Wall Street Journal
A Newer World: Kit Carson, John C. Fremont and the Claiming of the American Westby David Roberts
John C. Frémont, nearly forgotten today, was one of the giants of nineteenth-century America. He led five expeditions into the American West in the 1840s and 1850s, covering a greater area than any other explorer. His expedition reports -- ghost-written by his beautiful and talented wife, Jessie Benton Frémont -- were bestsellers in their day. Riding the… See more details below
John C. Frémont, nearly forgotten today, was one of the giants of nineteenth-century America. He led five expeditions into the American West in the 1840s and 1850s, covering a greater area than any other explorer. His expedition reports -- ghost-written by his beautiful and talented wife, Jessie Benton Frémont -- were bestsellers in their day. Riding the wave of his popularity, he captured the Republican Party nomination for president in 1856 but narrowly lost the election.
Frémont's scout on three of his expeditions was Kit Carson. Frémont fancied himself a mountaineer, and he possessed great stamina and courage, but he lacked Carson's skills and knowledge. The only expedition Frémont led without Carson was a disaster that, like the better-known Donner Party debacle, culminated in one of the rare documented instances of cannibalism in American history.
A Newer World is the fascinating story of the Frémont-Carson expeditions and of two men, utterly unalike in so many ways, who became friends as well as fellow explorers. Frémont owed his life to Carson, who saved him on several occasions, while the legend of Kit Carson, the greatest mountain man of his day, grew out of Frémont's expedition reports. The Frémont-Carson expeditions are second only to Lewis and Clark's in their significance for America's western expansion. Their 1845-46 campaign, for example, helped to precipitate the Mexican-American War and led to the wresting of California from Mexico.
Carson is often remembered today for his 1863-64 roundup of Apaches and Navajos, leading to the infamous Long Walk. David Roberts demonstrates that Carson, who was twice married to Indian women, was profoundly ambivalent about the campaign, which was ordered by an Army officer who was his superior.
Throughout the book, Roberts draws on little-known primary sources in telling the dramatic stories of these expeditions. He shows how Frémont saw himself as a historical figure, especially in his reports, while Carson -- taciturn where Frémont was outspoken, modest where Frémont was boastful, and, significantly, illiterate -- was oblivious to his own fame. Yet it was Carson who underwent an evolution from an Indian killer to an Indian advocate.
In addition to his archival research, Roberts traveled the routes of Frémont and Carson's expeditions to gain a firsthand knowledge of the territory they explored. In analyzing how Frémont and Carson advanced the Americanizing of the West, Roberts writes with a modern-day sensitivity to the Indians, for whom these expeditions were a tragedy.
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Chapter 1: A Disorder of Enormous Masses
They set out, fifteen men on fifteen mules, shortly after dawn on August 12, 1842, carrying two days' worth of food -- dried buffalo meat, macaroni, and coffee. In the lead, as usual, rode Kit Carson, threading a trail through tangles of downed limber pine, across tilted slabs of granite where the mules' hoofs skated and slipped, beneath waterfalls and around cobalt lakes. And as usual, calling the shots from the middle of the pack, John C. Frémont straddled his mule as the alien landscape enfolded him, his quicksilver spirit veering between exultation and despair. Directly ahead of the party loomed its goal, the peak Frémont had judged loftiest in all the Rocky Mountains, snowfields gleaming in the sun, rock towers spiking the sky.
As yet, these two were nobodies, Kit Carson and John Frémont, their deeds discussed, if at all, only within the arcane circles of their peers and cronies. But this summer's jaunt would make them famous, launching a joint passage into the realms of myth that would place them, before the century's end, among America's eternal heroes. From the 1842 expedition onward, their destinies and renown would be intertwined; yet in all the West, no pair of adventurers more different in character than Carson and Frémont could be found.
Ten weeks before, the two men had first met, aboard a steamboat crawling the Missouri River upstream from St. Louis. Twenty-nine years old, a southerner born in Savannah and raised in Tennessee, Virginia, and South Carolina, Frémont had escaped a life of incipient dandyism to become an ambitious lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers, a branch of the U.S. Army. He had served adequately on several surveying trips in the South and Midwest, but the present journey was Frémont's first thrust into the Great West, as well as his break in life. For the first time, he was in charge of an expedition. The explicit mandate given Frémont was to survey the first half of the Oregon Trail; his implicit charge was to keep an eye out for the best places to build forts along the way to safeguard emigrants from the "redskins" who (in the phrase of the day) "infested" the territory.
Frémont needed a guide who knew the West. Three years his elder, out of Kentucky via a hardscrabble homestead on the Missouri frontier, Carson had run away from home at the age of sixteen. For thirteen years he had trapped beaver and fought Indians from California down to Chihuahua, from New Mexico up to Idaho, without amassing the most modest fortune or dulling one whit his wanderlust. Now, with the collapse of the beaver trade, he was simply another down-on-his-luck mountain man looking for work. Aboard the steamboat, in response to Frémont's earnest questions, Carson (as he recalled many years later) "told him that I had been some time in the mountains and thought I could guide him to any point he wished to go."
By mid-August, the expedition had traversed a thousand miles of prairie, ascending a series of rivers: the Missouri, both the North and South Platte, and the Sweetwater. On August 7, the team had traversed South Pass -- the ill-defined saddle, some 7,500 feet above sea level, that affords the easiest crossing of the Continental Divide between Mexico and Canada -- and turned the south end of the majestic Wind River Range. Now, for the ascent of what would come to be known as Fremont Peak, the lieutenant divided his party, leaving twelve men beside a lake on the western fringe of the range to stand guard against the Blackfeet Indians, who Frémont feared would seize the first opportunity to ambush his team.
For all his western experience, Carson had never before penetrated the Wind Rivers. Both he and Frémont seriously underestimated the range's defenses. What from a distance looked like a straightforward slope leading to the mountain (which days before, from the plains, Frémont had singled out as clearly the apex of the chain) proved to hide a wildly convoluted terrain. Unguessed chasms thwarted their progress, the forest grew in places too dense to ride through, and chaoses of sharp-edged talus made for treacherous footing. By nightfall, the team had found a grassy bottom among the pines where the mules were turned out to graze and the men set up their bivouac.
For all the difficulties thrown across his path, Frémont pushed into the heart of the range in a state of rapture. "It seemed as if," he later wrote, "from the vast expanse of uninteresting prairie we had passed over, nature had collected all her beauties together in one chosen place." An avid if uncritical self-taught botanist, Frémont gathered samples wherever he went: here, he waxed ecstatic over "a rich undergrowth of plants, and numerous gay-colored flowers in brilliant bloom." (Looking over Frémont's pressed specimens four months later, anticipating the lieutenant's second western expedition, the great Harvard botanist Asa Gray wrote to his equally luminary Princeton colleague John Torrey, "I wish we had a collector to go with Fremont...If none are to be had, Lieut. F. must be indoctrinated, & taught to collect both dried spec. & seeds. Tell him he shall be immortalized by having the 999th Senecio called S. Fremontii...")
