new item


An early determination of the Frémont descent from Carson Pass in February, 1844.

go See the route in detail as determined by Bob Graham and Peter Lathrop from Frémont's narrative and from his determined coordinates

San Francisco Call, Volume 105, Number 62, Sunday, 31 January, 1909

WHERE FREMONT CROSSED THE SIERRAS: The Intimate Narrative of Strawberry Valley and Historic Pass of the American River

By Camilla L. Kenyon

High up in the Sierras, the road that has climbed toilsomely along the steep bluffs of the American river swings suddenly around the rose of a craggy spur. A green valley opens out before you. Its floor so nearly level that Its gentle undulations are not seen after the long upward struggle of the road. Precipitous ridges and sheer gray cliffs inclose it. Dark clusters of pine and fire break the sweep of open meadows. The river pours its snow fed waters in a succession of swift cataracts, with a wild, continuous chanting. The air has the sparkling clearness of high altitudes; the sky above the jagged summits is a marvel of melting blue.

This is Strawberry valley, its naming an instance of that strange lack of originality which Americans display when thrown upon their own resources in the matter of nomenclature. The Spaniard falls back upon his endless calendar of saints; the Indian's brief vocabulary yields a kind of elemental poetry. But Strawberry valleys are scattered over California as though the most striking and essential feature of .' any region were the fact of Its producing strawberries.

The Tahoe stage, which left Placerville at earliest dawn, rumbles into the valley at 4 in the afternoon, and halts for a moment at a house, the first In many miles, that stands in the shadow of a tremendous cliff of sheer naked granite. This, by a refinement of banality, has been called "Lover's "Leap," a name that may stand out boldly upon the map. but gives up all claim to existence in the presence of that bleak magnificence. The house Is low and old, but Its long verandah is of a suggestive depth and coolness to the dusty traveler, who for 12 hours has been rattled about like a pea in a pod. It is a chance but that. In response to that silent invitation, he descends forthwith, and the stage with its four strong horses goes lumbering on without him.

The country all about Is wild and stern, a tumble of barren rock with intervening woody vales of a fairy-llke beauty in their tender green and lavish broidery of exquisite alpine flowers. Far higher than the Yosemite, the really heavy timber does not flourish here; yet there are splendid pines growing along watercourses and in the rich soil of meadowy, flats. And there are lakes without number all about, and* streams that take their arrowy leap from high gorges where the snows dissolve slowly Into nameless tarns. Everywhere is the inexhaustible treasure with which nature rewards her pilgrim. At first he struggles feverishly to possess It. all, but one 'day wisdom comes; he lets it possess him and is content.

Yet this tale could be told, and, with endless elaboration, of any of the high Sierra valleys from Shasta to Mount Whitney. It is the human element that gives Strawberry its claim to distinction, for this valley was once and again the scene of vital, if too scantily remembered chapters in the history of our state.

The Sierra Nevada presented a terrible obstacle to pioneer overland travel. The Rockies, the "backbone of the continent, were easily traversed; South pass was tedious, but quite without danger. It was when summer, already on the wane, the emigrant faced the all but impenetrable barrier of the California range that his heart failed him, and in the grim defiles of these mighty mountains were: enacted the direst tragedies of pioneer days.

But Fremont and his band achieved the all but impossible feat of crossing the Sierra in midwinter; and that with so scant a knowledge of 'the country that they missed the true pass altogether, and only by marvelous good fortune struck at length the American river, which led them on to New Helvetia (Sutter's fort), then the objective point of all overland travel by the northern routes. And it was into Strawberry valley that they emerged when, descending from the labyrinth of icy peaks, they came, first upon the river so friendly even in name&emdash;El Rio de los Americanos.

At the lower end of Strawberry valley a creek comes tumbling from a side canyon into the main stream. In the angle of the two the forest rangers have set up their white tents, and you may sit upon a camp stool in great comfort on the precise spot where 60-years ago a band of haggard, half-starved men issued from the snowy gorge. The smaller, stream is Strawberry creek, which, if traced to its remote headwaters, would be found springing from the snows of Roundtop, not the eminence here locally so called, but the true' peak of that name, which rears its grim head miles to the eastward. From that point Fremont and his men descended, following the little stream to its junction with the American, and so on to their longed for haven by the placid Sacramento.

NOTE: Since 1921 this has been the site of the Sciots Camp cabin tract.

At the time Fremont made his seemingly desperate attempt, he knew of only two other, parties having "passed through the mountains (Walker's and Chile's), and both," he says, "were engaged upward of 20 days in the summer time in getting over." The first Indians whom he tried to induce to guide him shook their heads and drew their hands across their necks and foreheads to indicate the depth of snow upon the mountains. Not all the scarlet cloth the white men offered tempted them. Later they secured the services of another reluctant aborigine by marching him forward between two rifles, but at the end of the second day he. decamped.

