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"The arrangements for our expedition go on handsomely; I am having excellent instruments made, and [am] myself engaged in hard study, among other things, descriptive botany. We must have the geologic formation, geographical position, and elevation above the sea for all our plants." Frémont to botanist John Torry

Contributions to Geology

In addition to leading his exploratory expeditions, John Charles Frémont was not only the astronomer (determining mapping coordinates) but also botanist, geologist, and meteorologist/barometerist. The very definition of the renaissance man. The adventures made him a world celebrity, but also gained him international recognition by scientists. The Prussian Orden Pour le Mérite für Wissenschaften und Künste was personally presented to Frémont by Baron Alexander von Humboldt in 1850, and also the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society--still today the most prestigious award in the field--and the Gold Medal of the Société de Géographia, Paris.

Frémont had apparently gained his geological knowledge (a competent observer) from his association with Joseph N. Nicollet. Nicollet, a student of LaPlace, had been chief astronomer at the Paris Observatory before coming to the United States. Frémont had served as Nicollet's assistant on two mapping surveys of the upper Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.

The celebrated American portraitist G. P. A. Healy painted the 29 year old Frémont against the backdrop of the Wind River Range as rendered onsite by Frémont's expedition artist and cartographer Charles Preuss. Frémont wrote in his expedition Report that "The summit rock [Fremont Peak, 13,745'] was gneiss, succeeded by sienitic gneiss. Sienite and feldspar succeeded in our descent to the snow line, where we found feldspathic granite."

Geology and paleontology were rapidly emerging sciences at a time only a few years after the publication of James Hutton's Theory of the Earth; or an Investigation of the Laws Observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration of Land Upon the Globe, and William Smith's revolutionary A Geological Map of England and Wales and Part of Scotland.

Martha Coleman Bray, in her Joseph Nicollet and His Map, writes of Nicollet that as a pioneer in the field of modern geology, "though he fell into the trap of oversimplification in the case of the Old Red [Devonian] Sandstone, he was free from the common prejudice that blocked the acceptance of geological fact. The loudest critics of uniformitarianism were the upholders of the literal truth of the book of Genesis."

Throughout the narrative portion of the Frémont Report are detailed geological descriptions. In addition, there is an appendix of Geological Formations with comments by James Hall. Hall, palaeontologist for the State of New York, was the conceiver of the Geosynclinal Cycle, putting in place the system of geology that prevailed until the 1960s and plate tectonics. The appendix also contains five plates of the collected fossil plants and animals.

A few examples of the many hundreds of Frémont's recorded geological observations from the narrative of The Report:

We had a day of disagreeable and cold rain and, late in the afternoon, began to approach the rapids of the cascades. There is here a high timbered island on the left shore, below which, in descending, I had remarked, in a bluff of the river, the extremities of trunks of trees, appearing to be imbedded in the rock. Landing here this afternoon, I found, in the lower part of the escarpment, a stratum of coal and forest- trees, imbedded between strata of altered clay, containing the remains of vegetables, the leaves of which indicate that the plants wore dicotyledonous. Among these, the stems of some of the ferns are not mineralized, but merely charred, retaining still their vegetable structure and substance; and in this condition a portion of the trees remain. The indurated appearance and compactness of the strata, as well, perhaps, as the mineralized condition of the coal, are probably due to igneous action. Some portions of the coal precisely resemble in aspect the canal coal of England, and, with the accompanying fossils, have been referred to the tertiary formation. These strata appear to rest upon a mass of agglomerated rock, being but a few feet above the water of the river; and over them is the escarpment of perhaps 80 feet, rising gradually in the rear towards the mountains. The wet and cold evening, and near approach of night, prevented me from making any other than a slight examination.

Idaho State University Professor Mike Trinklein and Steve Boettcher, creators of The Story of the Oregon Trail which aired nationally on PBS.

"...even though the reports bear his name, Fremont didn't write them. He gave up and left the work to his wife--the intelligent and articulate Jesse [sic] Benton Fremont."

"...John Frémont's masterwork--actually written by his wife Jesse [sic]."
Question: do the following quotations really sound like Jessie Frémont really wrote the report to you?

