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The Great Basin Defined in the Frémont-Preuss Maps of the West
"...more Asiatic than American in its character, and much resembling, the elevated region between the Caspian sea and northern Persia."

Copyright Bob Graham, 2009

The Great Basin--a term [first coinage] which I apply to the intermediate region between the Rocky mountains and the Sierra Nevada, containing many lakes, with their own system of rivers and creeks, and which have no connection with the ocean. Between these mountains are the arid plains which receive and deserve the name of desert. Such is the general structure of the interior of the Great Basin, more Asiatic than American in its character, and much resembling, the elevated region between the Caspian sea and northern Persia. The rim of this Basin is massive ranges of mountains, of which the Sierra Nevada on the west, and the Wahsatch and Timpanogos chains on the east, are the most conspicuous. On the north, it is separated from the waters of the Columbia by a branch of the Rocky mountains, and from the gulf of California, on the south, by a bed of mountainous ranges, of which the existence has been only recently determined. John Charles Frémont
The complete descriptive entry from the 1848 Geographical Memoir.

Richard. V. Francaviglia, Mapping and Imagination in the Great Basin: a Cartographic History, University of Nevada Press, Reno, 2005. The publisher describes it as "A description of the daunting physical realities of the Great Basin with a cogent examination of the ways humans, from early Native Americans to nineteenth-century surveyors to twentieth-century highway and air travelers, have understood, defined, and organized this space."

In this fascinating book of early maps and mapping of the Great Basin, author Richard V. Francaviglia suggests and discusses three possible explanations for a nonexistent transverse Great Basin range depicted on the watershed 1848 Frémont-Preuss Map of Oregon and Upper California:
A--The perhaps seen El Paso Mountains along the Garlock Fault, but then mislocated on the map;
B--A feature suggested from earlier published maps;
C--And that which I think Francaviglia considers the most likely, the representation of a hydrological boundary--the map title "range" not meant to suggest an unbroken chain, but perhaps just mountains arranged (or ranging) along a line in a certain direction.

What follows is my own further look at the possible origin of the depicted transverse range.


A and B: are both necessary questions, but I doubt that that depicted range represents the latitudinally misplaced 18-mile long El Paso Mountains--there is just too much displacement. And I also doubt that the idea of a range is borrowed from previously published maps.

C: What remains:

Frémont had traveled across the extreme eastern end of that suggested range (blue) on his 2nd Expedition in 1844. The Talbot/Kern/Walker detachment (red) crossed the western end on Frémont's 3rd Expedition 1845.

The 1848 map informs us that "These mountains [also titled "Range" on the map] are not explored, being only seen from elevated points on the northern exploring line."

That "northern exploring line" (yellow) was Frémont's 1845, 3rd Expedition exploratory route made with ten men from Salt Lake to Pilot Peak, and through the Humboldt Mountains, to Walker Lake. In part, the same route that Lansford W. Hastings later backtracked and appropriated as his own "Hastings' Cut-off." Frémont was aware of the travels of Jedediah Smith, who had crossed the Sierra Nevada and central Great Basin from west to east in 1827, which may have suggested the route to him.

On that exploratory 1845 route through the center of the basin, Frémont mapped the observed the interior basins and ranges as all north/south tending. This filled in much of the immense white space of the 1845 map. In the narrative he correctly points out that the mountains of the interior "conform to the law which governs the course of the Rocky mountains and Sierra Nevada, ranging nearly north and south with very uniform characteristic abruptness."
And elsewhere, he describes the almost orderly series of parallel ranges appearing as if "looking lengthwise along the teeth of a saw."

Considering that Frémont got that correctly, the appearance of a southern bounding transverse range might stem from a long distance and compacted view of separated mountains--perhaps further foreshortened in the telescope.

Will Frémont have anything further to say about that conjectured range? Yes, but not for some years.

Frémont was himself the 3rd expedition topographer on that "northern route" (central route across the Great Basin). He was a very capable topographer from his months of field and table work on the Nicollet survey maps of the upper Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.

 
On the construction of the Nicollet map of the Upper Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, "drawn under his direction by Lieuts. J. C. Frémont and E. P. Scammon." Ellott Coues.