Yet Frémont's rapture was darkened with a sense of awe that bordered on dread. In the primeval wild into which he had trespassed, the young lieutenant discerned "a savage sublimity of naked rock." As crag and ridge and abyss forestalled his blithe plans, he felt all but trapped within "a gigantic disorder of enormous masses."
In the morning, still optimistic, Frémont moved three miles deeper into the range, through "a confusion of defiles," until his party came to a clearing with a magnificent view of their objective. Here the leader set up an advanced base, leaving the mules with several men and all their camping equipment. After an early dinner, the would-be alpinists set out on foot, carrying neither coats nor food: "The peak appeared so near, that there was no doubt of our returning before night..."
Once again, Frémont misjudged the Wind River Mountains. "We were soon involved in the most ragged precipices..., [which] constantly obstructed our path, forcing us to make long détours; frequently obliged to retrace our steps, and frequently falling among the rocks." One man averted death as he pitched toward a cliff's edge only by "throwing himself flat on the ground." By late afternoon, the men were close to exhaustion, and Frémont himself had succumbed to a violent headache and vomiting.
Stretching 110 miles across western Wyoming, with its countless lakes, its meadows fringed with evergreens, its cirques teeming with solid walls of granite and gneiss, the Wind River Range has become today a favorite playground for backpackers, fishermen, and mountaineers. From Elkhart Park, at 9,100 feet on a mountain shoulder above Fremont Lake, a well-traveled trail winds fifteen miles north and east toward Titcomb Lakes.
The path winds up a shallow vale, then angles across a plateau thick with limber pines and Engelmann spruce, making a gratuitous jog north to treat pilgrims to a splendid panorama at Photographers Point, where they gain their first view of distant Fremont Peak. Forest Service crews have chainsawed downed tree trunks out of the way, but in the trackless woods on either side, fallen, mossy logs form a maze of obstacles that would still make for tortuous going on muleback.
The best guess of modern historians as to where Frémont entered the Wind Rivers is at Boulder Lake, some dozen miles south of Elkhart Park. Approaching the mountains from South Pass, Frémont might easily have believed he was taking the shortest route to his objective; but the delusions of mountain foreshortening that bedeviled all early climbers in the West thus added those dozen miles to the party's ordeal. It is possible that the path Carson found through tangles and ravines during the party's first two days veers close to the Titcomb trail, but equally likely that the 1842 explorers wandered several miles farther east.
By mid-August, the summer's riot of wildflowers has peaked and waned, leaving only the hardier survivors: not only the profusions of purple asters over which Frémont raved, but swaths of Indian paintbrush, elephantela (with its tiny pink trunklike blossoms), buttercups, blue lupine, and magenta fireweed blooming down the stalk. Squirrels skitter among the pine needles, and Canada jays, emboldened by the crumbs a summer's troop of hikers have dropped along the trail, perch on nearby branches.
Ten miles in, the trail skirts Seneca Lake. The odds are good that Frémont's party passed by here, for it lies on the direct route to Titcomb Basin, southeast of Fremont Peak. For all the vexations of trail finding in the forest, for all the scrapes and scares of negotiating granite slabs and cliffs, in the Wind Rivers, Frémont's spirit soared with joy. As he emerged upon an unexpected lake (possibly Seneca), "a view of the utmost magnificence and grandeur burst upon our eyes. With nothing between us and their feet to lessen the effect of the whole height, a grand bed of snow-capped mountains rose before us, pile upon pile, glowing in the bright light of an August day."
The evening of August 13, on the north side of a sizable lake with a rocky island in the middle of it, the team prepared for a second bivouac. Island Lake, as Frémont named the site of their nocturnal vigil, is the first point on the party's mountain itinerary where the modern traveler can be sure of walking in their 1842 footprints. The lake lies close to timberline, at 10,346 feet -- 3,400 feet of altitude and three miles as the hawk soars beneath the summit of Fremont Peak.
On a broad flat rock, the men stretched their weary bones in hopes of sleep. They had nothing to eat, and not even their coats to cover themselves. Before dusk, the best hunters had set off hoping to shoot a bighorn sheep or two, but had come back empty-handed. The men built a bonfire of downed pine, but a gale out of the north robbed the bivouackers of its heat. Most of the worn-out party endured the ten hours of darkness without a wink of sleep.
Frémont, however, had already proved himself the most stubborn of explorers. Despite vomiting late into the night, he rose on August 14 still determined to conquer the mountain. As he later jauntily wrote, "[W]e were glad to see the face of the sun in the morning. Not being delayed by any preparation for breakfast, we set out immediately."
By the end of his voyaging, twelve years hence, Frémont could lay fair claim to having explored more terrain west of the Mississippi than any other American. The historian Allan Nevins would subtitle his 1928 biography of the man The West's Greatest Adventurer. Frémont would enter the pantheon of his country's heroes tagged with the resounding sobriquet the Pathfinder.
Yet compared to the monumental government expeditions to the West that had preceded his, Frémont's 1842 voyage does not easily lend itself to pioneering superlatives. Lewis and Clark's journey of 1804-6 fulfilled Thomas Jefferson's empyrean expectations: to explore the Louisiana Purchase and beyond, all the way to the Pacific; to search for a northwest passage by river across the continent (Lewis and Clark proved there was none); and to gauge the potential of that vast wilderness for American commerce and settlement. The next two western expeditions -- Zebulon Pike's in 1806-7, and Stephen Long's in 1819-20 -- furthered the reconnaissance of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, as well as probing the Spanish stronghold in the Southwest.
But Frémont's 1842 mission was a comparatively modest one -- essentially, to make an accurate map of the first half of what was already being called the Oregon Trail. The journey's covert purpose, Frémont comprehended well: for his push west might help serve the intrigues of politicians who dreamed of seeing the American flag wave not only over Oregon, but Texas and California as well. Only three years after Frémont set out from St. Louis, the editor of the New York Morning News, John L. O'Sullivan, would publish a manifesto whose key words became the catch phrase that rallied tide after tide of American expansionism. It was, O'Sullivan wrote, the "manifest destiny of this nation to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions."
It required, however, a linked chain of fortuitous events to place Frémont in charge of the expedition that would launch his lasting fame. As the survey took shape in the minds of its government sponsors, it was assumed that Joseph Nicollet would lead the party, as he had the 1838-39 jaunt into the Midwest; once again, Frémont would serve as a useful but decidedly subordinate second-in-command. An astronomer, cartographer, and member of the French Legion of Honor, Nicollet had fled his native land in 1830 for political reasons; within a decade, he had landed a cherished job as explorer for the War Department. A brilliant innovator, Nicollet was the first to use the barometer to measure altitudes; one historian calls him "the first systematic modern cartographer." It was Nicollet, on the 1838-39 expedition, who taught Frémont everything the young lieutenant knew about mapping and surveying.
