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Pathways: A Story of Trails and Men (1968), by John W. Bingaman


Jedediah Strong Smith

The story of the exploits and adventures of Jedediah Smith and his comrades, the Ashley-Henry men, discoverers and explorers of the great Central route from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean, 1822-1831, is an interesting one.

One of the most striking facts in this man’s short and wonderful career was his ceaseless activity. His entry into the fur trade may be likened to a plunge into an irresistible current that should bear him swiftly and far, and from which the release could be through death alone. Such facts in human lives are not to be regarded as matters of chance, but rather as manifestations of temperament, curious, capable, fearless, and self-contained. Smith was never the man to wait for events. He went forth eagerly to meet them. Such are the splendid wayfarers of this world.

His had been the first overland party of Americans to reach California; he had been the first white man to travel the central route from Salt Lake to the Pacific, and the first to traverse the full length of California and Oregon by land. On his first Overland trip to California in November 26, 1826, his party encamped at a point about eighteen miles east of San Gabriel Arcangel Mission, where they were fed by the Spanish.

His route over the Sierra Nevada was not definitely known; it probably ran twenty five or thirty miles north of Yosemite. He mentions snow was so deep that he could not get his horses across and five of them starved to death. After returning to the Sacramento Valley he left his party and started on May 20th with two men, seven horses, and two mules and provisions for themselves, and succeeded in crossing the mountains in eight days with the loss of only two horses and one mule. Snow was 4 to 8 feet deep but frozen; so they were able to travel on top.

After traveling twenty days from the east side of Mount Joseph, he struck the southwest corner of Great Salt Lake, country completely barren and destitute of game. He frequently traveled without water, sometimes for two days, through sandy deserts. They arrived at the Salt Lake, with but one horse and one mule, which were so feeble and poor that they could scarcely carry a little camp equipment. They had no food so ate their horses as they gave out. A most terrible experience.

With two companions Smith had at last penetrated the great triangular white space of his dream. He had found no pleasant valleys rich in beaver, but he had been the first to travel the central route between the Great Salt Lake and the Pacific Ocean. The road from the Missouri River to San Francisco Bay was now open, awaiting the wagons of the settlers and the explorers.

On another expedition, May 27, 1831, he was killed by Indians near the region of the Cimarron River. Here he and his men suffered, they were confused by mirages and the tortures of thirst. His famished animals began to die and Comanche Indians lay in wait at a water hole. Here Smith was killed when he was only 33 years old.

Joseph Reddeford Walker and his party of Mountain Men

Walker was a fur trader who crossed the continent with Bonneville in 1831 - 1833. He branched southwest from the Great Basin and with 50 men made his way up the west branch of the Walker River to the Mono region. George Nidever and Zenas Leonard, who were with him, kept diaries. Leonard’s story of his trip down the ridge between the Merced and Tuolumne Rivers has been published; Nidever’s manuscript is in the Bancroft Library at the University of California.

From Leonard’s diary we learn that the party spent almost a month in crossing over the mountain, as they called the Sierra Nevada Range. Their route has always been a mystery except that they used the “Mono Trail” north of Yosemite which forks into many branches. It was October, and where they at first thought they had reached the summit they found old snow left from the winter before, topped by about eight inches of fresh snowfall. They could find no trail, no feed for their horses, and no game for themselves. The rebellious men wished to turn back although to do so meant probable death. It is doubtful that they had Indian guides.

Zenas Leonard wrote, “We traveled a few miles every day, still on top of the mountain, and our course continually obstructed with snow, hills, and rocks. 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 the ages cut in the rocks, precipitate themselves from one lofty precipice to another, until they are exhausted in rain below. Some of these precipices appeared to us to be more than a mile high. 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. We were then obliged to keep along the top of the dividing ridge between two of these chasms which seemed to lead pretty near in the direction we were going—which was West—in passing over the mountain.”

In these diaries mention is made of discovering the Merced or Tuolumne Grove of Big Trees, which are located in Yosemite National Park.

Concerning the Walker expedition historians are at variance. It is not certain that he said Yosemite Valley. Walker’s tombstone, in Martinez, California, bears the inscription, “Camped at Yosemite, November 13, 1833,” Leonard’s description of their route belies the idea of his having camped in Yosemite Valley.