"Formerly I had been entirely devoted to my intended profession of engineering. But strict engineering had lost its inspiration in the charm of the new field into which I had entered during the last few years"

"Our work was done in the Coast Survey building on the [Capitol] hill...We were not yet at work on the map. There was a mass of astronomical and other observations to be calculated and discussed before a beginning on this could be made. Indeed, the making of such a map is an interesting process. It must be exact. First the foundations must be made in observations made in the field; then the [mathematical] reduction of these observations to latitude and longitude; afterward the projection of the map, and the laying down upon it of positions fixed by the observations; then the tracing from the sketchbooks of the lines of the rivers, the forms of the lakes, the contour of the hills. Specially it is interesting to those who have laid in the field these various foundations, to see them all brought into final shape--fixing on a small sheet the results of laborious travel over waste regions, and giving them an enduring place on the world's surface." Memoir of My Life

Edward Kern had been hired as the third expedition artist, to record views, but was personally instructed by Frémont in the recording of topography. Kern traveled and mapped the Humboldt River route with the Talbot-Walker detachment, which then turned south from Walker Lake along the eastern base of the Sierra Nevada to Walker Pass, and so made very important contributions along that route, including the Owens River and Lake, Walker Pass, the Kern River, and the southern San Joaquin Valley.
Months later, in Washington, Charles Preuss would correct longitude positions from the 2nd Expedition, and added the new observations, using that 1845 map as a base for the new map.

go Kern Maps the Humboldt.

The other possibility that Francaviglia suggests is that the indicated southern transverse "Dividing range between the Pacific and the waters of the Great Basin" is not actually intended to be a continuous unbroken range, but rather mountains ranged along a supposed hydrological boundary. This must be considered, because the similarly delineated east-west tending northern hydrological limit carries the self same conformation and map title, shown here with yellow highlight.

This was also suggested by Lorin Blodget in his landmark Climatology of the United States and the Temperate Latitudes of the North American Continent, 1857:
"[Frémont] found an immense area bounded by this sierra [Nevada] as a gigantic, unbroken wall on the west, and by ranges at right angles to it, as he supposed, on the north and south to have no external drainage whatever...Subsequent explorations give strong reason to believe, though they do not illustrate the point completely, that neither on the north or south is there any abrupt chain of mountains, enclosing the basin, or forming its boundary there. All the mountain ranges are found to run from south to north, or southeast to northwest, and so far as different parts of the basin region have been traversed, it has been found equally full of these as short, segregated, yet overlapping ranges; conveying the idea of a continuous range from any point of view."

The western boundary is the actual Sierra Nevada and Cascade Ranges (red highlight). The eastern boundary is not the "Wahsatch Mountains" (red highlight), but rather a lightly hatchured indicated (suggested?) range to the east (blue highlight).

So, regarding that indicated southern range, again, Frémont's caveat: "These mountains are not explored, being only seen from elevated points on the northern exploring line."

 

In the Geographical Memoir, Frémont's says the Great Basin is "separated from the gulf of California, on the south, by a bed (my italics) of mountainous ranges (ranges, not range), of which the existence has been only recently determined."
See below for Frémont's use of the term bed.

Noted western map authority Carl Wheat also noted that depicted "range," and suggested that Frémont and Preuss were "jumping to conclusions."

If an actual range was intended, it more like a blunder!

But if their intention was to indicate less than that, it is unfortunate, because the mapped image of that "range" drastically reduces the size of the defined "Great Basin", which had been more nearly correct by today's definition as delineated in the great white space of terra incognita on the 1845 2nd Expedition Frémont-Preuss map.

And, what is equally unfortunate, the depicted range soon appeared on other maps. On one, a map of The Western Territories of the United States published by McNally in 1870, that nonexistent transverse range is titled "FREMONT MTS."

The final episode of the transverse range, as it relates to Frémont himself, is an 1886 Map Showing Country Explored by John Charles Frémont From 1841 through 1854 Inclusive, Drawn and Engraved Expressly for Frémont's Memoirs by A Zeese & Company in Chicago. The third expedition route through the Great Basin is shown, but the transverse range of the 1848 map has been replaced by an east-west ranging string of detached mountains.
There is also a route shown through that range of detached mountains, complete with astronomical stations, which is Frémont's 1854 RR survey route west from Parowan (UT) on his 5th Expedition.

When we recall the 1848 map's admonition of the conjecture that "These mountains are not explored, being only seen from elevated points on the northern exploring line," this is certainly updated information based on Frémont's own exploration of those mountains.
U.S. Senate, 33rd Congress, Misc. Document No. 67, Letter of J. C. Frémont to The Editors of the National Intellengencer Communicating Some General Results of a Recent Expedition Across the Rocky Mountains, for the Survey of a Route for a Railroad to the Pacific, 1854.
go See the route of exploration on the 1886 map--and descriptive text.

