A People in Motion
Late on an August afternoon in 1845, the most famous man in America, U.S. captain John Charles Frémont, departed Bent's Fort, the last outpost of American civilization, which lay in the foothills of Colorado's Rocky Mountains. With him were several score of the toughest, most experienced mountain men of the day-fur trappers and Indian fighters such as Kit Carson, Joseph Walker, and Bill Williams; the French-Canadians Basil Lajeunesse, Antoine Robideaux, Alexis Godey, and Auguste Archambault; a party of nine Delaware Indians; and an eighteen-year-old free black man who was Frémont's valet. Sixty-one of them in all, they made a formidable armed party, each man carrying a .50-caliber Hawken "buffalo rifle," two pistols, and any number of knives. They were headed west, into the setting sun, with instructions to chart the unknown.
Frémont's fame had reached him surprisingly early, at the age of thirty-two, after his first journey of exploration several years before, in which he disproved the widely held myth that the vast plains west of the Mississippi River were nothing more than a worthless, uninhabitable wasteland-the so-called Great American Desert. It was further enhanced by his second expedition, which "disclosed to multitudes a shining new land of flowers, sunshine, and wealth." American explorers in those days were accorded the sort of exultation once given to modern-day astronauts. Theirs was a difficult, often dangerous, but fascinating and useful world that let the common man see what lay beyond his antlike horizons.
Daniel Boone became a legend in his own time by pioneering the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap, and early in the century Lewis and Clark unveiled the secrets of the Northwest Territory. The U.S. Navy thrilled the nation with its report of the Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842 (the renowned "Ex.Ex."), which charted the Pacific from Alaska to the South Seas, including a detailed look at the American West Coast. But Frémont's revelations struck a note that set the country atremble, for by this time it was fairly bursting with European immigrants and others yearning for cheap, fertile land to sow and reap.
Aided in some measure by his wife's flair for literary composition, Frémont's published reports sent whole communities scurrying to acquire "prairie schooners," the great covered wagons that took Americans on their westward migration. It didn't hurt, by the way, that the wife, Jessie Benton Frémont, was the daughter of Thomas Hart Benton, at the time the most influential man in the U.S. Senate, who saw to it that his son-in-law's findings were distributed wholesale by the U.S. Government Printing Office.
Frémont's present mission was, ostensibly, a strictly scientific one, established to discover and chart the western expanse of the continent. To that end his expedition carried with it the most sophisticated instruments of the day: "a fine refracting telescope, two pocket chronometers, two sextants, a reflecting circle, a siphon barometer and cistern barometer, half a dozen thermometers and an assortment of compasses." And if the delicate barometers got broken, altitude would be determined by taking the temperature at which water boiled. A brilliant young artist and draftsman named Edward Kern was along to sketch flora, fauna, and topographical features. Also included were sacks of trinkets, clothing, and tools for the Indians they would inevitably encounter, as well as ample ammunition should the Indians prove hostile. The press had already branded Frémont the "Pathfinder," but in fact he found few paths that had not already been traveled by the Native Americans or indeed by the mountain men. The difference was that Frémont was able to map them and describe them in a way that only a trained engineer and scientist could.
Frémont was by now well versed in the rigors of such undertakings. The previous year he and his party got up the High Sierras too late, nearly froze and starved, and survived only by eating their pack animals and even the pet dogs that some of the men had acquired. Death could come in a flash in these fierce, uncharted climes-ambush by a war party; the sudden charge of a thousand-pound grizzly or the leap of a cougar; quicksand, desert thirst, prairie fire, flash floods, and heaven help the man who fell ill.
Now a new menace was in the air, the threat of war-war with Mexico, war with England. The U.S. Congress had just voted to grant the independent Republic of Texas statehood. Mexico immediately severed diplomatic relations and promised war if the Americans went through with it. Britain had begun making bellicose noises over U.S. claims to the immense Oregon Territory that included what are now the states of Oregon, Washington, and parts of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. Likewise, it was feared that the English, who possessed the world's most powerful navy, would come in on the part of Mexico if she went to war with the United States.
