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The Crossing
by Bob Graham

An excerpt from the book covering three days of the descent.
A special colorized web version with hyperlinks added--date range will change from time to time. The actual book is not colored.


February, 1844, Near Carson Pass (8600') in the Sierra Nevada

Carson: We finally got across and then began descending the mountain.
Kit Carson.
Who discovered Carson Pass?

Frémont (John Charles Frémont): February 21st. We now considered ourselves victorious over the mountain; having only the descent before us, and the valley under our eyes, we felt strong hope that we should force our way down. But this was a case in which the descent was not facile. Still deep fields of snow lay between, and there was a large intervening space of rough-looking mountains, through which we had to wind our way. Carson roused me this morning with an early fire, and we were all up long before day, in order to pass the snow fields before the sun should render the crust soft. We enjoyed this morning a scene, at sunrise, which even here was unusually glorious and beautiful. Immediately above the eastern mountains was repeated a cloud-formed mass of purple ranges, bordered with bright yellow gold; the peaks shot up into a narrow line of crimson cloud, above which the air was filled with a greenish orange; and over all was the singular beauty of the sky. Passing along a ridge which commanded the lake on our right, of which we began to discover an outlet through a chasm on the west,

He was seeing Lake Valley, which is not the outlet of Lake Tahoe. They believed it was, and it is shown as the outlet, and as the headwater of the South Fork of the American River, on their map. Frémont discovers Lake Tahoe on Feb 14, 1844

we passed over alternating open ground and hard-crusted snow fields which supported the animals, and encamped on the ridge after a journey of 6 miles. The grass was better than we had yet seen, and we were encamped in a clump of trees twenty or thirty feet high, resembling white pine. With the exception of these small clumps, the ridges were bare; and, where the snow found the support of the trees, the wind had blown it up into banks ten or fifteen feet high. It required much care to hunt out a practicable way, as open places frequently led to impassable banks.

We had hard and doubtful labor yet before us, as the snow appeared to be heavier where the timber began further down, with few open spots. Ascending a height, we traced out the best line we could discover for the next day's march, and had at least the consolation to see that the mountain descended rapidly.

They were near Schneider Camp, on a ridge between Strawberry Creek and Sales Canyon. See the ridge on which they are traveling.

The day had been one of April; gusty, with a few occasional flakes of snow; which, in the afternoon, enveloped the upper mountain in clouds. We watched them anxiously, as we now dreaded a snow storm. 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.

We complain about the weather in Northern California, but, compared to just about anywhere else, it's pretty near "perpetual spring"! And on a clear spring day, you can look from Sacramento to the snow-covered Sierras, and to the right of Pyramid Peak in the Crystal Range, you can plainly see the ridge of the spur along which they traveled for three days in the winter of 1844. Frémont's contributions to the science of meterology.

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. Buenaventura River

Carson had entered the valley along the southern side of the bay, and remembered perfectly to have crossed the mouth of a very large stream, which they had been obliged to raft; but the country then was so entirely covered with water from snow and rain, that he had been able to form no correct impression of water courses.

We had the satisfaction to know that at least there were people below. Fires were lit in the valley just at night, appearing to be in answer to ours; and these signs of life renewed, in some measure, the gayity of the camp. They appeared to be so near, that we judged they to be among the timber of some 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 tulares, on the shore of the bay, 80 miles distant.

To their left, in the descent, is a neighboring ridge that rises between Strawberry Creek and the Silver Fork of the American River. It is only slightly lower than the ridge they are on, so, at night, it would be difficult to tell whether a light was on that ridge, or far off in the Valley. The extensive tule swamps in Sacramento River delta were almost entirely reclaimed between 1850 and 1890.

Among the very few plants that appeared here, was the common blue flax.

Lìnum lewìsii.

To-night a mule was killed for food.

Preuss: February 21st. Today we crossed the crest with our miserable beasts. Of 104, only 53 are now left, and 3 or 4 of these will probably be slaughtered. We gaze into the distant valley from which we expect consolation. It looks as if the snow will not bother us much longer. There is a thunderstorm in the valley, and it is raining there. Even up here it is milder. However, the lower mountains, through which and over which we must wind our way, look confoundedly rocky. If we were not tied to the miserable beasts, without which we cannot transport our baggage, I believe we could reach the valley on foot in two days. But as it is--only a few miles--God knows when. Charles Preuss.