By 1842, however, Nicollet was gravely ill with cancer. It was almost more than he could do to write up the report of his previous journey, let alone lead another one.
The great American champion of westward expansion was Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, who had served in the Senate since 1821. A close confidant of Thomas Jefferson, Benton had tirelessly lobbied for expeditions to take up the challenge laid down by Lewis and Clark; in the last meeting he ever had with an ailing Jefferson, in 1824, their talk had been of the need for further exploration of the unknown West.
By 1840, as Nicollet's mapmaker, Frémont had won the attention and approval of the stormy senator from Missouri. But it was far from a foregone conclusion that, in default of Nicollet, a twenty-nine-year-old lieutenant in the Topographical Corps would be entrusted to lead the survey up the Missouri and the Platte.
And Frémont came very close to ruining not only his chance at command, but his whole career -- by falling in love with Benton's daughter. Jessie was fifteen when she met the twenty-six-year-old Frémont. They courted discreetly, then were secretly married by a Catholic priest on October 19, 1841. When Jessie presented her father with this startling fait accompli, the senator flew into one of his legendary rages, then banished his son-in-law from the house. Still only seventeen, Jessie stood firm, declaring her fealty to the man she loved, and Benton was so moved that he performed an about-face. By early 1842, the rash lieutenant had become Benton's protégé.
To finance the expedition, Benton pushed a $30,000 appropriations bill through Congress. Within the senator's heart burned a clandestine passion to flood the West with Americans, and so drive out the British, who were gaining more than a foothold in Oregon. Clandestine, because relations with Great Britain would be seriously compromised by any overt avowal of such an American goal.
Thus the official orders for Frémont's expedition make no hint of paving the way for emigrants or of claiming land for the United States. The only document that has ever come to light, a laconic five-sentence directive from the chief of the Bureau of Topographical Engineers, demands only that Frémont "make a Survey of the Platte or Nebraska river, up to the head of the Sweetwater." The party's whole foray into the Wind River Range was thus technically -- and characteristically -- a case of Frémont's deliberately overstepping his mandate.
By his late twenties, the explorer was a man driven by restless curiosity. His love of nature ran deep, and his enthusiasm for botany and geology far exceeded that of a dilettante. Yet in view of his ultimate glory as "the West's greatest adventurer," it is striking that at the age of twenty-eight, Frémont had no particular interest in the West. He was the prototype of that classic nineteenth-century American, the man of intense but vaguely directed ambition. To the extent that he had a goal in life before 1842, it was simply to become a "great engineer," whatever that might mean.
It was Benton who awakened the lieutenant to the West. Forty-five years later, Frémont recalled that his first talk with the senator, full of Benton's rosy visions of an American Hesperides, "was pregnant with results and decisive of my life."
Yet that modest expedition up the Platte to the head of the Sweetwater might well have passed into the limbo of a historical footnote to the Americanizing of the West. By 1842, three and a half decades' worth of far more extraordinary journeys beyond the Mississippi had been performed by Americans unknown to the eastern public. Those ephemeral but epic voyages began with John Colter, who, after almost three years of privation and adventure in the employ of Lewis and Clark, decided that he craved more of the same, begged leave of his bosses on the Missouri, and headed back into the wilderness in August 1806. During the next few years, Colter made the Anglo discovery of the geysers and hot springs of Yellowstone (Colter's Hell, his scoffing auditors dubbed this landscape of a crazed loner's fantasy) and miraculously survived his execution at the hands of the Blackfeet.
Colter, Manuel Lisa, Jedediah Smith, Joseph Reddeford Walker, Thomas Fitzpatrick, Old Bill Williams, Joe Meek, Jim Bridger -- these, and many another mountain man, including Kit Carson, prosecuted journeys all over the West that made Frémont's 1842 outing look like a milk run. Indeed, no part of the itinerary on Frémont's first expedition -- except his probe into the Wind Rivers -- covered ground that was new to Americans. South Pass, the key to the Oregon migration, had been discovered by Anglos as early as 1812; Benjamin Bonneville had taken wagons across it in 1832; and six years before Frémont came along, the first white women (missionaries' wives named Narcissa Whitman and Elizabeth Spalding) successfully traversed the divide.
Yet, as Allan Nevins writes of the mountain men, "Though they were the true pathfinders, their knowledge was relatively useless, for it could not be diffused." The cardinal contribution of Frémont's first expedition, as well as the pedestal of his fame, lay in the map his expedition produced (the best yet drawn beyond the Mississippi) and the report he published (at the time, the most stirring, romantic, and influential narrative of the western frontier to appear in English).
Around St. Louis, Frémont had recruited the personnel for his expedition. Nearly all were French voyageurs who already knew the Great Plains. Frémont's own father was French, an itinerant painter and womanizer who had drifted to Tidewater Virginia; the future explorer grew up fluent in French and comfortable with his paternal culture. Though Kit Carson would become Frémont's most trusted scout, at first on the 1842 expedition, "my favorite man" was one of the voyageurs, Basil Lajeunesse. It was Lajeunesse to whom the lieutenant turned for onerous errands and dangerous missions, which the Frenchman performed without stint. We know very little about this worthy, who, at the outset of the journey, had only four years to live: on Frémont's third expedition, in 1846, an ax wielded by an Indian in southern Oregon would split his skull as he slept by the campfire.
From the start, however, Frémont was impressed by Carson's quiet competence and savoir-faire. In an oft-quoted passage in his official report, Frémont observed his new friend with admiration tinged perhaps with envy: "Mounted on a fine horse, without a saddle, and scouring bare-headed over the prairies, Kit was one of the finest pictures of a horseman I have ever seen." For if there was a single quality the vain and impetuous lieutenant hankered after, it was the kind of unconscious grace Carson exuded. Kit was, moreover, a better buffalo hunter than the mountain man (Lucien Maxwell) Frémont had hired to be the expedition's meat hunter.
Carson's salary for the three-month journey was $100 a month. This may not seem a princely stipend on a frontier where inflated prices held sway: at Chouteau's Landing (near present-day Kansas City), Frémont laid in such supplies as tea at $1 a pound and linseed oil at $2 a gallon. But the salary was more than three times as much as Carson had made the previous year, as a meat hunter for Bent's Fort on the Arkansas. Basil Lajeunesse, in contrast, was paid only 75 cents per day.
For all his enthusiasm about the journey west, Frémont found crossing a thousand miles of prairie an ordeal by tedium. Though his report would eventually help sell the Great Plains to several generations of emigrants, Frémont could not help recording "the same dreary barrenness" day after day, "the same naked waste." Of the view from a marly ridge in what is today western Nebraska, he wrote, "I had never seen anything which impressed so strongly on my mind a feeling of desolation."