 

Map of an Exploring expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the year 1842 and to Oregon and North California in 1843-44 by Captain J. C. Frémont.
Drawn by Charles Preuss
The 1845 map: 31" x 52", scale1:3000000 (47.35 miles inch)

Great Basin, "diameter 11º of latitude, 10º of longitude.."


Map of Oregon and Upper California from the Surveys of John Charles Frémont.
Drawn by Charles Preuss
The 1848 map: 34"x 27", scale1:3000000 (47.35 miles inch)

"a basin of some five hundred miles diameter every way..."

go Other important Frémont Preuss maps.

"The Great Basin westward of the Great Salt Lake has a diameter of upward or three hundred and forty geographical miles, and a mean elevation of nearly five thousand eight hundred feet, differing very considerably from the rampart-like mountain chains by which it is surmounted. Our knowledge of this configuration is one of the chief points of Frémont's great hypsometrical investigation in the years 1842 and 1844." Alexander von Humboldt, Kosmos, 1847.

The 1848 map title states that the map draws on"other authorities."

Frémont attributes the coast line of the 1845 map as basically that as set down by Vancouver. The coastline of the 1848 map was altered to correct some longitudinal positions of Lt. Charles Wilkes' Pacific Survey by up to 14 miles west. Frémont also shifted his own western base of the Sierra Nevada 20 miles east from what was shown on the 1845 map--errors in longitude on that earlier map that resulted in misconnecting a number of west slope Sierra rivers.

The other "best authorities," in addition to expedition topographer Edward Kern who was with the Talbot/Walker division, probably included Peter Skene Ogden (through Dr. McLaughlan, HBC), Jedediah Strong Smith, Tom Fitzpatrick, Joseph R. Walker, and Christopher "Kit" Carson. There can be no doubt that information came from the reports of naval Lt. Wilkes (some western Oregon territory detail) and the Army Topographical Corps' Lt. William Emory (some Southwest detail). Frémont does not name Wilkes or Emory,both men then openly hostile political enemies in that post Mexican War period of Frémont's life when he felt himself drawn into "the poisoned atmosphere and jarring circumstances of conflict among men, made subtle and malignant by clashing interests."

The 1848 map is certainly a monument! It is perhaps just my own perception that it seems to have a dark aspect when contrasted to the bright, the new, the attempted verité of the 1845 map. But they are very different maps. In the 1845 map--a map of exploration--the government got far more than the anticipated map of the route to Oregon, but the 1848 map, reduced in longitude to show only Oregon and Upper [not Baja] California, is as much a map of political boundaries and territorial conquest as of hydrology and geography. Frémont's observations on the climate of the Great Basin were of equal geographical import, being much cited in Lorin Blodget's landmark Climatology of the United States and the Temperate Latitudes of the North American Continent, 1857. Blodget draws out Frémont's own description of the geography and climate as being "Asiatic...much resembling, the elevated region between the Caspian sea and northern Persia."

Letter to Jessie Frémont, January 24, 1846: "Tell your father [Senator Thomas Hart Benton] that, with a volunteer party of fifteen men, I crossed [the Great Basin] between the parallels of 38° and 39°. Instead of a plain, I found it, throughout its whole extent, traversed by parallel ranges, of lofty summits white with snow, while below the valleys had none. Instead of a barren country, the mountains were covered with grasses of the best quality, wooded with several varieties of trees, and containing more deer and mountain sheep than we had seen in any previous part of our voyage...By the route I have explored I can ride in thirty-five days from Fontaine qui Bouit River to Captain Sutter's; and, for wagons, the road is decidedly far better."

The Geographical Memoir Upon Upper California (in illustration of the map) is a much under-appreciated work. And only hints at what we could have had had the appropriation for the 3rd expedition Report and a 4th Expedition approved by the Senate not been scuttled by the House. When it was written, Jessie was fully occupied with her own and her mother's health, so she has had little or nothing to do with it. Something Frémont's detractors seem forever unwilling to accept is Donald Jackson's relation that in viewing the manuscript draft for the 1st expedition report (National Archives DNA-77), he found that the report was "much less a joint effort than Frémont's comments would indicate. The first nineteen sheets are in Jessie's hand, and the remainder in Fremont's, with some corrections and refinements in Jessie's."
Frémont's biographer Tom Chaffin has viewed that same MS draft. Whereas Frémont credits Jessie's very valuable assistance as that of an amanuensis (one who writes from dictation), the evidence suggests that Jessie's role was more that of a "proof reader," and "editor," but certainly not that of a "ghost writer" as it has been called by some Frémont detractors.