5 MILES--ON THE RIDGE
8600' El.

Frémont: February 22nd. Our breakfast was over long before day. We took advantage of the coolness of early morning to get over the snow, which to-day occurred in very deep banks among the timber; but we searched out the coldest places, and the animals passed successfully with their loads the hard crust. Now and then, the delay of making a road occasioned much labor and loss of time. In the after part of the day, we saw before us a handsome grassy ridge point; and making a desperate push over a snow field 10 to 15 feet deep, we happily succeeded in getting the camp across; and encamped on the ridge, after a march of about three miles. We had again the prospect of a thunder storm below; and to-night we killed another mule--now our only resource from starvation.

We satisfied ourselves during the day that the lake had an outlet between two ranges to the right;

Wrong, but it does look that way. The head of the South Fork of the American is at Lake Audrain, and Pyramid Creek, on the west side of the summit. His next statement about the creek is correct.

and with this, the creek on which I had encamped probably effected a junction below. Between these we were descending.

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 hardly imagine. And here among the mountains, 9,000 feet above the sea, we have the deep-blue sky and sunny climate of Smyrna and Palermo, which a little map before me shows are in the same latitude. The elevation above the sea, by the boiling point, is 8,565 feet.

Very nearly. He does not record that he made any observation of the boiling point on this day, but did the following day at "1h. 15m. p.m.", before the final steep descent, at "198.7°f", and an air temperature of 37.5°f. About determining elevation by the boiling point of water.

Preuss: February 22nd. Today we were once again obliged to march through deep snow, alternating with bare rocks. Two animals got stuck. Made three miles headway. One does not see such sunrises and morning and evening glows in the latitude of Hannover. To be sure, I learn from Gustav's little pocket atlas

Probably August Vasquez.

that we are in the latitude of Smyrna and Palermo. The sky is as blue as forget-me-nots.

Whenever a horse is shot, as just now, it makes my blood curdle. One is eaten every day and a half. The men have nothing else, and you can imagine that the horse meat does not produce fat roasts. I will be satisfied if our few peas last until we reach the valley. How lovely it sounds when a fat buffalo cow is killed; quite a different melody.

Louis has soled a pair of moccasins from a piece of saddle leather.

Loius Zindel, the artilleryman who had been in charge of the abandoned howitzer.

That relieves me of a great discomfort; now I can climb over rocks like nothing. It is lucky I have some tobacco, bad as it is.

3 MILES--ON THE SAME RIDGE
8600' El.

Frémont: February 23rd. This was our most difficult day; we were forced off the ridges by the quantity of snow among the timber, and obliged to take to the mountain sides, where occasionally, rocks and southern exposure afforded us some chance to scramble along. But these were steep, and slippery with snow and ice; and the tough evergreens of the mountain impeded our way, tore our skins, and exhausted our patience. some of us had the misfortune to where moccasins with parflêche soles,

This is un-tanned leather--raw hide--VERY slippery when wet!.

so slippery that we could not keep our feet, and generally crawled across the snow beds. Axes and mauls were necessary to-day, to make a road in the snow. Going ahead with Carson to reconnoitre the road, we reached in the afternoon the river which made the outlet of the lake.

Again: no it's not the outlet of Lake Tahoe. It is the South Fork of the American River.

Carson sprang over, clear across a place where the stream was compressed among rocks, but the parflêche sole of my moccasin glanced from the icy rock, and precipitated me into the river. It was some seconds before I could recover myself in the current, and Carson, thinking me hurt, jumped in after me, and we both had an icy bath. We tried to search a while for my gun, which had been lost in the fall, but the cold drove us out; and making a large fire on the bank, after we had partly dried ourselves we went back to meet the camp. We afterwards found the gun had been slung under the ice which lined the banks of the creek.

They are in the open area that is Sciots Camp and the 42-Mile Campground near Strawberry (on Highway 50), on the South Fork of the American River.

Using our old plan of breaking the road with alternate horses, we reached the creek in the evening, and encamped in a dry open place in the ravine.

Another branch, which we had followed here comes in on the left ;

Strawberry Creek

and from this point the mountain wall, on which we had traveled to-day, faces to the south along the right bank of the river, where the sun appears to have melted the snow; but the opposite ridge is entirely covered. Here, among the pines, the hill side produces but little grass--barely sufficient to keep life in the animals.

"...from this point the mountain wall, on which we had traveled to-day, faces to the south along the right bank of the river, where the sun appears to have melted the snow; but the opposite ridge is entirely covered." The wall of the canyon makes an abrupt change of direction at Strawberry and faces due south. "on which we had traveled to-day" indicates that they had crossed the river immediately on reaching it, and encamped on the sunny side where it would be free of snow, so that the animals might find grass. Therefore, "a dry open space in the ravine" refers to the canyon of the American River, rather than to that of Strawberry Creek, which facing north, would be shaded and snow-filled. This location is one of the views is shown here.

