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Frémont's Famous Ride
Frémont: "In all this stir of frontier life Mr. Nicollet felt no interest and took no share: horse and dog were nothing to him. His manner of life had never brought him into their companionship."
Frémont: "Mounted on a fine horse, without a saddle, and scouring bare-headed over the prairies, Kit [Carson] was one of the finest pictures of a horseman I have ever seen."

The California horse, and the wild mustang of the plains, were descended from the horse of the Spanish Conquest. Able to live on graze, it had stamina unknown in the east.

My horse was a trained hunter, famous in the west under the name of Proveau, and with his eyes flashing, and foam flying from his mouth, he sprang on the [buffalo] cow like a tiger. In a few moments he brought me along side of her, and rising in the stirrups, I fired at the distance of a yard. Frémont, July 1, 1843.

After the loss of Proveau on the 2nd Expedition, Frémont was given a California horse named El Toro [the bull] del Sacramento [river] as a gift from Captain Sutter.

Sacramento knew how to jump and liked it. Going through the wood at a hand-gallop we came upon an oak tree that had been blown down; its summit covered quite a space, and being crowded by the others so that I was brought squarely in front of it, I let Sacramento go and he cleared the whole green mass in a beautiful leap. Looking back, [Kit] Carson called out, "Captain, that horse will break your neck someday." It never happened to Sacramento to hurt his rider, but afterward, on the Salinas plain, he brought back from fight and back to camp his rider who had been shot dead in the saddle.

Frémont was actually a 2nd Lieutenant at the time, but any leader of an expedition or party, military or not, he was addressed as Captain. Later, on the Oregon border, after a night attack by Klamaths (who they had only hours before befriended) had killed three expedition members, Frémont recorded:

In the heart of the wood we came suddenly upon an Indian scout. He was drawing his arrow to the head as we came upon him, and Carson attempted to fire but his rifle snapped, and as he swerved away the Indian was about to let his arrow go into him; I fired, and in my haste to save Carson, failed to kill the Indian, but Sacramento, as I have said, was not afraid of anything, and I jumped him directly upon the Indian and threw him to the ground. His arrow went wild, and Sugundai (a Delaware Chief--at right) was right behind me, and as I passed over the Indian he threw himself from his horse and killed him with a blow to the head with his war-club.

Of the incident, Carson recorded:

The women and children, Carson says, "we did not interfere with;" but they burnt the village, together with their canoes and fishing-nets. In a subsequent encounter, the same day, Carson's life was imminently exposed. As they galloped up, he was rather in advance, when he observed an Indian fixing his arrow to let fly at him. Carson leveled his rifle, but it snapped; and in an instant the arrow would have pierced him, had not Frémont, seeing the danger, dashed his horse on the Indian, and knocked him down. "I owe my life to them two," says Carson--'the colonel and Sacramento saved me. Sacramento is a noble Californian horse which Capt. Sutter gave to Col. Frémont in 1844, and which has twice made the distance between Kentucky and his native valley, where he earned his name by swimming the river after which he is called, at the close of a long day's journey. Notwithstanding all his hardships, (for he has traveled everywhere with his master,) he is still the favourite horse of Col. Frémont. Washington Union, 1847.

I considered that Frémont saved my life for, in all probability, if he had not run over the Indian as he did, I would have been shot. Autobiography, 1858

The ultimate example of the abilities of the California horse occurred on the extraordinary ride made by (then) Col. Frémont in March of 1847. Accompanied by Jacob Dodson, and Don José de Jesús "Totoi" Pico, the ride was made from Los Angeles to Monterey and back, a distance of over 800 miles, in eight days -- and this including layovers and detentions of a day and a half. A caballado of spare horses, all unshod, were driven ahead for rapid changes of mount. In the illustration, Jacob, who had become expert with the Mexican latiet, is roping a horse for a cambio. The horses only feed was what graze was found at night.

On the leg into San Luis Obispo, Frémont's mount, one of two brothers that were a gift of Don Jesús, was put to a test. After having carried Frémont for 30 miles the previous evening, Pico insisted that this horse could carry its rider the final 125 miles without relief. But after covering 90 miles, Frémont would ride him no further, and switched his saddle to the horse's younger brother. The elder horse was turned loose to run the remaining 30 miles without a rider, but again he took the lead...

...keeping it all the way, and entering San Luis in a sweeping gallop, nostrils distended, snuffing the air, and neighing with exultation at his return to his native pasture; his younger brother all the time at the head of the horses under the saddle, bearing on his bit, and held in by his rider.

go Read the entire account by Alcalde Walter Colton of Monterey.

California's first newspaper, The Californian, reported the event:

March 27.
Lieutenant Colonel Frémont arrived here day before yesterday, in three days, ten hours from Los Angeles, (400 miles,) on business with Governor Kearney, and left again yesterday afternoon for the purpose of embarking his batallion for this port. He expects to be in Monterey again by the 10th or 12th of April. The Colonel will have ridden over 800 miles in eight days, including all delays on this trip.

The event was also recorded in the annuls of the United States Senate:
Executive Document No. 33, April 7, 1848, The Prodeedings of the court martial in the trial of Lieutenant Colonel Frémont.

But the riding was taking a toll: the start of his 5th Expedition was delayed by a bout of sciatica!
Frémont had to return St. Louis for medical treatment. He rejoined the party two weeks later, described by expedition photographer Soloman Nunes Carvalho:

"Just after breakfast one of the Delawares gave a loud whoop, and pointed to the burning prairie before us, where to our great joy we saw Col. Frémont, followed by an immense man, who proved to be the doctor, on an immense mule, and the Indian chief and his servant galloping through the blazing element in the direction of our camp. Instantly, with one accord, all the men discharged their rifles in a volley. No father who had been absent from his children could have been received with more enthusiasm and real joy."

Another remarkable ride at about the same time was recorded of an American soldier named John Brown, who known locally as "Juan Flaco". This Juan Flaco, or Long John, carried dispatches to Comm. Stockton. He left Los Angeles at 8 P.M. on September 24, 1846 and arrived in San Francisco at 8 P.M. on the 28th having riden 630 miles in four days. This included having one horse shot out from under him, and carrying his saddle for 20 miles until he found another horse. As Kearney found at San Pascal, the Mexican cavalry, mounted on California horses, and armed with lances, were not to be trifled with!

"He [Brown] had a permit from the American Alcalde to press horses wherever found.He rode the whole distance--four hundred and sixty miles--in fifty-two hours, during which he had not slept."
Rev. Walter Colton, Alcalde at Monterey

Professional assiduity, unusual self-control, readiness to endure any amount of monotonous hard work, deprivation, and exhaustion--these were traits of Frémont that we should not allow his many adventures, and the picturesqueness of the scenes in which he moved to obscure. It is significant that Carson, like that other expert frontiersman Alex Godey, regarded him with deferential respect. To both he was as efficient a man of action as they could desire--and in addition a scientist.
Allan Nevins, DeWitt Clinton professor of history, Columbia University

go Frémont's Capitulation of Cahuenga.
go Frémont's Emancipation Proclamation in Missouri.
Frémont's famous 1842 climb of Fremont Peak.
Frémont's discovery of Lake Tahoe.
Frémont's "Long Camp" in the deep snow near the summit of the Sierra Nevada in 1844.
Frémont's contributions to meteorology


©1999, 2007
Bob Graham