There is a post script to the Memoir in which Frémont indicates his complete familiarity with the Domingues/Escalante expedition (and no doubt the Miera y Pacheco map). Frémont records Erodium cicutarium (fillaree; stork's bill; wild geranium) in bloom in the Great Basin. This was a Spanish introduced plant. It must have got into the Great Basin from the early entradas of Spanish explorers? Frémont also records the Maidus of the Sierra foothills preparing and eating it, apparently having spread from the mission lands into the Central Valley and foothills. Frémont further comments that "in the language of the country, alfalferia, [it is a] valuable plant for stock and is very nutricious."

He also notes that he had collected a specimen of "rock salt" from the place indicated on the map of von Humboldt "where [Humboldt] indicates Montagnes de Sel Gemme." During the very wealthy period of his life when he was living on his Pocaho estate on the Potomac, he acquired much of the personal library of the late Baron von Humboldt at auction.

 

go Great Basin: Frémont's quest for the legendary San Buenaventura River.
go drawings of cartographic correctness. There is good evidence that cartographer Charles Preuss made use of the camera obscura in making his drawings to illustrate Frémont's Reports, including the Great Basin's goPyramid Lake.
go The full text of the Great Basin entry from Frémont's Geographical Memoir.
go Frémont's expedition: the Reports.
go Frémont's contributions to geology.
go Frémont's contributions to botany.
go A look at Frémont 's determinations of elevations.
go And the first scientific measurement of a high peak (13,745') in North America.
go A history of Frémont 's training in mathematics, navigation, and mapmaking.

Important Frémont Preuss maps:

1843--The route of the 1st expedition from St. Louis to South Pass and into the Wind River Chain. Much more detailed (scale 1:1000000) than it is shown on the 1845 map (scale (1:3000000).

1845: Map of an Exploring expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the year 1842 and to Oregon and North California in 1843-44 by Captain J. C. Frémont. Drawn by Charles Preuss
31" x 52", scale1:3000000 (47.35 miles inch)

1845--From the 1845 Report: First survey map of the Great Salt Lake at scale of 1;1000000; Beer Springs at a scale of 1 mile to the inch; Bear River Valley scale 4.5 miles to the inch

1845--The route from the edge of the Great Basin across the snow-covered 10'000' Sierra Nevada to Sacramento at a scale of 3 miles to the inch. (shown above right)

1848: Map of Oregon and Upper California from the Surveys of John Charles Frémont.
Drawn by Charles Preuss, 34"x 27", scale1:3000000 (47.35 miles inch)

1848--The Preuss map of the Oregon Trail in 7 sheets at a scale of 10 miles to the inch--a road map and travel guide..

1850--A newer printing of the 1848 map was published with California and New Mexico, a Message from the President of the United States, Transmitting Information in Answer to a Resolution of the House of the 31st of December, 1849, on the Subject of California and New Mexico. [Washington]: House Ex. Doc. No. 17, 1850. This map is reduced in longitude, the eastern portion being cut off to show the Great Salt Lake as the most eastern point. Note the words "Upper California" chopped off to "Cal" at the eastern margin.
This version, apparently from the original plate altered, has some new information and military routes added, and, important,shows Frémont's route from Gabilan Peak near San Juan Bautista in March 1846 as being over Panoche Pass (see it), rather than Frémont's named "Pacheco Pass," into San Joaquin Valley. This version of the map continued to be reissued for a number of years, one issued in 1872, being a certified Photo-zincographic copy issued by the ordnance Survey Office, Southampton, England.

1886--Map Showing Country Explored by John Charles Frémont From 1841 through 1854 Inclusive, Drawn and Engraved Expressly for Frémont's Memoirs" by A Zeese & Company in Chicago. 24 x 24". The third expedition route through the Great Basin is shown, but the transverse range of the 1848 map has vanished, being replaced by an east-west ranging string of detached mountains.

Unbeknownst to Frémont was this earlier description of the hydrology of his Great Basin by Leonard Zenas, clerk to the 1833-34 western expedition of Joseph Walker.

