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Finding Frémont's Long Camp
Copyright © 1996 and 2002 by Bob Graham

This drawing appears opposite page 234 of the printed report of Frémont's second expedition. Frémont wrote, "February 14, [1844]. Annexed is a view of the dividing ridge of the Sierra, taken from this encampment." The drawing is by Charles Preuss, the expedition cartographer. Preuss made his drawings as records of locations - drawings of cartographic correctness, as opposed to artistic landscape renderings.

The Long Camp was reached by the advance party on February 10, 1844 and was occupied through the 19th as the road up from Markleeville (nearly twenty miles) was constructed to get the horses and mules up the steep canyon and across the deep snow. It was the base used for explorations ahead. From the nearby peaks the Central Valley was in view to the west, and Lake Tahoe was first seen to the north east.

The position of both the camp and the final crossing have been debated for many years.
go See the many opinions:
James U. Smith, 1911; Fredrick S. Dellenbaugh, 1914; Francis P. Farquhar, 1914 and 1969; Allan Nevins, 1939 and 1955; Erwin G. and Elisabeth K., Gudde, 1958; Vincent P. Gianella, 1959; Donald Jackson and Mary Lee Spence, 1970; Thomas Fredrick Howard, 1998.

The latitude as given in the narrative of the Report.

Frémont gives the location of the Long Camp as,"...within two and a half miles of the head of the hollow [leading up to Carson Pass], and at the foot of the last mountain ridge. Here two large trees has been set on fire, and in the holes, where the snow had melted away, we found a comfortable camp...The elevation of the camp, by the boiling point, is 8,050 Feet." On page 235, in the body of the text, the position of the camp is stated to be, "latitude 38° 41' 57", longitude 120° 25' 57"."

These figures are wrong as printed in the narrative portion of the original edition of 1845, and they are wrong in all subsequent printings to date. They are still frequently cited and have been responsible for misplacing both the location of the camp and the point of the crossing of the pass, which the narrative gives as "38° 44'." Gianella did note the apparent misprints, and suggested the correct latitude figures, but did not determine that the determinations made by Frémont and published in the Astronomical Tables of the Report were actually correct.

On page 483 of the original Senate edition of the Report are found Frémont's actual tables of "Astronomical Observations." There is found, under the heading "LONG CAMP, February 14, 1844, altitudes of Polaris...Latitude - 38° 41' 03"." The figure of 57" given in the body of text is an obvious transposition from the erroneous longitude figure.

And on page 484, "LONG CAMP, February 19, 1844, altitudes of the sun...Latitude - 38° 41' 51"."
This is the final position of the long camp (nine days long, and spread out over over 15 long miles) that is the position of the actual summit crossed by the party. go See the route and place.

Frémont's longitudes in this part of the expedition are wrong by about 24 miles because his chronometer had stopped running near Bridgeport. He had managed to restart it, and he and Preuss and Carson had sat up many long, cold hours taking double altitudes of Procyon, observing lunar occultations, and the motions of the moons of Jupiter, but the chronometer's rate of going was erratic. The reported longitudes should be disregarded, and physical features substituted for the second line of position.

But, for the determination of latitude, the sun at noon and a reasonably accurate timekeeper serve well, as does, with the same timekeeping ability, the altitude of Polaris. Today, Polaris is within about 1 degree of the celestial pole. In 1844, it was about 1.5 degrees distant. go The change in the position of polaris since 1844.

Frémont used an artificial horizon with his sextant, because, unlike when at sea, the horizon of the earth cannot actually be seen due to physical features - mountains, in this case. The artificial horizon is a glass-covered box filled with mercury. The mercury forms a level mirror, and it is the reflection of the star, or other object that is sighted. The resulting angle must be divided by 2. go What is an artificial horizon

With the help of an assistant taking down his readings and recording the time of each observation from a chronometer, he made ten observations of Polaris on February 14th between 6:55 and 7:05 PM. Having the observed altitude of the star, he had then to consult a table in an Astronomical Almanac to correct for refraction, in order to obtain the true altitude. Taking the apparent time of the observation, he would consult a table of the sun's right ascension for the year, month, day, hour, minute, and second. Adding or subtracting the time value given therein converts the true altitude (39° 30' 22") to latitude (38° 41' 03"). The published tables allow us to determine that Frémont made the observations at about 7 hours Greenwhich time. He would have chosen this hour of about 11 o'clock local time because polaris was at its highest directly above the celestial pole. This was because that while the necessary correction for the position of the star relative to the pole at this time was at its greatest, the rate of change in the position of the star was at its slowest, allowing for the most accurate determination to be made if indeed, as he suspected, his time keeping was not perfect.

In his journal entry for February 18th, Preuss says, "Our latitude is 38° 41'," confirming Frémont's determination of 38° 41' 03".

Going to the place: Confident that both Frémont's latitude and Preuss's drawing were accurate, I determined to locate the exact site of the Long Camp. I set out on October 14, 1996 and drove to Red Lake, at the foot of Carson Pass which lies at a latitude of N38° 42'. I then turned south on Blue Lakes road for about a mile to where I had determined from a Geological Survey map that latitude 38° 41' lay.

