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First Contact

East Fork Carson River, September 1855: There is an Indian Tribe settled upon the river, that from the days of Frémont, appear to have been uniformly friendly to the whites. They bear a high reputation for honesty amongst the inhabitants of Carson Valley. George H. Goddard, Marlette Surveys.

Much of Frémont's route on his Second Expedition, from Fort Wallawalla south through central Oregon, western Nevada, and to the crest of the Sierra Nevada, was through a vast area of "first contact" with the aboriginal population.

These expeditions had to live off the land as they traveled, so traveling with him were a number of Delaware Indians hired on as hunters. Chief Sagundai, of the Third Expedition, is pictured at right. The Delaware were a resettled people, living a new life of farming, but they welcomed the chance to go off hunting and adventuring.

Also with the expedition was a young Chinook Indian from the Northwest, who wished to join the expedition "to see the whites." He was called "Billy," and after accompanying the expedition into California, and its return east, where Billy received some education at a school in Washington. He returned west with Frémont on the Third Expedition, served as an enlisted man in the California Battalion, for which service he received Bounty Lands on which he settled in northern California. He married, and eventually returned to the Columbia River, where his descendants live today.

Frémont, of course, had frequent dealings with Indians throughout his career as a surveyor and explorer, but many of those he encountered on the second expedition had never before seen a non-Indian.

By December 12, 1843, the expedition had traveled south from the Columbia River, and looking for Klamath Lake, had arrived at Klamath Marsh.

This morning the camp was thronged with Tlamath Indians from the southeastern shore of the lake; but, knowing the treacherous disposition which is a remarkable characteristic of the Indians south of the Columbia, the camp was kept constantly on its guard. I was not unmindful of the disasters which Smith and other travelers had met with in this country, and therefore was equally vigilant in guarding against treachery and violence. According to the best information I had been able to obtain from the Indians, in a few days' traveling we should reach another large water, probably a lake [Christmas Lake--Fremont National Forest], which they indicated exactly in the course we were about to pursue.

Jedediah Smith and his party of trappers were on their way from California to Fort Vancouver in 1828 when they were attacked on 14 July by Indians of the Umpqua River region. Fifteen men were killed. Smith and two men who were away from the camp with him escaped, as did another who fled the scene. Frémont himself would have a disastrous meeting with these people on the Third Expedition.

The party now moved into western Nevada. What follows is a record of this, in many instances, first contact.

see also the third expedition contacts
Western Nevada--Black Rock Desert

December 22, 1843: Where we encamped on the bleak sandy plain, the Indians had made huts or circular enclosures about four feet high and twelve feet broad, of artemisia bushes. Whether these had been forts or houses, or what they had been doing in such a desert place, we could not ascertain.

December 25, 1843: The plainly beaten trail still continued, and occasionally we passed camping grounds of the Indians, which indicated to me that we were on one of the great thoroughfares of the country.

December 26, 1843: To-night a horse belonging to [Kit]Carson, one of the best we had in the camp, was stolen by the Indians.

December 28, 1843: The snow being deep, I had determined, if any more horses were stolen, to follow the tracks of the Indians into the mountains, and put a temporary check to their sly operations; but it did not occur again.

Riding quietly along over the snow, we came suddenly upon smokes rising among these bushes; and, galloping up, we found two huts, open at the top, and loosely built of sage, which appeared to have been deserted at the instant; and, looking hastily around, we saw several Indians on the crest of the ridge near by, and several others scrambling up the side. We had come upon them so suddenly, that they had been well nigh surprised in their lodges. A sage fire was burning in the middle; a few baskets made of straw were lying about, with one or two rabbit skins; and there was a little grass scattered about, on which they had been lying. "Tabibo-bo!" they shouted from the hills-a word which, in the Snake language, signifies white--and remained looking at us from behind the rocks. [Kit] Carson and Godey rode towards the hill, but the men ran off like deer. They had been so much pressed, that a woman with two children had dropped behind a sage bush near the lodge, and when Carson accidentally stumbled upon her, she immediately began screaming in the extremity of fear, and shut her eyes fast, to avoid seeing him. She was brought back to the lodge, and we endeavored in vain to open a communication with the men. By dint of presents, and friendly demonstrations, she was brought to calmness; and we found that they belonged to the Snake nation [uto-aztecan language], speaking the language of that people. Eight or ten appeared to live together, under the same little shelter; and they seemed to have no other subsistence than the roots or seeds they might have stored up, and the hares which live in the sage, and which they are enabled to track through the snow, and are very skillful in killing. Their skins afford them a little scanty covering. Herding together among bushes, and crouching almost naked over a little sage fire, using their instinct only to procure food, these may be considered, among human beings, the nearest approach to the mere animal creation. We have reason to believe that these had never before seen the face of a white man.

