The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. — Edmund Burke

Trails of the Pathfinders - G. B. Grinnell




Fremont—III

Fremont's second trip was on a scale somewhat more extensive than his first. His party consisted of thirty-two regular engagees, besides a negro, and two Delaware Indians, who were hired to act as hunters. The route was up the Kansas valley, across the divide, to the head of the Arkansas, and then through passes in the mountains if any could be found—at the source of this river. The party left "the little town of Kansas "—now Kansas City—the last of May, and proceeded without special adventure until the afternoon of June 6, when a little confusion was caused by the sudden arrival of Maxwell—one of the hunters of the expedition of 1842—just in advance of a party of Osage Indians. Maxwell had gone back to look for a lost horse, and the Osages had promptly chased him into camp, a distance of nine miles. The Osages drove off a number of the best horses, but a hard chase of seven or eight miles recovered them all.

At this season of the year the streams were up, and some difficulty was met with in crossing them. Game was scarce, for they were travelling through a region frequently traversed by trapping and hunting parties of Indians, and much pursuit had made the game watchful and wild. Travel was so hard and slow, largely owing to rain and mud, that when he reached Big Timber, Fremont determined to divide his party, leaving Fitzpatrick—he of the Broken Hand with twenty-five men in charge of the provisions and heavier baggage of the camp; while Fremont, more lightly loaded, but taking a wagon and the howitzer which had been furnished by the United States arsenal at St. Louis, should proceed ahead of the main party.

On June 19 they crossed the Pawnee road to the Arkansas, and suddenly came upon the first buffalo, half a dozen bulls, which formed the vanguard of immense herds, among which they journeyed for many days afterward. The 4th of July found them at St. Vrain's fort, on the South Platte.

Their live stock was now much run down, and their stock of provisions fairly exhausted; but they found the fort little better off than themselves, and quite without surplus animals. Fremont, therefore, authorized Maxwell, who was now about to separate from them and to go on to Taos, to purchase there ten or twelve mules, pack them with provisions, and meet him at the mouth of the Fontaine qui bouit, on the Arkansas River.

On the 6th of July, ten miles above St. Vrain's fort, the party passed Fort Lancaster, the trading-post of Mr. Lupton. He had already established a farm on the prairie, certainly one of the very earliest in the Trans-Missouri country. Horses, cattle, and hogs ranged on the prairie; and there was poultry, and what was left of a flourishing garden, which had just been ruined by high water.

The next day a large camp—one hundred and sixty lodges—of Arapahoes was passed. They had many horses and seemed prosperous.

They were now about seven thousand five hundred feet above the sea-level and travelling along prairies from which the waters drained into the Arkansas, Platte, and Kansas rivers. Pike's Peak was in sight, and farther to the south the Spanish Peaks.

The next day they came upon the wagon-road to the settlements on the Arkansas River, and in the afternoon camped on the Fontaine qui bouit, which they followed down, passing the camp of a hunter named Maurice, who had been catching buffalo calves, a number of which were seen among the cattle near his lodge. Here, too, were a party of mountaineers,' among whom were several Connecticut men belonging to Wyeth's party. On the afternoon of July 14 they camped near a pueblo, or town, where were settled a number of mountaineers who had married Spanish women, and had formed a farming settlement here. Fremont hoped that he might have obtained some provisions from these people, but as trade with the Spanish settlements was forbidden he got nothing except milk, of which they had an abundance. Fremont learned here that the Spanish Utes were on the war-path and that there had been a popular tumult among the civilized Indians near Taos, and so felt some natural anxiety about the safety of Maxwell. By great good luck, however, he met here Carson, whom he engaged once more, and sent him off to Charles Bent, down the Arkansas River, to buy mules at Bent's fort—Fort William. Usually there was a large stock of animals here, for the Indians, returning from their raids into Mexico, often traded a part of their plunder for goods.

The party now returned to St. Vrain's fort, which they reached on the 23d. Here Fitzpatrick and his party were found safe and well, and also Carson, who had brought with him ten good mules with the necessary pack animals. The provisions which Fitzpatrick had brought and over which he had watched with great care, were very welcome to the hungry explorers. At this post the Delaware Indians determined to return to their home. Fremont made up his mind that he would try the pass through which the Cache-a-la-Poudre flowed, and he again divided the party, sending Fitzpatrick across the plains to the mouth of the Laramie River, to follow the usual emigrant trail and to meet him at Fort Hall. Fremont with thirteen men was to take the longer road about. He started up the Cache-a-la-Poudre, marched westward through the Medicine Bow Mountains to the North Platte River, which he crossed. The way was not exceptionally difficult except for the fact that it ran through large and tough bushes of sage brush, which made the hauling hard. Buffalo were abundant and food was plenty. Indeed, so many were killed that they spent a day or two in camp drying meat as provision for the future. While they were occupied at this, they were charged by about seventy mounted Indians, but these were seen by the horse guard, the horses driven into camp and the party took up a defensive position in a grove of timber, so that the Indians, just before the howitzer was fired at them, halted and explained that they had taken the camp for one of hostile Indians. This war-party was one of Arapahoes and Cheyennes, returning unsuccessful from a journey against their enemies, the Shoshoni. They had lost several men and were not in a very pleasant frame of mind.

