The Mountains That Remade America: How Sierra Nevada Geology Impacts Modern Life

The Mountains That Remade America: How Sierra Nevada Geology Impacts Modern Life

by Craig H. Jones

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From ski towns to national parks, fresh fruit to environmental lawsuits, the Sierra Nevada has changed the way Americans live. Whether and where there was gold to be mined redefined land, mineral, and water laws. Where rain falls (and where it doesn’t) determines whose fruit grows on trees and whose appears on slot machines. All this emerges from the geology of the range and how it changed history, and in so doing, changed the country.
The Mountains That Remade America combines geology with history to show how the particular forces and conditions that created the Sierra Nevada have effected broad outcomes and influenced daily life in the United States in the past and how they continue to do so today. Drawing connections between events in historical geology and contemporary society, Craig H. Jones makes geological science accessible and shows the vast impact this mountain range has had on the American West.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520325500
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/25/2020
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 360
Sales rank: 1,224,647
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Craig H. Jones is Professor of Geological Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder. His work is published in Science and Nature, and he is the coauthor of Introduction to Applied Geophysics

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An Asymmetric Barrier

BEFORE IT EVER BECAME A DESTINATION for miners or nature lovers, the Sierra Nevada was a fearsome barrier. The Spanish and Mexicans after them made no attempt to breach it, content to construct missions and ranchos in the more clement lands near the Pacific. None followed up on the initial forays into the foothills by Corporal Gabriel Moraga in the first decade of the nineteenth century, and although Mexican land grants entered the Central Valley at the mountains' western foot in the 1840s, the mountains themselves were left unexplored. This left them uncrossed by those of European descent until Americans first started probing access to the rich lands to their west.

Standing at the eastern side of the range, staring at the wall of rock before you, it would be easy to surmise that this massive cliff face would stifle travel. Certainly climbing this range before roads of any kind had been cut, without knowing the subtle trails Native Americans used, would be cruel and hard work, but once the crest was gained, surely the well-wooded and gentler western slopes of the range would provide little challenge to passage down to the Central Valley. So you might think, knowing the range as we do today, but that was not the case.

Consider the party of explorers led by Joseph Walker, who encountered the Sierra after crossing the Great Basin in October 1833 (Map 4). Detached from Captain Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville's quasi-military fur-trapping expedition, Walker's expedition to California was unusually proper — in early 1832, Bonneville obtained for Walker a passport and visa for this trip into what was then part of Mexico, a formality most later travelers ignored. One member of the group, Zenas Leonard, kept a diary and published an account of his adventures only a few years later that was probably the first publicly available, eyewitness description of the Sierra (a brief — and borderline libelous — account of Walker's expedition was published by Washington Irving in what became known as The Adventures of Captain Bonneville in 1837, two years before Leonard's book emerged). The Walker party reached the eastern base of the Sierra on the 11th of October, probing it for three days before finding a promising path to follow. On the fifteenth, they started for the summit in earnest, reaching "what we took for the top" on the sixteenth, where "the ground was covered with a deep snow." After struggling through snow on the seventeenth, the party threatened to break up, some members wanting to retreat across the Great Basin. Butchering two of the horses for meat gave the men "fresh courage" and the party continued united. But they had only begun to be tested by the Sierra. They crossed Indian paths, "but as they did not lead in the direction we were going, we did not follow them." And so they struggled on for several days, reaching a point where all seemed hopeless:

Our situation was growing more distressing every hour, and all we now thought of, was to extricate ourselves from this inhospitable region. ... Here we began to encounter in our path, many small streams which would shoot out from under these high snow-banks, and after running a short distance in deep chasms which they have through ages cut in the rocks, precipitate themselves from one lofty precipice to another, until they are exhausted in rain below. ... Some of the men thought that if we could succeed in descending one of these precipices to the bottom, we might thus work our way into the valley below — but on making several attempts we found it utterly impossible for a man to descend, to say nothing of our horses.