January 12, 1844: Where we had halted, appeared to be a favorite camping place for Indians.

Pyramid Lake, Nevada

January 13, 1844: We followed again a broad Indian trail along the shore of the lake to the southward.

January 15, 1844: A few poor-looking Indians made their appearance this morning, and we succeeded in getting one into the camp. He was naked, with the exception of a tunic of hare skins. He told us that there was a river at the end of the lake, but that he lived in the rocks near by. From the few words our people could understand, he spoke a dialect of the Snake language [uto-aztecan]; but we were not able to understand enough to know whether the river ran in or out, or what was its course; consequently, there still remained a chance that this might be Mary's lake.

Groves of large cottonwood, which we could see at the mouth of the river, indicated that it was a stream of considerable size; and, at all events, we had the pleasure to know that now we were in a country where human beings could live. Accompanied by the Indian, we resumed our road, passing on the way several caves in the rock where there were baskets and seeds; but the people had disappeared. We saw also horse tracks along the shore.

Early in the afternoon, when we were approaching the groves at the mouth of the river, three or four Indians met us on the trail. We had an explanatory conversation in signs, and then moved on together towards the village, which the chief said was encamped on the bottom.

Reaching the groves, we found the inlet of a large fresh-water stream [Truckee River], and all at once were satisfied that it was neither Mary's river nor the waters of the Sacramento, but that we had discovered a large interior lake, which the Indians informed us had no outlet. It is about 35 miles long; and, by the mark of the water line along the shores, the spring level is about 12 feet above its present waters. The chief commenced speaking in a loud voice as we approached; and parties of Indians armed with bows and arrows issued from the thickets. We selected a strong place for our encampment-a grassy bottom, nearly enclosed by the river, and furnished with abundant fire wood. The village, a collection of straw huts, was a few hundred yards higher up. An Indian brought in a large fish to trade, which we had the inexpressible satisfaction to find was a salmon trout; we gathered round him eagerly. The Indians were amused with our delight, and immediately brought in numbers; so that the camp was soon stocked. Their flavor was excellent-superior, in fact, to that of any fish I have ever known. They were of extraordinary size-about as large as the Columbia river salmon-generally from two to four feet in length."' From the information of Mr. Walker [Joseph Rutherford Walker], who passed among some lakes lying more to the eastward, this fish is common to the streams of the inland lakes. He subsequently informed me that he had obtained them weighing six pounds when cleaned and the head taken off; which corresponds very well with the size of those obtained at this place. They doubtless formed the subsistence of these people, who hold the fishery in exclusive possession.

I remarked that one of them gave a fish to the Indian we had first seen, which he carried off to his family. To them it was probably a feast; being of the Digger tribe, and having no share in the fishery, living generally on seeds and roots. Although this was a time of the year when the fish have not yet become fat, they were excellent, and we could only imagine what they are at the proper season. These Indians were very fat, and appeared to live an easy and happy life. They crowded into the camp more than was consistent with our safety, retaining always their arms; and, as they made some unsatisfactory demonstrations, they were given to understand that they would not be permitted to come armed into the camp; and strong guards were kept with the horses. Strict vigilance was maintained among the people, and one-third at a time were kept on guard during the night. There is no reason to doubt that these dispositions, uniformly preserved, conducted our party securely through Indians famed for treachery [reports from Walker, Joseph Chiles and Jedediah Smith.

In the mean time, such a salmon-trout feast as is seldom seen was going on in our camp; and every variety of manner in which fish could be prepared-boiled, fried, and roasted in the ashes-was put into requisition; and every few minutes an Indian would be seen running off to spear a fresh one. Whether these Indians had seen whites before, we could not be certain; but they were evidently in communication with others who had, as one of them had some brass buttons, and we noticed several other articles of civilized manufacture. We could obtain from them but little information respecting the country. They made on the ground a drawing of the river, which they represented as issuing from another lake in the mountains three or four days distant, in a direction a little west of south; beyond which, they drew a mountain; and further still, two rivers; on one of which they told us that people like ourselves traveled. Whether they alluded to the settlements on the Sacramento, or to a party from the United States which had crossed the Sierra about three degrees to the southward, a few years since, I am unable to determine. I tried unsuccessfully to prevail on some of them to guide us for a few days on the road, but they only looked at each other and laughed. The latitude of our encampment, which may be considered the mouth of the inlet, is 39' 51' 13" by our observations.

January 16, 1844: This morning we continued our journey along this beautiful stream, which we naturally called the Salmon Trout river [Truckee River]. Large trails led up on either side; the stream was handsomely timbered with large cottonwoods; and the waters were very clear and pure. We were traveling along the mountains of the great Sierra, which rose on our right, covered with snow; but below the temperature was mild and pleasant. We saw a number of dams which the Indians had constructed to catch fish. After having made about 18 miles, we encamped under some large cottonwoods on the river bottom, where there was tolerably good grass [on the Truckee River near Wadsworth].

