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

After an hour they embarked again. Twenty minutes of smooth water brought them to a much larger, darker canyon, ominous in its height. They stopped again, Frémont wrote, and climbed to a spot where they could see the river winding seven or eight miles through walls two- to three-hundred feet high on the near end, five-hundred feet high farther down. These vertical distances are about right, but there is no view of the entire canyon from the hill they most likely climbed, or from anywhere near the canyon’s upper entrance. Though both men noted they were now bold from their earlier success, Preuss noted specifically that they did not reconnoiter. Hoping to protect the chronometer, he got out to walk the shore, but soon found the shore gone and rock walls running straight into the water. Meanwhile, the other men tried lining the boat; Lajeunesse and two others got out and walked the shore, holding one end of a fifty-foot rope attached to the stern. Then the boat stuck between two rocks. Water swept over the sides and began carrying away a sextant and a pair of saddlebags; Frémont grabbed the sextant but the saddlebags flowed away. Next, the boat unstuck and came up to where Preuss was standing. With the chronometer in a bag around his neck, he climbed aboard—the roar of the water now deafening—while the men with the rope made it to a big rock twelve feet above the level of the river. But the force of the water proved too great. Two of the men let go. Lajeunesse kept holding, and the line jerked him headfirst into the water. The boat shot on and, remarkably, he appeared again behind them in the current, disappeared, reappeared, his head a black speck in the white, white foam.

When they finally sorted everything out, they had lost many of the notebooks, though not all.

At last they turned the boat into an eddy. Lajeunesse caught up, swearing he had swum half a mile. All three rope men climbed aboard yet again. Everyone knelt now in the boat, took up a short paddle, and on they went, finally so exhilarated they shouted "hurrah" as Preuss has it, or, as Frémont has it, were just reaching the chorus of a Canadian boat song when the boat careened down a fall, struck a hidden rock, and flipped. Frémont and Preuss found themselves on the left-hand shore, the other men with the turtled boat on the right. Lambert was holding Descoteaux, who could not swim, by the hair. "Lâche pas," cried Descoteaux, "lâche pas, cher frère." —Don’t let go, brother! "Crains pas," came the reply, "Je m’en vais mourir avant de te lâcher." —Fear not! I’ll die before I let go of you!

At least, that is how Frémont wrote the story. Lajeunesse, meanwhile, righted the boat and with one or two of the others, managed to paddle some ways farther before a rock tore a hole in a second compartment and the boat slowly deflated into uselessness. There is only one route by which any of them could have climbed the four or five hundred feet up out of the canyon, and it leads up from the west, that is, left-hand side of the river. Frémont and Preuss appear to have taken this; how the others made it out is less clear. Preuss managed to hang on to the chronometer, but the water had stopped it. He also saved his detailed, melancholic diary—which did not turn up for more than a century, and which provides such a valuable anchor to Frémont’s buoyant optimism.

It was a long, hungry walk to Goat Island. Frémont had lost one moccasin and had to pick his way among rocks and cactus on one sock foot. After several more miles the canyon ended; then it was another five miles along braided river meanders now drowned under Alcova Reservoir. Then Hot Spring Gate, where Alcova Dam now lies, a final scramble over a sharp, red-rock ridge, and finally, below them, they saw Goat Island, waved to their friends, and smelled buffalo ribs roasting on the fire. That night it rained, but they slept right through it. Early next morning, Frémont sent the tireless Lajeunesse and a mule or two back to the canyon to recover whatever he could. They made Cache Camp the following day, exhumed the stuff and re-rigged the carts, and camped the following night at the ford on the Platte.

When they finally sorted everything out, they had lost many of the notebooks, though not all. Descoteaux had happened to have Frémont’s double-barreled rifle between his legs when the boat flipped and so it, too, was saved. Most of the scientific instruments were lost: the sextants, the big telescope, the five compasses, the artificial horizons; even the thermometers. The chronometer was ruined, and the one they had left at Fort Laramie ran poorly, so Frémont got no more reliable longitudes for the rest of the trip. He did save the reflecting circle, so he kept measuring his latitudes.

