Trails of the Pathfinders - G. B. Grinnell


At Fort Laramie, Fremont heard much about the hostilities of the Sioux and Cheyennes, who, the year before, had had a severe fight with a party of sixty men, under the command of Mr. Frapp, of St. Louis. The Indians had lost eight or ten men, and the whites half as many, including their leader. This left the Indians in a bad frame of mind, and many of the young men had gone off on a war-path, threatening to kill emigrants, and, in fact, any whites passing through the country. One or two parties had already been saved, through the efforts of Fitzpatrick, of the Broken Hand; but the Indians were clearly in a bad temper. A large village of Sioux was camped here, and Fremont had many savage visitors who were very much interested in him and his curious actions. His astronomical observations and instruments especially excited their awe and admiration; but the chiefs were careful to keep the younger men and the women and children from annoying the astronomer. Here the services of Joseph Bissonette as interpreter were secured, and the party prepared to start. Before this was done, however, a delegation of chiefs warned Fremont not to go farther. He, however, explained to them that he must obey his orders, and was finally allowed to go at his own risk.

The party proceeded up the North Platte River, and the first night out were joined by Bissonette, the interpreter, and by his Indian wife and a young Sioux sent forward by the chiefs at Fort Laramie, partly as guide and partly to vouch for the explorers in case they should meet with hostile Sioux. Fremont imagined, from Bissonette's long residence in the country, that he was a guide, and followed his advice as to the route to be pursued. He afterward learned that Bissonette had seldom been out of sight of the fort, and his suggestions obliged the party to travel over a very rough road. They met a party of Indians who gave very discouraging accounts of the country ahead, saying that buffalo were scarce, that there was no grass to support the horses, partly because of the excessive drought, and partly on account of the grasshoppers, which were unusually numerous. The next day they killed five or six cows and made dried meat of them. Buffalo continued plenty and they pushed forward, meeting Indians, who again gave them bad accounts of the country ahead, so that Bissonette strongly advised Fremont to turn about. This he declined to do, but told his men what he had heard and left it to each man to say whether he would go on or turn back. Fremont had absolute confidence in a number of the best men, and felt sure that they would stay with him, and to his great satisfaction all agreed to go forward. Here, however, the interpreter and his Indian left him, and with them Fremont sent back one of his men, who, from the effect of an old wound, was unable to travel on foot and his horse seemed on the point of giving out. The carts were taken to pieces and cached in some willow brush, while everything that could be spared was buried in the ground. Pack-saddles were arranged and from here the animals were to carry their loads, not to haul them. Carson was appointed guide, for the region they were now entering had long been his residence. t

Instead of following the emigrant trail, which left the Platte and crossed over to the Sweetwater, Fremont determined to keep on up the Platte until he reached the Sweetwater, thinking that in this way he would find better feed for his animals. The decision proved a wise one. The day after leaving their cache they found abundant grass as well as some buffalo, and although when they passed the ford where the Indian village had crossed the river they found there the skeletons of horses lying all about, they had no trouble in finding grass for their animals.

On August 1 they camped near Independence Rock, an isolated granite rock about six hundred and fifty yards long and forty in height. "Everywhere within six or eight feet of the ground, where the surface is sufficiently smooth, and in some places sixty or eighty feet above," he relates, "the rock is inscribed with the names of travellers. Many a name famous in the history of this country, and some well known to science, are to be found mixed among those of the traders and of travellers for pleasure and curiosity, and of missionaries among the savages."

It was on August 3 that the party had their first sight of the Wind River Mountains, distant then about seventy miles, and appearing as a low, dark, mountainous region. Soon after this they came to the canyon where the Sweetwater comes out of the mountains, and they followed the river up for some distance, but finally left it and turned up a ravine leading to the high prairie above. For some time they had found fuel very scarce, and had been obliged to burn buffalo chips and sage brush as they did here. The rain, which from time to time had been falling upon them down in the valley, now showed as snow on the white peaks that they had approached, for they were within a short distance of the South Pass, which was the objective point for the expedition. Soon they reached the highest point of the Pass, which Fremont estimates at about seven thousand feet, passed over it and camped on the Little Sandy, a tributary of Green River.

The explorer felt a natural longing to push northward from this point, wishing to cross the heads of the Yellowstone, which he justly supposed arose among the mountains which lay to the north of him, but the party were in no condition to make such a journey; the men were more or less exhausted by the difficulties of past travel, provisions were almost gone, and game was scarce. He, however, built a stout corral and felled timber on the margin of a lake not far off, where there was abundant food for the animals; and, dividing his party, left some of the men and the weakest animals here, and taking fourteen men with fifteen of the best mules, set out to penetrate farther into the mountains. Travel through the mountains was slow and difficult, but attractive; it was down one steep slope and then up another and then down again. Every hilltop showed some deep and beautiful valley, often occupied by lakes, always showing the course of some pure and rapid mountain torrent. The vegetation was fresh and green, as different as possible from the parched grass and juiceless wormwood through which they had so long been travelling.