On July 8, on the North Platte, while Frémont himself was absent on a reconnaissance to the south, the main body of his team crossed paths with an entourage of trappers led by the already legendary mountain man Jim Bridger. Returning from the very headwaters toward which Frémont's party was aimed, Bridger was full of dire alarms. The Sioux to the west and north, he reported, were on the rampage, having "declared war on every living thing." Bridger was certain the exploring party could not continue westward without risking pitched battles against the maddened Indians.
Frémont's account of the 1842 expedition is an artful concoction. Beneath a veneer of modesty about his own deeds, the narrative pivots around uplifting instances of its leader's courage and resolve. Bridger's scare furnishes the first such exemplum.
That night around the campfire, with Frémont still off on his reconnaissance, the voyageurs chew the fat of their fears, muttering, "Il n'y aura pas de vie pour nous" (in western movie lingo, "We're goners now"). Even Carson has dark thoughts, agreeing with Bridger about the certainty of warfare, and going so far as to make out his will.
Frémont, returning a few days later (if we can believe his own account), gives not a moment's thought to turning back down the Platte. Instead, he gathers his men, declares his intention to march forward, and offers to discharge with full pay any "who were disposed to cowardice, and anxious to return." Only one voyageur seizes this humiliating escape clause. "I asked him some few questions," Frémont smugly reports, "in order to expose him to the ridicule of the men, and let him go."
On Lewis and Clark's landmark journey almost four decades before, the men had been encouraged by their leaders to keep journals, in hopes of compiling the richest possible record of their pioneering odyssey. In 1842, Frémont forbade the keeping of diaries among his own expeditioners. The only account that would emerge from his survey of the Oregon Trail would be Frémont's own.
This precaution might have seemed all but moot, for most of the voyageurs were illiterate -- as was Kit Carson himself. But Frémont had failed to calculate for the clandestine disobedience of the only other well-educated member of his team, the man who was, by any reckoning, the least likely adventurer in the lot: his German cartographer, Charles Preuss.
Frémont had met the mapmaker the previous December, when a shy supplicant bearing a letter of introduction had arrived at his home in Washington one evening as Frémont sat with Jessie before the fireplace. Years later, Frémont recalled his first sight of the man -- "a shock of light curly hair standing up thick about his head, and a face so red that we attributed it to a wrong cause instead of to the cold and the nervousness and anxiety which turned his speech into stammering."
A less generous man might have sent Preuss packing; but Frémont quickly saw that the diffident German was a superb draftsman and topographer -- and that he was destitute. He gave Preuss menial work reducing astronomical observations from the 1838-39 survey, then, as soon as he was put in charge of the western expedition, hired Preuss as his cartographer.
Born in western Germany in 1803, Preuss was a decade older than his employer. Since 1834, when he had emigrated to the United States, he had puttered away at a series of desk jobs, most of them with the U.S. Coast Survey, whose superintendent was a fellow expatriate German. But when a congressional appropriation failed to come through, Preuss, his wife, and young daughter (a son had died in childhood two years earlier) faced virtual starvation.
Preuss would eventually accompany Frémont on three expeditions, including the lieutenant's disastrous fourth, when both men were lucky to get out of the San Juan Mountains in Colorado alive. But in June 1842, as the party left Chouteau's Landing on the Missouri, Preuss was an utter greenhorn. Thirty-nine years old, he had never ridden a horse before; it is possible that he had never camped out.
Preuss kept his secret diary in German, which language Frémont did not read. It is a completely private document, with no pretensions to a wider audience than that of his wife, Gertrud, whom he addresses by the diminutive Trautchen. Lost in family attics for more than a century, the diary was rediscovered by a scholar in 1954 and published in an English translation four years later.
In the absence of any other account of the expedition besides Frémont's suave and self-congratulatory report, Preuss's unvarnished diary supplies a corrective viewpoint. The narrative also sparkles with accidental comedy, as Preuss plays an unwitting Sancho Panza to Frémont's Don Quixote.
Yet the German must have been a trying companion on the trail. Compulsively gloomy, homesick not only for his ménage outside Washington but for his native Germany, a hopeless bumbler about camp, an egregious know-it-all despite his shortcomings, contemptuous of the rough-hewn voyageurs who were his comrades, Preuss grumbles his way from St. Louis to the Wind Rivers and back again.
A bit of a toady to Frémont's face, Preuss delights in lampooning his commander in his private pages. Already, on the first day out from Chouteau's Landing, the leader is "that simpleton Frémont" and "a foolish lieutenant." Without stating his grounds, Preuss derides Frémont's astronomical observations, his botanizing, and his mineralogy. Carson fares a little better, though from the first pages on, Preuss nicknames him Kid Karsten.
Like many another tenderfoot dragged half-willingly along on a difficult journey, Preuss obsesses about food. After an ox was slaughtered, "Some of the men tried to eat the liver raw. I was satisfied with bread and coffee." Preuss's squeamishness about trail food intersects with his dudgeon against the French cook. "Have trapped a large turtle, which is being prepared for soup tonight. If our cook, the rascal, will only know how to fix it." One day later: "A prairie chicken was shot. If the cook cannot prepare it any better than the turtle, let him gulp it down himself." In his famished funks, Preuss retreats to smoke a solitary pipe on the edge of camp.
Proving himself an incompetent horseman, on only the fifth day out Preuss is relieved of the chores of grooming, saddling, and feeding his mount. Remarkably indulgent of the eccentric German's foibles, Frémont wins no gratitude in Preuss's diary. After a sleepless night among clouds of mosquitoes, Preuss grouses, "The others lay safely under their nets; mine had been forgotten because of Frémont's negligence." Unable to get used to wearing the same clothes day after day, Preuss hires a voyageur to do his laundry. The cartographer joins Frémont's splinter party for the reconnaissance of the South Platte, but, incapable of keeping up, is sent back with a single companion. Having regained the main trail, Preuss sits under a juniper and smokes his pipe, while his partner sets off on muleback to look for the rest of the team. Late in the afternoon, the companion returns, bearing a hamper of beef, buffalo tongue, bread, and brandy. "What a joy, what a delight!" Preuss crows in his diary. Yet in the next breath: "When I was eating, I thought that those people could have sent along a little salt if they had had anything of a cultured taste."
Frémont's initial fear that the man was a serious drinker, when he met the red-faced Preuss the previous December, may have hit the mark. At one point, Preuss reassures himself "that I am not such a bibbler as I believed at times." Yet his thoughts are constantly on ardent spirits. "I wish I had a drink," he blurts out the night of the failed turtle soup. A few evenings later: "If only I had a bottle of wine..." Meat hung from the wagons to dry reminds Preuss of red curtains in the windows of a German tavern. "Oh, if there were a tavern here!" he sighs. Preuss lives for the keg of brandy Frémont taps on special occasions, cursing the "miserable red wine" that the lieutenant serves up for breakfast to celebrate the Fourth of July.