January January 17, 1844: This morning we left the river, which here issues from the mountains on the west. 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. We followed the Indian trail through a tolerably level country, with small sage bushes, which brought us, after 20 miles journey, to another large stream [Carson River], timbered with cottonwood, and flowing also out of the mountains, but running more directly to the eastward.

On the way we surprised a family of Indians in the hills; but the man ran up the mountain with rapidity; and the woman was so terrified, and kept up such a continued screaming, that we could do nothing with her, and were obliged to let her go.

January 18, 1844: There were Indian lodges and fish dams on the stream. There were no beaver cuttings on the river; but below, it turned round to the right; and, hoping that it would prove a branch of the Buenaventura, we followed it down for about three hours, and encamped.

I rode out with Mr. Fitzpatrick and Carson to reconnoiter, the country, which had evidently been alarmed by the news of our appearance. This stream joined with the open valley of another to the eastward; but which way the main water ran, it was impossible to tell. Columns of smoke rose over the country at scattered intervals, signals by which the Indians here, as elsewhere, communicate to each other that enemies are in the country. It is a signal of ancient and very universal application among barbarians.

January 19,1844: A great number of smokes are still visible this morning, attesting at once the alarm which our appearance bad spread among these people, and their ignorance of us. If they knew the whites, they would understand that their only object in coming among them was to trade, which required peace and friendship; but they have nothing to trade-consequently, nothing to attract the white man; hence their fear and flight.

January 24, 1844: A man was discovered running towards the camp as we were about to start this morning, who proved to be an Indian of rather advanced age-a sort of forlorn hope, who seemed to have been worked up into the resolution of visiting the strangers who were passing through the country. He seized the hand of the first man he met as he came up, out of breath, and held on, as if to assure himself of protection. He brought with him in a little skin bag a few pounds of the seeds of a pine tree, which to-day we saw for the first time, and which Dr. Torry has described as a new species, under the name of pinus monophyllus; in popular language, it might be called the nut pine. We purchased them all from him. The nut is oily, of very agreeable flavor, and must be very nutritious, as it constitutes the principal subsistence of the tribes among which we were now traveling. By a present of scarlet cloth, and other striking articles, we prevailed upon this man to be our guide of two days' journey. As clearly as possible by signs, we made him understand our object; and he engaged to conduct us in sight of a good pass which he knew. Here we ceased to hear the Shoshonee [uto-asztecan] language; that of this man being perfectly unintelligible [Washoe, a Hokan language]. Several Indians, who had been waiting to see what reception he would meet with, now came into camp; and, accompanied by the new comers, we resumed our journey.

The road led us up the creek, which here becomes a rather rapid mountain stream, fifty feet wide, between dark-looking hills without snow; but immediately beyond them rose snowy mountains on either side, timbered principally with the nut pine. On the lower grounds, the general height of this tree is twelve to twenty feet, and eight inches the greatest diameter; it is rather branching, and has a peculiar and singular but pleasant odor. We followed the river for only a short distance along a rocky trail, and crossed it at a dam which the Indians made us comprehend had been built to catch salmon trout. The snow and ice were heaped up against it three or four feet deep entirely across the stream.

Leaving here the stream, which runs through impassable cañons [canyon], we continued our road over a very broken country, passing through a low gap between the snowy mountains. The rock which occurs immediately in the pass has the appearance of impure sandstone, containing scales of black mica. This may be only a stratified lava; on issuing from the gap, the compact lava, and other volcanic products usual in the country, again occurred. We descended from the gap into a wide valley, or rather basin, and encamped on a small tributary to the last stream, on which there was very good grass. It was covered with such thick ice, that it required some labor with pickaxes to make holes for the animals to drink. The banks are lightly wooded with willow, and on the upper bottoms are sage and Fremontia with ephedra occidentalis, which begins to occur more frequently. The day has been a summer one, warm and pleasant; no snow on the trail, which, as we are all on foot, makes travelling more agreeable. The hunters went into the neighboring mountains, but found no game. We have five Indians in camp to-night.

January 25, 1844: The morning was cold and bright, and as the sun rose the day became beautiful. A party of twelve Indians came down from the mountains to trade pine nuts, of which each one carried a little bag. These seemed now to be the staple of the country; and whenever we met an Indian, his friendly salutation consisted in offering a few nuts to eat and to trade; their only arms were bows and flint-pointed arrows. It appeared that, in almost all the valleys, the neighboring bands were at war with each other; and we had some difficulty in prevailing on our guides to accompany us on this day's journey, being at war with the people on the other side of a large snowy mountain which lay before us.

