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The Great Basin

Excerpted from John Charles Frémont, Geographical Memoir Upon Upper California in Illustration of His Map of Oregon and California, 30th Congress, Senate Miscellaneous No. 148, Washington, 1848.

EAST of the Sierra Nevada, and between it and the Rocky mountains, is that anomalous feature in our continent, the GREAT BASIN, the existence of which was advanced as a theory after the second expedition, and is now established as a Geographical fact. It is a singular feature: a basin of some five hundred miles diameter every way, between four and five thousand feet above the level of the sea, shut in all around by mountains, with its own system of lakes and rivers, and having no connexion whatever with the sea. Partly arid and sparsely inhabited, the General character of the GREAT BASIN is that of desert, but with great exceptions, there being many parts of it very fit for the residence of a civilized people; and of these parts, the Mormons have lately established themselves in one of the largest and best. Mountain is the predominating structure of the interior of the Basin, with plains between--the mountains wooded and watered, the plains arid and sterile. The interior mountains conform to the law which governs the course of the Rocky mountains and of the Sierra Nevada, ranging nearly north and south, and present a very uniform character of abruptness, rising suddenly from a narrow base of ten to twenty miles, and attaining an elevation of two to five thousand feet above the level of the country. They are grassy and wooded, showing snow on their summit peaks during the greater part of the year, and affording small streams of water from five to fifty feet wide, which lose themselves, some in lakes, some in the dry plains, and some in the belt of alluvial soil at the base; for these mountains have very uniformly this belt of alluvion, the wash and abrasion of their sides, rich in excellent grass, fertile, and light and loose enough to absorb small streams. 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. Snow abounds on them all; on some, in their loftier parts, the whole year, with wood and grass with copious streams of water, sometimes amounting to considerable rivers flowing inwards, and forming lakes or sinking in the sands. Belts or benches of good alluvion are usually found at their base.

Lakes of the Great Basin.--The Great Salt lake and the Utah lake are in this Basin, towards its eastern rim, and constitute its most interesting features--one, a saturated solution of common salt--the other, fresh--the Utah about one hundred feet above the level of the Salt lake, which is itself four thousand two hundred above the level of the sea, and connected by a strait, or river, thirty-five miles long.

These lakes drain an area of ten or twelve thousand square miles, and have, on the east, along the base of the mountain, the usual bench of alluvion, which extends to a distance of three hundred miles, with wood and water, and abundant grass. The Mormons have established themselves on the strait between these two lakes, and will find sufficient arable land for a large settlement important from its position as intermediate between the Mississippi valley and the Pacific ocean, and on the line of communication to California and Oregon.

The Utah is about thirty-five miles Ion, and is remarkable for the numerous and bold streams which it receives, coming down from the mountains on the southeast, all fresh water, although a large formation of rock salt, imbedded in red clay, is found within the area on the southeast, which it drains. The lake and its affluents afford large trout and other fish in great numbers, which constitute the food of the Utah Indians during the fishing season. The Great Salt lake has a very irregular outline, greatly extended at time of melting snows It is about seventy miles in length; both lakes ranging nearly north and south, in conformity to the range of the mountains, and is remarkable for its predominance of salt. The whole lake waters seem thoroughly saturated with it, and every evaporation of the water leaves salt behind. The rocky shores of the islands are whitened by the spray, which leaves salt on everything it touches, and a covering like ice forms over the water, which the waves throw among the rocks. The shores of the lake in the dry season, when the waters recede, and especially on the south side, are whitened with encrustations of fine white salt; the shallow arms of the lake, at the same time, under a slight covering of briny water, present beds of salt for miles, resembling softened ice, into which the horses' feet sink to the fetlock. Plants and bushes, blown by the wind upon these fields, are entirely encrusted with crystallized salt, more than an inch in thickness. Upon this lake of salt the fresh water received, through great in quantity has no perceptible effect. No fish, or animal life of any kind, is found in it; the larvae on the shore being found to belong to winged insects. A geological examination of the bed and shores of this lake is of the highest interest.

Five gallons of water taken from this lake in the month of September, and roughly evaporated over a fire, gave fourteen pints of salt, a part of which being subjected to analysis, gave the following proportions:

Chloride of sodium (common salt) 97.80 parts.
Chloride of calcium O.61 parts.
Chloride of magnesium 0.24 parts.
Sulphate of soda 0.23 parts.
Sulphate of lime 1.12 parts.

Southward from the Utah is another lake of which little more is now known than when Humboldt published his general map of Mexico. It is the reservoir of a handsome river, about two hundred miles long, rising in the Wahsatch mountains, and discharging a considerable volume of water. The river and lake were called by the Spaniards, Severo, corrupted by the hunters into Sevier. On the map, they are called Nicollet, in honor of J. N. Nicollet, whose premature death interrupted the publication of the learned work on the physical geography of the basin of the Upper Mississippi, which five years of labor in the field had prepared him to give

On the western side of the basin, and immediately within the first range of the Sierra Nevada, is the Pyramid lake, receiving the water of Salmon Trout river. It is thirty-five miles long, between four and five thousand feet above the sea, surrounded by mountains, is remarkably deep and clear, and abounds with uncommonly large salmon trout. Southward, along the base of the Sierra Nevada, is a range of considerable lakes, formed by many large streams from the Sierra. Lake Walker, the largest among these, affords great numbers of trout, similar to those of the Pyramid lake, and is a place of resort for Indians in the fishing season.