The party was trapped, compelled to follow a high, inhospitable ridgeline between two canyons before finally being forced to descend cliffs so steep that they had to lower their horses and baggage with ropes. They now traveled through a more timbered region, which included large trees, probably giant sequoias, described as being "from 16 to 18 fathom round the trunk at the height of a man's head from the ground." Leonard finally concluded that they reached the base of the mountain on the evening of the thirtieth, a solid two weeks after reaching what they assumed was the top. And it was still a few days' walk before they reached the edge of the Central Valley. It was not the climb up the eastern side that nearly destroyed the party but the descent of the west side.

Their return was far less eventful, as they resupplied in California and crossed the southern Sierra over or near what we now call Walker Pass in early spring of 1834, guided by local Tubatulabal Indians. After descending to the lowlands on the east side, they turned north, passing along the eastern foot of the Sierra until they regained their outbound trail from the previous fall. In making this trip, they circumnavigated the southern Sierra and, incidentally, found that there was no large river headed in the Rockies that crossed the Sierra. The mythical Buenaventura River simply could not exist. They could plainly see that the Sierra crest was the divide between waters flowing west into the Pacific and east into the desert.

In 1841, the next notable group to cross the Sierra appeared. This was not a band of fur trappers or explorers but a party of thirty-four settlers, including the first white women to cross the Sierra, Nancy Kelsey and her months-old daughter Ann. Captained by John Bartleson, who was elected solely because he and another seven men would leave the company had he not been captain, they had separated in southern Idaho from a larger Oregon-bound emigrant party they had traveled with to that point. They had been lured west in large part by a letter from John Marsh, who had reached California via the Santa Fe Trail in 1835 and settled near Mt. Diablo. Despite not having traveled directly to central California across the Sierra, Marsh provided a basic description of the route:

The route I would recommend, is from Independence to the hunter's rendezvouz [sic] on Green River, which is well known to many of your neighbors, thence to the Soda Spring on Bear River, above the Big Salt Lake, thence to Portneuf, thence to Mary's River, down Mary's river till you come in sight of the gap in the great mountain, through that gap by a good road of less than one day and you arrive in the plain of the Tulares & Joaquin, and down that river on a level plain through thousands of Elk and horses, three or four days journey and you come to my house.

Lacking a guide, the party relied largely on Marsh's letter and probably on a copy of the map in Irving's Adventures of Captain Bonneville that was based on Walker's travels. Members of the party might even have spoken to Zenas Leonard about the route, as he was living in Missouri shortly before the party departed in May. This information was sufficient to guide them to the Humboldt River (Marsh's Mary's River) and across the Great Basin, but was too imprecise once they reached the base of the Sierra. Indeed, the Sierra on maps at this point existed with many different orientations and names ranging from Jedediah Smith's "Mount Joseph" to Walker's "California Mountains." Sierra Nevada would not appear on an American map until the publication in 1845 of the account of Frémont's second expedition. The range was shown simply as a long linear ridge. The "gap in the great mountain" Marsh directed them to was not obvious to this group. The "good road of less than one day" was clearly fantasy. They would have to find their own way across.

Bartleson, a man whose shortage of patience caused trouble more than once, had grown weary of the slow progress of the main party and their oxen and, with seven other riders, headed off from the sink of the Humboldt River, striking the Walker River and, mistaking it for the San Joaquin, headed downstream, hoping to find John Sutter's establishment. The main party, now led by John Bidwell, apparently got better information from their native guide (or perhaps listened better) and started to head up into the mountains along the Walker River. While the Bidwell party tarried a little north of the modern town of Walker, trying to determine a route forward, Bartleson and his group recognized their mistake and doubled back, rejoining the main group once more on October 16. As had happened eight years previous, a group of California-bound travelers stood at the base of the eastern Sierra in mid-October, endeavoring to cross the range; this group, though, was well aware of the more than three weeks' time Walker's group had taken to complete the trek, and the storms of winter had not yet dropped snows in their path.

