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Kit Carson

go See the little-known 1846 adobe of Lansford W. Hastings near Mt. Diablo.

Two Views of Mt. Diablo


"There," he said, "is the little mountain"
by Bob Graham and Peter Lathrop

The quotation is of a statement by Kit Carson from Frémont's 1845 Report. It has become often written, and commonly accepted, that "the little mountain" refers to Mt. Diablo. Mt. Diablo is a conspicuous mountain. Although only 3,849 feet at the summit, it stands alone in an otherwise low section of the Coast Range. In 1851, Colonel Leander Ransom, Deputy-Surveyor General, established the initial point of the Mt Diablo meridian at the mountain's summit, beginning the survey of public lands in the new State of California. From Elephants back near Carson Pass--the most likely point from which the 1844 sighting was made--Mt. Diablo lies to the southwest at a distance of 119 miles.

Based on personal observation, one of us [Lathrop] recently questioned this identification. After many climbs he had determined that Kit Carson couldn't have recognized Mt. Diablo from Elephants Back--the ridge left of center in the Preuss drawing--nor from other nearby vantages, because the ridge between Melissa Cory, Covered Wagon, and Thimble Peaks blocks the view at the 244° that is the bearing of Mt. Diablo. He found that the only view out of the mountains to the valley and Coast Range is west to northwest.

What did the members of the expedition actually record?

Frémont, Charity Valley, February 6, 1844: Accompanied by Mr. Fitzpatrick, I set out to-day with a reconnointring party on snow-shoes. We marched all in single file, trampling the snow as heavily as we could. Crossing the open basin, in a march of about ten miles we reached the top of one of the peaks, to the left of the pass indicated by our guide. Far below us, dimmed by the distance, was a large snowless valley, bounded on the western side, at a distance of about a hundred miles, by a low range of mountains, which Carson recognized with delight as the mountains bordering the coast. "There," he said, "is the little mountain--it is fifteen [sic] years since I saw it; but I am just as sure as If I had seen it yesterday."

Kit Carson: Dictated to Col. Peters in 1856: The snow was six feet on the level for three leagues . We made snow shoes and walked over the snow to find how far we would have to make a road. Found it to be the distance afore stated. After we reached the extremity of the snow, we could see in the distance the green valley of the Sacramento and the Coast Range. I knew the place well, had been there seventeen [sic] years before. Our feelings can be imagined when we saw such beautiful country.

Charles Preuss (expedition cartographer), Long Camp, February 13, 1844:
Yesterday I walked to an elevation only three miles away to take a look for myself at the promised land. It took a terribly long time to work my way through the snow. I had to rest several times and returned completely exhausted. In the valley everything was in fog yesterday. One could only dimly discern a low mountain range on the other side, which Kit claims to recognize as the one which stretches between the Sacramento [River] and the [Pacific] ocean. Our astronomical observations do not allow us to doubt this, although I do not quite believe in the correctness of the longitude.

What did Carson mean by the little mountain? These are early references to the Sierra Nevada Range.

Jedediah Smith, 1827--"I found the snow so deep on Mount Joseph that I could not cross my horses, five of which starved to death." This was in the vicinity of the American River on the west slope. Mount Joseph was Smith's own name for the Sierra Nevada.

Zenas Leonard, 1833 (Walker's Expedition)--"This mountain is very high, as the snow extends down the side nearly half way--the mountain runs north and south."
"The California Mountain extends from the Columbia to the Colorado River, running parallel to the coast about 150 miles distant, and 12 or 15 hundred miles in length with its peaks perpetually covered with eternal snows."

John Charles Frémont, 1844--"I had engaged Mr. Walker for guide in this part of the region to be explored, with which, and the southern part of the California Mountain he was well acquainted."

In these early records, the word mountain (singular) is used where we would use the word range. It is likely that Carson's "the little mountain," as quoted by Frémont, was a reference only to the lower (than the Sierra Nevada) Coast Range, rather than to a specific landmark. later, in 1856, Carson identified the sighting as of "the Coast Range" to Col. Peters in his dictated memoirs.

In checking published studies of the 1844 Frémont route, I found no identification of Carson's "little mountain" as "Mt. Diablo" before Allan Nevins in the 1939 revised edition of his Frémont biography. Gianella makes the identification in 1959, followed by Farquhar, in 1965, who defers to Gianella in the identification. Jackson and Spence in 1970, who frequently refer to Gianella, make the same identification, followed by Ferol Egan in 1977.

All of the following authors (listed chronologically) quote the sighting of the Coast Range made by Frémont and Carson on February 6, 1844 and mention or identify the "Coast Range." Those marked with * asterisk make the further identification of "Mt. Diablo."

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.

Smith, James U., Frémont's Expedition in Nevada, 1843-44, Second Biennial Report of the Nevada Historical Society, Carson City, 1911.
The earliest route study, and still one of the best.