From here, turning south, the party struck across to the Sweetwater River and at length reached the trail to the Oregon, being thus on the same ground that they had traversed the previous year. Green River, then called Prairie-Hen River, was reached August 16, and something is said of the impressions among the residents in the country about the lower course of the Colorado. Says Fremont: "From many descriptions of trappers it is probable that in its foaming course among its lofty precipices it presents many scenes of wild grandeur; and though offering many temptations, and often discussed, no trappers have been found bold enough to undertake a voyage which has so certain a prospect of a fatal termination. The Indians have strange stories of beautiful valleys abounding with beaver shut up among inaccessible walls of rock in the lower course of the river, and to which the neighboring Indians, in their occasional wars with the Spaniards and among themselves, drive their herds of cattle and flocks of sheep, leaving them to pasture in perfect security." Fremont was ignorant that nearly eighteen years before Ashley had descended the Green River in a boat, and had inscribed his name and a date on the rock which was seen there by Major J. W. Powell more than forty years later. But Ashley's expedition did not get much farther than the mouth of Ashley River, where it was wrecked and the trip abandoned.

Not long after crossing Green River they passed quite near Bridger's fort, and then sent Carson on to Fort Hall to secure provisions, while Fremont with his party went on to Bear River. Following down this stream they met a party of emigrants, saw more or less game in the way of antelope and elk, and, on approaching the Shoshoni village, were charged by the Indians, who supposed the white men a party of Sioux, because they carried a flag regarded by these people as an emblem of hostility, being usually carried by the Sioux, and the neighboring mountain Indians when they came against the Shoshoni to war. The true character of Fremont's party was recognized by the Indians before they got near them and they were kindly received in the village and obtained provisions there. Further down the stream the celebrated Beer Springs, "which, on account of the effervescing gas and acid taste, have received their name from the voyageurs and trappers of the country, who, in the midst of their rude and hard lives, are fond of finding some fancied resemblance to the luxuries they rarely have the fortune to enjoy." The water of some of these springs is hot, and has a pungent and disagreeable metallic taste leaving a burning effect on the tongue. The Beer, or Soda Springs, are of the same character as the boiling springs at the foot of Pike's Peak, but those are not hot.

It was in the neighborhood of Bear River that Fremont and his party first came in contact with the Indians which he calls Root Diggers, and which in those old times were spoken of as Digger Indians. They are various tribes and bands of Pah-utes, occupying the desert country of the Rocky Mountains, whose subsistence is derived chiefly from roots and seeds, and from such small animals as they capture.

The country which Fremont was crossing had formerly abounded in game, but the buffalo had all disappeared. Even as early as this (1843), attention had been called to the disappearance of the buffalo, and Fremont says: "The extraordinary rapidity with which the buffalo is disappearing from our territories will not appear surprising when we remember the great scale on which their destruction is yearly carried on. With inconsiderable exceptions, the business of the American trading-posts is carried on in their skins; every year the Indian villages make new lodges for which the skin of the buffalo furnishes the material; and in that portion of the country where they are still found, the Indians derive their entire support from them and slaughter them with a thoughtless and abominable extravagance. Like the Indians themselves, they have been a characteristic of the Great West; and as, like them, they are visibly diminishing, it will be interesting to throw a glance backward through the last twenty years and give some account of their former distribution through the country and the limit of their western range.

"The information is derived principally from Mr. Fitzpatrick, supported by my own personal knowledge and acquaintance with the country. Our knowledge does not go farther back than the spring of 1824., at which time the buffalo were spread in immense numbers over the Green River and Bear River valleys, and through all the country lying between the Colorado, or Green River, of the Gulf of California, and Lewis' fork of the Columbia River; the meridian of Fort Hall then forming the western limit of their range. The buffalo then remained for many years in that country and frequently moved down the valley of the Columbia on both sides of the river as far as the Fishing Falls. Below this point they never descended in any numbers. About the year 1834 or 1835 they began to diminish very rapidly and continued to decrease until 1838 or 1840, when, with the country we have just described, they entirely abandoned all the waters of the Pacific north of Lewis' fork of the Columbia. At that time the Flathead Indians were in the habit of finding their buffalo on the heads of Salmon River, and other streams of the Columbia; but now they never meet with them farther west than the three forks of the Missouri or the plains of the Yellowstone River.

