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Down the Valley in Springtime
The Calaveras River

Descending the eastern slopes of the Coast Range through beds of gilias and lupines..I at length waded out into the midst of it. All the ground was covered, not with grass and green leaves, but with radiant corollas, about ankle-deep near the foothills, knee-deep or more five or six miles out.
John Muir, 1868

Our road was now one continued enjoyment; and it was pleasant, riding among this assemblage of green pastures with varied flowers and scattered groves, and out of the warm green spring, to look at the rocky and snowy peaks where lately we had suffered so much.
John Charles Frémont, 1844


In this beginning of a page I am looking at some of the campsites as the 2nd Expedition moved south from Sutter's Fort through the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys in March of 1844.

At Sutter's Fort, three determinations of latitude were made. Although the the expedition camp was made at the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers on the eighth of March. Frémont spent much of his time at the Fort. The determinations of latitude made on March 14 and 15 (38° 35' 15") were apparently made at the Fort. The first was by altitudes of Polaris, and the second by meridian transit of the sun. They vary by only 5"--I have used the mean.
The determination made on March 20 (38° 35' 15"), also by meridian transit, was apparently made at the camp on the rivers. In this aerial photograph, Sutter's Fort can be seen at 28th and J Streets, but the campsite is probably under Interstate 5, just north of the State Railway Museum. The channel of the American River was changed late in the 19th century.
Remember, there was nothing here at all in 1844 other than the Sutter's Fort. The dark 10-block area in the photo is Capitol Park; the white building is the State Capitol.

The following site determinations have been made by using Frémont's determinations of latitude, which can usually be relied upon to be very accurate. In the previous example, the determinations of latitude on the 14th and 15th varied by only 5".

Longitude determination was much more difficult. To equal the accuracy of his determinations of latitude, Frémont would have needed Time to within fractions of a second--well beyond the capabilities of the pocket chronometers he carried. Marine chronometers, he had found from experience, could not survive the rigors of these expedition routes. Therefore, in my own determinations of his positions, the rivers on which he camped are used as the second line of position.
go See Longitude, and the Buenaventura River

To locate these places on a larger scale, a second window can be called up to show an overview of the route as recorded on the Frémont/Preuss map of 1845. Note that the Sacramento River is not shown north of Neuva Helvetia (Sacramento); this is because it was not surveyed until the third expedition in 1845-46.

A preliminary move on March 22 was to the Sinclair ranch a few miles up the American, followed by a move south on the 24th, making camp on the Cosumnes River. But even though Frémont records the weather as "delightful," he made no astronomical observations. The following day, after traveling 28 miles, they arrived on the Mokelumne River, a few miles east of the city of Lodi, shown here on a USGS map.

The following day, March 26th, they halted at the Calaveras River.

"On the 26th we halted at the Arroyo de las Calaveras, (Skull creek,) a tributary to the San Joaquin--the previous two streams entering the bay between the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers. This place is beautiful, with open groves of oak, and a grassy sward beneath, with many plants in bloom, some varieties of which seem to love the shade of the trees, and grow there in close small fields. Near the river, and replacing the grass, are great quantities of ammole, (soap plant,) the leaves of which are used in California for making, among other things, mats for saddle-cloths. A vine with a small white flower, (melothria?) called here la yerba buena, and which, from its abundance, gives name to an island and town in the bay, was to-day very frequent on our road--sometimes running on the ground or climbing the trees."

The site is shown below in a combined USGS map image and aerial photograph. It is in a cherry orchard, which when examined on March 18, 2003, was in full bloom. But the area in no way suggests Frémont's description. The Calaveras River, which was bone-dry, is today nothing more than a Reclamation District drainage ditch--it's waters being impounded in New Hogan Dam. There are still oak trees (where they weren't in someone's way), but Frémont's soap plant and la yerba buena have given way to the now ubiquitous ditch pests--blackberry vines, stink weed, and old tires and other discarded trash.

I checked out this location after I was contacted through this website by Michael Bennett at the San Joaquin Historical Society Museum. I was able to identify myself to him as the same Bob Graham that the museum had employed fifteen years ago to identify and catalog some 4000 antique tools in their Floyd J. Locher Collection. Michael informed me that there is interest in the Lodi area in commemorating Frémont's visit with a nearby marker to be placed by the D.A.R.

more to come

Next a tough one--the camps of March 28 and 31 on the Stanislaus River--with some input from Stockton, CA surveyor Stephen Thumblert.

go Locating the peak climbed in Wyoming in 1842
go Frémont's the Determinations of Altitude
go and GPS, Latitude, and the Discovery of Frémont's Long Camp.
go Watching the heavens change. How polaris has moved 2 degrees closer to the celestial pole during recorded California history, and why John C. Frémont got up at 3:00 a.m. to sight polaris in 1844--wasn't it there all night long?

©1999, 2007
Bob Graham