"The Calafornia [sic.] mountain [range] extends from the Columbia to the Colorado River, running parallel with the coast about 150 miles distant, and 12 or 15 hundred miles in length with its peaks perpetually covered with eternal snows. There is [sic.] a large number of water courses descending from this mountain on either side--those on the east stretching out into the plain, and those on the west flow generally in a straight course until they empty into the Pacific; but in no place is there a watercourse through the mountain."

Leonard, Zenas, Narrative of the Adventures of Zenas Leonard, Lakeside Press, Chicago, 1934.

 

Other books by Richard Francaviglia on the Great Basin:

Believing In Place: A Spiritual Geography Of The Great Basin by Richard V. Francaviglia (Aug 1, 2003)
Go East, Young Man: Imagining the American West as the Orient by Richard Francaviglia (Oct 20, 2011)

Frémont and the Great Basin:

  • Blodget, Lorin, Climatology of the United States and the Temperate Latitudes of the North American Continent, J. B. Lippincott and Co., Philadelphia: 1857.
  • Cline, Gloria Griffin, Exploring the Great Basin, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1963 (and University of Nevada Press reprint 1988)
  • Francaviglia, Richard. V., Mapping and Imagination in the Great Basin: a Cartographic History, University of Nevada Press, Reno, 2005.
  • Frémont, Brevet Captain J. C., Report of The Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842, and to Oregon and North California in the Years 1843-'44, Printed by order of the Senate of the United States (Senate Document No. 174), Gales and Seaton, Washington, 1845. Contains the 1845 Frémont/Preuss map.
  • Frémont, John Charles, Geographical Memoir Upon Upper California, Senate. 30th Congress, Misc. No.148, Wendell and Van Benthuysen, Washington, 1848. Contains the 1848 Frémont/Preuss map.
  • Frémont, John Charles, Memoirs of My Life, Belford, Clark & Company, Chicago, 1887.
  • J. C. Frémont, Letter of J. C. Frémont to The Editors of the National Intellengencer Communicating Some General Results of a Recent Expedition Across the Rocky Mountains, for the Survey of a Route for a Railroad to the Pacific, U.S. Senate, 33rd Congress, Misc. Document No. 67, 1854.
  • Fletcher, F. N., Early Nevada--the Period of Exploration, 1776-1848, Reno, 1929.
  • Hine, Robert V., In the Shadow of Frémont: Edward Kern and the Art of Exploration. 1845-1860, University of Oklahoma Press, Noeman, 1982.
  • Jackson, Donald, and Mary Lee Spence, The Expeditions of John Charles Frémont: Vol. I, Travels from 1838 to 1844; Vol. II, The Bear Flag Revolt and the Court-Martial, University of Illinois Press, 1970.
  • Jackson, Donald, The Expeditions of John Charles Frémont: Map Portfolio, University of Illinois Press, 1970. Full size facsimiles of the 1839-40, 1843, 1845, 1848, and 7-section map of the road to Oregon.
  • Jepson, Willis Linn, A Manual of the Flowering Plants of California, University Of California Press, (1925), 1953.
  • Kelly, Charles, Salt Desert Trails, Western Printing Co., Salt Lake City, 1930.
  • McPhee, John, Basin and Range, New York: Farrar Straus, 1981.
  • Preuss, Charles, Exploring With Frémont, Translated by Erwin G. and Elisabeth K., Gudde, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1958.

*A "bed of Mountainous Ranges"
The Oxford English Dictionary gives one definition of the word "bed" as meaning "To sink or bury in a matrix of any kind, or fix firmly in any substance." Washington Irving frequently uses the term "bed of mountains" in his account of the Bonneville expedition, and in the 1869 Geological Survey [of Tennessee], James Merrill Safford refers to the Great Smoky Mountains as "the greatest bed of mountains in Tennessee...prominent and isolated and long mountains, all arranged lengthwise, and nearly in the same line." In his Letter to the Editors of the National Intelligencer communicating the results of his 1854 winter railroad survey, Frémont again uses the term "bed of mountains" in describing the Rocky Mountains lying east of Parowan.
Note: Alan H. Hartley, a researcher for the OED tells us that Frémont's Reports, Geographical Memoir, Memoirs of My Life, and Torry's Plantae Frémontianae, have yielded nearly 600 citations for possible inclusion in the OED. Perhaps Frémont's use "bed of mountainous ranges" was one of them and the term and citation will enter that great lexicon!

 


©2009
Bob Graham