The red sandstone is argillaceous, with compact white gypsum or alabaster, very beautiful. The other sandstones are gray, yellow, and ferruginous, sometimes very coarse. The apparent sterility of the country must therefore be sought for in other causes than the nature of the soil.

The walls, which were perfectly vertical, and disposed like masonry in a very regular manner, were composed of a brown-colored scoriaceous lava, similar to the light scoriaceous lava of Mt. Etna, Vesuvius, and other volcanoes. The faces of the walls were reddened and glazed by the fire, in which they had been melted, and which had left them contorted and twisted by its violent action.

At our encampment on the evening of the 28th, near the head of one of the branches we had ascended, strata of bituminous limestone were displayed in an escarpment on the river bluffs, in which were contained a variety of fossil shells of new species. It will be remembered, that in crossing this ridge about 120 miles to the northward in August last, strata of fossiliferous rock were discovered, which have been referred to the oolitic period; it is probable that these rocks also belong to the same formation.
The rock is fossiliferous, and, so far as I was able to determine the character of the fossils, belongs to the carboniferous limestone of the Missouri river, and is probably the western limit of that formation.

The top of a flat ridge near was bare of snow, and very well sprinkled with bunch-grass, sufficient to pasture the animals two or three days; and this was to be their main point of support. This ridge is composed of a compact trap, or basalt of a columnar structure; over the surface are scattered large boulders of porous trap. The hills are in many places entirely covered with small fragments of volcanic rock.

The mountains here
[Faith Valley, 1844] consisted wholly of a white micaceous granite. The day was perfectly clear, and, while the sun was in the sky, warm and pleasant.

The rock composing the summit
[Red Lake Peak, 1844] consists of a very coarse, dark, volcanic conglomerate; the lower parts appeared to be of a slaty structure.

I found the thin and stony soil of the plain entirely underlaid by the basalt which forms the river walls; and when I reached the neighborhood of the hill, the surface of the plain was rent into frequent fissures and chasms of the same scoriated volcanic rock, from 40 to 60 feet deep.
The summit [
Fremont Peak, 1842] rock was gneiss, succeeded by sienitic gneiss. Sienite and feldspar succeeded in our descent to the snow line, where we found feldspathic granite.
We had no thermometer to ascertain the temperature, but I could hold my hand in the water just long enough to count two seconds. There are eight or ten of these springs discharging themselves by streams large enough to be called runs. A loud hollow noise was heard from the rock, which I supposed to be produced by the fall of water. The strata immediately where they issue is a fine white and calcareous sandstone, covered with an incrustation of common salt.

Roughly evaporated over the fire, the five gallons of water yielded fourteen pints of very fine-grained and very white salt, of which the whole lake [Great Salt Lake] may be regarded as a saturated solution. A portion of the salt thus obtained has been subjected to analysis, giving, in 100 parts, the following proportions.
Chloride of sodium, 97.80
Chloride of calcium, 0.61
Chloride of magnesium, 0.24
Sulphate of soda, 0.23
Sulphate of lime, 1.12

This was a scientific observation, but the expedition carried the salt with them for use.

go For more about salt as a very necessary item, go to the 2nd expedition on the winter crossing of the Sierra Nevada.

And read Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky. Fascinating!

Rock upon rock...

Nevada Cowboy Poet and songwriter Richard Elloyan sings of Frémont facing the granite wall of the snow covered Sierra Nevada.

go A sound sample.

I asked science teacher and Frémont tracker Peter Lathrop of Minden, Nevada, who has a strong background in Geology, to comment.

Frémont liked big words like: argillaceous and ferruginous. I was surprised to find that they really do exist, although I knew of the ferruginous hawk, named for its color. Some of his descriptions do rather mix up rock types. Sandstone has relatively large grain size, whereas argillaceous indicates that the rock contains much smaller silt or clay sized particles, and with sufficient amounts of organic matter, which is rarely found in sandstone. Limestone is also seldom bituminous. As per the January 22, 1844 journal entry--granite never contains obsidian, but then he often had trouble differentiating volcanic lava from intrusive granite. As per the January 24, 1844 entry--sandstone does not contain mica and should be easy to distinquish from stratified lava.