Nor is the topographer much interested in the landscape. "Nothing but prairie. Made twenty miles. Very hot," he natters early on. And near the end of the expedition, with the Missouri almost in smelling distance: "I find it quite impossible to say anything interesting about this trip and about the country. I see nothing, I know nothing, I think only of wife, child, bread, and coffee. Also, a little drink passes through my thoughts from time to time..."
Even the Indians fail to engage the dyspeptic traveler. Crowding around camp, they are "irksome, pesky as children." In the face of Jim Bridger's warning about Sioux on the warpath, Preuss is all for going home. When Frémont announces his decision to press on, Preuss, too humiliated to back out in front of his colleagues, bitterly regrets having joined the expedition in the first place. Anticipating his death by a Sioux arrow or knife, he proclaims, "I see no honor in being murdered by this rabble."
Yet Preuss's iconoclastic mutterings puncture the chivalric idyll that emerges in Frémont's report. A stirring typical passage in the latter details the lieutenant's part in a buffalo hunt at full gallop: "I fired at the distance of a yard, the ball entering at the termination of the long hair, and passing near the heart. She fell headlong at the report of the gun...." In Preuss's telling, Frémont regularly returns from such chases with no quarry more tangible than a boast: "'I knocked down one, and that fellow will not get much farther,' etc."
To cover the hiatus in his main party's progress while he is off on his South Platte reconnaissance, Frémont pretends to transcribe entries penned by Preuss in his absence; these are plainly the lieutenant's compositions, based perhaps on notes by the German. After Jim Bridger warns the team about the Sioux rampage, the mountain man reluctantly offers to guide them to the headwaters of the Sweetwater; "but the absence of our leader, which was deeply regretted by all," writes the "Preuss" of the report, "rendered it impossible for us to enter upon such an arrangement." At the moment, the real Preuss was confiding in his diary, "I feel better because of Frémont's absence."
The flip side of Frémont's considerable charisma as a leader was his grandiose belief -- or is it merely a literary conceit? -- that all his teammates' hearts beat in sympathy with his. When his third and last barometer breaks in the Wind Rivers, writes Frémont, "The loss was felt by the whole camp...Their grief was only inferior to my own."
But Preuss views Frémont as a kind of mad tinkerer and gadgeteer, more interested in his instruments than his men. "Our big chronometer has gone to sleep," he writes almost gleefully on June 19. "That is what always happens when an egg wants to be wiser than the hen." Frémont had brought along a daguerreotype camera, with which he labored in vain to expose a single plate (successful photographs from a western voyage of discovery would not be taken for another eleven years). Having failed in this effort, Frémont neglects to mention the daguerreotype in his report.
Not so Preuss: "Frémont wasted the morning with his machine.
...[H]e spoiled five plates that way. Not a thing was to be seen on them. That's the way it often is with these Americans. They know everything, they can do everything, and when they are put to a test, they fail miserably."
Frémont's ultimate gadget was an inflatable boat made of india rubber. On the journey out, he had used this dubious contraption to try to ferry supplies across the Kansas River, only to watch it capsize. Two men nearly drowned, and the expedition lost much of its sugar and coffee.
Unfazed, on the descent of the Platte two months later, Frémont launched the boat with a crew of seven and, inexplicably, the expedition's books and records. Provisioned for a twelve-day float, the raft bounced through a rapids-thronged canyon for some three hours before flipping. This time, three men almost drowned, a good part of the records was lost, and the navigators had to perform an arduous forced march -- Frémont with one foot clad only in a stocking -- to catch up with the rest of their party. Among this bedraggled band of survivors was the German cartographer, who later scolded in his diary, "It was certainly stupid of the young chief to be so foolhardy where the terrain was absolutely unknown."
Upon reaching the Wind Rivers in early August, however, it is Preuss's turn to grow grandiose. Apparently on the strength of a single walking tour in Switzerland, performed at the age of twenty-six, during which, suddenly turning a rocky corner, "I saw in front of me the entire range of the Alps from Mont Blanc to the Alps of Tirol" (a geographical impossibility), he styles himself the expedition's mountaineering expert. In this role, at first he sneers at the Wind Rivers. An earlier traveler had guessed that the range towered to 25,000 feet above sea level; Preuss doubts that the summits reach 8,000. Comparing the blissful memory of his Swiss prospect with a distant view of the Winds, he laments that "it is as though I were to turn my eyes from the face of a lovely girl to the wrinkled face of an old woman."
Preuss's alpine snobbery seems to affect Frémont. The lieutenant's report asserts that the prosaic divide of South Pass has "nothing of the Great St. Bernard and Simplon passes in Europe" about it, that the charm of the Wind Rivers has little to do with "the splendor of far off views, which have lent such a glory to the Alps." Having never been to Europe, Frémont must have dredged up his comparisons from books and from the stream of condescending prattle with which his German topographer annotated the New World landscape.
Once again, however, Preuss's uncensored version of events reveals the tensions and follies of the Wind River thrust, which Frémont's more polished narrative glosses over. "The leader, Carson, walked too fast," writes Preuss of the morning of August 13, the day the team hoped to reach the summit. "This caused some exchange of words. Frémont got excited, as usual, and designated a young chap [probably Basil Lajeunesse] to take the lead...."
As the team leaves the mules in a grove and sets out, foodless and coatless, to bag the peak, Preuss calls on his alpine wisdom: "[O]nly I, a more experienced mountaineer, stuck a piece of dried buffalo meat in my pocket." According to the topographer, it is Frémont's throbbing headache that dictates an early halt. In camp, the lieutenant and Carson patch up their quarrel. On his bed of hard stone, Preuss struggles fruitlessly to sleep: "The night was very cold, the wind violent, and, as always, the best spots were already taken by others."
In the morning, according to Preuss, the team starts off deeply dispirited. "No supper, no breakfast, little or no sleep -- who can enjoy climbing a mountain under these circumstances? Moreover, all the men, with perhaps two exceptions, would have much preferred to stay in camp."
One of those two is Preuss himself. For all his griping, for all his disdain for these humdrum American mountains, the German has caught summit fever. Though he knows that, at thirty-nine, he is not the man he was on his Swiss tour at twenty-six, Charles Preuss is determined not only to reach the top of the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains, but to be the first man to get there.
Why, exactly, did Frémont want to climb his mountain? His report is oddly circumlocutory on the matter, except when the tragedy of the barometer causes the lieutenant to agonize over the loss to science his inability to measure the height of the Wind River Range will bode. (Frémont ingeniously jury-rigged the barometer in camp and was able to take remarkably accurate altitudes.) Nothing in his formal expedition orders, of course, hinted at alpinism.
