new item

new item

The Lost Frémont Cannon
Some Early History and Newspaper Accounts of the Nevada State Musuem Howitzer

The recovery of Frémont howitzer carriage parts near Bridgeport, 2008.

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

It is the impression of those of the old settlers on Walker River, of whom we have inquired regarding the subject, that the cannon was found early in the 6o's near the head of Lost Canyon. This canyon comes into Little Antelope Valley--a branch of Antelope Valley-from the south. This impression evidently was accepted by the government geological surveyors, for they twisted the name of the creek coming down this canyon to " Lost Cannon Creek," and called a peak, which looks down into this canyon, Lost Cannon Peak. The origin of the name of this canyon lies in the fact that an emigrant party, on its way to the Sonora Pass, and in an endeavor probably to avoid the rough river canyon down which Frémont came, essayed this pass instead of the meadows above. It is a canyon which, at first, promises an easy pass but finally becomes almost impassable. The party in question found it necessary to abandon several of their wagons before they could get over. They, or another party, buried one of their men there, also some blacksmith tools.

My endeavors to ascertain what party this was have thus far not been successful. Mr. Timothy B. Smith, who went to Walker River in 1859, says that the wagons were there at that time. The cannon is supposed to have been found with or near these wagons. Mr. Richard Watkins, of Coleville, who went into that section in 1861, or soon after, informs me that wagons were also found in one of the canyons leading to the Sonora Pass from Pickle Meadow. The cannon, according to Mr. Watkins, was found with these wagons. At any rate, it seems likely that the cannon was not found at the place where Frémont left it, but had been picked up by some emigrant party, who, in turn, were compelled to abandon it with several of their wagons.

James, George Wharton, The Lake of the Sky; Lake Tahoe, George Wharton James, Pasadena, 1915:

For several years the cannon remained where its emigrant finders removed it, then at the breaking out of the Civil War, " Dan de Quille," William Wright, the author of The Big Bonanza, the fellow reporter of Mark Twain on one of the Virginia City newspapers, called the attention of certain belligerent adherents of the south to it, and they determined to secure it. But the loyal sons of the Union were also alert and [ship's] Captain A. W. Pray, who was then in the Nevada mining metropolis, succeeded in getting and maintaining possession of it. As be moved to Glenbrook, on Lake Tahoe, that year, be took the cannon with him. Being mounted on a carriage with fairly high wheels, these latter were taken and converted into a hay-wagon, with which, for several years, he hauled hay from the Glenbrook meadows to his barn in town. The cannon itself was mounted on a heavy wooden block to which it was affixed with iron bands, securely held in place by bolts and nuts. For years it was used at Glenbrook on all patriotic and special occasions. Frémont never came back to claim it. The government made no claim upon it. So while Captain Pray regarded it as his own it was commonly understood and generally accepted that it was town property, to be used by all alike on occasions of public rejoicing.
[photo taken at Glenbrook, 4th of July 1896]

After Captain Pray's death, however, the cannon was sold by his widow to the Native Sons of Nevada, and the news of the sale soon spread abroad and caused no little commotion. To say that the people were astonished is to put it mildly. They were in a state of consternation. Frémont's cannon sold and going to be removed? Impossible! No! it was so! The purchasers were coming to remove it the next day. Were they? That remained to be seen!

That night in the darkness, three or four determined men quietly and stealthily removed the nuts from the bolts, and, leaving the block of wood, quietly carried the cannon and hid it in a car of scrap-iron that was to be transported the next day from Glenbrook to Tahoe City.

When the day dawned and the purchasers arrived, the cannon was not to be found, and no one, apparently, knew what had become of it. Solicitations, arguments, threats had no effect. The cannon was gone. That was all there was to it, and Mrs. Pray and the Nevada purchasers had to accept that-to them- disagreeable fact.

But the cannon was not lost. It was only gone on before. For several years it remained hidden under the blacksmith shop at Tahoe City, its presence known only to the few conspirators -one of whom was my informant. About five years ago it was resurrected and ever since then its brazen throat has bellowed the salutation of the Fourth of July to the loyal inhabitants of Tahoe. It now stands [1915] on the slight hill overlooking the Lake at Tahoe City, a short distance cast of the hotel.