The general level of the country appeared to be getting higher, and we were gradually entering the heart of the mountains. Accompanied by all the Indians, we ascended a long ridge, and reached a pure spring at the edge of the timber, where the Indians had waylaid and killed an antelope, and where the greater part of them left us. Our pacific conduct had quieted their alarms; and though at war among each other, yet all confided in us. Thanks to the combined effects of power and kindness-for our arms inspired respect, and our little presents and good treatment conciliated. their confidence. Here we suddenly entered snow six inches deep, and the ground was a little rocky with volcanic fragments, the mountain appearing to be composed of such rock. The timber consists principally of nut pines, [pinus monophyllus], which here are of larger size-12 to 15 inches in diameter; heaps of cones lying on the ground, where the Indians have gathered the seeds.

The snow deepened gradually as we advanced. Our guides wore out their moccasins; and, putting one of them on a horse, we enjoyed the unusual sight of an Indian who could not ride. He could not even guide the animal, and appeared to have no knowledge of horses. The snow was three or four feet deep in the summit of the pass; and from this point the guide pointed out our future road, declining to go any further. Below us was a little valley; and beyond this, the mountains rose higher still, one ridge above another, presenting a rude and rocky outline. We descended rapidly to the valley; the snow impeded us but little; yet it was dark when we reached the foot of the mountain.

Bridgeport, California

January 26, 1844: To-day an Indian passed through the valley, on his way into the mountains, where he showed us was his lodge. We comprehended nothing of his language; and, though he appeared to have no fear, passing along in full view of the camp, he was indisposed to hold any communication with us, but showed the way he was going, and pointed for us to go on our road.

Devil's Gate

January 28, 1844: During the day a few Indians were seen circling around us on snow shoes, and skimming along like birds; but we could not bring them within speaking distance. Godey, who was a little distance from the camp, had sat down to tie his moccasins, when he heard a low whistle near, and, looking up, saw two Indians half hiding behind a rock about forty yards distant; they would not allow him to approach, but, breaking into a laugh, skimmed off over the snow, seeming to have no idea of the power of fire arms, and thinking themselves perfectly safe when beyond arm's length.

January 29, 1844: From this height we could see, at a considerable distance below, yellow spots in the [Antelope] valley, which indicated that there was not much snow. One of these places we expected to reach to-night; and some time being required to bring up the gun, I went ahead with Mr. Fitzpatrick and a few men, leaving the camp to follow, in charge of Mr. Preuss. We followed a trail down a hollow where the Indians had descended, the snow being so deep that we never came near the ground; but this only made our descent the easier, and, when we reached a little affluent to the-liver,at the bottom, we suddenly found ourselves in presence of eight or ten Indians. They seemed to be watching our motions, and, like the others, at first were indisposed to let us approach, ranging themselves like birds on a fallen log on the hill side above our heads, where, being out of reach, they thought themselves safe. Our friendly demeanor reconciled them, and, when we got near enough, they immediately stretched out to us handfulls of pine nuts, which seemed an exercise of hospitality. We made them a few presents, and, telling us that their village was a few miles below, they went on to let their people know what we were. The principal stream still running through an impracticable cañon, we ascended a very steep hill, which proved afterwards the last and fatal obstacle to our little howitzer, which was finally abandoned at this place."' We passed through a small meadow a few miles below, crossing the river, which depth, swift current, and rock, made it difficult to ford; and, after a few more miles of very difficult trail, issued into a larger prairie bottom, at the farther end of which we encamped, in a position rendered strong by rocks and trees. The lower parts of the mountain were covered with the nut pine. Several [Mill Creek Washoe] 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 belong 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.

Walker, California

We explained to the Indians that we were endeavoring to find a passage across the mountains into the country of the whites, whom we were going to see; and told them that we wished them to bring us a guide, to whom we would give presents of scarlet cloth, and other articles, which were shown to them. They looked at the reward we offered, and conferred with each other, but pointed to the snow on the mountain, and drew their hands across their necks, and raised them above their beads, to show the depth; and signified that it was impossible for us to get through. They made signs that we must go to the southward, over a pass through a lower range, which they pointed out; there, they said, at the end of one day's travel, we would find people who lived near a pass in the great mountain; and to that point they engaged to furnish us a guide. They 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 southward 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.

The Indians brought in during the evening an abundant supply of pine nuts, which we traded from them. When roasted, their pleasant flavor made them an agreeable addition to our now scanty store of provisions, which were reduced to a very low ebb. Our principal stock was in peas, which it is not necessary to say contain scarcely any nutriment. We had still a little flour left, some coffee, and a quantity of sugar, which I reserved as a defense against starvation.

The Indians informed us that at certain seasons they have fish in their waters, which we supposed to be salmon trout; for the remainder of the year they live upon the pine nuts, which form their great winter subsistence-a portion being always at hand, shut up in the natural storehouse of the cones. At present, they were presented to us as a whole people living upon this simple vegetable.

