "timid on the water." A wiser leader might have learned not to risk lives in haste.

Now Frémont was eager to try the boat again—and this time for a voyage, not just a crossing. Remarkably, they tried to launch at Independence Rock, still nine miles upstream from the Sweetwater’s mouth. But, packed with gear and four or five men, the boat drew too much water. They dragged it for two miles along the river’s sand- and pebble-bottomed meanders before giving up, deflating it, waiting for the rest of the party to arrive, repacking boat and gear onto the mules, and heading down along the south bank—again, with no trail—toward the Platte. They had to scramble up over some big rocks before coming down finally to a small, open place near where the Sweetwater rushed into a turbid Platte, running swollen and smooth. They camped for the night. From this distance, they could not yet hear the roar of rapids below.

Next morning they started before sunrise, expecting to reach Goat Island, thirteen or fourteen river miles away, for breakfast. Seven men climbed aboard—Frémont, Preuss, Lambert, Lajeunesse, Descoteaux, and two more voyageurs, Honoré Ayot and Leonard Benoît. The boat had already been loaded with all the instruments, with their trail journals, their notebooks of data, their guns, personal baggage, and food for ten days.

"In short," Preuss wrote, "since we now live separate from ‘the common crowd,’ all the good things were retained for us"—sugar, chocolate, macaroni, the best meat of three recently killed buffalo cows and some recently smoked buffalo sausage—"and only the ordinary left for the others." The rest of the men and all the mules were dispatched overland, under the leadership of Baptiste Bernier, another of the voyageur-lieutenants. Frémont may have taken far more food than they needed on the boat with the intention of easing the mules’ burdens, floating all the way to Fort Laramie and letting the others pick up the carts at Cache Camp. But the fact that they also took the best food, that Carson was not put in charge of the overland contingent, and that Preuss hints at some kind of rift also may reveal that Frémont and Carson had not patched up their earlier quarrel.

Frémont’s motives are unclear. He made a career of rash decisions; this was the first notorious one. Perhaps he was so eager to know what his new rubber boat could do that he did not think of much else. He had a keen mind for mathematics, for cartography, and geography, and understood thoroughly all the processes of measurement that would get him the best data possible. At the same time he risked the notebooks that contained all the information he had gathered so far—and worse, he risked his men’s lives. "We paddled down the river rapidly," he reported later, "for our little craft was as light as a duck on the water."

The sun was well up when they came to the river’s first cut through a ridge. They stopped on a point on the right, just inside the first steep curve where the river was starting to move fast. They got out, scrambled up the ridge for a better look, and saw rapids but no falls that looked too large to navigate. Looking at the broken ridges around them Frémont was sure it would have been too much trouble to carry the boat and all their stuff around the fast water, "and I determined to run the cañon," he wrote. It was narrow and high; back down at the water level they saw where big logs from spring floods lay stranded on walls twenty or thirty feet above their heads. Preuss pocketed the chronometer and clutched his notebook. They made it safely through three rapids in quick succession, emerged into an open place where the river slowed and, exhilarated, pulled over for breakfast—some of that good sausage and a swallow of brandy.

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