At their camp of August 13 the upward way became so steep and rough that it was determined to leave the animals here and to continue the journey on foot. The men carried with them nothing but arms and instruments; and as the day was warm many of them left their coats in camp. They climbed and climbed, finding, as always happens in the mountains, that the distances were much greater than they supposed. At night they were still far from their objective point, and they lay down without anything to eat. The next morning, however, starting early, and of course without food, they got among the snow-fields. The elevation was now great, and several of the men, Fremont among the number, were taken ill and were unable to proceed. From here Basil Lajeunesse, with four men, was sent back to the place where the mules had been left, with instructions to bring on, if possible, four or five animals, with provisions and blankets. Soon after this Fremont and the remaining men returned to their camp, and that night the men sent back for the animals returned with food and bedding. The next day, encouraged by rest and a couple of hearty meals, they determined once more to essay the peaks. They rode their animals well up on to the mountains, and then turning them loose, again began to climb. Their previous experience stood them in good stead; they climbed slowly, and at last reached the summit of the mountains, presumably the peak now known as Fremont's Peak. From this point the Three Tetons bore north fifty degrees west, and Fremont's elevation he gives as thirteen thousand five hundred and seventy feet. He says, with reasonable pride, "We had climbed the loftiest peak of the Rocky Mountains and looked down upon the snow a thousand feet below, and, standing where never human foot had stood before, felt the exultation of first explorers."

They returned to the camp, where they had left their animals, and travelled rapidly eastward, through South Pass, and down on to the Sweetwater and the Platte. An effort was made to run this river with the india-rubber boat, which for daring and hardihood really deserved success. However, although they ran some distance and passed a number of threatening places, they did not get through. "We pushed off again, but after making a little distance the force of the current became too great for the men on shore, and two of them let go the rope. Lajeunesse, the third man, hung on and was jerked headforemost into the river from a rock about twelve feet high, and down the boat shot like an arrow. Basil following us in the rapid current and exerting all his strength to keep in mid-channel—his head only seen occasionally like a black spot in the white foam. How far we went I do not exactly know, but we succeeded in turning the boat into an eddy below. 'Cre Dieu,'  said Basil Lajeunesse, as he arrived immediately after us. 'le crois Bien que jai nage un demi mile.'  ('Good Lord! I believe I have swum half a mile.') He had owed his life to his skill as a swimmer, and I determined to take him and the two others on board and trust to skill and fortune to reach the other end in safety. We placed ourselves on our knees and with the short paddles in our hands, the most skilful boatman being at the bow, and again we commenced our rapid descent. We cleared rock after rock and shot past fall after fall, our little boat seeming to play with the cataract. We became flushed 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, 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. Three of my men could not swim and my first feeling was to assist them and save some of our effects; but a sharp concussion or two convinced me that I had not yet saved myself. A few strokes brought me into an eddy, and I landed on a pile of rocks on the left side. Looking around I saw that Mr. Preuss had gained the shore on the same side, about twenty yards below, and a little climbing and swimming soon brought him to my side. On the opposite side, against the wall, lay the boat bottom up, and Lambert was in the act of saving Descoteaux, whom he had grasped by the hair, and who could not swim. 'Lache pas,'  said he, as I afterward learned, 'Lache pas, cher frere.'  ('Don't let go; don't let go, dear brother!) 'Crain: pas,'  was the reply, 'le m'en vais mo uri r avant que de to lather.'  ('Don't fear, I will die before I let you go.') Such was the reply of courage and generosity in this danger. For a hundred yards below the current was covered with floating books and boxes, bales of blankets and scattered articles of clothing; and so strong and boiling was the stream that even our heavy instruments—which were all in cases—kept on the surface, and the sextant, circle and the long black box of the telescope were in view at once. For a moment I felt somewhat disheartened. All our books—almost every record of the journey—our journals and registers of astronomical and barometrical observations—had been lost in a moment. But it was no time to indulge in regrets, and I immediately set about endeavoring to save something from the wreck. Making ourselves understood as well as possible by signs—for nothing could be heard in the roar of the waters—we commenced our operations. Of everything on board the only article that had been saved was my double-barreled gun, which Descoteaux had caught and clung to with drowning tenacity. The men continued down the river on the left bank. Mr. Preuss and myself descended on the side we were on, and La jeunesse, with a paddle in his hand, jumped on the boat alone and continued down the canon. She was now light and cleared every bad place with much less difficulty. In a short time he was joined by Lambert, and the search was continued for about a mile and a half, which was as far as the boat could proceed in the pass.

"Here the walls were about five hundred feet high, and the fragments of rock from above had choked the river into a hollow pass but one or two feet above the surface. Through this and the interstices of the rock the water found its way. Favored beyond our expectations, all of our registers had been recovered with the exception of one of my journals, which contained the notes and incidents of travel, and topographical descriptions, a number of scattered astronomical observations, principally meridian altitudes of the sun, and our barometrical register west of Laramie. Fortunately, our other journals contained duplicates of the most important barometrical observations which had been taken in the mountains. These, with a few scattered notes were all that had been preserved of our meteorological observations. In addition to these we saved the circle, and these, with a few blankets, constituted everything that had been rescued from the waters."

Indian council


Having gathered up the things which they left on the shore, the members of the party, half naked, started on foot for the camp below where the other men had been sent. They reached there that night and found the much-needed food and clothing. After passing Fort Laramie, Fremont made another effort to navigate the Platte River, trying to descend it in a bull boat; but this descent, instead of being a trip by water, resolved itself into dragging the vessel over the sands and finally abandoning it. On the 22d of September, Fremont reached the village of the Grand Pawnees, about thirty miles above the mouth of the Loup fork, on the Platte River, and on October i he found himself at the settlements on the Missouri River. From here the river was descended in a boat and St. Louis was reached October 17.