We had the pleasure to be rained upon this afternoon; and grass was now our greatest solicitude. Many of the men looked badly; and some this evening were giving out.

5 MILES--ON THE SOUTH FORK OF THE AMERICAN RIVER
Sciot'sCamp, 5700' El.

Frémont: February 24th. We rose at three in the morning, for an astronomical observation, and obtained for the place a latitude of 38° 46' 58"; longitude 120° 34' 20". The sky was clear and pure, with a sharp wind from the northeast, and the thermometer at 2° below the freezing point.

The latitude and description is correct for 41-mile Tract just below Sciots Camp on the South Fork of the American; the longitude is still too far west--should be about 120° 09'. Why three in the morning?

We continued down the south face of the mountain; our road leading over dry ground, we were able to avoid the snow almost entirely. In the course of the morning we struck a foot path, which we were generally able to keep; and the ground was soft to our animal's feet, being sandy or covered with mould. Green grass began to make its appearance, and occasionally we passed a hill scatteringly covered with it. The character of the forest continued the same; and, among the trees, the pine with sharp leaves and very large cones was abundant, some of them being noble trees. We measured one that had 10 feet diameter, though the height was not more than 130 feet.

Pinus lambertiana--the Sugar Pine. The collections of plants from this expedition.

All along the river was a raging torrent, its fall very great; and, descending with a rapidity to which we had long been strangers, to our great pleasure oak trees appeared on the ridge, and soon became very frequent;

Quercus kelloggii--the Black Oak.

on these I remarked unusually great quantities of mistletoe. Rushes began to make their appearance; and at a small creek they were abundant,

Juncaceae (various); or, Preuss mentions "horsetail", Equisetum arvense.

one of the messes was left with the weakest horses, while we continued on.

The opposite mountain side was very steep and continuous--un-broken by ravines, and covered with pines and snow; while on the side we were traveling, innumerable rivulets poured down from the ridge. Continuing on, we halted a moment at one of these rivulets, to admire some beautiful evergreen trees, resembling live oak, which shaded the little stream. They were forty to fifty feet high, and two in diameter, with a uniform tufted top; and the summer green of their beautiful foliage , with the singing birds, and sweet summer wind which was whirling about the dry oak leaves, nearly intoxicated us with delight; and we hurried on, filled with excitement, to escape entirely from the horrid region of inhospitable snow, to the perpetual spring of the Sacramento.

Quercus chrysòlepis--the Canyon Oak; or Maul Oak; growing here only on southern exposures (the north side of the canyon) in creek-fed ravines--one of the most beautiful of forest trees.

When we had traveled about ten miles, the valley opened a little to an oak and pine bottom, through which ran rivulets closely bordered with rushes, on which our half-starved horses fell with avidity; and here we made our encampment. Here the roaring torrent has already become a river, and we had descended to an elevation of 3,864 feet.

About Kyburz, where the river bottom widens out. He records the boiling point of water at 206°f--actual elevation is about 4050'. "Here the roaring torrent has already become a river..." is because the Silver Fork of the American River has joined the South Fork. Traveling back on the hillsides, they did not see the confluence, which occurs at an angle and in several divisions.

Along our road to-day the rock was a white granite, which appears to constitute the upper part of the mountains on both the eastern and western slopes; while between, the central is a volcanic rock.

Another horse was killed for food.

Preuss: February 24th. Finally we are out of the snow. Yesterday was still a bad day: snow, rocks, brush. Terrible march. In nine hours we made three miles, until we came to a place where another fork joins the river. From there on, the mountain wall on which we descended today faces due south; that is, the crest runs exactly east-west. The sun had melted almost all the snow. It was quite steep where we had to go up and down across canyons; in general, however, there was earthy soil under the fir trees, etc.; mighty boulders thrown in between. We made about twelve miles in four hours and found some grass and horsetail for our hungry beasts. We therefore made a halt, for such spots are rather rare in the forest.

Another horse was just shot; I hope eating the horse meat will soon be over. Tomorrow, I think, we should come pretty close to the valley. Then my Polly can recuperate with good grass so that I can ride again, for walking is, after all, a little hard. Horse meat gives no strength, and every student of nature knows that peas contain little nourishment.

The mules grew so hungry that they ate the tail of Fitzpatrick's horse, also parts of saddles, my bridle, etc.

The canyon through which they will next travel.
More about The Crossing

©1999, 2007
Bob Graham