Switching on a hand-held Global Positioning System receiver, I was able to confirm that I was indeed only one tenth of a mile north of the line. Walking south with the receiver quickly brought me to 38° 41'. The view to the west was very nearly the same as the one drawn by Preuss - Elephant's Back (9585' El.) to the left and Red Lake Peak (10,063' El.) to the right. Only one thing was missing - the small dark peak in the center. If it was there, it was hidden behind an intervening ridge (c. 8,400' El.).

Using a compass compensated for the local 15° east declination, I then traveled due east on the line of latitude. The elevation at Blue Lakes road is just under 8,000' El., and about one quarter mile east are three rounded hills, which are glacial moraines. As the hills are ascended, the small dark peak (9,002 El.) to the west comes slowly into view. On the north side of the hill, near the top, at an elevation of about 8,050' (cf. Frémont's 8050 feet) is Charles Preuss's vantage point - exact in every detail. The small center peak can be seen in this relationship from no other position. Compare with image at top of this page.

The top of the hill is open on the north side, and just below would have been Preuss's "kitchen hole" as shown in his drawing. The low middle ground traversing the view is the route of Blue Lakes Road - built in the middle 1850's as the Big Trees Route connecting the Carson Route with the southern mining districts. The large mountain to the left is Elephant's Back. To the right, the canyon angling up at the base of Red Lake Peak hides Highway 88 rising to Carson Pass. The latitude is N38° 41' 03", as Frémont and Preuss said, and the longitude is W119° 57' 19", as determined from the Preuss drawing, using the perspective of the small peak in the center to triangulate and the GPS receiver to provide the numbers.

Returning to the site on snowshoes from the highway at Red Lake on February 27, 1997, I photographed the scene under winter conditions. There was a little less snow than on the same date in 1844. I also attached a small brass plate on a tall silver pine in the open area reading "Long Camp. J. C. Frémont, Kit Carson. Feb. 10-19, 1844. N38° 41' 03" / W119° 57' 19. Oct. 14, 1996."
But, don't bother looking for my nice brass marker--someone stole it in fall 2001 or spring 2002. However, you can find the site with the coordinates on this website and in The Crossing: available in the collections of all the major repositories of Western History from the Library of Congress (cat. no. 917.94/2043 21) on down.

Since July, 2004, Frémont's Long Camp is now a Geocache site.
Click the Geocaching icon to visit the page.
Anyone with a GPS device can participate in this popular new hobby. There are probably many geocaches right near you. Geocacher MarshallOD found it:
I parked at the three way junction about 1/4 mile below the cache to walk and stretch my legs. I appreciate the opportunity to stand at this historical place and imagine Fremont's passage through the area. My pen wouldn't give up any more ink, so I took a photo of the cache, which I'm attaching as my "log."

go See a correlation of the two views--1844-1996.

go See the entry in The Eldorado National Forest Interpretive Associations (ENFIA) Hiking in the Greater Carson Pass Region

View Larger Map

You can navigate on this Google® map by dragging, zoom in/out, or change from satellite to roadmap or terrain imagery.

go Follow the Frémont narrative on a walking tour of the ascent of the mountain.

A report from a Long Camp site visitor.

"MAYBYE" [sic] was the message I found inscribed on a marker when I visited the Long Camp site on July 8, 2003. Apparently a skeptic had visited the site!
Over the years there have been many theories and suggestions for the location of the Long Camp. Most are presented on this website. They have, none of them, been very specific as to the exact location.
See themgo
This website has always provided space for contributors to provide alternate views and additional information. Some of these alternate views are by Peter Lathrop, Brian O'Connor, Lt. Col. Paul Rosewitz, Jiggs Caudron, Wayne Stark, Raymond Aker (Drake Navigators Guild).
Perhaps the author of the MAYBYE will come forward with his alternative.

Just northeast is a larger rounded hill (8256' el.) which was free of trees and swept clean of snow (as when Frémont described it in 1844) and covered with, as then, dried bunchgrass, where the horses and mules were grazed just before crossing the Pass. It is shown here in an autumn photo looking southeast from Red Lake at the base of Red Lake Peak. In the background are (L to R) Jeff Davis Peak (9065'), The Nipple (9342'), and Deadwood Peak (9846'). Red Lake has been much enlarged by damming. It was quite small, frozen, and covered with snow in 1844.

Below, the route and the place from which the observation of polaris and the determination of latitude were made on February 14, 1844. Frémont's determination of the latitude of the Pass on February 19, 1844 ( 38° 41' 51") runs right down the present highway 88 at the top of Carson Pass.


go An aerial map of the campsite.
go How do I hike there? More maps.
go Take a walking tour of the ascent of the mountain.
goAn overview of the entire route from Markleeville to Carson Pass.
go Just who discovered Carson Pass, anyway?
goSee an article by Tom Chaffin on this discovery in OUTSIDE MAGAZINE
go What is THE REPORT?
go Lake Tahoe discovered! Two accounts: Frémont's narrative of February 14, 1844, and a recent climb (February 16, 2004 ) of Red Lake Peak by Peter Lathrop of Carson City, NV.
go Did Frémont do his own reductions?

THE CROSSING, by Bob Graham, tells this story step by step and day by day, in the words of Frémont, Carson, and expedition cartographer Charles Preuss, along with annotation and maps detailing the route. Also the location of the Long Camp, GPS coordinates, and a map to find the place are provided, as are clues to the location where the bronze howitzer was left on January 29, 1844.
go Excerpts from The Crossing. This will change to other date ranges from time to time.

©1999, 2007
Bob Graham