Unlike Walker's party, however, these emigrants were not at the base of the crest or even particularly near it; drainages here run more south to north and so the headwaters of the Carson River would have to be crossed if passage west was to be found (Map 4). Surprisingly, they managed to cross the divide between the two rivers and ascend to the crest of the Sierra in less than two days, reaching the crest north of Disaster Peak on October 19. As had befallen Walker's group before, the descent of the western slope proved harder than the ascent. As they made their way downstream, the river canyon grew too narrow for passage and they were forced to try to navigate onto the ridgelines. The party would split and reassemble several times as their descent took them down to rivers and then up onto ridges in the Stanislaus River drainage. Amazingly, despite losing most of their stock and provoking area Indians, the entire party succeeded in emerging from the mountains at the end of the month, a mere twelve days after cresting the range, beating Walker's descent time by about a week.

An even more dramatic and well-publicized crossing of the Sierra was made by John Charles Frémont's second expedition, whose report was printed by Congress and became widely distributed. By mid-February 1844, as Frémont and his twenty-four men reached the summit of the Sierra at Carson Pass south of Lake Tahoe, Frémont was already a celebrity for his work in describing the Oregon Trail over South Pass. Emigrants on that route were already using directions gleaned from writings of his previous expedition, leading the press to nickname Frémont "the Pathfinder," a moniker reshaped by at least one biographer (Nevins) to the Pathmarker. These names were apt, since Frémont usually carefully mapped routes and described them well enough for others to follow.

Frémont's life rose higher and fell farther than most dramatic characters; he squandered more good fortune and survived more ill fate than entire generations of most families. His leading attributes were charisma and impetuosity. He could inspire loyalty in his field team strong enough to lead them through spectacularly bad decisions without dissension. He had terrific stamina, standing many late nights, sometimes in the bitter cold, to make the astronomical observations necessary to properly map the expedition's route. He also had an uncommon penchant for naming geographic features, coining Golden Gate for the straits entering San Francisco Bay well before the Gold Rush, terming the vast region of interior drainage in Utah and Nevada the Great Basin, and naming any number of more minor geographic points such as Pilot Peak and Pyramid Lake.

For all the traits he carried, Frémont may almost be more succinctly described by the lack of a particular characteristic: prudence. He had a romantic streak that was strong even for the age he lived in. He fell in love on first sight with sixteen-year-old Jessie Benton, second daughter of Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton, and married her in secret despite the very real risk that he would alienate a powerful advocate and destroy his career. Indeed, Senator Benton, infuriated when he learned of the marriage, demanded that Frémont leave and that Jessie, now seventeen, stay at the family home; in response, Jessie, as strong willed as John was impetuous, declared that she would follow her husband and not her father: exiling Frémont would exile her. Once Senator Benton acquiesced to it, the union became exceptionally fortunate for Frémont, as he not only gained ties to an important Washington family that could advocate on his behalf, but was aided by Jessie, who wrote his reports and provided a political perspective gained at the knee of a powerful politician.

The stated goal of the second expedition was to complete mapping the Oregon Trail out into Oregon proper. Frémont had other ideas. At the start, he acquired a 12-pound brass howitzer; baffled, superiors at the War Department ordered Frémont to stop and explain just what he was doing in taking artillery on a peaceful scientific expedition. Politically savvy Jessie intercepted the recall and by sending word ahead for Frémont to push forward into the wilds, assured that he would not be deterred from his mission. Instead of pressing directly on to South Pass and resuming his mapping of the Oregon Trail, Frémont led his men south into the Arkansas River drainage in central Colorado, apparently scouting for his patron, Senator Benton, who hoped for a transcontinental railroad heading west from Missouri. In what is now Utah, the expedition visited and described the Salt Lake Valley and even boated over to one of the islands (hardly a likely destination for Oregon-bound emigrants). Frémont's description of the Salt Lake Valley would help Brigham Young to decide that the valley was the place for the Latter-Day Saints to settle; their subsequent exodus would play a critical role in California history and Frémont's own personal fortunes (not to mention extending his life: some years later, his fifth expedition, so close to perishing that Frémont made his men vow not to eat human flesh, was saved when they struggled into the Mormon hamlet of Parowan).