[Editor’s note: today historians generally believe the Walker party looked down The Cascades, which are just west of Yosemite Valley, instead of Yosemite Valley itself.—dea]

Francis Farquhar, in his article, “Walker’s Discovery of Yosemite,” analyzed the problem of Walker’s route through the Yosemite region and showed clearly that the Walker party was not guided by Indians. He concluded quite rightly that Bunnell was not justified in depriving Walker of the distinction of discovering Yosemite Valley. In any case we have in the 1839 account by Leonard the first authentic printed reference to the Yosemite region. Another passage from this narrative must be quoted here:

“In the last two days travelling we have found some trees of the Redwood species, incredibly large—some of which would measure from 16 to 18 fathom round the trunk at the height of a man’s head from the ground.”

This is the first published mention of the Big Trees of the Sierra. If they had followed the old Mono Trail of the Indians, no doubt Walker’s men were the first to discover both the Yosemite Valley, at least to look down from the top, and to see the Big Tree Grove of Sequoias.

The effective discovery of Yosemite is an incident of the gold days. The Gold Rush occurred in Califonia in 1848 and early 1849, and in late 1849 the outsiders from all parts of the nation started pouring in. By 1850, the foothills were settled and abounded in mines and trading posts.

John Charles Fremont — Pathmarker of the West

American explorer, soldier and political leader, was born in Savannah, Georgia, January 31, 1813. His father, a native of France, died when the boy was in his sixth year, and his mother, a member of an aristocratic Virginia family removed to Charleston, South Carolina where Fremont’s youth was spent. He attended a preparatory school in Charleston College; in this school he studied Latin, Greek, and mathematics, and excelled in all.

In 1833, he was a teacher of mathematics on board the sloop-of-war “Natchez” and Fremont sailed with that vessel on a cruise along the South American coast which lasted two and a half years.

After he served as assistant engineer of a survey undertaken to find the best pass for a proposed railway from Charleston to Cincinnatti, following this he was appointed second lieutenant of topographical engineers in the U.S. Army, and for the next three years he was an assistant to the French explorer Jean Nicholas Nicollet, employed by the war department to survey and map a large part of the country lying between the upper waters of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. In 1841 Fremont alone headed an expedition to survey the Des Moines river to complete Nicollet’s map

Upon his return he married Jessie Benton, daughter of Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. “Fremont and Jessie Benton, first met at a school concert in Georgetown. The result was love at first sight. Jessie was not quite sixteen. “There came a glow into my heart” he wrote decades later, “which changed the current and color of daily life, and gave beauty to common things.” He married Jessie Benton, October, 1841. Three sons, and two daughters came to this union; a son and daughter died in infancy.” 1

When emigration over the Oregon trail to Oregon country began to be important in 1842 Fremont was sent at the head of a party to explore the route beyond the Mississippi as far as South Pass in Wyoming. He surveyed the trail thoroughly and his excellent description greatly aided the emigrants of following years. The year following he was sent to complete the survey of the trail to the mouth of the Columbia. His guide on this as well as on the previous expeditions was the famed and picturesque Kit Carson. The Oregon settlements were quickly reached, and then Fremont turned south and east via the Klamath Lakes to northwestern Nevada, continuing to the Truckee and Carson rivers. Fremont then accomplished with his entire expedition an extremely difficult and rash crossing of the Sierra Nevada mountains in midwinter, an exploit which added greatly to his fame, and spent the winter near Sutter’s Fort on the Sacramento river in California. His return was around the southern end of the Sierra Nevada range and across to Salt Lake mainly via the old Spanish trail from Santa Fe to California.

In the spring of 1845 Fremont was again dispatched on a third expedition of exploring the Great Basin and Pacific Coast, but with secret instructions for action in case of a war with Mexico. He and his party of 62, after traveling the Great Basin by a new route directly west from Great Salt Lake and down the valley of the Humboldt, reached California in January 1846, after a second winter crossing of the Sierras.

When news of the declaration of war with Mexico did reach California all the northern region was already in American hands. Fremont was appointed by Commodore Stockton major of a battalion made up of American volunteers, and by January 1847 he and Stockton had completed the conquest of the future State. After some conflict in orders between Commodore Stockton and General Stephen W. Kearny, Fremont disregarded Kearny’s orders and was arrested by the latter, and was tried by court martial in Washington. He was found guilty of mutiny, disobedience and conduct prejudicial to military discipline, and sentenced to be dismissed. Fremont, in a bitter mood resigned.

The explorer now intended to establish his home on an estate which he had purchased in California.

