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A river, the "Buenaventura," indicated upon a map furnished me by the Hudson's Bay Company as breaking through the mountains, was found not to exist.
John Charles Frémont , April 1891 edition of Century Magazine.

"An inteligent man with whom I boarded had a map which showed these rivers (one was the Buenaventura) to be large, and he advised me to take tools along to make canoes, so that...we could descend one of these rivers to the Pacific." John Bidwell, Barttleson-Bidwell Party, 1841.

"Until the first expedition by Frémont in 1842, geographers did not recognize the existence of any basin on that part of the continent: the Buenaventura River was drawn as the outlet of the Great Salt Lake, which was then designated Lake Timpanogos, and which had been quite accurately placed by Humboldt. Frémont sought the Buenaventura long and anxiously on his journey southward from Oregon, in the winter of 1843--1844, and in his efforts to extricate himself through the Sierra Nevada , suffered the greatest possible hardships." Lorin Blodget, Climatology of the United States, 1857.

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Governor McGlaughlan (Hudson's Bay Company, Fort Vancouver) believed in the existance of this river [Buenaventura], and made out a conjectural manuscript map to show its place and course. Frémont believed in it, and his plan was to reach it before the dead of winter and hybernate upon it.
Thomas Hart Benton, Thirty Years View.

There is 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 river course through the mountain.
Zenas Leonard, Bonneville-Walker Expedition, June 1833.

 

November 18, 1843; The Dalles.
From this lake [Klamath, "Clamet" on the map at right] our course was intended to be about southeast, to a reported lake called Mary's [the sink of the Humboldt River--then Mary's River], at some days journey into the Great Basin; and thence, still on southeast, to the reputed Buenaventura River [map below right], which has had a place in so many maps, and countenanced the belief of the existence of a great river from the Rocky Mountains to the bay of San Francisco.

December 11, 1843; Klamath Marsh.
In our journey across the desert, Mary's Lake, and the famous Buenaventura River, were two points on which I relied to recruit the animals and repose the party. Forming, agreeably to the best maps in my possession, a connected water line from the Rocky mountains to the Pacific ocean. I felt no other anxiety than to pass safely across the intervening desert to the banks of the Buenaventura, , where, in the softer climate of a more southern latitude, our horses might find grass to sustain them, and ourselves be sheltered from the rigors of winter and from the inhospitable desert.

 

January 3, 1844; Mud Lake.
We had reached and run over the position where, according to the best maps in my possession, we should have found Mary's Lake or river. We were evidently on the verge of the desert which had been reported to us; and the appearance of the country was so forbidding, that I was afraid to enter it, and determined to bear away to the southward, keeping close along the mountains, in the full expectation of reaching the Buenaventura River.

Note: Frémont's position was too far west. The following year, artist/topographer Edward Kern, as member of the Talbot/Walker division of Frémont's third expedition, would make the first accurate map of the Humboldt River.

January 17, 1844; Pyramid Lake/Truckee River.
With every stream I now expected to see the great Buenaventura; and Carson hurried eagerly to search, on every one we reached, for beaver cuttings, which he always maintained we should find only on waters that ran to the Pacific; and the absence of such signs was to him a sure indication that the water had no outlet from the great basin.

January 23, 1844; East Fork of Walker River"...we were sanguine to find here a branch of the Buenaventura; but were again disappointed, finding it an inland water, on which we encamped after a day's journey of 24 miles."

 

January 26, 1844; Bridgeport, CA.
The river [East Fork of the Walker River] is fifty to eighty feet wide, with a lively current, and very clear water. It forked a little above our camp, one of its branches coming directly from the south. At its head appeared to be a handsome pass; and from the neighboring heights we could see, beyond, a comparatively low and open country, which was supposed to form the valley of the Buenaventura.

January 27, 1844; West Fork of Walker River near Sonora Junction.
Continuing along a narrow meadow, we reached, in a few miles, the gate of the pass, where there was a narrow strip of prairie about 50 yards wide, between walls of granite rock. On either side rose the mountains, forming on the left a rugged mass, or nucleus, wholly covered with deep snow, presenting a glittering and icy surface. At the time we supposed this to be the point into which they were gathered between the two great rivers, and from which the waters flowed off to the bay........

NOTE: Here he refers to the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. His erronious lunar determination of longitude the previous night (121° 49' 52") was the actual longitude of the confluence of these rivers. This led him to believe that he might have actually passed through the mountains via the Buenaventura. But in a few miles, the West Walker turned to the right, and flowed into the Great Basin.