There are probably other collections of water not yet known. The number of small lakes is very great, many of them more or less salty, and all, like the rivers which feed them, changing their appearance and extent under the influence of the season, rising with the melting of the snows, sinking in the dry weather, and distinctly presenting their high and low water mark. These generally afford some fertile and well watered land, capable of settlement.

Rivers of the Great Basin.--The most considerable river in the interior of the Great Basin is the one called on the map Humboldt river, as the mountains at its head are called Humboldt river mountains--so called as a small mark of respect to the "Nestor of scientific travelers," who has done so much to illustrate North American geography, without leaving his name upon any one of its remarkable features. It is a river long known to hunters, and sometimes sketched on maps under the name of Mary's or Ogden's, but now for the first time laid down with any precision. It is a very peculiar stream, and has many characteristics of an Asiatic river--the Jordan, for example, though twice as long, rising in mountains and losing itself in a lake of its own, after a long and solitary course. It rises in two streams in mountains west of the Great Salt lake, which unite, after some fifty miles, and bears westwardly along the northern side of the basin towards the Great Sierra Nevada, which it is destined never to reach, much less to pass. The mountains in which it rises are round and handsome in their outline, capped with snow the greater part of the year, well clothed with grass and wood, and abundant in water. The stream is a narrow line, without affluents, losing by absorption and evaporation as it goes, and terminating in a marshy lake, with low shores, fringed with bulrushes, and whitened with saline encrustations. It has a moderate current, is from two to six feet deep in the dry season, and probably not fordable anywhere below the junction of the forks during the time of melting snows, when both lake and river are considerably enlarged. The country through which it passes (except its immediate valley) is a dry sandy plain, without grass, ,wood, or arable soil; from about 4,700 feet (at the forks) to 4,200 feet (at the lake) above the level of the sea, winding among broken ranges of mountains, and varying from a few miles to twenty in breadth. Its own immediate valley is a rich alluvion, beautifully covered with blue grass, herd grass, clover, and other nutritious grasses; and its course is marked through the plain by a line of willow and cottonwood trees, serving for fuel. The Indians in the fall set fire to the grass and destroy all trees except in low grounds near the water.

This river possesses qualities which, in the progress of events, may give it both value and fame It lies on the line of travel to California and Oregon, and is the best route now known through the Great Basin, and the one traveled by emigrants. Its direction, nearly east and west, is the right course for that travel. It furnishes a level unobstructed ,way for nearly three hundred miles, and a continuous supply of the indispensable articles of water, wood, and grass. Its head is towards the Great Salt lake, and consequently towards the Mormon settlement, which must become a point in the line of emigration to California and the lower Columbia. Its termination is within fifty miles of the base of the Sierra Nevada, and opposite the Salmon Trout river pass--a pass only seven thousand two hundred feet above the level of the sea, and less than half that above the level of the Basin, and leading into the valley of the Sacramento, some forty miles north of Nueva Helvetia. These properties give to this river a prospective value in future communications with the Pacific ocean, and the profile view on the north of the map shows the elevations of the present travelling route, of which it is a part, from the South pass, in the Rocky mountains, to the bay of San Francisco.

The other principal rivers of the Great Basin are found on its circumference, collecting their waters from the Snowy mountains which surround it, and are, 1. BEAR RIVER, on the east, rising in the massive range of the Timpanogos mountains and falling into the Great Salt lake, after a doubling course through a fertile and picturesque valley, two hundred miles long. 2. The UTAH RIVER and TIMPANAOZU or TIMPANOGOS, discharging themselves into the Utah lake on the east, after gathering their copious streams in the adjoining parts of the Wahsatch and Timpanogos mountains. 3. NICOLLET RIVER, rising south in the long range of the Wahsatch mountains, and falling into a lake of its own name, after making an arable and grassy valley, two hundred miles in length, through mountainous country .4. SALMON TROUT river, on the west, running down from the Sierra Nevada and falling into Pyramid lake, after a course of about one hundred miles. From its source, about one of its valley is through a pine timbered country, and for the remainder of the way through very rocky, naked ridges It is remarkable for the abundance and excellence of its salmon trout, and presents some ground for cultivation. 5. CARSON and WALKER rivers, both handsome clear water streams, nearly one hundred miles Ion, coming, like the preceding down the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada and forming lakes of their own name at its base, They contain salmon trout and other fish, and form some large bottoms of good land. 6. OWENS RIVER, issuing from the Sierra Nevada on the south, is a large bold stream about one hundred and twenty miles long, gathering its waters in the Sierra Nevada, flowing to the southward, and forming a lake about fifteen miles Ion at the base of the mountain. At a medium stage it is generally four or five feet deep, in places fifteen; wooded with willow and cottonwood, and makes continuous bottoms of fertile land, at intervals rendered marshy by springs and small affluents from the mountain. The water of the lake in which it terminates has an unpleasant smell and bad taste, but around its shores are found small streams of pure water with good grass. On the map this has been called OWENS river.