The other division of the party did not come in to-night, but encamped in the upper meadow, and arrived the next morning. They had not succeeded in getting the howitzer beyond the place mentioned, and where it had been left by Mr. Preuss in obedience to my orders; and, in anticipation of the snow banks and snow fields still ahead, foreseeing the inevitable detention to which it would subject us, I reluctantly determined to leave it there for the time. It was of the kind invented by the French for the mountain part of their war in Algiers; and the distance it had come with us proved how well it was adapted to its purpose. We left it, to the great sorrow of the whole party, who were grieved to part with a companion which had made the whole distance from St. Louis, and commanded respect for us on some critical occasions, and which might be needed for the same purpose again.

January 30, 1844: Our guide, who was a young man, joined us this morning; and, leaving our encampment late in the day, we descended the river, which immediately opened out into a broad valley, furnishing good travelling ground. In a short distance we passed the village, a collection of straw huts; and a few miles below, the guide pointed out the place where the whites had been encamped before they entered the mountain. With our late start we made but ten miles, and encamped on the low river bottom, where there was no snow, but a great deal of ice; and we cut piles of long grass to lay under our blankets, and fires were made of large dry willows, groves of which wooded the stream. The river took here a northeasterly direction, and through a spur from the mountains on the left was the gap where we were to pass the next day.

January 31, 1844: We took our way over a gently rising ground, the dividing ridge being tolerably low; and travelling easily along a broad trail, in twelve or fourteen miles reached the upper part of the pass, when it began to snow thickly, with very cold weather. The Indians had only the usual scanty covering, and appeared to suffer greatly from the cold. All left us, except our guide. Half hidden by the storm, the mountains looked dreary; and, as night began to approach, the guide showed great reluctance to go forward. I placed him between two rifles, for the way began to be difficult. Travelling a little farther, we struck a ravine, which the Indian said would conduct us to the river; and as the poor fellow suffered greatly, shivering in the snow which fell upon his naked skin, I would not detain him any longer; and he ran off to the mountain, where he said there was a hut near by. He had kept the blue and scarlet cloth I had given him tightly rolled up, preferring rather to endure the cold than to get them wet. In the course of the afternoon, one of the men had his foot frost bitten; and about dark we had the satisfaction to reach the bottoms of a stream timbered with large trees, among which we found a sheltered camp, with an abundance of such grass as the season afforded for the animals. We saw before us, in descending from the pass, a great continuous range, along which stretched the valley of the river; the lower parts steep, and dark with pines, while above it was hidden in clouds of snow. This we felt instantly satisfied was the central ridge of the Sierra Nevada, the great California mountain, which only now intervened between us and the waters of the bay. We had made a forced march of 26 miles, and three mules had given out on the road. Up to this point, with the exception of two stolen by Indians, we had lost none of the horses which had been brought from the Columbia river, and a number of these were still strong and in tolerably good order. We had now 67 animals in the band.

Dresslerville, California

We had scarcely lighted our fires, when the camp was crowded with nearly naked Indians; some of them were furnished with long nets in addition to bows, and appeared to have been out on the sage hills to hunt rabbits. These nets were perhaps 30 to 40 feet long, kept upright in the ground by slight sticks at intervals, and were made from a kind of wild hemp, very much resembling in manufacture those common among the Indians of the Sacramento valley. They came among us without any fear, and scattered themselves about the fires, mainly occupied in gratifying their astonishment. I was struck by the singular appearance of a row of about a dozen, who were sitting on their haunches perched on a log near one of the fires, with their quick sharp eyes following every motion. We gathered together a few of the most intelligent of the Indians, and held this evening an interesting council. I explained to them my intentions. I told them that we had come from a very far country, having been travelling now nearly a year, and that we were desirous simply to go across the mountain into the country of the other whites. There were two who appeared particularly intelligent-one, a somewhat old man. He told me that, before the snows fell, it was six sleeps to the place where the whites lived, but that now it was impossible to cross the mountain on account of the deep snow; and showing us, as the others had done, that it was over our heads, he urged us strongly to follow the course of the river, which he said would conduct us to a lake in which there were many large fish. There, he said, were many people; there was no snow on the ground; and we might remain there until the spring. From their descriptions, we were enabled to judge that we had encamped on the upper water of the Salmon Trout river."' It is hardly necessary to say that our communication was only by signs, as we understood nothing of their language; but they spoke, notwithstanding, rapidly and vehemently, explaining what they considered the folly of our intentions, and urging us to go down to the lake. Tah-ve, a word signifying snow, we very soon learned to know, from its frequent repetition. I told him that the men and the horses were strong, and that we would break a road through the snow; and spreading before him our bales of scarlet cloth, and trinkets, showed him what we would give for a guide. It was necessary to obtain one, if possible; for I had determined here to attempt the passage of the mountain. Pulling a bunch of grass from the ground, after a short discussion among themselves, the old man made us comprehend, that if we could break through the snow, at the end of three days we would come down upon grass, which he showed us would be about six inches high, and where the ground was entirely free. So far, he said, he had been in hunting for elk; but beyond that, (and he closed his eyes) he had seen nothing; but there was one among them who had been to the whites, and, going out of the lodge, he returned with a young man of very intelligent appearance. Here, said he, is a young man who has seen the whites with his own eyes; and he swore, first by the sky, and then by the ground, that what he said was true. With a large present of goods, we prevailed upon this young man to be our guide, and he acquired among us the name Mélo--a word signifying friend, which they used very frequently. He was thinly clad, and nearly barefoot; his moccasins being about worn out. We gave him skins to make a new pair, and to enable him to perform his undertaking to us. The Indians remained in the camp during the night, and we kept the guide and two others to sleep in the lodge with us-Carson lying across the door, and having made them comprehend the use of our fire arms. The snow, which had intermitted in the evening, commenced falling again in the course of the night, and it snowed steadily all day. In the morning I acquainted the men with my decision, and explained to them that necessity required us to make a great effort to clear the mountains. I reminded them of the beautiful valley of the Sacramento, with which they were familiar from the descriptions of Carson, who had been there some fifteen years ago, and who, in our late privations, had delighted us in speaking of its rich pastures and abounding game, and drew a vivid contrast between its summer climate, less than a hundred miles distant, and the falling snow around us.