These problems were likely on Captain Frémont's mind as his little army plodded out of Bent's Fort toward the distant, snowcapped Rockies. Sixty men doesn't sound like much in the long scheme of things, but in the 1840s, in the sparseness of the western half of the contin-ent, sixty well-armed, well-trained men were a force to be reckoned with, considering that in the entire province of California fewer than one thousand Mexicans could be counted on as a military force.
Frémont believed, or so he later said, that he was under secret instructions from the president himself, James K. Polk, to seize California from the Mexicans if war broke out. Navy Secretary George Bancroft had issued similar orders to Commodore John Drake Sloat, commander of the U.S. Pacific Squadron. At the time, there was a sizable community of American emigrants living there, most residing in towns along the coast or on farms in the Sacramento Valley. It was anticipated that these sturdy people would rise up against the Mexican authorities in the event of war, or perhaps instigate a war themselves.
It was shaping up as an explosive adventure, but Frémont felt up to the task. If successful he knew he would come home covered in glory. Little did he dream that instead he would return under arrest and facing a court-martial for mutiny, a hanging offense.
The following year, 1846, the war with Mexico arrived. It broke out between a Mexican army on the Rio Grande and the U.S. Army under General Zachary Taylor, which President Polk had sent south to provoke hostilities. At least that's the way most people saw it. Polk's story was that the Mexicans had attacked American soldiers first, and on American soil, and he was sticking to it.
While the principal theater of the war remained along the Rio Grande, Polk also set into motion another event designed to fulfill his dream of an America "from sea to shining sea." He sent out urgent orders to Colonel (soon to be a general) Stephen Watts Kearny at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas-then considered the western "frontier" of the United States-to march his two-thousand-man Army of the West a thousand miles down the old Santa Fe Trail and capture the New Mexico Territory, a huge Mexican province consisting of Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Colorado, which was presently being governed from Santa Fe. Kearny's further instructions were to march the army another thousand miles west to the California Territory, which also included what are presently the states of Utah and Nevada, and take that, too.
Polk's line of thinking was that the inhabitants of those far-flung provinces were being so ill served by their government down in Mexico City they would willingly submit to U.S. conquest. He wasn't far from wrong. In the New Mexico Territory, for example, the government seemed powerless to protect its farmers from the depredations of the wild Indians, at the same time taxing the citizens heavily for that exact purpose.
Still, Kearny's task was daunting. The Santa Fe Trail was tough and tricky. There had been trade up and down its course long enough that nobody was going to get lost, but weather, terrain, and hostile Indians were always challenging, and to get a whole army over it was a complicated project and logistical nightmare. Then there was the question of what lay in wait at the other end. Would the Mexican government send a large army up to defend the place? Would Kearny face insurmountable fortifications? Would the population be rebellious? And then, assuming success in Santa Fe, he would then have to move the California force another thousand miles, this time across some of the most inhospitable desert and mountain terrain on earth, which remained unmapped, unexplored, and all but unknown. It would be a dangerous enterprise, but danger was the business Kearny was in and Polk couldn't have picked a better man.
Kearny had entered the army nearly thirty years earlier, after graduating from Columbia College, and for the past decade he had commanded the First Cavalry Regiment. In fact, he had already come to be known in army circles as the Father of Cavalry. A newspaper reporter who had recently met him described him as "a man rising fifty years of age. His height is about five feet ten or eleven inches. His figure is all that is required by symmetry. His features are regular, almost Grecian; his eye is blue, and he has an eagle-like expression, when excited by stern or angry emotion, but in ordinary social intercourse, the whole expression of his countenance is mild and pleasing, and his manners and conversation are unaffected, urbane, and conciliatory, without the slightest exhibition of vanity or egotism. He appears the cool, brave, and energetic soldier." So it certainly appeared that Stephen Kearny was well equipped to lead the expedition the president had ordered-but there was something else. What Kearny didn't know, what he couldn't know, was that from the moment he marched the Army of the West out of Fort Leavenworth, on June 26, 1846, "the first phase, the political phase, of the American Civil War had begun."
