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The Platte River Raft Trip
Cré Dieu! said Basil, Je crois bien que j'ai nagé un demi mile. 

Frémont, August 24, 1842: We cleared rock after rock, and shot past fall after fall, our little boat seeming to play with the cataract. We became flush with success and familiar with the danger; and yielding to the excitement of the occasion, broke forth together into a Canadian boat song. Singing, or rather shouting, as we dashed along; and were, I believe, in the midst of the chorus, when the boat struck a concealed rock immediately at the foot of a fall, which whirled her over in an instant.

Well, the canyon doesn't look very formidable as a white water rafting venue today.

First called the Firey Narrows by Robert Stuart and his party in 1812, it is today called Frémont Canyon. A century and a half of reclamation and hydroelectric development on the North Platte River have tamed it more than a little.

Note: In the summer 2000 edition of Harpers Magazine Tom Chaffin (Pathfinder: John C. Frémont and the course of American Empire) wrote an article How the West Was Lost--his story of a road trip following Frémont 's 1st Expedition route, and how most had disappeared under reclamation projects and other developement.

 

The highly imaginary engraving of the boat in the rapids is from Samuel Smucker's 1856 The Life of Col. John Charles Frémont and His Narrative of Explorations and Adventures in Kansas, Nebraska, Oregon and California. It is depicted as a wooden boat, a sort of a bateau, whereas the actual boat was a 20' long 4' beam India rubber boat--rubberized canvas with sewn and cemented seams.

Voucher No. 24, New York, 5 May, 1842
U. S. to Horace H. Day

1 air army boat or floater

$150.00

2 pieces India rubber cloth

$39.98

2 pots rubber composition

$1.00

Jackson, Donald, and Mary Lee Spence, The Expeditions of John Charles Frémont: Vol. I, Travels from 1838 to 1844, University of Illinois Press, 1970.

$190.98


This is the portion of the 1843 Frémont/Preuss map showing the raft trip. There are two routes taken: Bernier's land party's route overland with most of the expedition to a previous camp on Goat Island; the rafters (Frémont, Preuss, Lajeunesse, Lambert, Benoist, Descoteaux, and Ayot) route following the Sweetwater to its juncture with the North Fork of the Platte. That was the August 24, 1842 launch point for the raft trip.

Today that juncture, the mouth of the Sweetwater, is covered by the waters of Pathfinder Reservoir (1919) on the North Platte. At the point that the Platte passed through Frémont Canyon, the terminus of the trip (the wreck), the waters are backed up from Alcova Reservoir--no white water rapids today!

At right is the route from Independence Rock (left) to the mouth of the Sweetwater (lower center) to Goat Island (right).
Goat island was later called Frémont Island, but, like the then nearby Hot Springs Gate, it was another casualty of progress.
The upper dashed trace on the expedition map is Bernier's overland contingent--approximately today's route 220.

The original plan was to stop and breakfast at Goat Island, well before the arrival of Bernier, and then to continue on down the Platte. Provisions for ten or twelve days were stowed away. Didn't happen that way.
Things went pretty well for a few miles, and then they entered the canyon!
Fortunately, Frémont had told Bernier to wait at Goat Island if he found no note left for him.
The Platte never did work out as a river transportation route.

Note on Tom "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick and Frémont:

In the Report, Frémont tells us that subsequent to his own raft misadventure, Tom Fitzpatrick told him that in 1824 he had lost a complete cargo of furs in the same canyon.

Frémont, exploring an alternate route, had reached Fort Laramie on July 15, 1842, two days behind his main party which he had placed under the charge of Clement Lambert. There he learned that Tom Fitzpatrick and Jim Bridger had arrived at the Fort on July 3, with disturbing news of a great state of unrest among the Indians--the Gros Ventres, Oglallas, and Cheyenne had taken the field against the Snakes and Crows. Tom Fitzpatrick had then been engaged at the fort to guide the missionary party of Dr. Elijah White to Oregon, and had left shortly before the arrival of the Frémont party.

Frémont 's first actual meeting with Tom Fitzpatrick took place in Washington, D.C. in January of 1843--at the time the 1st Expedition Report was being written. Senator Benton was at that time attempting to find a place for Tom in government service. One of the discovers of South Pass in 1824, he would be one of the guides on Frémont 's 2nd Expedition, 1843-44. Later, he was appointed Indian Agent of all the tribes on the headwaters of the Arkansas, Platte, and Kansas Rivers, in which capacity he was instrumental in obtaining important treaties.


Here is the raft trip on a modern map showing the North Platte and Sweetwater as presently constituted after a century of extensive reclamation projects. The trip is from Pathfinder Reservoir to Alcova Reservoir. I guess you can still raft it, but, as the photo at the top shows, it won't be very exciting.

Important positions determined by Frémont in locating these places are below. Because the longitude determinations are not very exact, the latitudes only are used; the second line of position is the relevant watercourse.

August 22

Rock Independence

N32° 29' 36"

August 23

Mouth of the Sweetwater

N42° 27' 18"

July 30

Goat Island

N42° 33' 27"

Taking the instruments and records on the raft doesn't seem to have been a very smart move. They would have been safer travelling overland with Bernier. Many records of astronomical and barometrical observations and botanical specimens were lost.

Tom Rea, author of Bone Wars, tells this story as a chapter in his new book Devil's Gate: Owning the Land, Owning the Story published by the University of Oklahoma Press, 2006.

"In this eloquent and captivating narrative, Tom Rea traces the history of the Sweetwater River valley in central Wyoming--a remote place including Devil's Gate, Independence Rock, and other sites along a stretch of the Oregon Trail--to show how ownership of a place can translate into owning its story." You can find the book at your bookstore, or online at Amazon.com.

This was not the only trial of the rubber boat. It had been used to ferry equipment across swollen rivers, and there was a short attempt on August 23rd at descending the Sweetwater; it was too shallow. On September 15, Frémont made one last try at descending the Platte. They built an 8' long buffalo hide bull boat which drew only four inches of water, but after he and Charles Preuss and two others had dragged it through the sands for three or four miles they abandoned it.

Another rubber boat was taken on Frémont's 2nd expedition on 1843. It was used to cross several miles of water to an island in Great Salt Lake. Today called Frémont Island.

Frémont was not the first explorer to take along a packable boat. Lewis and Clark had had a folding iron-frame for a boat fabricated at the Harpers Ferry arsenal in Virginia in April 1803. They planned to cover it with birch or leather. On the upper reaches of the Missouri River in 1804 they gave it a trial. It sunk.


©1999, 2007
Bob Graham