In the winter of 1843-44, the explorer John Fremont, along with Kit Carson, Thomas Fitzpatrick and a group of others, traveled from Klamath Lake, Oregon, down along the eastern front of the Cascade-Sierra Nevada mountain axis, hoping to determine whether the fabled “Rio Buenaventura” actually existed, and if so, exactly where. This river appeared on numerous maps of the day and was supposed to be an extension of the Green/Yampa/White River system (heading in Wyoming and Colorado), crossing Utah and Nevada, and presumably the Sierra Nevada somewhere, before emptying into the Pacific Ocean at San Francisco Bay. The party had already been out for a year, exploring from Wyoming’s famed South Pass, to and down the lower Columbia River, and then overland to Klamath Lake. After their expected river discovery they planned to travel back to Colorado and finally back east.
After traveling several hundred miles, to near what is now Bridgeport California, where the highest Sierra Nevada begins, Fremont finally realized that no Rio Buenaventura existed; all rivers entering what we now know as the Great Basin ended there without outlet. It was now the dead of winter. Nighttime temperatures fell below zero (F), the company’s 60+ horses and mules were worn out and starving, and the company running low on food; traveling back to Colorado was out of the question. Fremont thus made the decision to immediately cross the Sierra Nevada, in an attempt to reach Sutter’s Fort on the American River, east of what is now Sacramento.
This was an incredibly dicey proposition, given the Sierra Nevada’s typically deep, warm, and extensive snowpacks, of which Fremont was probably not fully aware. The native Washoes and/or Paiutes tried to persuade Fremont to winter over near what is now the Carson City Nevada area, advising him of the stupidity of an attempted crossing. The following is the entry from Fremont’s journal for February 4 1844, from the vicinity of what is now Markleeville California, below Carson Pass, near the start of the ascent.
— I went ahead early with two or three men, each with a led horse to break the road. We were obliged to…work along the mountain-side, which was very steep, and the snow covered with an icy crust. We cut a footing as we advanced, and trampled a road through for the animals; but occasionally one plunged outside the trail, and slided along the field to the bottom, a hundred yards below…
…after a laborious plunging through two or three hundred yards, our best horses gave out, entirely refusing to make any further effort, and, for the time, we were brought to a stand. The guide informed us that we were entering the deep snow, and here began the difficulties of the mountain; and to him, and almost to all, our enterprise seemed hopeless…The camp had been occupied all the day in endeavoring to ascend the hill, but only the best horses had succeeded; the animals, generally, not having sufficient strength to bring themselves up without the packs; and all the line of road between this and the springs was strewed with camp-stores and equipage, and horses floundering in snow…
To-night we had no shelter…The night was very bright and clear, though the thermometer was only at 10°. A strong wind, which sprang up at sundown, made it intensely cold; and this was one of the bitterest nights during the journey. Two Indians joined our party here; and one of them, an old man, immediately began to harangue us, saying that ourselves and animals would perish in the snow; and that if we would go back, he would show us another and a better way across the mountain. He spoke in a very loud voice, and there was a singular repetition of phrases and arrangement of words which rendered his speech striking and not unmusical.
We…easily comprehended the old man’s simple ideas, “Rock upon rock — rock upon rock — snow upon snow,” said he; “even if you get over the snow, you will not be able to get down from the mountains.” He made us the sign of precipices and showed us how the feet of the horses would slip, and throw them off from the narrow trails that led along their sides. Our Chinook [guide], who comprehended even more readily than ourselves, and believed our situation hopeless, covered his head with his blanket, and began to weep and lament. “I wanted to see the whites [in the Sacramento valley],” said he; “I came away from my own people to see the whites, and I wouldn’t care to die among them, but here” — and he looked around into the cold night and gloomy forest, and, drawing his blanket over his head, began again to lament.
Seated around the tree, the fire illuminating the rocks and the tall bolls of the pines round about, and the old Indian haranguing, we presented a group of very serious faces.
The image is Charles Preuss’ illustration of part of the Fremont party below Carson Pass. Preuss was the topographer/cartographer of the expedition