But cross 'the party must, having little other choice than to perish in the wintry desert. Fremont's only concession was to abandon the howitzer, which had been dragged with incalculable toil all the way from St. Louis. He cheered on his disheartened men by reminding the "of the beautiful valley of the Sacramento, with which they were familiar from the description of Carson, who had been there some 15 years; ago, and who, in our late privations, had delighted us in speaking of its rich pastures and abounding game." Yet, as they penetrated farther into the range and entered the region of deep snows, they were a grimly silent company, for "to almost all the enterprise seemed hopeless."

The advance with the horses and baggage was tedious and painful. The animals (67 mules and horses at the start) were nearly starved, though an occaslonal grassy spot afforded a little pasture. The snow averaged about five feet in 'depth, but in places was as much as 20. Provisions were very low. They had no tallow or grease and little salt. The poor dogs were doomed one by one to the camp kettle.

But after a week of toils and dangers, their hearts were uplifted by a glimpse of the promised land. On February 6, l844, Fremont and a scouting party on showshoes gained the summit of a lofty peak, which, according to government engineer who surveyed this region years ago was Roundtop. "Far below us, dimmed by the distance, was a large snowless valley, bounded on the western side, at the distance of about a hundred miles, by a low range of mountains, which Carson recognized with delight as the mountains bordering the coast. "There," said he, "is the little mountain--it is fifteen years since I saw it; but I am just as sure as if I had seen it yesterday." Between us, then, and this low coast range was the valley of the Sacramento; and no one who had not accompanied us through the incidents of our life for the last few months could realize the delight with which at last we looked down upon it. At the distance of apparently 30 miles beyond us were distinguished spots of prairie; and a dark line which could be traced with the glass, was imagined to be the course of the river; but we were evidently at a great height above the valley, and between us and the plains extended miles of snowy fields and broken ridges of pine-covered mountains." Yet, even at that inclement season "the purity and deep-blue color of the sky are singularly beautiful; the days are sunny and bright, and even warm in the noon hours; and if we could be free from the many anxieties that oppress us, even now we would be delighted here; but our provisions are getting fearfully scant." Pea soup, mule and dog was the fare.

On February 10 they camped at an elevation of 8,050 feet. On the 14th Fremont looked down from a lofty peak upon Tahoe, "a mountain lake at our feet, so entirely surrounded by mountains that we could not discover an outlet. Snow could be distinguished on the higher parts of the coast mountains; eastward, as far as the' eye could extend, it ranged over a terrible mass of broken snowy mountains, fading off blue in the distance."

On the; 16th Fremont and a single companion "traveled along the crests of narrow ridges extending downward in the direction of the valley* * *Toward sundown * * * descending the mountain * * * we encamped on the headwaters of a little creek where, at last, the water found its way to the Pacific." This was Strawberry creek, henceforth to be their guide.

"The night was clear and very long. We heard the cries of some wild animals which had been attracted by our fire, and a flock of geese passed over during the night. Even these strange sounds had something pleasant to our senses in this region of silence and desolation * * * We started again early in the morning. The creek acquired a regular breadth of about 20 feet, and we began to hear the rushing of the water below the icy surface* * * I was now perfectly satisfied that we had struck the stream on which Mr. Sutter lived.'*

From the summit of the pass, which was attained by the whole party on 20th, they saw Tahoe (the "mountain lake" of Fremont's map) once more and witnessed the splendid spectacle of the valley in a thunder storm. "The sky cleared off brightly, and we saw a shining line of water directing its course toward another, a broader and larger sheet. We knew a this could be no other than the Sacramento and the bay of San Francisco * * * but 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 dreaded again to find some vast interior lake, whose bitter waters would bring us disappointment. * * * We. had the satisfaction to know that at least there were people below. Fires were lit up in the valley just at nightfall, appearing to be in answer to ours; and these signs of life revived In some measure the gayety of the camp. They appeared so near that we Judged them to be among the timber of some of the neighboring ridges; but having them constantly in view day after day and night after night, we afterward found them to be fires that had been kindled by the Indians among the tules, on the shore of the bay 80 miles distant.

"We continued to enjoy the same delightful weather: the sky of the same beautiful blue, and such a sunset and sunrise as on our Atlantic coast we could scarcely imagine. And here among the mountains. 9000 feet above the sea. we have the deep blue sky and the sunny climate of Italy and Palermo, which a little map before me shows, are in the same latitude."

Fremont's Introduction to the American river was a bath in it. On February 23 he and Kit Carson came out upon the junction of Strawberry creek and the American. Here the river is compressed between great boulders, and at the narrowest point Carson sprang over. Fremont sought to follow, but the parfleche sole of his moccasin slipped on the icy rock and he fell into the roaring stream. Carson, with commendable devotion, leaped in to the rescue, and both finally clambered out without injury. There is a log laid across the stream now, so such chamois like feats ' are happily unnecessary. And, Indeed, it says much for the vigor of the Involuntary bath that they survived the plunge, for the stream goes hurtling over the boulders with appalling, force, plunging from pool to pool with a deafening noise of its clear green waters.