Hinkle, George and Bliss, Sierra Nevada Lakes, The Bobbs-Merrill Co, New York, 1949:

The most captivating feature of this curious history is that there is not a shred of evidence to prove that the coveted relic ever belonged to Frémont. Small mountain-type cannon are scattered throughout the Sierra and Basin region, and their lore runs all the way through its episodic history. There were the two brass cannon issued by Sutter [4 pdrs] to a remnant of the Mormon battalion and brought by them through the Carson Pass country;" there was the Susanville cannon, famed during the Sagebrush War;" there was the howitzer that exploded near Downieville on July 27, 1863, during a celebration of the capture of Vicksburg;" there are several specimens scattered throughout Nevada: one of them, its barrel the same size as that of the Pray piece, was picked up somewhere in the eastern part of the state and now lies in the Nevada State Historical Society's museum at Reno. Small cannon formed parts of the equipment of more than one early emigrant train. Old round shot have been picked up on Donner Summit and along other emigrant trails, and guns or parts of guns might turn up anywhere in the mountain underbrush.

Through the years scores of people have written to the War Department for an identification of the Pray howitzer or some other one, or have requested its "release" to this or that patriotic organization. In September 1934, while the howitzer was still hidden in the Tavern precincts, the authors of the present work sent its serial number to the office of the Chief of Army Ordnance for verification. Officers replied that the records of the St. Louis arsenal had long since been destroyed and that search over many years had failed to discover any means of identification. Obviously the War Department was scarcely in a position to release the relic to anyone. Like almost everything else in the Tahoe region, the howitzer was anybody's game if he could make it so.

But if this is not Frémont's cannon, the legend in this instance is more impressive than reality could be. The jealous and tenacious custody of this object over nearly half a century by the old-timers of Tahoe was a human attempt to wrest some tangible reminder of the past from the creeping oblivion that overtakes all mortal monuments in the region. If it is Frémont's cannon, it is a memorial which has closed a circle of history in an even stranger way than Drake's celebrated plate of brass.

Scott, Edward B., The Saga of Lake Tahoe, Sierra-Tahoe Publishing Co., Nevada, 1957:

Historians disagree on the rediscovery of the cannon, with fact and fiction combining to shadow its travels from that time forward. In July of 1861 the gun was said to have been found in the vicinity of the West Walker by a man named Sheldon. Early Walker River settlers insisted, however, that it was located near some abandoned emigrant wagons at the head of Lost Canyon.

The United States Geological Service placed enough credence in the latter report to name the creek running through the canyon "Lost Cannon Creek" and the peak at its head, "Lost Cannon Peak."

Note: An alternative here is the possible confusion of the name due to the spelling of the Spanish word cañon, which was often spelled canon in 19C English, without the tilde, and later canyon, to force the punctuation. Cañon and cannon come from the same Latin root, indicating a confining tube-like channel. Canon is, even today, a frequent misspelling of cannon.
Dr. Elliott Coues, in his 1893 annotated edition of Biddle's 1914 The History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, in a footnote on p.1147 gives all three spellings "Cañon, canon, or canyon..."

Richard Watkins, another pioneer who settled in the region in 1861, said the cannon was found on the trail leading from Pickle Meadows to Sonora Pass. Both canyons lie west of the Walker River and all reports agree that Fremont left his field piece at some point east of the river. Sheldon's cannon appears to be the one he tried to sell at Gold Hill, but if it was actually Fremont's it must have been moved from its original resting place. This howitzer ended up in Virginia City and stood for years in "Cannon Corner" in the National Guard Hall. It was fired several times and its last recorded detonation was in 1873 when water came through to Virginia City from the Carson Range of the Sierra.

It is generally believed that this gun, or what might be called the "Sheldon Cannon," was the one moved to Glenbrook by [ship's] Captain Augustus W. Pray.

The "Pray Cannon" attracted as many conflicting stories as the "Sheldon Cannon." One is that the gun was unmounted when Pray took it to Glenbrook, another, that it was mounted but that Pray removed the wheels and used them on a hay wagon."'; A third version is that J. S. Whitten and his partner sold it to Pray for $2.50, complete with running gear. Another story offers the thought that the gun passed through the hands of several people before Pray obtained it.

At least it is known that the "Pray Cannon" was fired at the lumbering settlement to celebrate Fourth of July and other special occasions-among these Captain Todman's marriage, the opening of the Lake Tahoe Railroad and launching of the steamer Tahoe. A Fourth of July photograph taken in the 1880's shows the howitzer at Glenbrook mounted on a low carriage.

Upon Pray's death in the late 1890's his widow tried to sell the relic and it is reported that a junk dealer had backed his wagon into Mrs. Pray's yard at Glenbrook and was preparing to cart off the field piece when it was retrieved by residents Dick Hesse, John Griffin and Jack Quill, who hid it under a chicken house.

