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Which peak did Frémont climb in the Wind River Range in 1842

Guide to the Wyoming Mountains and Wilderness Areas,
Orrin H. and Lorraine Bonney,
Sage Books, Denver, 1960
(illustrations by longcamp.com)
Page 28, Fremont:

For over a century disagreement has waged over what peak in the Wind River Range John Charles Fremont climbed on August 15, 1842.

Among the mountains designated for the honor are those now known as Atlantic Peak, Wind River Peak, Mt. Temple, Mt. Baldy (south of Cook Lakes) , and the present Fremont Peak. None of these is correct. Fremont's careful description cannot be fitted to any of these and no expert has ever been satisfied. One reason for the difficulty was lack of knowledge of enough Wind River climbs to make the selection. Most climbers, like myself, had not gone into the matter. In obtaining the correct and complete records for this guide book, it was necessary to do so.

The illustrations with Fremont's account unfold a story of their own--and a mystery. Charles Preuss, a German artist, the Cartographer of the expedition, prepared them.

Fremont made careful astronomical calculations for the location of his peak. He gave the latitude at 43° 10'18. Following the Continental Divide to intersect this latitude pinpoints one peak-only one-the mountain now known as Woodrow Wilson. Clearly, definitely, his description of the climb fits no other peak. Fremont's own story of the climb became an American classic. It has been reprinted many times." We have discussed the climb under Mr. Woodrow Wilson. (Chapt VII, Pk 154).

Right off the bat a fatal flaw: The Bonney footnote 18 reference is to a footnote at the bottom of page 54 in Bigelow, John, Memoir of the Life and Public Services of John Charles Frémont, Derby & Jackson, New York, 1856.
Bigelow's latitude 43° 10' (he tells us) was taken from Humboldt's Aspects of Nature. No evidence at all, but a very curious round-about reference leading nowhere.
Or, it was taken directly from either Humboldt's Aspects of Nature or Cosmos (Vol.V, p. 415), which gives the same information. In any of these case, it in no latituded observed by Frémont (not in his Tables of Astronomical Observartions), but an approximated latitude taken from later published maps.

The fact of the matter is, Frémont arrived at Island Lake on the evening of August 13th and left on the 16th. In the Tables of Astronomical Observations published with his Report, we find that he made no determinations of position between August 11 and August 17, 1842. Before and after, at Bernier's fortified camp at Boulder Lake, he determinbed latitudes of 42° 49' 55" and 42° 47' 24" respectively.

See Frémont, J.C., Lieutenant, A Report on an Exploration of the Country Lying Between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains, on the Line of the Kansas and Great Platte Rivers, Senate Document 243, Washington, 1843, pp. 145-7

But, to continue, anyway......

It is interesting to note that Mt. Woodrow Wilson forms the southerly part of the ridge which connects with Gannett Peak, slightly more than 200 feet higher. When approached from the South (as Fremont did), Woodrow Wilson hides all or most of Gannett. Even where the viewpoint shows both summits, they blend together so perfectly to appear as one unless a person has actual previous knowledge of the separation. Fremont thought he was on the highest peak. By eye alone, it is doubtful if he could have determined otherwise.

Fremont captioned one picture "Wind River Chain" [View of the Wind River Mountains" is the title in the Report--top image below] and says he climbed the prominent snow peak in the center. It can be identified as Mount Woodrow Wilson with the peak now called Fremont on the right.

The picture captioned "Fremont Hoisting the Stars and Stripes Highest Peak in the Rockies," will be seen by the climber as an artist-licensed representation of the summit of Woodrow Wilson Rather than any part of Fremont Peak. Even the snow summit of Gannett Peak is seen on the horizon, looking through the extreme left of the col. Not published with the original account, this picture appeared later. This particular print was used in W. F. Cody The Life of Kit Carson, 1888 (Carson was a member of the expedition). Was the picture sketched by Preuss and later recopied by an engraver or artist?

There is no reason to suppose that this often seen romantic view, or any of the many variants, including the 1888 commemorative stamp, have any basis at all in any unpublished expedition sketch by Charles Preuss. Preuss's views are all landscapes, for cartographic reference--something not possible from his own position on the summit. Any unpublished drawings of Charles Preuss's were in Frémont's possession and were lost in two separate fires: the Benton home in 1855, and Morrell's Warehouse in New York in 1881. No such view was included in Frémont's own elaborately illustrated 1887 Memoirs of My Life. Preuss died in 1854, and not even his diary was known of until it was found in Germany in the 1954.

go See some of the versions 1856-1900

The picture captioned "Central Chain of the Wind River Mountains" [lower image at right] shows pinnacles and sharp peaks which have no Counterpart in the region of Fremont Peak--or Woodrow Wilson. Compare this with Finis Mitchell's photo in this book, "The Cirque of the Towers From the. West," which we think it represents. Did Fremont lack a view from Island Lake to illustrate his journal? Was this one substituted because the Lake had an island in it? But when did the party penetrate the Southern Wind Rivers to make the sketch? Is the lake shown the one now known as Dad's Lake, as many of those familiar with the country think?

On the contrary, the views are rather good--see first link below.

As to Bonney & Bonney's route description of a climb to Mt. Woodrow Wilson (p. 125, 145d), they have failed to appreciate that Frémont's narrative describes two separate routes--that of the failed attempt of August 14th through Titcomb Valley, and the successful attempt on August 15th through Indian Basin. See the details in this next item:

go My views on the peak climbed.
go Frémont Peak--the story, and more views on the identity of the peak.
go Frémont and Charles Preuss climb Red Lake Peak in the Sierra Nevada on February 14, 1844 to look for the Sacramento Valley and discover Lake Tahoe.
A history of Frémont 's training in mathematics, navigation, and mapmaking.
The mountain barometer.


©1999, 2007
Bob Graham