By the 1840s a tense and immutable friction had begun to thrum across the American landscape, North and South. In the beginning the argument was largely political and, more specifically, economic. A decade earlier North and South had nearly come to blows as a result of a tariff passed over the objections of southern legislators, which put duties on foreign goods in such a way as to make them nearly unaffordable in the South. This legislation, known to southerners as the Tariff of Abominations, had been declared "null and void" by the state of South Carolina, forcing a showdown on the question of whether states must obey laws of Congress that they found obnoxious. The stalemate was broken when Andrew Jackson threatened to send federal forces to Charleston to enforce the law, but this left a bitter feeling among many southerners that only increased with time.
The immediate grievance in the North over war with Mexico was a fear that if the nation added Mexican territory in the Southwest it would mean loss of northern political power to the southern "slave power," which would move to occupy the new lands with their slaves. Up to now, a delicate balance in the U.S. Senate had been maintained between the two sections of the country-eleven southern states and eleven northern- so that a workable if uneasy balance had been achieved.
In 1821 Congress had forged a bitter settlement allowing Missouri into the Union as a slaveholding state-the Missouri Compromise-brokered by Henry Clay of Kentucky, in which slavery was henceforth banned north of the southern Missouri boundary line. For twenty-five years this had worked to keep the dangers of sectional politics at bay. Until now- until Kearny's march, a quarter century later, which threatened to radically disturb the balance created by the compromise. By this time the issue was further vexed by the growing abolitionist movement in the North, which had brought a moral dimension to the political question of slavery. This tended to produce high passions, which were inflamed when a relatively unknown congressman from Pennsylvania inserted language into an appropriations bill that would have banned slavery in any territory acquired by the United States from Mexico. That legislation, known as the Wilmot Proviso, opened a Pandora's box that neither laws nor common sense could ever close.
Kearny of course knew little or nothing of this. His immediate task was to get to Santa Fe with his army and put the Mexican authorities (namely one Governor-General Manuel Armijo) out of business.
Meanwhile, draped wretchedly along the banks of the Missouri River from what is now Omaha to Council Bluffs, nearly seven thousand of God's "chosen people" huddled starving and freezing and awaiting their chance to move west. They were Mormons, of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, whose unusual beliefs habitually caused them to be driven away-often violently-from wherever they tried to settle down. But now they were leaving the United States, or so they thought, for what was identified on most maps as "Unorganized Indian Lands" that had been portrayed so enticingly by the explorer John C. Frémont in his recently published journals.
A significant hurdle, however, was that the Mormons had no money to get there. Their leader, Brigham Young, had approached President Polk for funds, on the basis that the government was responsible for ensuring that such a large number of citizens could have a peaceful place to live without being attacked all the time. Polk responded that the U.S. government was not in the business of handing out travel money to religious sects but then, seeing as how war had just broken out with Mexico, he offered to provide good military pay to five hundred Mormon men if they would form a battalion and march to California with Kearny's army. This offer was accepted, and the Mormon men began to assemble themselves at Fort Leavenworth for the long trek ahead. For his part, Polk was glad the Mormons were clearing out-the farther west they moved, the better. If only somehow he could get the Irish to go with them.
Two hundred miles south, in mid-May of 1846, a different kind of emigrant party was poised at the jump-off point at Independence, Missouri, beyond which lurked hostile Indians, barren plains, searing deserts, insuperable mountains, and a thousand other dangers known and unknown. These were the families of George and Jacob Donner and James and Margaret Reed, who a month earlier had left their own prosperity behind in Abraham Lincoln's Springfield, Illinois, and saddled up for the long haul west. Most of the early pioneers were hardscrabble and had undertaken the treacherous journey because they could see no future at home, but the Donners and the Reeds were substantial folk, so the irony remains that if only they'd stayed put and tended to business, the horrors that overtook them would not have happened.
Like many of the other emigrants, Reed and the Donner brothers had immersed themselves in Frémont's appealing recital of the golden West and concocted their own dreams, some of epic magnitude. They had also read a popular new book by a young adventurer named Lansford W. Hastings, who had made several trips to California and who was touting a new, shorter route south of the Great Salt Lake. It was said to take hundreds of miles off the old Oregon Trail, and would come to be known infamously as the Hastings Cutoff.