Just how it was that Frémont and his men found themselves on the Sierra crest in the middle of winter has invited considerable conjecture. Frémont in his report claimed that they were traveling south from the Columbia River to find Klamath Lake, Mary's Lake (apparently the sink of the Humboldt River), and then the oft-mapped but never seen Buenaventura River before they would turn east toward home. Other evidence suggests that finding the Buenaventura was never an actual goal of the expedition and its mention in the report a means of justifying decisions made for other reasons. In any case, the expedition continued south in search of Mary's Lake, finding and naming Pyramid Lake instead.

As the expedition worked its way south along the eastern side of the Sierra, conditions gradually worsened. When they reached the Carson Sink on January 18, 1844, Frémont's report recorded a crucial decision:

Examining into the condition of the animals when I returned into the camp, I found their feet so much cut up by the rocks, and so many of them lame, that it was evidently impossible that they could cross the country to the Rocky mountains. Every piece of iron that could be used for the purpose had been converted into nails, and we could make no further use of the shoes we had remaining. I therefore determined to abandon my eastern course, and to cross the Sierra Nevada into the valley of the Sacramento, wherever a practicable pass could be found. My decision was heard with joy by the people, and diffused new life throughout the camp.

Any joy would be short-lived. The party's southward movement suggests that Frémont hoped to cross the Sierra through a pass lower than any he could see to the west. Although Frémont's trusted guide Kit Carson (the only member of the group to have been in California before this) apparently concurred in this decision, crossing the Sierra in the dead of winter was a desperate move for a party encumbered with the considerable baggage of this expedition (which still included the small cannon). How such an experienced group could find itself in such a fix short of calamitous loss of material remains a mystery.

The expedition halted its southward march when it reached Bridgeport Valley, a week after deciding to head into California. No doubt the sight of the sharp, high pinnacles of the Matterhorn Peak ridgeline on the northern edge of modern Yosemite National Park convinced them that even higher mountains to the south would guard California. Unlike the previous visitors to the region, Frémont's group frequently communicated with the local Indians, getting guides for a day or two and information about possible passes. This limited information suggested a route to the west that would carry them to the Central Valley.

Unfortunately, heading more or less west required working across serious terrain; the group marched fairly rapidly to the northwest, angling closer now to the Sierra crest. They would in fact have to cross the southern extension of the Carson Range west of Markleeville in order to reach the pass shown to them by an Indian guide. Only a few miles south of their route, the ridgeline they were crossing becomes the crest of the Sierra Nevada, so in fact they came close to traveling astride the Sierra crest for most of the first three weeks of February. The crossing of the Carson Range took about ten days as a route was found and pounded through snow and traced along ridgelines to get the party to the base of the Sierra crest near Red Lake below modern Carson Pass. On February 6, Frémont and his advance party summited the Sierra and saw across the Great Valley to the Coast Ranges. The horses and pack were finally brought up through great effort so that the party in whole would reach the pass on February 20 at a point where, in Frémont's published report, "the temperature of boiling water gave for the elevation of the encampment, 9,338 feet above the sea." The report goes on:

This was 2,000 feet higher than the South Pass in the Rocky mountains, and several peaks in view rose several thousand feet still higher. Thus, at the extremity of the continent, and near the coast, the phenomenon was seen of a range of mountains still higher than the great Rocky mountains themselves. This extraordinary fact accounts for the Great Basin, and shows that there must be a system of small lakes and rivers here scattered over a flat country, and which the extended and lofty range of the Sierra Nevada prevents from escaping to the Pacific ocean.


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Copyright © 2017 Craig H. Jones.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1 • An Asymmetric Barrier
2 • A Golden Trinity
3 • A Placer for Everyone
4 • Fossil Rivers, Modern Water
5 • Lode Gold
6 • “A Property of No Value”
7 • Granite, Guardian of Wilderness
8 • Big Trees, Big Battles
9 • Mountains Adrift
10 • What Lies Beneath
11 • Paradoxes and Proxy Wars

Illustration Sources

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