There is instead, in Frémont's gutsy determination to penetrate the contorted range and ascend its highest point -- which would furnish not only the dramatic zenith of the first expedition, but one of the proudest moments of the Pathfinder's life -- that modern note of exploration for its own sake. Today, Fremont Peak is not a difficult climb; by its southwest slopes, the mountain amounts, in the modern alpinist's dismissive phrase, to "a walk-up." By 1842 in the Alps, technical wizards were making the first ascents of such redoubtable peaks as the Gross Venediger and the Finsteraarhorn. By the same date in the American West, where the sheer remoteness of the mountains added much to their intrinsic difficulty, no one (except certain Indians, whose names and feats are lost to history) had yet climbed a summit as challenging as Fremont Peak.
In 1806, Zebulon Pike, making the Anglo discovery of the mountain that would bear his name, set out to climb it. Like Frémont and Carson, he radically underestimated the scale of his objective. Anticipating a one-day ascent, he and his men found themselves wallowing through waist-deep snow three arduous days later. Topping one of the mountain's innumerable false summits, he saw that the true apex still lay fifteen or sixteen miles away. Pike quit in disgust, declaring that "no human being could have ascended to its pinical."
Only fourteen years later, Edwin James, a young botanist on Stephen Long's expedition, led the first ascent of Pikes Peak, which required an ordeal rivaling Pike's. The huge but gentle Colorado mountain, however, is a far easier climb than Fremont Peak, as evidenced by the fact that an auto road was built to the top in 1915.
Frémont was not the first Anglo explorer to reach a Wind River summit. In 1833, looking for a direct route across the range, mountain man Benjamin Bonneville headed up one of the forks of the Popo Agie River from the east, near present-day Lander. Crossing "fearful precipices" and "rugged defiles," forced at last to "clamber on hands and knees," Bonneville's small team topped out on some Wind River summit; but the account the pioneer left is so sketchy that no historian today can ascertain which peak he climbed.
Aside from these isolated deeds, no serious mountaineering had been performed in the American West before 1842. Frémont's own account of his team's plunge into the Wind Rivers, with their "gigantic disorder of enormous masses," makes this wilderness sound so forbidding that one would think the explorers were the first human beings ever to enter its labyrinthine heart.
A stray remark in Preuss's diary reveals otherwise, and hints at one of the beguiling mysteries of the prehistoric West. At Island Lake, scene of the party's frigid, hungry bivouac,
we found remains of Indian lodges, but this did not disturb us. Kit, who otherwise makes a great to-do about such things in order to make himself important, said that the lodges were those of a weak, miserable tribe of Snake Indians. They were called "root-eaters" because they subsist chiefly on all sorts of roots and small game -- squirrels, rats, beavers, etc. They have no horses and therefore frequent these regions.
As it turned out, Jim Bridger's warning had proved a false alarm: Frémont's party encountered only a handful of Sioux on their journey up the Platte and Sweetwater -- harmless, demoralized men near starvation in the wake of a drought that had seized the Plains. Frémont knew that Crow Indians ranged east of the Wind Rivers, Shoshone to the west; but it was Blackfeet he feared most, claiming to have discovered signs of their encampments on the fringe of the range.
Whether or not Carson had a penchant for "making himself important," as Preuss carped, his résumé of the "root-eaters" was dead right. Carson, with his vast experience in the beaver country, was almost surely the only member of the party who could recognize the "lodges" of the ephemeral mountain people who had camped at Island Lake.
The "root-eaters" or Root Diggers, better known as the Sheepeaters, were indeed a Snake or Shoshone tribe. In their own tongue, they were called Tukuarika or Tukudeka, which translates as "sheepeaters." Their range at the time of first contact by the mountain men was limited to the mountains of central Idaho, southern Montana, and northwest Wyoming. In all likelihood, they had been pushed into such marginal domains by the more aggressive tribes surrounding them, including their cousins the Shoshone proper. All early accounts of the Sheepeaters agree that they were a diminutive folk, peaceful and timid, who had never domesticated the horse. (The Shoshone, in contrast, had horses by the end of the seventeenth century.)
To explorers in the early 1800s, catching fugitive glimpses of these elusive people, the Sheepeaters invariably looked wretched and pitiful. Bonneville himself, in 1834, ran into a hundred families of Tukudeka near the mouth of the Powder River, a fork of the Snake in present-day Idaho. "They are, in general, very poor," Bonneville is paraphrased by Washington Irving, in the writer's vivid "digest" of the mountain man's manuscript diary; "destitute of most of the comforts of life, and extremely indolent: but a mild, inoffensive race." The women and children hid in the cliffs above to stare at the white intruders, but the men entered camp, where they "importuned Captain Bonneville and his companions excessively by their curiosity....[A]ny thing they could lay their hands on underwent the most minute examination." Bonneville visited a Sheepeater village, where he was appalled by their half-starved dogs and their flimsy three-foot-high sagebrush shelters.
Yet viewed through the lens of the cultural relativism of our own day, the Tukudeka seem to have perfected their adaptation to a harsh environment with the same canny skill as the Inuit in Alaska or the Yaghan in Patagonia. Where Victorian travelers saw near-naked savages grubbing for roots, we might discern the "aboriginal affluence" of natives who had turned the subalpine flora of the West into a cornucopia of mushrooms, berries, nuts, wild onions, and other edible plants. The Tukudeka hunted not only sheep, but rabbits, prairie dogs, deer, and antelope. They had become without doubt the most virtuosic hunters of bighorn sheep the West has ever seen: their six-foot-long bows made of sheep's horn are museum pieces today.
Even Bonneville had to admire the Root Diggers' practical ingenuity. The mountain man marveled at the people's use of a twisted cord made of sage bark, kept always lighted as a slow match; at the hedgelike traps women built to capture antelope; at their water-tight jars made of plaited wood smeared with wax; at sturdy ropes they wove from weeds, and a flour they ground from native seeds.
Indeed, along with the common perception of the Sheepeaters as "destitute" and "impoverished," one finds a remarkable vein in nineteenth-century accounts attributing dignity and happiness to these mountain nomads. One starry-eyed early traveler called them "the proudest race of Indians that ever lived on earth." The trapper Osborne Russell, bumping into a group of twenty-three Sheepeaters in 1834 in what is today Yellowstone National Park, admired their "beautifully wrought" bows, their "dressed deer and Sheep skins of the best quality," and their knack at starting fires by rubbing two sticks together. He concluded that, despite being "the only Inhabitants of this lonely and secluded spot," the people "seemed to be perfectly contented and happy."
Alas, the Tukudeka were destined for extinction. In 1875, what remained of the tribe was given a joint reservation with the Lemhi Indians near the Salmon River in Idaho. Wrote Frederick Webb Hodge in 1910 in his magisterial Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, "They numbered 90 in 1904, but are no longer separately enumerated."
