Trails of the Pathfinders - G. B. Grinnell


The inequality with which fame distributes her favors has always been a fertile subject for moralist and philosopher. One man may do great things, and yet through innate modesty, or ill fortune of some sort, may make no impression on the popular imagination; so that his deeds are soon forgotten. Another, by a series of fortunately narrated adventures of relatively much less difficulty and danger, may acquire the name of having accomplished great things. Zebulon M. Pike, the explorer, was a man of the first kind. John C. Fremont, commonly spoken of as the Pathfinder, and by many people believed to have been the discoverer of the Rocky Mountains, belonged to the second class. The work that Fremont did was good work, but it was not great. He was an army officer, sent out to survey routes across the continent; and he did his duty, and did it well; but he did not discover the Rocky Mountains, nor did he discover gold in California, as often supposed. He passed over routes already well known to the men of the plains and the mountains, and discovered little that was new, except the approximate location of many points. Nevertheless, in his two expeditons, which cover the years 1842 and 1843, and 1844, he traversed ten thousand miles of wilderness, between the Missouri River and the shores of the Pacific; and he connected the surveys of the State of Missouri with those made by the Wilkes expedition at the mouth of the Columbia. This involved much labor and hardship, and was of high value at the time, but it is not to be compared with the work done by Lewis and Clark, and Pike; and the fact that Fremont gained great fame while his predecessors seemed until recently to be almost forgotten, seems un just.

Fremont's first expedition went only as far as the Rocky Mountains, terminating at the South Pass and Fremont's Peak. The second, which reached those mountains by another route, crossed them at the South Pass, and proceeded West to the Oregon River—the Columbia and northern California.

The story of these two journeys is embodied in a report addressed to the Chief of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, and published in Washington in 1845.

Although a formal report, made by an army officer, and written in the ordinary style of an itinerary of the daily march, yet Fremont's account of his travels is told with much vividness; and quite apart from the interest which attaches to it as a description of the still unexplored West, it attracts by its graphic style. The accounts of the hunting, encounters with Indians, and mountain climbing are spirited; and the descriptions of wild scenery show real feeling.

Fremont's party consisted of Charles Preuss, his assistant in topography; L. Maxwell, a hunter, with Kit Carson as guide. L. Maxwell and Kit Carson had long before this both been employed at Bent's old fort—Fort William. They had married sisters, daughters of Mr. Beaubien of Taos, N. M., who a few years later was killed in the Pueblo rising at Taos. He had over twenty Frenchmen, Creoles, and Canadian voyageurs, old prairie men, who had been servants of the fur companies. Among these men are such names as Lambert, L'Esperance, Lefevre, Lajeunesse, Cadotte, Clement, Simonds, Latulippe, Badeau, Chardonnais, and Janisse. The children and grandchildren of some, perhaps of many of these men, are still living, at various points in the West, and still bear the names of their ancestors. Joseph Clement, for example, probably a son of old man Clement, lives to-day on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, in South Dakota. Nicholas and Antoine Jeunesse, or Janisse, a few years ago were still alive, one at Pine Ridge, the other at Whetstone Agency, in South Dakota. Antoine Janisse died at Pine Ridge in 1897 and his brother Nicholas about 1905.

The expedition started on Friday, June 10, from Cyprian Chouteau's trading-post, near the mouth of the Kansas River, and marched up that stream. Their baggage, instruments and provisions were carried in mule carts, of which they had eight; and the men, except the drivers of these carts, were mounted; and some of them drove loose horses. A few oxen were taken along for food. They' marched up the Kansas River, and from time to time purchased milk, butter, and vegetables at Indian farms, a condition of things which indicates that the Indians at that time were further advanced toward civilization and self-support than many of them seem to be at the present day. It was the practice to encamp an hour or two before sunset, when the carts were arranged so as to form a sort of barricade, or at least to mark the boundaries of a circle about the camp, eighty yards in diameter.

"The tents were pitched and the horses hobbled and turned loose to graze; and but a few minutes elapsed before the cooks of the messes, of which there were four, were busily engaged in preparing the evening meal. . . .When we had reached a part of the country where such a precaution became necessary, the carts being regularly arranged for defending the camp, guard was mounted at eight o'clock, consisting of three men, who were relieved every two hours; the morning watch being horse guard for the day. At daybreak the camp was roused, the animals turned loose to graze, and breakfast generally over between six and seven o'clock, when we resumed our march, making regularly a halt at noon for one or two hours."