That winter Frémont wrote his report, or rather, dictated it to Jessie, who almost certainly added color and pace to the account. The document, including a detailed map of the corridor the expedition had traveled from the Missouri River to South Pass, was delivered to the Senate in March, 1843. The Senate immediately ordered one thousand copies printed for sale to the general public. Benton’s propaganda plans were working; that summer saw the first really large emigrant party—a thousand people—heading out for Oregon. Frémont, too, set out again. His orders were to travel to Oregon and come back the same way. But he followed his own wishes and took a much longer side trip, this time to California. A near-suicidal crossing of the Sierras in midwinter cost him the lives of two of his men. It also made clear to him and Preuss the nature and existence of the Great Basin, that enormous, counterintuitive sink east of the Sierras and west of the Green and Colorado drainages, where rivers flow out of mountains and simply disappear. When, in 1845 and 1846 Frémont traveled again to California to—accidentally on purpose—get the California end of the Mexican War started, Preuss stayed behind in Washington to keep working on the maps.

And in the shadow of America’s and Frémont’s reckless imperialism in those years, of Frémont’s growing incompetence and despair, and finally in our pity for his obscure decline and poverty-ridden death, it is easy to forget those maps. They are wonderful. The Senate published the first in 1845. It covers most of the trans-Missouri West, but Frémont and Preuss, to their great credit, mapped, with one or two exceptions, only the places they had seen. Good scientists, unwilling to vouch for what they did not know for sure, they left the rest blank. In 1846, the government published their seven-part map of the road from the mouth of the Kansas on the Missouri to the mouth of the Walla Walla on the Columbia. Tens of thousands were published. No one needed a Kit Carson, Jim Bridger, or Tom Fitzpatrick any longer to lead the wagons over plains and deserts. You had only to follow the map—with landmarks, water sources, and dates keyed to the descriptions in Frémont’s reports—all at an easy-to-read ten miles to the inch.

"War - Ground of Snake and Sioux Indians," it says, in capitals that curve two hundred elegant miles from the Green River to the hills north of Red Buttes. True. "Ridges and masses of naked Granite destitude [sic] of vegetation," it says in smaller letters the length of the Sweetwater Rocks, just north of the Sweetwater River. Also true. Under "Remarks" in the lower left-hand corner it lists "Fuel," then adds, "Cotton wood and willow sufficient near the water courses and sage (artemisia) all over the country . . . often as high as the head . . . sometimes eight feet high, and several inches in diameter in the stalk. Makes a quick fire." True again. "Game. At Sweetwater River buffalo appear for the last time, and emigrants should provide themselves well with dryed meat. West of that region nothing but a few deer and antelope, very wild, are to be met with." True, though within a year or two, buffalo would be scarce on the Sweetwater too. "Water," it reads. "Abundant." True, if a traveler kept close to the rivers. Otherwise, false, false, false.

When he got back to Washington, Frémont made Jessie a present of the flag flown from the top of the peak, unfurling it across their bed. The report in its various best-selling editions contained any of several illustrations of the Pathfinder on top of the mountain, hand on the pole, flag whipping in the wind while the other men gaze up admiringly from below.

But an equally true picture would have shown Preuss on the peak, hands on his knees, notebook under his armpit and pencil behind his ear, peering through the wind at the top end of the barometer while Janisse or Lajeunesse steadied one of the tripod legs. From below, Frémont, already headed downward, shouts back over his shoulder for them to hurry up, get a move on; one reading of the barometer was good enough. His haste, his well-equipped sloppiness, may have been the most American thing about him. They had a continent to conquer, and time was getting short.