One of the strangest and most suspect of eyewitness accounts of the Tukudeka is a forgotten book by one William Alonzo Allen, called The Sheep Eaters. Writing in 1913 about events three decades in his past, this Montana pioneer and dentist claimed that somewhere in a canyon on the Bighorn River he had once found the last surviving member of the tribe, a woman who was 115 years old. "She had outlived all her people and had wandered away from her home in the mountains into the valleys, living on berries and wild fruit as she wandered," writes Allen. "She alone could read the painted rocks and tell their meaning..."
These "painted rocks" Allen identifies as petroglyphs carved by the Sheepeaters on certain granite walls in Wyoming and Montana, which he was sure recorded the unknown history of the woman's people. Allen conducts a long conversation with the "old squaw" in sign language, uncovering the romantic saga of her love affair with one of the last Tukudeka chiefs, Red Eagle. Yet several aspects of the woman's rambling tale ring plausible: a great battle against the Sioux won long ago by prying loose booby-trapped boulders from the heights, which crushed the attackers from the plains; an illness that ravaged the people after they took in a solitary lost white man (many of the western tribes were in fact decimated by smallpox contracted from the Anglos).
In former Sheepeater country, Allen claimed to have come across stone blinds, sheep pens, and moldering lodges, the mute ruins left by the doomed people. The editor of Osborne Russell's diary claimed in 1914, "[T]races of them can still be found in isolated glens where their crude, conical shelters, made of small poles stood on end, resist decay very well."
By now, thanks to a century's stampede of hikers, hunters, climbers, and fishermen into such ranges as the Sawtooths and the Wind Rivers, almost no vestiges of the Sheepeaters can still be found, though no doubt their finely shaped obsidian arrowheads still lie scattered across unvisited timberline plateaus. Yet for all we know, as Frémont's men roused themselves on the morning of August 14, 1842, and trudged off toward the mountain of the young lieutenant's ambition, the Tukudeka watched them from their hiding places in the nearby cliffs.
Stiff and hungry after their bedrock bivouac at timberline, the dozen-odd men in the advance party (neither Frémont nor Preuss gives the exact number) set out early on the morning of August 14 to climb the peak. Carson, forgiven by his commander for the fault of walking too fast the day before, was put in the lead once more. The mountain man guided the party out of the valley that led to the upper lakes and, as Frémont would write, "took to the ridges again; which we found extremely broken, and where we were again involved among precipices."
Soon all semblance of an orderly ascent disintegrated; the mountaineers ran into a series of permanent snowfields, "among which we were all dispersed, seeking each the best path to ascend the peak." Preuss, the veteran of the Alps, tackled one of these snowfields, inclined at the modest angle of twenty degrees. Kicking steps into the upper edge of the field, the cartographer was unprepared when the snow abruptly turned (as is its August wont) to crusty ice. "I slipped," he confessed to Trautchen in his diary, "sat on my pants, and slid downhill at great speed." As Frémont watched, Preuss tumbled 200 feet, "turned a couple of somersets," and landed in the rocks below. "I...got away with two light bruises," wrote the chastened alpinist, "one on my right arm and one on my arse. The pain made me sit still for a few minutes; then I dragged myself to my feet, found my book, and climbed on slowly." The book Preuss clutched in his hands was the ledger in which he hoped to record Frémont's summit observations with compass and patched-up barometer, an exercise that still served as the official justification for the ascent. The climb, for which Frémont had originally allotted only two days from Boulder Lake all the way to the top and back, was already in its third day; though the lieutenant never mentions the dozen men left guarding camp on the fringe of the range, they must have been growing anxious.
Meanwhile the climb was turning into a debacle. Two altitude-sick voyageurs prostrated themselves on the rocks, ready to give up. Then Frémont was abruptly stricken "with headache and giddiness, accompanied by vomiting, as on the day before." A pair of loyal companions sat with the lieutenant and waited to see if his state might improve. Carson had charged off in the lead, oblivious to the laggards behind, and Preuss, bruised but still ambitious, plodded upward. "After about half an hour I had climbed so high that I could look over all the lower peaks," he later wrote. "On one of them I saw a part of the company sitting down, among them Frémont. I began to shout, and they recognized me."
This free-for-all parody of ascent continued. Having decided that he could not go on, Frémont sent Johnny Janisse, a voyageur who was half-French, half-Negro, to carry the precious barometer up to Preuss so that the topographer could make the summit observations. Seeing two men start to climb toward him, however, the ever-competitive Preuss took off, as his diary candidly admits, "in order to be the first on top, ahead of all the others." Thinking the summit only a few hundred feet above, Preuss climbed into a cul-de-sac. Foreshortening had once more taken its toll: "Nothing but vertical rocks, which naturally looked low to me from below but which were so steep that it was impossible for me to climb them."
Vexed and discouraged, the German descended, plagued by the thought that "the others had probably reached the peak by an easier route." Finding himself alone on an unfamiliar slope, Preuss "began to halloo," but got no answer. At last he found footprints in the snow and followed them.
The footprints were Janisse's, who had charged up another couloir with the barometer, bent on catching the elusive cartographer. By this point, Frémont had turned back toward Island Lake, ordering all his other companions to retreat with him.
Finally, Janisse saw Preuss trailing him, and stopped to confer. The voyageur was nervous about the hard snow he had encountered, unwilling to climb it carrying the fragile barometer. For Preuss, this "changed the situation; all ambition left me." At his highest point, he took his observations, hoping "that Frémont would be satisfied with the altitude I had established and would add five or six hundred feet in order to fix the assumed highest point."
It is doubtful that Preuss was so close to the summit. Meanwhile, Carson plugged on, somewhere out of sight above. It seems entirely likely that Kit could have soloed Fremont Peak, but -- whether or not on the lieutenant's orders, as conveyed by Janisse -- Preuss now told the voyageur to fire off his gun, presumably as a signal to Carson to descend at once. Frémont's report concludes vaguely that Carson "succeeded in reaching one of the snowy summits of the main ridge," from which the top appeared to be 800 to 1,000 feet higher.
So the grand alpine campaign of August 14 degenerated into something like farce -- though in all truth the party was lucky not to sustain a serious injury during its every-man-for-himself assault. Severally the climbers stumbled back to Island Lake; Preuss found himself "quite exhausted" on reaching treeline.
But the eternally stubborn Frémont had not yet thrown in the towel. Even before regaining Island Lake, he had sent his favorite man, Basil Lajeunesse, off on a Herculean errand: to return all the way to the Camp of the Mules and bring back blankets, food, and mounts, preferably before nightfall. The next morning, altitude-sick or not, the lieutenant would lead a second attempt on the mountain of his dreams.
Today, Island Lake, just below timberline, is a favorite campsite for backpackers and fishermen, few of whom know anything about Frémont's grim bivouacs there more than a century and a half before. On the northeast shore, a number of boulders fit the lieutenant's description of a "broad flat rock, in some measure protected from the winds by the surrounding crags," where the mountaineers had struggled vainly to sleep on the gale-torn night of August 13.