When the Blisses moved their equipment out of Glenbrook in 1898-99, the unmounted barrel of the cannon was placed on a bargeload of scrap that Nat Stein was hauling to Tahoe City. The gun was salvaged and bedded on a 12-inch by 18-inch 5-foot wooden carriage and installed on the bluff above the Commons as a "salute gun." Contrary to general belief, the cannon was never fired at Tahoe City, as Gus Rother, former postmaster at Glenbrook and later storekeeper at Tahoe City, drove the narrow end of a file into the touchhole of the gun, fearing it might explode if discharged.

An interesting sidelight is thrown upon the Pray Cannon by Robert H. Watson of Tahoe City. Watson indicates that Pray moved the original carriage to his logging camp on Observatory Point (Old Lousy) in the early 1890's where it was used as a cordwood wagon. The wheels' hand-f orged iron rims were in the possession of Watson in 1956.

Pray's Cannon became the source of numerous forays by well-meaning historical societies bent on claiming it. Local patriotism ran high in each instance and the gun always seemed to vanish into thin air upon the approach of determined claimant groups from Auburn, Reno or Carson City. It is sad that the cannon was quietly and successively moved to an office vault, a flour barrel, the Tahoe Tavern pantry, and at one time buried in the Tavern grounds. This, according to a reliable source, is sheer window dressing.

The elusive 12-pounder was actually hidden behind the stairway of the help's quarters at Tahoe Tavern after being removed for the last time from the Tahoe City Commons. Here it was discovered by Ernest Henry Pomin while he was helping Tavern manager Jack Mathews move out an assorted stock of groceries. Pomin smuggled the cannon to A. M. "Joe" Henry's garage in the city and, later, Ernest Pomin, acting as the new custodian of the relic, presented it to Will A. Bliss of Glenbrook. Bliss, in turn, donated it to the Nevada State Museum at Carson City.

There it rests today after being the subject of a heated California-Nevada controversy for nearly three-quarters of a century. Whether it be the Fremont Cannon or not, the legend is more impressive than reality itself as the brass field piece represents a successful human attempt by Tahoe oldtimers to wrest some tangible reminder of the past from creeping oblivion that overtakes all mortal monuments in the region.

Newspaper Accounts

San Andreas, California, November 25, 1859:

A local man has recently returned from the Carson Valley and reports that two miners enroute from the Walker river to Genoa had discovered a small United States howitzer, It was just before crossing the spur of mountain that forms the southwestern boundary of Carson Valley. Its presence in that secluded quarter can only be accounted for upon the presumption that it is the gun mentioned in Lieutenant Frémont's narrative as having been abandoned by him in that neighborhood.

Daily Alta California published at San Francisco, California, July 6, 1861.

The Howitzer Abandoned by Frémont in 1843 [sic] -
A man named Sheldon brought a brass howitzer, which he found on the cast fork of Walker's river, to Carson City one day last week, and offered to dispose of it for $200. Failing to find a purchaser there he brought it up to Gold Hill. Some of our citizens hearing of its arrival, went down there with purchase money and nipped it before Gold Hill folks were aware of it. It will be used on the Fourth. There is quite a history connected with the cannon. Frémont, in 1843, when attempting to find a central pass across the Sierras, owing to the reduced state of his animals, was compelled to leave this howitzer. It always was an object of wonder to the Indians in that vicinity. They burnt the carriage and carried off most of the irons. but the cannon was too heavy for them to manage. Captain Truckee, the old Pah-Utah chief, had a wonderful idea of its power, and repeatedly requested the whites to go, with him and get it. Old Peter Lassen, who was with Frémont at the time it was left, just before his death, tried to get up a party to go after it - Virginia City - Enterprise.

(Lassen was not with Fremont in 1844, but Lassen's neighbor Sam Neil was.)

The Woodland Democrat of Woodland, California, 1864:

Frémont's Gun - A Twelve pound cannon was discovered in an unfrequented locality near Walker's river by a party of men and it was subsequently ascertained that it was a gun abandoned by John C. Frémont on one of his famous pathfinding expeditions when he ascended Walker's river into California to find a way across the Sierra Nevadas. It was brought to Virginia City and has ever since been in the possession of Young American Engine Company NO. 2, who have furnished it with a new gun carriage at considerable expense [???-- see 1896 Glenbrook photo above]. It was only used on rare occasions as firing salutes at daybreak on the Fourth of July, celebrating Federal victories, etc. The Provost Guard took it in charge yesterday and it is now at their quarters at the lower end of Union Street.

 The Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, March 4, 1875:

General John C. Frémont, the early explorer of all this region of the country, arrived here yesterday morning most unexpectedly . . . We told him about the brass howitzer which we, in company with a half dozen prospectors, found in the vicinity of Mono Lake in 1859, and which is now in this city. [Dan DeQuille]
 Additional item contributions welcomed

©1999, 2007
Bob Graham