Note: Kit Carson had never crossed the mountains; he had entered California from the Southwest with Ewing Young's party of trappers in 1829.

February 2, 1844: It had ceased snowing, and this morning the lower air was clear and frosty; and six or seven thousand feet above, the peaks of the Sierra now and then appeared among the rolling clouds, which were rapidly dispersing before the sun. Our Indian shook his head as he pointed to the icy pinnacles, shooting high up into the sky, and seeming almost immediately above us. Crossing the river on the ice, and leaving it immediately, we commenced the ascent of the mountain along the valley of a tributary stream. The people were unusually silent; for every man knew that our enterprise was hazardous, and the issue doubtful.

Markleeville, California

The snow deepened rapidly, and it soon became necessary to break a road. For this service, a party of ten was formed, mounted on the strongest horses; each man in succession opening the road on foot, or on horseback, until himself and his horse became fatigued when he stepped aside; and, the remaining number passing ahead, he took his station in the rear. Leaving this stream, and pursuing a very direct course, we passed over an intervening ridge to the river we had left. On the way we passed two low huts entirely covered with snow, which might very easily have escaped observation. A family was living in each; and the only trail I saw in the neighborhood was from the door hole to a nut-pine tree near, which supplied them with food and fuel. We found two similar huts on the creek where we next arrived; and, travelling a little higher up, encamped on its banks in about four feet depth of snow. Carson found near, an open hill side, where the wind and the sun had melted the snow, leaving exposed sufficient bunch grass for the animals to-night.

The nut pines were now giving way to heavy timber, and there were some immense pines on the bottom, around the roots of which the sun had melted away the snow; and here we made our camps and built huge fires."' To-day we had travelled sixteen miles, and our elevation above the sea was 6,760 feet.

February 3, 1844: Turning our faces directly towards the main chain, we ascended an open hollow along a small tributary to the river, which, according to the Indians, issues from a mountain to the south. The snow was so deep in the hollow, that we were obliged to travel along the steep hill sides, and over spurs, where wind and sun had in places lessened the snow, and where the grass, which appeared to be in good quality along the sides of the mountains, was exposed. We opened our road in the same way as yesterday, but made only seven miles; and encamped by some springs at the foot of a high and steep hill, by which the hollow ascended to another basin in the mountain."' The little stream below was entirely buried in snow. The springs were shaded by the boughs of a lofty cedar, which here made its first appearance; the usual height was 120 to 130 feet, and one that was measured near by was 6 feet in diameter.

Grover's Hotsprings

There being no grass exposed here, the horses were sent back to that which we had seen a few miles blow. We occupied the remainder of the day,in beating down a road to the foot of the hill, a mile or two distant; the snow being beaten down when moist, in the warm part of the day, and then hard frozen at night, made a foundation that would bear the weight of the animals the next morning. During the day several Indians Joined us on snow shoes. These were made of a circular hoop, about a foot in diameter, the interior 'space being filled with an open network of bark.

