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The Lost Frémont Cannon (Mountain Howitzer)

What follows predates the recent recovery of the above carriage parts,
which would seem to render moot some previous discussions; for instance, the dolphins shown on the howitzer at Pyramid Lake in the Preuss drawing. However, there is much still relevant information and interesting historical record.

Read the latest information on the actual recovery

2nd Lt. John Charles Frémont from daguerreotype c.1843

St. Louis Arsenal
Requisition for ordnance and ordnance stores, for an expedition into the Oregon Territory.

Required May 8, 1843, mountain howitzer, 1; carriage complete with harness, 1; pistols, 4; pairs holsters,etc., 2; carbines, 33; kegs of rifle powder, 5; pounds of artillery ammunition, 500; tubes, filled, 200.

J.C. Frémont,
2d Lieut. Topographical Engineers


What is a howitzer? Webster's Collegiate says;

"A short, light, cannon, used to deliver shells with a curved trajectory, with shells of lower muzzle velocities than those from guns, at angles from 20 to 45 degrees." The same source describes a shell as, "A hollow projectile for cannon, containing an explosive bursting charge." Nineteenth century shells were fused. The fuse was trimmed off at range marks before loading, and was ignited by the main charge on firing.

goDrawing of the French 1828 Mountain Howitzer compared to the 1835 U. S. Mountain Howitzer.
And a new contender?

Frémont's mountain howitzer was a 12 pounder. There is a mountain howitzer (tube only) in the Nevada State Museum in Carson City (right). It was once thought to be, and is still thought by some to be, the Frémont Howitzer. The date is just right: it was cast of bronze in 1837 in South Boston by Cyrus Alger and Company and marked as the third one proofed ("3") by Lt. George H. Talcott and marked with his initials "GT" and the weight of "223" pounds. It is one of only two survivors of the original 12 howitzers delivered. The cost new was $225. This howitzer has had a very colorful past--it is identified here as the Glenbrook Pray cannon.

go Read some early history and newspaper accounts of the Museum Howitzer.

It is interesting to compare this howitzer with Charles Preuss's drawing of Frémont's howitzer at pyramid Lake. Preuss's drawing very clearly shows dolphins (handles) cast into the barrel. Neither the French M1828 not the US M1835 have them. When we compare Preuss's drawings of places, we find very exact correlation's see the Long Camp drawing). And the combined views of the Wind River Range. The Preuss rendering of Pyramid Lake is exact to the very rocks represented in the foreground. It would be surprising if Preuss had drawn something, like the handles, which were not there. But the figures and howitzer may very well have been added at the time an engraving was made from the original drawing. We cannot know, because all the original notes, sketches and drawings were lost a century ago in two separate fires. However, there is evidence that the peopling of the drawings may have been done at the time of plate preparation for publication of these government survey reports. The depicted howitzer is otherwise very strange in apparently having no trunnions to mount it.

One other illustration (left) comes from opposite page 260 of Frémont's 1887 Memours of My Life, showing the very same howitzer at a camp on the Sname River. It is an equally unlikely configuration.

David Peterson of San Jose, CA, sends a photo of a canister round that he found at the bottom of the Carson Canyon near Woodfords on the West Fork of the Carson River. Knight tells us that , "...canisters for 12 lb. mountain howitzers are always filled with musket balls...laid in tiers in a tin case having an iron top and bottom...the interstices between the shot are filled in with sawdust. " Dave adds the following:

"I counted the balls and there were 145 in all. The balls by rough measurement are 11/16 inch in diameter [.69 caliber]. The top of the can is 4 1/2" in diameter. The can itself is 3 3/4 inches. The Mormon Battalion in 1848 took across Carson Pass a four and a six pounder acquired from Sutter two months earlier. This canister was not with them as it wouldn't fit. Probably it was lost by a different military group coming or going somewhere on the route."