Dellenbaugh, Fredrick S., Frémont and '49, G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1914.

Camp, Charles L., Kit Carson in California, California Historical Society, San Francisco, 1922.

Carson, Christopher, Kit Carson's Own Story of His Life, (as dictated to Col. and Mrs. D. C. Peters about 1856-57), Edited by Blanch C. Grant, Taos, N. M., 1926.

Bashford, Herbert, and Wagner, Harr, A Man Unafraid--The Story of John Charles, Frémont, Har Wagner Publishing Company, San Francisco, California, 1927.

Nevins, Allan, Frémont--the West's Greatest Adventurer (2Vols), Harper and Brothers, New York, 1928.

Clelland, Robert Glass. Pathfinders, Powell Publishing Company, San Francisco, 1929

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

Goodwin, Cardinal, John Charles Frémont--an explanation of his Career, Stanford University Press, 1930.

Farquhar, Francis P., Frémont in the Sierra Nevada, Sierra Club Bulletin Vol 15, No 1, San Francisco, February 1930. (see Farquhar 1965 below)

*Nevins, Allan, Frémont--Pathmarker of the West, D. Appleon/Century Co., N.Y., 1939.
This is apparently the first printed identification of "Mt. Diablo." Not found in the original 1928 edition, and no documentation given.

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

*Gianella, Vincent P., Where Frémont Crossed the Sierra in 1844, Sierra Club Bulletin, Vol.44, No.7, October , 1959

Vincent P. Gianella Recollections of Geological Work in the West, the University of Nevada, and Following Western Trails, An Oral History Conducted by Mary Ellen Glass, Oral History Program University of Nevada, Reno, © 1973

Gianella: "So, when Carson said "the little mountain," I put in parentheses "Mount Diablo." Well, it wasn't Mount Diablo at all. I put that down because other people said it was Mount Diablo. I should have known better, and I'll tell you why. Imagine what Carson had said: "There is the little mountain." Now, nobody would call Mount Diablo "the little mountain." I should have realized it was the Sutter Buttes. They're a little mountain range, of course. And that's what they saw."

But it wasn't the Buttes either. In his dictated memoirs, Carson, who knew the Buttes quite well, identifies the February 6, 1846 view as being of "the Coast Range."

In the spring of 1846, the Sutter Buttes, which could be seen for 100 miles in any direction, were Fremont's headquarters (and rallying point) in the events leading up to the Bear Flag revolution. Here is a beautiful drawing made by expedition artist Ned Kern. Kern's vantage is today a complex of antennas, communications relays, and cameras.

go Locate the place from where 3rd expedition artist and topographer Edward "Ned" Kern made this view of the Buttes.


go Other identifications by Vincent Gianella

*Farquhar, Francis P., History of the Sierra Nevada; Frémont's Wanderings, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1965.

*Jackson, Donald, and Mary Lee Spence, The Expeditions of John Charles Frémont: Vol. I, Travels from 1838 to 1844; Vol. II, The Bear Flag Revolt and the Court-Martial, University of Illinois Press, 1970.

*Egan, Ferol, Frémont--Explorer for a Restless Nation, Doubleday & Co., Garden City, N.Y., 1977.

*Durham, Michael S, Desert Between the Mountains--Mormons, Miners, Padres, Mountain Men, and the Opening of the Great Basin 1772-1869, Henry Holt and Company., New York., 1997.

This article remarked by on PBS by QUEST the Science of Sustainability.

An email from Peter Lathrop of Carson City. Peter has spent years hiking in the Markleeville/Carson Pass area--winter and summer--and has been looking at that part of the Sierra crossing route in detail.

A note on the name Mount Diablo by the Mt Diablo Interpretive Association: The reference to "diablo" or "devil", can be traced back to 1804 or 1805, when a Spanish military expedition visited the area in search of runaway mission Indians. At a willow thicket near present-day Buchanan Field, the soldiers encountered a Village of Chupcan people and surrounded it. But night came, and evidently all the Indians escaped, unseen. Angry and confused, the Spanish called the site "Monte del Diablo", or "Thicket of the Devil". Later, English-speaking newcomers mistakenly assumed the word "monte" to mean "mountain", and applied the title to this prominent east bay peak. A linguistic accident thus gave California its Devil Mountain.

go How did they get there?
go Just who discovered Carson Pass, anyway?
go Why is the latitude in the Report wrong?
go How do I hike there?
go See an article by Tom Chaffin on this discovery in OUTSIDE MAGAZINE.
go What was the approach to this place? See other campsites on the way.
go An overview of the route from Markleeville to the Pass. An important determination of latitude!

 copyright© 2003 Bob Graham and Peter Lathrop


©1999, 2007
Bob Graham