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“Exploration of the Sierra Nevada” (1925)
by Francis P. Farquhar


Hitherto all of the parties that had crossed the Sierra had been either trappers or immigrants. There now began an era of definite exploration for the purpose of obtaining a knowledge of the country. John Charles Frémont’s first expedition into the West had taken him as far as the Rocky Mountains, and in 1843 he set out upon a much more ambitious journey, the purpose of which was to explore the overland route to Oregon. Having accomplished this, he turned south through the Great Basin past Pyramid Lake, and then, in midwinter, endeavored to force a passage through the Sierra snow into California. Lost in the mazes of the tributaries of the Walker River, it was some time before he reached the main wall of the range. His wanderings have been traced in detail, 18 and are too well known to call for further comment here, excepting to say that on the 14th of February, 1844, Frémont and Charles Preuss beheld Lake Tahoe, and on the 20th the party crossed the pass and started down the American River, reaching Sutter’s Fort on March 6. After a brief rest, they went south up the San Joaquin Valley, crossing the numerous rivers that descend from the Sierra, and about the middle of April went over the Tehachapi mountains. 19

Frémont returned to California the following year. On November 24, 1845, he was at Walker Lake, and from there sent the larger part of his men south under the command of Theodore Talbot, with Joseph R. Walker as guide to conduct them across Walker’s Pass. Frémont himself, with Kit Carson and about 15 men, started for Sutter’s Fort directly across the mountains to obtain supplies. This time he crossed by way of the Truckee River, passing Donner Lake, and reached Sutter’s Fort on December 9, 1845. 20 After a few days’ rest he started up the San Joaquin Valley in order to join the Talbot-Walker party at an agreed rendezvous. This rendezvous Frémont supposed to be the river then known to the Americans as the Lake Fork, but which still bore its Spanish name of Rio de los Santos Reyes. Walker, however, led his party over the pass and was camped in a valley in the upper Kern, which he supposed to be the rendezvous. 21

Anxious to find his party, Frémont began a search that carried him far up into the mountains among the sources of Kings River. 22 An examination of the account of this search as given in Frémont’s Memoirs, together with the route as traced on the map of 1848 drawn by Charles Preuss, convinces me that this search was conducted in the upper basin of the North Fork of Kings River. If Frémont had endeavored to penetrate the mountains south of the main Kings River, his description would have been entirely different. He could hardly have gone beyond the basin of Roaring River without descending into the main Kings River Canyon. It was, of course, impossible for him to take his animals up the lower canyon. Failing to find any trace of the Talbot-Walker party, Frémont returned to Sutter’s Fort and went thence to Yerba Buena and Monterey. Kit Carson and Dick Owens were sent out on further search, and the parties were ultimately united.

On the Pruess map of 1848, there appear for the first time several names which have become fixed in Sierra nomenclature: Kern River named for Edward M. Kern, topographer and artist of the expedition; Owens Lake for Richard Owens; and Walker River and Carson River for Joseph R. Walker and Christopher (Kit) Carson respectively, It is on this map also that there appears the name of Lake Bonpland assigned to Lake Tahoe. Frémont gave this name in honor of Aimé Bonpland, the associate of Baron von Humboldt, but neither this name nor its successor, Lake Bigler, has remained. Fortunately the lake is now known by a Washoe Indian name, Tahoe, said to mean “Big Water.” 23

18 Frémont and ’49. By Frederick S. Dellenbaugh. New York, 1914, pp. 204-229.

19 Frémont; Exploring Expedition, 1845, pp. 248-255.

20 Letter of Frémont, in California Historical Society Quarterly, October 1924, III, p. 272.

21 Frémont: Memoirs of My Life, 1887, pp. 433-449.

22 Frémont: Memoirs, pp. “9451; Camp, in California Historical Society Quarterly, October 1922, I, p. 16.

23 James: The Lake of the Sky, 1915, pp. 56-62.

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