February 4, 1844: I went ahead early with two or three men, each with a led horse, to break the road. We were obliged to abandon the hollow entirely, and work along the mountain side, which was very steep, and the snow covered with an icy crust. We cut a footing as we advanced, and trampled a road through for the animals; but occasionally one plunged outside the trail, and slided along the field to the bottom, a hundred yards below. Late in the day we reached another bench in the hollow, where, in summer, the stream passed over a small precipice. Here was a short distance of dividing ground between the two ridges, and beyond an open basin [Faith Valley], some ten miles across, whose bottom presented a field of snow. At the further or western side rose the middle crest of the mountain, a dark-looking ridge of volcanic rock [Elephant's Back].

Charity Valley

The summit line presented a range of naked peaks, apparently destitute of snow and vegetation; but below, the face of the whole country was covered with timber of extraordinary size. Annexed you are presented with a view of this ridge from a camp on the western side of the basin.

Towards a pass which the guide indicated here, we attempted in the afternoon to force a road; but after a laborious plunging through two or three hundred yards, our best horses gave out, entirely refusing to make any further effort; and, for the' time, we were brought to a stand. The guide informed us that we were entering the deep snow, and here began the difficulties of the mountain; and to him, and almost to all, our enterprise seemed hopeless. I returned a short distance back, to the break in the hollow, where I met Mr. Fitzpatrick.

The camp had been all the day occupied in endeavoring to ascend the hill, but only the best horses had succeeded. The animals, generally, not having sufficient strength to bring themselves up without the packs; and all the line of road between this and the springs was strewed with camp stores and equipage, and horses floundering in snow. I therefore immediately encamped on the ground with my own mess, which was in advance, and directed Mr. Fitzpatrick to encamp at the springs [Grovers], and send all the animals, in charge of Tabeau, with a strong guard, back to the place where they had been pastured the night before [below Markleeville]. Here was a small spot of level ground, protected on one side by the mountain, and on the other sheltered by a little ridge of rock. It was an open grove of pines, which assimilated in size to the grandeur of the mountain, being frequently six feet in diameter.

To-night we had no shelter, but we made a large fire around the trunk of one of the huge pines; and covering the snow with small boughs, on which we spread our blankets, soon made ourselves comfortable. The night was very bright and clear, though the thermometer was only at 10'. A strong wind, which sprang up at sundown, made it intensely cold; and this was one of the bitterest nights during the journey.

Two Indians 'Joined our party here; and one of them, an old man, immediately began to harangue us, saying that ourselves and animals would perish in the snow; and that if we would go back, he would show us another and a better way across the mountain. He spoke in a very loud voice, and there was a singular repetition of phrases and arrangement of words, which rendered his speech striking, and not unmusical.

We had now begun to understand some words, and, with the aid of signs, easily comprehended the old man's simple ideas. "Rock upon rock-rock upon rock-snow upon snow-snow upon snow," said he; "even if you get over the snow, you will not be able to get down from the mountains." He made us a sign of precipices, and showed us how the feet of the horses would slip, and throw them off from the narrow trails which led along their sides. Our Chinook [Billy], who comprehended even more readily than ourselves, and believed our situation hopeless, covered his head with his blanket, and began to weep and lament. "I wanted to see the whites," said he; "I came away from my own people to see the whites, and I wouldn't care to die among them; but here"-and he looked around into the cold night and gloomy forest, and, drawing his blanket over his head, began again to lament.

Seated around the tree, the fire illuminating the rocks and the tall bolls of the pines round about, and the old Indian haranguing, we presented a group of very serious faces.

February 5, 1844: The night had been too cold to sleep, and we were up very early. Our guide was standing by the fire with all his finery on; and seeing him shiver in the cold, I threw on his shoulders one of my blankets. We missed him a few minutes afterwards, and never saw him again. He had deserted. His bad faith and treachery were in perfect keeping with the estimate of Indian character, which a long intercourse with this people had gradually forced upon my mind.

February 6, 1844. Accompanied by Mr. Fitzpatrick, I sat out to-day with a reconnoitring party, on snow shoes. go Snowshoes: where did Frémont get them?

And this was the last the party would meet with Indians until March 6th, when they arrived in the foothills of the lower reaches of the American River.


Third Expedition.
November, 1845.

Travelling along the foot of a mountain on one of these trails we discovered a light smoke rising from a ravine, and riding quietly up, found a single Indian standing before a little sage-brush fire over which was hanging a small earthen pot, filled with sage-bush squirrels. Another bunch of squirrels lay near it and close by were his bow and arrows. He was deep in a brown study, thinking perhaps of some game-trail which he seen and intended to follow that afternoon, and did not see or hear us until we were directly upon him, his absorbed thoughts and the sides of the ravine cutting off sounds. Escape for him was not possible and he tried to seem pleased, but his convulsive start and wild look around showed that he thought his end had come. And so it would have--abruptly--had the Delawares been alone. With a deprecating smile he offered us part of his pot au feu and his bunch of squirrels. I reassured him with a friendly shake of the hand and a trifling gift. He was a good-looking young man, well made, as these Indians usually are, and naked as a worm.

