Much comes to a conclusion at year’s end. For Captain John Charles Frémont, government-sponsored explorer of the West (pictured at right), his third expedition of 1845-46 was nearly over. But his anxiety grew day by day as winter approached in early December 1845. He and his chosen servants of the wilderness pondered a second crossing of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Frémont wanted to beat the fierce snow storms; his memory of their emaciated bodies, snow-glare that had impaired their vision such that black kerchiefs had to be tied around their eyes and mules biting each other’s tails and saddles out of hunger, haunted him. Frémont was in competition against himself to get to the other side alive a second time.
At least Captain Frémont had made the exceptionally dangerous winter crossing one year prior without a single map, no scientific knowledge, or even the aid of indigenous peoples. The local Indians, in fact, refused to accompany his party. Frémont, in his record of the second expedition, wrote about an old Indian man who passionately argued against an ascent, telling the men they would perish in the snow. The old man repeated several words with more and more intensity. After some time Frémont understood the old man who gesticulated wildly – “Rock upon rock – rock upon rock – snow upon snow—snow upon snow.” A Chinook Indian guide hired by the expedition, upon hearing this old man, covered his head with his blanket and wept. Frémont’s biographer Allan Nevins wrote that the “mighty range, in places 14,000 feet high, rises precipitously from the East, steep on steep, to a point where, in January, all is a silent, frozen waste of snow and rock, as bleak, empty and bitter as the Himalayas themselves . . .”
Despite the local Indian’s warnings, Frémont decided to go. The tale of that wintry odyssey in 1843-1844 is harrowing, with much eating of dogs and pack mules and men near starvation. But they all survived and some even accompanied Frémont on his third expedition, most notably Kit Carson, the mountain man with whom Frémont had a lifelong affiliation.
Camping along present day Walker Lake, Frémont suggested on that December day in 1845 that the party split into two – one group led by Kit Carson would cross the Sierra and the other, led by Joseph Reddeford Walker, would forge southward along the base of the eastern precipice of the Sierra. Joseph Reddeford Walker’s party would meet Frémont’s party in the Great Central Valley via a pass that Walker had discovered a decade earlier. A trapper named Richard Owens would go with Frémont and Carson. Owens, according to Frémont, had the chess player’s mien, taking in an entire situation with a “glance that sees the best move,” Frémont wrote. Frémont admired his companions with fierce devotion and Owens was no exception.
These expeditions moved on foot or on horseback, and made scientific notes and drawings of the topography, animals, plant life, and the rocks and dirt they encountered. They studied the stars and the soil. A professional illustrator captured the majesty of what the men experienced – from the vast desert of the Great Basin to the edge of the continent in Alta California. The men accumulated knowledge not only for pure scientific benefit, but also for political gain. Back in Washington, D.C. President James Polk promoted his vision for expansion and moved to acquire California by forcing war with Mexico. Frémont’s expeditions provided insights into where it was possible to cross the Sierra should there be a U.S. invasion. Frémont’s men also collected information on the verdant and fecund Central Valley as well as local residents’ perspectives on Mexican governance.
Frémont and Carson accurately timed their traverse, avoiding inhospitable weather and arriving on the gentle western slope of the Sierra much earlier than Walker’s group. While they waited for Walker, Frémont visited, then named, the opening to a vast bay located at the northern tip of California’s Coastal Range. He called it the “golden gate.” He wrote that the name was given “on the same principle that the harbor of Byzantium [in present day Istanbul] was called Chrysopylae,” or golden horn.
Soon after the two parties joyfully reunited near San José, Captain Frémont named three more places: the river, valley and lake that Joseph Reddeford Walker had navigated on the eastern side of the Sierra. They would henceforth be known as the Owens River, Owens Valley and Owens Lake. Owens himself never saw these magnificent landscapes.
Frémont’s report of the Third Expedition would be commissioned and published by the Senate in 1848. Historian James Rhoads, writing a book review of Frémont’s Geographical Memoir upon Upper California in Illustration of His Map of Oregon and California, noted that the expeditions and reports constituted one of the three most important events in the history of the United States, after Columbus discovering America and George Washington guiding the nation as its first president. Frémont, according to Rhoads, had “lifted the veil which, since time first began, had hidden from view the real El Dorado.”
As I finish editing the last story in my book this December, I can’t help but notice the conclusion of my own journey. It has been nine years since I embarked on the creation of this book of stories. During that time I have developed a fondness for the men on Captain John Charles Frémont’s third expedition. Their avuncular presence in my mind has grown more and more real through my research and writing. When they surmount every obstacle nature hurls their way, I cheer. When they massacre Klamath Indians and gun down a grizzly bear, I am disgusted.
I think of Frémont and his men anytime my husband and I drive over a Sierra Nevada pass; I appreciate how quick and agile we are in our car compared to the hardy men on horseback under Frémont’s leadership. As Frémont’s trusted, loyal Third Expedition members assessed their chances of success in crossing the Sierra that day in December, those men had to reckon with losing their lives in the name of the United States Army Corps of Topographical Engineers.
The path to completing my book has not been life-threatening, but it has required charting a long, arduous course and fighting against what author Sherman Alexie says are the twin enemies of all writers: fear and laziness. But like Frémont, I too am in competition with myself. I aim to push myself to do what is perhaps a foolhardy errand – to find a home for my book that will honor all the women, men, plants and animals who inhabit the Owens Valley of my imagination. I owe it to each of them.