Step by step as the wayfarers descended, the country, grew more friendly. The green foliage, the mild air, the singing birds, filled them with delight. The magnificence of the forests is Fremont's constant theme. He describes the manzanita. "a new and singular shrub." Their hardships are by no means over. Pruess, the botanist, is lost and endures great sufferings. Another grows light headed and wanders away, but is finally rescued. As they descend they meet Indians, some speaking Spanish, and learn that they are indeed upon the Rio de Los Americanos. On the 6th of March they arrive at Slitter's fort. But we have roamed a long way from our mountain valley.

With the increase of overland travel and the growth of the Carson valley trade, the pass of the American river became a well trodden way. The old emigrant route from Hope valley strikes the present road nearly opposite Echo lake, and is known as the Hawley trail. Strawberry valley forms one of those natural gateways in a great mountain barrier by which, until man' begins to fly through the air instead of crawling upon earth, travel and traffic must be controlled. In the 10 years after Fremont's time many a weary mule and ox pastured in its green meadows, many a campfire shone upon the dark front of Lover's leap

An Item copied from the Placerville American into the San Francisco Herald of June 5, 1857, says: "On Wednesday, 20th Inst, Mr. A. Haws, with a pack train of five mules well laden with assorted merchandise left our city enroute for Carson valley. On the same day about 2 p. m, Major Ormsby, who left this place on the 6th inst with a pack train, returned from Carson valley, having made the trip in 14 days. The growing Importance of the trade with the people of the valley makes the making of a good road between Placerville and that place imperative. Our own best Interest would be promoted by it. It Is a wagon road that we need"

And the road was built in time for the mad rush of the early sixties when the Virginia City excitement was at !its height. So heavy was the travel through the pass that the road was blocked for hours together. Then every few; miles had Its roadhouse, offering refreshment for man and beast. You still come upon their ruin along the highway, usually no more than a crumbling: chimney. Largest and most frequented between Placerville and the state line was this of Watson's in Strawberry valley. It was known then as Slippery ford, a name since transferred to Kyberg's, 11 miles on the hither side. The indisputably genuine "slippery ford" is here, a few rods below the present bridge at the upper end of the valley. The river runs over an outcropping of granite as smooth as a polished floor, the water slipping by with a swiftness that must have brought many a wagon and its load to grief.

NOTE: This transfer of the name Slippery Ford is shown on quite a number of maps.

The present Strawberry valley house Is but the sufficiently renovated mule barn of the old establishment. The same family are In possession, and there Is a white haired old woman whose tales of those stirring days sound strangely in the quiet of the valley. The original house was on a much larger scale, but even so, the thronging guests overflowed it, and late comers slept in rows upon the floors. It burned down one winter night, and only the foundations are left, hidden In the rank grass of the meadow.

Much treasured and still In use is the old register, preserving In the faded ink of Its earlier pages names that have become of a half legendary fame, as well as other entries no less interesting, such as "Snowed in, by thunder!" and a record of the fluctuations of a poker game that apparently lasted four days.

Horace Greeley was a guest here; his name appears more than once, though not in a hand that can be Identified at his. You axe told that over this very road he took his famous rides with Hank Monk. "Sit still, Horace. I'll git you thar," said the driver to the man of fame, who fretted at the prospect of an engagement unfulfilled; and the white hat bobs wildly as the horses go plunging down the grade. Hank Monk is in the record very often, and the queer labored writing is no doubt his own. And so It goes on till we reach the name of David Starr Jordan and others renowned in our own day, and are far away from the wild times of the sixties, when humanity from all quarters of the earth poured like a river through this valley to spread out and be lost upon the desert.

Even today the. pass has an importance that one accustomed to think of travel only in terms of railroading is by no means prepared for. The gray highway is an artery through which though no more at fever heat, there still pulses a steady flow of human life. For once again the gold lust lures men on over the mountains into the wastes beyond. Weary foot travelers plod by. their prospecting tools upon their backs, or packed with other humble gear upon a patient burro. Whole families on the move will pass, with a wagon or two heaped with household goods and animals with children, cats and poultry. There are droves of cattle, on their way to slaughter to feed the canvas cities of a day. Other herds, less tragically destined are making for some cool, green mountain pasture. Horse traders come by in bands, wild Gipsy looking creatures, with some forlorn women and babies, and a bunch of small, clean limbed horses of the bronco breed. Automobiles effect a passage now and then, their tires slipping in the sharp sand, and once our sight was dazzled by the spectacle of a veritable prairie schooner bearing a family of belated pioneers all the way from Missouri. It Is the pageant of life, as one sees it anywhere, changeful and strange and fevered, and above all evanescent, set against a background ever changeless (in our small sense), ever serene, beautiful and austere--the old sphinx-- countenance of nature, looking unmoved upon the ant-like toil of man.

©1999, 2007
Bob Graham