We then immediately struck a stream, which gathered itself rapidly, and descended quick; and the valley did not preserve the open character of the other side, appearing below to form a cañon. We therefore climbed one of the peaks on the right, leaving our horses below; but we were so much shut up that we did not obtain an extensive view, and what we saw was not very satisfactory, and awakened considerable doubt. The valley of the stream pursued a northwesterly direction, appearing below to turn sharply to the right, beyond which further view was cut off.

January 29, 1844; Antelope Valley, West Fork of Walker River.

Several Indians appeared on the hill-side, reconnoitring the camp, and were induced to come in; others came in during the afternoon; and in the evening we held a council. The Indians immediately made it clear that the waters on which we were also belonged to the Great Basin, in the edge of which we had been since the 17th of December; and it became evident that we had still the great ridge on the left to cross before we could reach the Pacific waters.

[The Indians] appeared to have a confused idea, from report, of whites who lived on the other side of the mountain; and once, they told us, about two years ago a party of twelve men like ourselves had ascended their river, and crossed to the other waters. They pointed out to us where they had crossed; but then, they said, it was summer time; But now it would be impossible. I believe that this was a party led by Mr. Chiles, one of the only two men whom I know to have passed through the California mountains from the interior of the Basin--Walker being the other; and both were engaged upwards of twenty days, in the summer time, in getting over. Chiles's destination was the Bay of San Francisco, to which he descended by the Stanislaus River; and Walker subsequently informed me that, like myself, descending to the sourthward on a more eastern line, day after day he was searching for the Buenaventura, thinking that he had found it with every new stream, until, like me, he abandoned all idea of its existence, and, turning abruptly to the right, crossed the great chain. These were both western men, animated with the spirit of exploratory enterprise which characterizes that people.

 

February 21, 1844; ridge between Carson Pass and Strawberry.
Shortly afterwards we heard the roll of thunder, and looking towards the valley, found it all enveloped in a thunder storm. For us, as connected with the idea of summer, it had a singular charm; and we watched its progress with excited feelings until nearly sunset, when the sky cleared off brightly, and we saw a shining line of water directing its course towards another, a broader and larger sheet. We knew that these could be no other than the Sacramento and the bay of San Francisco; but, after our long wandering in rugged mountains, where so frequently we had met with disappointments, and where the crossing of every ridge displayed some unknown lake or river, we were yet almost afraid to believe that we were at last to escape into the genial country of which we had heard so many glowing descriptions , and we dreaded again to find some vast interior lake, whose bitter waters would bring us disappointment. On the southern shore of what appeared to be the bay could be traced the gleaming line where entered another large stream; and again the Buenaventura rose up in our minds.

April 14, 1844; leaving the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley.
We here left the waters of the bay of San Francisco, and, though forced upon them contrary to my intentions, I cannot regret the necessity which occasioned the deviation. It made me well acquainted with the great range of the Sierra Nevada of Alta California, and showed me that this broad and elevated snowey ridge was a continuation of the Cascade Range of Oregon, between which and the ocean there is still another and a a lower range, parallel to the former and to the coast, and which may be called the Coast Range. It also made me well acquainted with the basin of the San Francisco bay, and with the two pretty rivers and their valleys, (the Sacramento and San Joaquin,) which are tributary to that bay; and cleared up some points in geography on which error had long prevailed. It had been constantly presented, as I have already stated, that the bay of San Francisco opened far into the interior, by some river coming down from the base of the Rocky Mountains, and upon which supposed stream the name of Rio Buenaventura had been bestowed. Our observations of the Sierra Nevada, in the long distance from the head of the Sacramento [Klamath] to the head of the San Joaquin, and of the valley below it, which collects all the waters of the San Francisco bay, show that this neither is nor can be the case. No river from the interior does, or can, cross the Sierra Nevada--itself more lofty than the Rocky Mountains; and as to the Buenaventura, the mouth of which seen on the coast gave the idea and the name of the reputed river, it is in fact a small stream [Salinas River] of no consequence, not only below the Sierra Nevada, but below the Coast Range--taking its rise within half a degree of the ocean, running parallel to it for about two degrees, and then falling into the Pacific near Monterey. There is no opening from the bay of San Francisco into the interior of the continent.

Washington, D.C., early 1845:
The president [Polk] seemed for the moment sceptical.....Like the Secretary [of the Navy] he found me "young," and said something of the "impulsiveness of young men," and was not at all satisfied in his own mind that those three rivers [including the Buenavntura] were not running there as laid down [on previous maps].

 

©1999, 2007
Bob Graham