Besides these principal rivers issuing from the mountains on the circumference of the Great Basin, there are many others, all around, all obeying the general law of losing themselves in sands, or lakes, or belts of alluvion, and almost all of them an index to some arable land, with grass and wood.

Interior of the Great Basin.--The interior of the Great Basin, so far as explored, is found to be a succession of sharp mountain ranges and naked plains, such as have been described. These ranges are isolated, presenting summit lines broken into many peaks, of which the highest are between ten and eleven thousand feet above the sea. They are thinly wooded with some varieties of pine, (pinus monophyllus characteristic,) cedar, aspen, and a few other trees; and afford an excellent quality of bunch grass, equal to any found in the Rocky mountains. Black tailed deer and mountain sheep are frequent in these mountains; which, in consideration of their grass, water and wood, and the alluvion at their base, may be called fertile, in the radical sense of the word, as signifying a capacity to produce, or bear, and in contradistinction to sterility. In this sense these interior mountains may be called fertile. Sterility, on the contrary, is the absolute characteristic of the valleys between the mountains--no wood, no water, no grass; the gloomy artemisia the prevailing shrub--no animals, except the hares, which shelter in these shrubs, and fleet and timid antelope, always on the watch for danger, and finding no place too dry and barren which gives it a wide horizon for its view and a clear field for its flight. No birds are seen in the plains, and few on the mountains. But few Indians are found, and those in the lowest state of human existence; living not even in communities, but in the elementary state of families, and sometimes a single individual to himself except about the lakes stocked with fish, which become the property and resort of a small tribe. The abundance and excellence of the fish, in most of these lakes, is a characteristic; and the fishing season is to the Indians the happy season of the year.

Climate of the Great Basin.--The climate of the Great Basin does not present the rigorous winter due to its elevation and mountainous structure. Observations made during the last expedition, show that around the southern shores of the Salt lake, latitude 40º 30', to 41º, for two weeks of the month of October, 1845, from the 13th to the 27th, the mean temperature was 40º at sunrise, 70º at noon, and 54º at sunset; ranging at sunrise, from 28º to 57º; at noon, from 62º to 76º; at four in the afternoon, from 58º to 69º; and at sunset, from 47º to 57º.

Until the middle of the month the weather remained fair and very pleasant. On the 15th, it began to rain in occasional showers, which whitened with snow the tops of the mountains on the southeast side of the lake valley. Flowers were in bloom during all the month. About the 18th, on one of the large islands in the south of the lake, belianthus, several species of aster, erodium cicutarium, and several other plants, were in fresh and full bloom; the grass of the second growth was coming up finely, and vegetation, generally, betokened the lengthened summer of the climate. The 16th, 17th, and 18th, stormy with rain; heavy at night; peaks of the Bear river range and tops of the mountains covered with snow. on the 18th, cleared with weather like that of late spring, and continued mild and clear until the end of the month, when the fine weather was again interrupted by a day or two of rain. No snow within 2,000 feet above the level of the valley.

Across the interior, between latitudes 41º and 38º, during the month of November, (5th to 25th,) the mean temperature was 29º at sunrise, and 40º at sunset; ranging at noon (by detached observations) between 41º and 60º. There was a snow storm between the 4th and 7th, the snow falling principally at night, and sun occasionally breaking out in the day. The lower hills and valleys were covered a few inches deep with snow, which the sun carried off in a few hours after the storm was over.

The weather then continued uninterruptedly open until the close of the year, without rain or snow; and during the remainder of November, generally clear and beautiful; nights and mornings calm, a light breeze during the day, and strong winds of very rare occurrence. Snow remained only on the peaks of the mountains.

On the western side of the basin, along the base of the Sierra Nevada, during two weeks, from the 25th November to the 11th December, the mean temperature at sunrise was 11º, and at sunset 34º; ranging at sunrise from zero to 21º, and at sunset from 23º to 44º. For ten consecutive days of the same period, the mean temperature at noon was 45º, ranging from 33º to 56º.

The weather remained open, usually very clear, and the rivers were frozen.

The winter of '43--'44, within the basin, was remarkable for the same open, pleasant weather, rarely interrupted by rain or snow. In fact, there is nothing in the climate of this great interior region, elevated as it is, and surrounded and traversed by snowy mountains, to prevent civilized man from making it his home, and finding in its arable parts the means of a comfortable subsistence; and this the Mormons will probably soon prove in the parts about the Great Salt lake. The progress of their settlement is already great. On the first of April of the present year, they had 3,000 acres in wheat, seven saw and grist mills, seven hundred houses in a fortified enclosure of sixty acres, stock, and other accompaniments of a flourishing settlement.

Such is the Great Basin, heretofore characterized as a desert, and in some respects meriting that appellation; but already demanding the qualification of great exceptions and deserving the full examination of a thorough exploration.

Letter to Jessie Frémont, January 24, 1846: "Tell your father 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."

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.


Bob Graham