During his march up the Kansas River, Fremont speaks of passing a large but deserted Kansas village, "scattered in an open wood along the margin of the stream, on a spot chosen with the customary Indian fondness for beauty of scenery. The Pawnees had attacked it in the early spring. Some of the houses were burnt, and others blackened with smoke, and weeds were already getting possession of the cleared places." June 17 they crossed the Big Vermillion, and Big Blue; and saw their first antelope; while Carson brought in a fine deer. They were now on the trail of a party of emigrants to Oregon, and found many articles that they had thrown away. Game began to be abundant; there were flocks of turkeys in the bottom of the Little Blue; elk were seen on the hills, and antelope and deer abounded. When they reached the Pawnee country, many were the tales told of the craft and daring of these independent people. One morning they had a genuine Indian alarm; a man who was somewhat behind the party, rode up in haste, shouting, "Indians! Indians!" He stated that he had seen them, and had counted twenty-seven. The command was at once halted, and the usual precautions made for defence, while Carson, mounting one of the hunting horses, set out to learn the cause of the alarm. "Mounted on a fine horse, without a saddle, and scouring bareheaded over the prairie, Kit was one of the finest pictures of a horseman I have ever seen. A short time enabled him to discover that the Indian war party of twenty-seven consisted of six elk who had been gazing curiously at our caravan as it passed, and were now scampering off at full speed. This was our first alarm, and its excitement bloke agreeably on the monotony of the day."

The party now crossed over to the Platte River—which Fremont calls the Nebraska—and encamped on its banks. Two days later, while they were halted for noon, there came the startling cry, "Du monde!" people. In a moment all were prepared for defence. Horses were driven in, hobbled and picketed, and the horsemen were galloping at full speed in the direction of the new-comers, screaming and yelling with the wildest excitement. The travellers proved to be a small party, under the charge of a man named John Lee, which had left Fort Laramie two months before, endeavoring to transport the furs of the American Fur Company down the Platte by boat; they had started with the annual flood, but before they had travelled one hundred and fifty miles found that their waterway had become too shoal for their boats; they had therefore cached their possessions, and had started east on foot, carrying on their backs their provisions, clothing, and a few light furs. It was from among this party that Fremont engaged Latulippe, who, though on his way to St. Louis, really had no special desire to go there, and was quite willing to turn about and face the West again.

The same day three Cheyennes were met, returning from an unsuccessful horse-stealing expedition against the Pawnee village. They joined the party, and for some days afterward travelled in its company. On the 29th the first buffalo were seen, and on the following day these animals swarmed "in immense numbers over the plain, where they had left scarcely a blade of grass standing." "We had heard from a distance a dull and confused murmuring, and when we came in view of their dark masses there was not one among us who did not feel his heart beat quicker. It was the early part of the day, when the herds are feeding, and everywhere they were in motion. Here and there a huge old bull was rolling in the grass, and clouds of dust rose in the air from various parts of the bands, each the scene of some obstinate fight. Indians and buffalo make the poetry and life of the prairie, and our camp was full of their exhilaration." Here first they feasted on buffalo meat. Fremont says: "At any time of the night might be seen pieces of the most delicate and choicest meat, roasting en appolas, on sticks around the fire, and the guard were never without company. With pleasant weather and no enemy to fear, an abundance of the most excellent meat, and no scarcity of bread or tobacco, they were enjoying the oasis of a voyageur's life. Three cows were killed to-day. Kit Carson had shot one, and was continuing the chase in the midst of another herd, when his horse fell headlong, but sprang up and joined the flying band. Though considerably hurt, he had the good fortune to break no bones; and Maxwell, who was mounted on a fleet hunter, captured the runaway after a hard chase. He was on the point of shooting him, to avoid the loss of his bridle (a handsomely mounted Spanish one), when he found that his horse was able to come up with him."

The next day, July i, Fremont himself made a chase for buffalo. He says: "As we were riding quietly along the bank, a grand herd of buffalo, some seven or eight hundred in number, came crowding up from the river, where they had been to drink, and commenced crossing the plain slowly, eating as they went. The wind was favorable; the coolness of the morning invited to exercise, the ground was apparently good, and the distance across the prairie (two or three miles) gave us a fine opportunity to charge them before they could get among the river hills. It was too fine a prospect for the chase to be lost; and, halting for a few moments, the hunters were brought up and saddled, and Kit Carson, Maxwell, and I started together. They were now somewhat less than half a mile distant, and we rode easily along until within about three hundred yards, when a sudden agitation, a wavering in the band, and a galloping to and fro of some which were scattered along the skirts gave us the intimation that we were discovered. We started together at a grand gallop, riding steadily abreast of each other, and here the interest of the chase became so engrossingly intense, that we were sensible to nothing else. We were now closing upon them rapidly, and the front of the mass was already in rapid motion for the hills, and in a few seconds the movement had communicated itself to the whole herd.

"A crowd of bulls, as usual, brought up the rear, and every now and then some of them faced about, and then dashed on after the band a short distance, and turned and looked again, as if more than half inclined to stand and fight. In a few moments, however, during which we had been quickening our pace, the rout was universal, and we were going over the ground like a hurricane. When at about thirty yards w~ gave the usual shout (the hunter's pas de charge), and broke into the herd. We entered on the side, the mass giving way in every direction in their heedless course. Many of the bulls, less active and less fleet than the cows, paying no attention to the ground, and occupied solely with the hunter, were precipitated to the earth with great force, rolling over and over with the violence of the shock, and hardly distinguishable in the dust. We separated on entering, each singling out his game.