Even with the above mentioned problems, I have always found his geology to be a great help in locating the sites where he made his observations. Those on January 22, 1844 are a good example--the only locations that matches his description is "Fremont Ridge" south of Wilson Peak. Other such examples were given in the article on his route from Pyramid Lake to Bridgeport. Sometimes his descriptions go opposite to where I would have wanted him have gone--like having Preuss and him only climbing to Red Lake Shoulder for their view of Lake Tahoe on February 14, 1844. However Brittney and I found an outcrop that matches his "the lower parts appear to be of a slaty structure" at N38° 2.424'--W199° 59.222', which is not on the way to the Shoulder. In fact the rocks, metamorphic rocks of Jurassic or Triassic age, being part of a roof pendant, the type being calcareous siltstone, were flat enough that we had fun throwing them like Frisbees! We haven't as yet found this type of rock anywhere else on Red Lake Peak.

It must be kept in mind that geology was in its bare infancy in 1844. Most people at that time thought the world was only a few thousand years old. So geological terms and concepts were not yet solidified.


In 1650 Irish archbishop James Ussher (or Usher), counting backwards through the begots in the Book of Genesis, determined the date of the creation of the earth to have been in 4004 B.C., upon the entrance of the night preceding the twenty-third day of October.
Since the breaking of the human genetic code, we now know that there have been approximately 2000 generations just since modern man (probably excepting Ussher's ancestors) left the continent of Africa to populate the planet, and that the time span covered by those 2000 generations is but a short sentence in the history of the Earth's 4,560,000,000 years. The first eleven verses of Genesis must be s t r e t c h e d out to cover over 4 billion of those years.
But, as with Darwin's theory of evolution, the battle between Creationists and Geologists has persisted into the 21st Century.

"He who rejects with scorn the belief that the shape of his own canines are due to our early forefathers having been provided with these formidable weapons, will probably reveal, by sneering, the line of descent. For though he no longer intends, or has the power, to use these teeth as weapons, he will unconsciously retract his snarling muscles [the ringentes], so as to expose them ready for action, like a dog prepared to fight. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 1871.

go Note Aug. 2011: Scott Stine, a geomorphologist and paleoclimateologist at California State University East Bay in Hayward uses his expert knowledge of the geology of the Great Basin and Sierra Nevada to trace the 1833 crossing of the Sierra by Joseph Walker.

go Frémont's contributions to Botany
go Mapping coordinates: Longitude and the Buenaventura River
go Frémont's determination of elevations.
go and Meteorology.
go Fremont Peak, WY: Previous to the commencement of the nineteenth century, not a single altitude had been barometrically taken in the whole of New Spain...Our knowledge of the configuration [of the Great Basin] is one of the chief points of Frémont's great hypsometrical investigations in the years 1842 and 1844.Baron Friedrich Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt, Kosmos, 1845-62.
go Frémont's Report


A short bibliography:

Bray, Edmond C., and Martha Coleman Bray, Joseph N. Nicollet on the Plains and Prairies, Minnesota Historical Society Press, St. Paul, 1976.

Bray, Martha Coleman, The Journals of Joseph N. Nicollet, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, 1970.

Bray, Martha Coleman, Joseph Nicollet and His Map, The American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 1980.

Frémont, Brevet Captain J. C., Report of The Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842, and to Oregon and North California in the Years 1843-'44, Printed by order of the Senate of the United States (Senate Document No. 174), Gales and Seaton, Washington, 1845. Contains the 1845 Frémont/Preuss map.

Hill, Mary, California Landscape: Origin and Evolution, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1984.

Hill, Mary, Geology of the Sierra Nevada, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1975.

McPhee, John, Assembling California, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1993.

Schumann, Walter, Handbook of Rocks, Minerals, and Gemstones, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston/New York, 1993.

Winchester, Simon, The Map That changed the World, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2001.

Note: Alan H. Hartley, a researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary, from Duluth, Minnesota, tells us at longcamp.com that Frémont's Reports (The Expeditions of John Charles Frémont, Jackson & Spence edition), Geographical Memoir upon Upper California, and Memoirs of My Life, and Torry's Plantae Frémontianae have yielded nearly 600 citations for possible inclusion in the OED.

©1999, 2007
Bob Graham