Further Reading:

The first book I read on Frémont was Edward D. Harris’s compact John Charles Frémont and the Great Western Reconnaissance (New York, 1990), aimed at the young adult market but still a good short introduction to the subject, packed with maps, portraits, and nineteenth-century illustrations. Web browsers will enjoy Bob Graham’s delightfully sprawling Website on Frémont, his science, and a wagonload of related topics. It was here that I first found pictures and detailed descriptions of Frémont’s instruments, and Graham helped me a great deal with this essay, responding clearly and patiently to my emailed questions.

Map lovers can find a copy of Frémont's and Preuss's seven-part map of the route to Oregon by going to the Library of Congress's American Memory Website and then typing "Topographical Map of the Road from Missouri to Oregon" into the search window. Red Buttes, the Sweetwater Valley, and the Wind River Mountains are on map 4.

Ferol Egan’s thorough Frémont: Explorer for a Restless Nation (Garden City, N.Y., 1977), was probably the most useful biography overall; Tom Chaffin’s more recent Pathfinder: John Charles Frémont and the Course of American Empire (New York, 2002) serves a similar purpose. The first modern Frémont biography was Allan Nevins’s adulatory Frémont: Pathmaker of the West 2 vols. (New York, 1961), published in earlier versions in 1928, 1939, and 1955. And William H. Goetzmann’s excellent Army Exploration in the American West, 1803-1863 (New Haven, 1959) gives a detailed account of Frémont’s scientific apprenticeship on the upper Mississippi and Missouri Rivers with the French geographer Joseph Nicollet.

Readers of any or all of these positive accounts would do well to temper them with David Roberts’ A Newer World: John C. Frémont, Kit Carson and the Claiming of the American West (New York, 2000), which tells in detail the story of Frémont’s disastrous fourth expedition of 1847-48, when he abandoned his snowbound men to starve in the Colorado Rockies, and some resorted to cannibalism to survive.

Lovers of primary sources will enjoy reading Frémont’s ebullient account of the 1842 expedition side by side with Preuss’s skeptical one. Frémont’s is available in paperback as The Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains, with an introduction by Herman J. Viola and Ralph E. Ehrenberg (Washington, D.C., 1988). A reprint of Frémont’s first bestseller, it contains his reports both of the 1842 expedition and the 1843-44 expedition.

Preuss’s diary, which he kept in German, did not turn up until the 1950s, and was published in translation in the U.S. as Exploring with Frémont: The Private Diaries of Charles Preuss, Cartographer for John C. Frémont on his First, Second and Fourth Expeditions to the Far West, trans. and ed. by Erwin G. and Elisabeth K. Gudde (Norman, Ok., 1958).

Other editions of Frémont’s reports include at least one available online, The Life of Col. John Charles Frémont, and His Narrative of Explorations and Adventures, in Kansas, Nebraska, Oregon and California. The Memoir by Samuel M. Smucker (New York, 1856), reproduced online here. Frémont ran for president that year; Smucker’s "memoir" is actually a campaign biography, attached to a reprint of the 1845 edition of the first two expedition reports. The most comprehensive edition of Frémont’s reports is still in print as The Expeditions of John Charles Frémont, ed. by Donald Jackson and Mary Lee Spence (Urbana, 1970), in four volumes, of which the fourth is a beautifully produced map portfolio. And map lovers may want to purchase the seven-section, ten-miles-to-the-inch Topographical Map of the Road from Missouri to Oregon Commencing at the Mouth of the Kansas in the Missouri River and Ending at the Mouth of the Wallah Wallah in the Columbia, available in inexpensive facsimiles from Southfork Publications, P.O. Box E, Dayville, Oregon 97825.

Frémont published the first volume of his Memoirs of My Life in 1887; it covered his first three expeditions. But when it sold poorly, he did not follow it up with the successive volumes that had been planned. A new edition from Cooper Square Press in New York, 2001, is now in print, with an introduction by Charles M. Robinson.

The story of uncrating the odorous rubber boat in the Benton household is told in the Memoirs, and in more detail in Catherine Coffin Phillips’s Jessie Benton Frémont: A Woman who Made History (San Francisco, 1935). The book is based on long interviews the author conducted with Jessie before she died in 1902.

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