The Delawares lingered as we turned away, but I would not let them remain. Anyhow they regarded our journey as a kind of war-path, and no matter what kind of path he is upon a Delaware is always ready to take a scalp when he is in a country where there are strange Indians. We had gone but a short distance when I found they had brought away his bow and arrows, but I had them taken immediately back. These were well made; the bow strong, and made still stronger with sinews, and the arrows were all headed with obsidian worked in the usual spear shape by patient labor, and nearly as sharp as steel. The Delawares took them back willingly when I reminded them that they had exposed the poor fellow to almost certain starvation by depriving him at the beginning of winter of his only means to procure food.

A day or two after we saw mountain sheep for the first time in crossing the Basin. None were killed, but that afternoon Carson killed an antelope. That day we travelled late, making for the point of a wooded mountain where we had expected to find water, but on reaching it found only the dry bed of a creek where there was sometimes running water. It was too late to go farther and I turned up the creek bed, taking the chance to find it above as the mountain looked promising. Well up, towards the top of the mountain, nearly two thousand feet above the plain, we came upon a spring where the little basin afforded enough for careful use. A bench of the mountain near by made a good camping-ground, for the November nights were cool and newly-fallen snow already marked out the higher ridges of the mountains. With grass abundant, and pine wood and cedars to keep up the night fires, we were well provided for.

Sagundai who had first found the spring saw fresh tracks made in the sand by a woman's naked foot, and the spring had been recently cleaned out. But he saw no other indications of human life. We had made our' supper on the antelope and were lying around the fire, and the men taking their great comfort in smoking. A good supper and a pipe make for them a comfortable ending no matter how hard the day has been.

[Kit]Carson who was lying on his back with his pipe in his mouth, his hands under his head and his feet to the fire, suddenly exclaimed, half rising and pointing to the other side of the fire,

"Good God! look there!"

In the blaze of the fire, peering over her skinny, crooked hands, which shaded her eyes from the glare, was standing an old woman apparently eighty years of age, nearly naked, her grizzly hair hanging down over her face and shoulders. She had thought it a camp of her people and had already begun to talk and gesticulate, when her open mouth was paralyzed with fright, as she saw the faces of the whites. She turned to escape, but the men had gathered about her and brought her around to the fire. Hunger and cold soon dispelled fear and she made us understand that she had been left by her people at the spring to die, because she was very old and could gather no more seeds and was no longer good for anything. She told us she had nothing to eat and was very hungry. We gave her immediately about a quarter of the antelope, thinking she would roast it by our fire, but no sooner did she get it in her hand than she darted off into the darkness. Some one ran after her with a brand of fire, but calling after her brought no answer. In the morning, her fresh tracks at the spring showed that she had been there for water during the night. Starvation had driven her to us, but her natural fear drove her away as quickly, so soon as she had secured something to eat. Before we started we left for her at the spring a little supply from what food we had. This, with what she could gather from the nut-pine trees on the mountain, together with our fire which she could easily keep up, would probably prolong her life even after the snows came. The nut-pines and cedars extend their branches out to the ground and in one of their thickets, as I have often proved, these make a comfortable shelter against the most violent snow-storms.

This was Sangundai's Spring. The names of my camps here along become the record of the rivalry of the men in finding good camps. It became the recurring interest of each day to prove their judgment of country as well as their skill as hunters.

The Atlantic Monthly
Frémont's Hundred Days in Missouri
Springfield, October 30, 1862.

Yesterday fifty-three Delaware Indians came from Kansas to serve under the General [Frémont]. Years ago he made friends of the Delawares, when travelling through their country upon his first journey of exploration; and hearing that he was on the war-path, the tribe have sent their best young warriors to join him. They are descendants of the famous tribe which once dwelt on the Delaware River, and belonged to the confederacy of the Six Nations,--for more than two centuries the most powerful Indian community in America. Their ancient prowess remains. The Delawares are feared all over the Plains, and their war-parties have often penetrated beyond the Rocky Mountains, carrying terror through all the Indian tribes. These men are fine specimens of their race, --tall, lightly formed, and agile. They ride little shaggy ponies, rough enough to look at, but very hardy and active; and they are armed with the old American rifle, the traditional weapon which Cooper places in the hands of his red heroes. They are led by the chief of their tribe, Fall-Leaf, a dignified personage, past the noon of life, but showing in his erect form and dark eye that the fires of manhood burn with undiminished vigor.

 more to come?

About John Charles Frémont
What is Frémont's Report?
go Frémont's methods of determining coordinates. And what is the Buenaventura River he wrote about looking for?
go Frémont's contributions to meteorology.
Follow a walking tour of the expedition route into Charity Valley
"Rock upon rock--snow upon snow"
Who discovered Carson Pass


©1999, 2007
Bob Graham

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