A few facts about Frémont's howitzer come from the Frémont Report and from the Charles Preuss diary :

There is no record in the Report of Frémont ever dismounting the tube. Packing it on mules would have been very useful, and would probably have meant that it would not have been left behind as soon as it was. But at that point in the expedition, Frémont's animals might not have been in a condition to pack the 225 lb. tube. It was rolled the whole trip, as far as it got. But, the howitzer was not going to cross the Sierra Nevada in winter.

1--The "shaft of the howitzer carriage broke" and had to be mended on July 20 and again on Aug 6th 1843. We assume that "shaft" referred to a thrill, one of the pair of poles by which the pack carriage was harnessed and drawn.

2--On leaving Ft. Wallawalla on November 25, 1843, Frémont records that after leaving the wagons and instrument cart at that place, the howitzer was the only remaining "wheeled vehicle." Frémont seemed to consider, from the start, that hauling wheeled vehicles (ie. the howitzer) over the route was a demonstration of the feasibility of wagon travel.

3--The howitzer was left behind on January 13, 1844 on the passage around Pyramid Lake and had to be retrieved the following day.

4--It was also left behind January 28, 1844 on the ascent up Burcham Flat to near Pk. 8422 and was gone back for the following day. It was finally abandoned later that same day.

A reproduction of the Cyrus Alger manufactured model 1835 mountain howitzer is shown above: the pack carriage at right.

Descending to Metolious River on November 30, 1843 Frémont says, "At such places, the gun-carriage was unlimbered, and separately descended by hand." Brian O'Connor tells us that "un-limbering can mean different things, depending upon how the carriage is configured. Generally, it would mean that the cannon is removed from it's towing rig, be it a small ammo cart or a set of poles attached to the trail." Frémont tracker/photographer Loren Irving of Bend, OR sent this photo of the place.

There is the narrative record that at least on some occasions two mules were used to draw the carriage. This would necessarily have been mules in tandem, as illustrated in Emory's Report of Kearny's march through the Southwest in 1846. Loren Irving also brought this to my attention.
December 13, 1846, east of Klamath Marsh: "The mules at the gun pulled heavily, and walking was a little laborious."

There are several accounts in the Report of demonstrations of 2nd Expedition gunner, and Prussian Army veteran, Louis Zindel's skill:

Theodore Talbot, June 15, 1843: Our cannonnier was very successful in his practice with the howitzer, striking a post 4 feet high at nearly a quarter of a mile with a bomb [shell].

Charles Preuss, August 10, 1843: Shooting buffalo with the howitzer is a cruel but amusing sport.

Frémont, December 10, 1843: ...I directed the howitzer to be fired. It was the first time our guides [Walla Walla Indians] had seen it discharged; and the bursting of the shell at a distance which was something like the second fire of the gun, amazed and bewildered them with delight. It inspired them with triumphant feelings, but on the [Klamath] camps at a distance, the effect was different, for the smokes in the lake and on the shore immediately disappeared.

Did Frémont alter his Report regarding the location where he left the howitzer (conspiracy theory)?
Or did he leave it on the east side of the West Walker River in a deep hollow just north of Fales Hotspring as stated in The Report. Is it not more likely that it was found about c.1860 by Sheldon or Pray or some other person, and that it was the one (or one of the ones) circulating about the Lake Tahoe and Virginia City areas called Frémont's Cannon?
14th Century English philosopher William of Ockham said, "entities must not be unnecessarily multiplied." Well, he wrote it in Latin, actually--entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem. This has become known as "Ockham's Razor." What does it mean? Click the picture! The museum howitzer could be the actual Frémont Cannon. They do not say positively that it is, because the provenance is incomplete.

Where was the howitzer left?

To take the narrowest view, on the East side of West Walker River, from his camp near the top, perhaps in the saddle, of Pk. 8422', near the route of the present Burcham Flat Road, Frémont says:

January 28th: To-night we did not succeed in getting the Howitzer into camp. This was the most laborious day we had yet passed through; the steep ascents and deep snow exhausting both men and animals.