From Island Lake, most hikers follow the trail north into Titcomb Basin, where three turquoise lakes strung end-to-end fill a craggy chasm: on the right, the west face of Fremont Peak rises more than 3,000 feet in less than a mile. A careful reading of Preuss suggests, however, that on August 15 the climbers veered east, climbing to a high cirque now called Indian Basin. Gaining this cirque, the team would have stood a mile and a half directly south of Fremont Peak.
Even today, relatively few parties choose to camp in Indian Basin, 500 feet above timberline. A patchwork of shallow, fishless ponds fills the stony floor of the basin, through which meanders a faint trail that leads to 12,100-foot Indian Pass, the only escape on the east. Across the pass, the miniature Knife Point Glacier nestles beneath the Continental Divide. All the cirques and valleys on the east side of the divide lie on the Wind River Reservation, seldom visited by Anglos.
Indian Basin is walled in by handsome peaks that would only be named in the 1920s, when mountaineers first tackled their challenging ridges with rope and piton: blocky Elephant Head; the soaring, pyramidal north face of Ellingwood Peak; lofty Jackson Peak, connected to Fremont by a crenellated ridge. All in all, the basin is a lonely place, its perpetual snowfields carved by the ceaseless west wind. Conies scuttle among the talus, carrying tufts of grass in their mouths; marmots pierce the silence with their shrill warning whistles; and squadrons of rosy finches swoop overhead.
Directly north, Fremont Peak dominates the basin. The southwest shoulder, self-evidently the route by which to climb the mountain, rises in a single, clean sweep from lower left to the sharp summit.
Refreshed by food and sleep, Frémont and five teammates left their camp on the broad, flat rock at Island Lake early on the morning of August 15, 1842. On the specious pretext of preparing for the long retreat homeward, the commander had ordered Carson and the remaining men to head back at daybreak toward the Camp of the Mules. One need not read between the lines of Frémont's report to detect the lieutenant's fear that the sure-footed Carson might beat him to the coveted summit.
Frémont had learned his lesson from the chaos of the preceding day. Now the six men climbed methodically upward together. By late morning, they were among the cliffs and ledges of the southwest shoulder. The party traveled light, "having divested ourselves of every unnecessary encumbrance." Frémont insisted that the six men stick together, and that whenever someone got winded, the whole team stop for a breather. Among the cliffs, the lieutenant donned a light pair of leather moccasins, "as now the use of our toes became necessary to a further advance." He was pleased to discover that "with the exception of a slight disposition to headache, I felt no remains of yesterday's illness."
According to Preuss, it was Basil Lajeunesse who performed the route finding, not Frémont. Higher up, as the team kicked steps in a dangerous snowfield, another voyageur took the lead; named Couteau or Descoteaux, he has all but escaped the documentary record, failing to appear on Frémont's roster of the expedition.
For the modern mountaineer, the southwest shoulder of Fremont Peak is a straightforward scramble. Small cliffs bar the way here and there, but they are easily turned. So vaguely defined is the broad crest of the ridge that perhaps half a dozen different lines offer nontechnical routes to the summit. But for the nervy explorers in 1842, this high waste of rock and snow teemed with terrors none of them had previously countenanced.
Frémont's report is full of harrowing obstacles that the modern climber is hard put to locate: "a sort of comb of the mountain, which stood against the wall like a buttress"; an overhang that had to be circumvented; "a vertical precipice of several hundred feet"; and what one would call today the crux of the route, a crack that Frémont conquered only by "putting hands and feet in the crevices between the blocks."
Sometime after 1 p.m., as Frémont later wrote, "I sprang upon the summit, and another step would have precipitated me into an immense snow field five hundred feet below." As he had hoped and schemed, the lieutenant became the first human being to set foot on what he believed to be the apex of the Rocky Mountains. So precarious did Frémont find the summit block ("which it seemed a breath would hurl into the abyss below") that he allowed his partners to ascend it only one at a time. In turn, Charles Preuss, Basil Lajeunesse, Johnny Janisse, Clément Lambert, and the shadowy Descoteaux clambered up to the highest point.
Here, at the heart of his savage sublimity, Frémont's rapture was complete, as he basked in "a stillness the most profound and a terrible solitude...It was a strange place, the icy rock and the highest peak of the Rocky Mountains, for a lover of warm sunshine and flowers."
Frémont unfurled his American flag, which he would later give to Jessie as a memento of his conquest. The men fired off pistols and shouted "hurrah" several times. Then they settled down to make observations with the compass, while they stared at the Tetons in the northwest, the endless plains far to the east: "Around us the whole scene had one main striking feature, which was that of terrible convulsion."
The temperature was 44° F. Preuss took a barometer reading that Frémont later rendered as an altitude of 13,570 feet -- remarkably close to the peak's true height of 13,745 feet. Even here, on his proud summit, Preuss found reason to grumble about being hurried through his readings: "When the time comes for me to make my map in Washington," he scolded Frémont in his diary, "he will more than regret this unwise haste."
As the men lingered just below the top, they were startled to see a bumblebee fly by, coming to rest on the knee of one of the men. Frémont later mused, in a characteristic conceit, "that he was the first of his species to cross the mountain barrier, a solitary pioneer to foretell the advance of civilization." (In fact, bumblebees are common on Rocky Mountain summits in August.) The lieutenant squashed the bee between the pages of a book: one more specimen to bring back to the learned savants in the East. Then the team headed down.
As Frémont would later congratulate himself, "We had accomplished an object of laudable ambition, and beyond the strict order of our instructions. We had climbed the loftiest peak of the Rocky Mountains, and...standing where never human foot had stood before, felt the exultation of first explorers."
From the top, Frémont could see, only four miles to the north, the broad summit snowfield of another mountain, which would come to be known as Gannett Peak. Gannett, in fact, is 59 feet higher than Fremont; and although its greater height cannot be verified with the naked eye, there is no avoiding the suspicion. Yet Frémont never admits the slightest doubt that he stands atop the Wind River Range.
Fremont Peak, it turns out, ranks only third in height in Wyoming, after Gannett and the Grand Teton. It does not come close to being the highest peak in the American Rockies, which the Hayden Survey would prove to be Colorado's Mount Elbert, at 14,431 feet. In Colorado alone, there are 126 summits higher than Fremont Peak.
Nonetheless, for its time, Frémont's ascent was a bold feat of exploration, the hardest climb yet performed by Americans in the West. His conquest on August 15, 1842, must have seemed to Frémont a mere youthful harbinger of a glorious career to come. Yet in a sense, he would never surpass that moment of unalloyed triumph. Never again would he reach a pinnacle of accomplishment with quite so untroubled a spirit, so blithely beyond the reach of critics and second-guessers.
Whether Kit Carson was miffed at missing his chance to share in the lieutenant's summit glory, we cannot know. In the memoir the mountain man dictated late in life, he does not even mention the 1842 foray into the Wind Rivers.
Copyright © 2000 by David Roberts
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