"My horse was a trained hunter, famous in the West under the name of Proveau, and, with his eyes flashing, and the foam flying from his mouth, sprang on after the cow like a tiger. In a few moments he brought me alongside of her, and, rising in the stirrups, I fired at the distance of a yard, the ball entering at the termination of the long hair, and passing near the heart. She fell headlong at the report of the gun, and, checking my horse, I looked around for my companions. At a little distance, Kit was on the ground, engaged in tying his horse to the horns of a cow which he was preparing to cut up. Among the scattered bands, at some distance below, I caught a glimpse of Maxwell; and while I was looking, a light wreath of white smoke curled away from his gun, from which I was too far to hear the report. Nearer, and between me and the hills, toward which they were directing their course, was the body of the herd, and, giving my horse the rein, we dashed after them. A thick cloud of dust hung upon their rear, which filled my mouth and eyes, and nearly smothered me. In the midst of this I could see nothing, and the buffalo were not distinguishable until within thirty feet. They crowded together more densely still as I came upon them, and rushed along in such a compact body, that I could not obtain an entrance—the horse almost leaping upon them. In a few moments the mass divided to the right and left, the horns clattering with a noise heard above everything else, and my horse darted into the opening. Five or six bulls charged on us as we dashed along the line, but were left far behind; and, singling out a cow, I gave her my fire, but struck too high. She gave a tremendous leap, and scoured on swifter than before. I reined up my horse, and the band swept on like a torrent, and left the place quiet and clear. Our chase had led us into dangerous ground. A prairie-dog village, so thickly settled that there were three or four holes in every twenty yards square, occupied the whole bottom for nearly two miles in length. Looking around, I saw only one of the hunters, nearly out of sight, and the long dark line of our caravan crawling along, three or four miles distant."

Continuing up the Platte River, Fremont reached the junction of the North and South Platte, on the 2d of July. He now divided his forces, sending one party up the North Platte to Fort Laramie, and another up the South Platte to St. Vrain's fort, and thence across country to a meeting point at Fort Laramie. This last party he determined to take charge of himself, taking Mr. Preuss, and four of his best men. The Cheyennes, whose village was supposed to be on the South Platte, also decided to accompany him. The party for the North Fork was to be in charge of Clement Lambert. The separation took place July 5. The party following up the South Platte took one Jed horse, and a pack mule, and travelled very light. The cook had been ordered to prepare provisions for this outfit, and they started. When they stopped for noon, however, they discovered that the provisions they supposed they were carrying, had been left behind, and they had nothing to eat except the meat of a poor bull that they had killed during the day. As the trip promised to be a hard one, Fremont sent two of his men, Preuss and Bernier; across the country to rejoin those who were travelling up the North branch of the river.

Buffalo were abundant, and an incident of the march was a bull fight on a large scale, which the travellers intercepted: "In the course of the afternoon, dust rising among the hills at a particular place, attracted our attention; and riding up, we found a band of eighteen or twenty buffalo bulls engaged in a desperate fight. Though butting and goring were bestowed liberally, and without distinction, yet their efforts were evidently directed against one—a huge gaunt old bull, very lean, while his adversaries were all fat and in good order. He appeared very weak and had already received some wounds, and, while we were looking on, was several times knocked down and badly hurt, and a very few moments would have put an end to him. Of course we took the side of the weaker party, and attacked the herd; but they were so blind with rage, that they fought on, utterly regardless of our presence, although on foot and on horseback we were firing in open view within twenty yards of them. But this did not last long. In a very few seconds, we created a commotion among them. One or two, which were knocked over by the balls, jumped up and ran off into the hills; and they began to retreat slowly along a broad ravine to the river, fighting furiously as they went. By the time they had reached the bottom, we had pretty well dispersed them, and the old bull hobbled off, to lie down somewhere. One of his enemies remained on the ground where we had first fired upon them, and we stopped there for a short time to cut from him some meat for our supper."

At length they reached the post, and were cordially received by Mr. St. Vrain.

No provisions could be had here, except a little coffee; but the way from here to Fort Laramie was through a country supposed to abound in buffalo, so that there was no danger of starvation. Here Fremont obtained a couple of horses and three mules, and he also hired a Spaniard for his trip, and took with him two others who were going to obtain service on the Laramie River. Crossing various streams, they passed through a pleasant buffalo country, and crossed Lodge-pole Creek, and Horse Creek, coming to Goshen's Hole.

The party struck the North Platte thirteen miles below Fort Laramie, and continuing up the stream, they first came in view of Fort Platte, a post belonging to Messrs. Sybille, Adams & Co.; and from there kept on up to Fort John, or Fort Laramie. Mr. Preuss and his party had already reached there, but had been much alarmed by the accounts of Indian hostilities, received from James Bridger and a large party of traders and trappers that he was guiding eastward.