January 29th: From this height [Pk 8422'] we could see, at a considerable distance below, yellow spots in the 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 river [Deep Creek, an affluent to the W. Walker] at the bottom, we suddenly found ourselves in the presence of eight or ten Indians...
The principal stream
[W. Walker R.] still running through an impractical cañon [he could see this from the site, or from exploring ahead], we ascended a very steep hill [out of Deep Creek], which proved afterwards [my double emphasis] the last and fatal obstacle to our little howitzer, which was finally abandoned at this place.

But, Frémont wasn't there; he didn't actually see it left--he had gone on ahead.
He sent word back to Charles Preuss that there was no point in trying to move the howitzer forward.

To take the broadest view, the howitzer could have been abandoned anywhere in the 10 miles from where it was left on the 28th, on the flanks of Pk. 8422', to the ascension out of Deep Creek.

go the 3D map of the West Walker Canyon


Board of Army Officers, Instruction for Mountain Artillery, Washington, 1851.

Cline, Gloria Griffin, Exploring the Great Basin, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1963 (and University of Nevada Press reprint 1988).

Fletcher, F. N., Early Nevada--the Period of Exploration, 1776-1848, Reno, 1929.

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, Gales and Seaton, Washington. 1845.

Frémont, John Charles, Geographical Memoir Upon Upper California, Senate. 30th Congress, Misc. No.148, Wendell and Van Benthuysen, Washington, 1848.

Frémont, John Charles, Memoirs of My Life, Belford, Clark & Company, Chicago, 1887.

Gibbons, Lieutenant John, The Artillerist's Manual; Introduction for Field Artillery, Horse and Foot, New York, 1860.

Graham, Clara. My daughter made these pages when she was about 12 years old. I have always kept them. Wonderful imagery!

Hinkle, George and Bliss, Sierra Nevada Lakes, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc, Indianapolis-New York, 1949.

Jackson, Donald, The Myth of the Frémont Howitzer, The Bulletin of the Missouri Historical Society Vol. XXII, No. 3, April, 1967.

Jackson, Donald, and Spence, Mary Lee, The Expeditions of John Charles Frémont, Vol. 1, University of Illinois Press, 1970.

James, George Wharton, The Lake of the Sky - Lake Tahoe, George Wharton James, 1915.

Knight, Edward H., Knight, American Mechanical Dictionary, J. B. Ford and Company, New York, 1874-1879.

Kuehne, Herb, photographs and measurements taken of the Ranger Station display at Bridgeport, CA April, 2008.

Lewis, Ernest Allen, The Frémont Cannon -- High Up and Far Back, The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1981.

Preuss, Charles, Exploring With Frémont, Translated by Erwin G. and Elisabeth K., Gudde, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1958.

Reveal, Jack L. and James L, The Missing Frémont Cannon--an Ecological Solution, reprinted from Madrono, V.32, No.2, April 1985.

Rosewitz, Paul R. Lt. Col. US Army, invaluable correspondence, photo facsimiles of original military documents, 2000-2008.

Russell, Carl P., Frémont's Cannon, The California Historical Society, No. 36, December 1957.

Scott, Edward B., The Saga of Lake Tahoe, Sierra Tahoe Publishing Co., 1957 (1964).

Smith, James U., Frémont's Expedition in Nevada, 1843-44, Second Biennial Report of the Nevada Historical Society, Carson City, 1911.

Talbot, Theodore, The Journals of Theodore Talbot, Metropolitan Press, 1931.

Townley, John M., The Lost Frémont Cannon, Guidebook, The Jamison Station Press, Reno, 1984.

Ordnance Manual for the Use of Officers of the United States Army, Washington, J. & G. S. Gideon, pronters, 1841 (in New York Public Library). For identification of the first US model (pre Mexican War) carriage see pages 5, 21, 42, 62-63.


©1999, 2008
Bob Graham