“In 1849, Colonel Fremont, a Mexican War Veteran, acquired by virtue of a purchase made in 1847, from J. B. Alvarado, a so called “floating grant” of 44,386 acres of grazing land in the Mariposa hills. After gold was discovered in the Mariposa region in 1848, Fremont “floated” his rancho far from the original claim to cover mineral lands including properties already in the possession of miners. The center of Fremont’s activities was Bear Valley, 13 miles northwest of Mariposa. Lengthy litigations in the face of hostile public sentiment piled up court costs and lawyer fees. However, the U.S. Courts confirmed Fremont’s claims, and other claimants, including the French Company, lost many valuable holdings. Tremendous investments were made in stamp mills, tunnels, shafts, and other appurtenances related to the mining towns as well as to the mines which Fremont attempted to develop. In spite of its phenomenal but spotty productiveness, the Fremont Grant brought bankruptcy to its owner and was finally sold at sheriff sale. The town of Mariposa, which was on Fremont’s Rancho, became the county seat in 1854.

“For fifteen years the Mariposa grant, rich in gold and grazing land, was to dominate his activities, promising him wealth and happiness, but trouble and disappointment was to bring him in the end ill luck and all vanished as suddenly as a rainbow bubble. Needing funds for development and for discharging his debts he resolved to go to Europe, form a company, and sell enough shares for his purposes. Fremont and his lawyer sailed in January, 1861, for Europe. In France he soon found that the threat of civil war made it impossible to raise money for Mariposa on any acceptable terms. He returned at once to accept an appointment as one of the ranking Union generals.” 2

“In December 1849, he was elected one of the first two senators from California, but drawing the short term he served only from September 1850 to March 1851. He was defeated for re-election by the pro-slavery party.

His opposition to slavery, however, together with the popularity his explorations and his part in the conquest of California had won for him, led to his nomination for the presidency in 1856 by the newly formed Republican Party. In the ensuing election he was defeated by James Buchanan by 174 to 114 votes. He retired from public life and devoted himself to building a railroad by the southern route to the Pacific. The finances of the enterprise were unsound and in the collapse in 1870 Fremont lost the fortune he had made in California . . . In his embarrassment he welcomed the relief and change of occupation that came with an appointment as governor of Arizona territory in 1878, an office which he occupied until 1881.

“His one great definite and tangible contribution to American life was his geographical work, and as long as the early history of the Great West lives, his name will live with it. But perhaps he made an indefinite and intangible contribution that is equally memorable. Where else can we find a career so packed with adventure and the romance of contrast; where else one which calls up so many images of a more spacious and brightly colored era? His name evokes a vision of the wild trans-Missouri wilderness in the days of Indians and buffalo, of Kit Carson and Johann Sutter; a vision of the clash of American troops and Mexican levies in California and in the southwest; a vision of that furnace heat of sectional passion in which the Republican party was melded; a vision of civil war, and of armies grappling in Missouri and along the Shenandoah Valley; a vision of desperate political intrigue in Washington; a vision of financial speculation both west and east in the gilded age after the war, of dizzy profits and still dizzier losses. His name evokes, too, the lingering fragrance of one of the truest love stories in all American history.

“His colorful career came to a sudden crisis in late 1887, when he was seized with a severe attack of bronchitis. His doctor said he must go to a warm climate; so with the financial help of his good friend Collis P. Huntington he and his wife returned to Los Angeles California, and settled in the Oak Street cottage where his health improved. He had hoped that Congress would make a proper payment on the Black Point property which they had purchased at an early date. It was through his good wife Jessie, and public sentiment supported the measure, in April, 1890, that Congress in view of the services to his country rendered by John C. Fremont gave him an adequate income annually which took care of his last days.

“In July 1890, he wrote to Mrs. Fremont that he would return to Los Angeles, where they would make their permanent home. But fate interfered once again. On July 13, 1890, in answer to a promise he laid flowers on the grave of a little boy friend in Brooklyn in a cold rain. That night he was seized with a violent chill. Peritonitis had set in, and in a few hours death came to him at the age of 77. Mrs. Fremont who spent her last years living with her daughter in Los Angeles out lived her husband a dozen years. Their estate on the Hudson, which Mrs. Fremont christened with the local Indian name, Pocaho, became the burial ground for both of them.

“It is for the splendid achievement of his early life as an explorer that Fremont will be most gratefully remembered by the American people. It is true that trappers had long before traveled where he followed, but he first surveyed and described the routes. If he was not a “pathfinder” he was a “pathmaker.” “FROM THE ASHES OF HIS CAMPFIRES HAVE SPRUNG CITIES.” 3

1 “Fremont” Pathmarker of the West, by Allan Nevins.

2 “Fremont” Pathmarker of the West, by Allan Nevins.

3 “Fremont,” Pathmarker of the West, by Allan Nevins.

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