"In the course of our journey it will be remembered that the buffalo have not so entirely abandoned the waters of the Pacific, in the Rocky Mountain region South of the Sweetwater, as in the country North of the Great Pass. This partial distribution can only be accounted for in the great pastoral beauty of that country, which bears marks of having long been one of their favorite haunts, and by the fact that the white hunters have more frequented the Northern than the Southern region—it being North of the South Pass that the hunters, trappers and traders have had their rendezvous for many years past; and from that section also the greater portion of the beaver and rich furs were taken, although always the most dangerous as well as the most profitable hunting ground.

"In that region lying between the Green or Colorado River and the head waters of the Rio del Norte, over the Yampah, Kooyah, White, and Grand rivers—all of which are the waters of the Colorado—the buffalo never extended so far to the westward as they did on the waters of the Columbia; and only in one or two instances have they been known to descend as far west as the mouth of the White River. In travelling through the country west of the Rocky Mountains, observations readily led me to the impression that the buffalo had, for the first time, crossed that range to the waters of the Pacific only a few years prior to the period we are considering and in this opinion I am sustained by Mr. Fitzpatrick and the older trappers in that country. In the region West of the Rocky Mountains we never meet with any of the ancient vestiges which throughout all the country lying upon their Eastern waters are found in the great highways, continuous for hundreds of miles, always several inches and some times several feet in depth which the buffalo have made in crossing from one river to another or in traversing the mountain ranges. The Snake Indians, more particularly those low down upon Lewis' fork, have always been very grateful to the American trappers for the great kindness (as they frequently expressed it) which they did to them in driving the buffalo so low down the Columbia River.

"The extraordinary abundance of the buffalo on the east side of the Rocky Mountains and their extraordinary diminution will be made clearly evident from the following statement: At any time between the years 1824 and 1836 a traveller might start from any given point South or North in the Rocky Mountain range, journeying by the most direct route to the Missouri River, and, during the whole distance, his road would be always among large bands of buffalo, which would never be out of his view until he arrived almost within sight of the abodes of civilization.

"At this time the buffalo occupy but a very limited space, principally along the Eastern base of the Rocky Mountains, sometimes extending at their Southern extremity to a considerable distance into the plains between the Platte and Arkansas Rivers and along the Eastern frontier of New Mexico as far South as Texas.

"The following statement, which I owe to the kindness of Mr. Sanford, a partner in the American Fur Company, will further illustrate this subject by extensive knowledge acquired during several years of travel through the region inhabited by the buffalo:

"'The total amount of robes annually traded by ourselves and others will not be found to differ much from the following statement:


American Fur Company 70,000
Hudson Bay Company 10,000
All other companies, probably 10,000
Making a total of 90,000

as an average annual return for the last eight or ten years.

"'In the Northwest, the Hudson's Bay Company purchased from the Indians but a very small number—their only market being Canada, to which the cost of transportation nearly equals the produce of the furs; and it is only within a very recent period that they have received buffalo robes in trade; and out of the great number of buffalo annually killed throughout the extensive regions inhabited by the Comanches and other kindred tribes, no robes whatever are furnished for trade. During only four months of the year (from November until March) the skins are good for dressing; those obtained in the remaining eight months being valueless to traders, and the hides of bulls are never taken off or dressed as robes at any season. Probably not more than one-third of the skins are taken from the animals killed, even when they are in good season, the labor of preparing and dressing the robes being very great, and it is seldom that a lodge trades more than twenty skins in a year. It is during the summer months, and in the early part of autumn that the greatest number of buffalo are killed, and yet at this time a skin is never taken for the purpose of trade.'

Fremont's party at this time was on short allowance of food. Word had been sent to Carson to bring from Fort Hall a pack animal loaded with provisions, for there was no game in the country and it was hard to purchase food of any kind from the Indians.

On September 3 Carson rode into camp with provisions sufficient for a few days. The party kept on down Bear River, and on the 6th from the top of a hill saw the Great Salt Lake.

Up to this time this lake had been seen by comparatively few white people; in fact, only by trappers who were wintering through the country in search of beaver and who cared for geography only so far as it helped them on their way. No white man's boat had ever floated on its dense waters, its islands had never been visited, and no one had made a survey of its shores or even passed all around it. Among trappers it was generally believed that while the lake had no visible outlet there was somewhere in it a tremendous whirlpool through which its waters flowed out by a subterranean channel to the ocean.

All these facts and beliefs made Fremont very anxious to visit the lake and survey it; and having with him a rubber boat he had high hopes of what he might accomplish. However, since the party was on short allowance, the provisions which Carson had brought with him being now exhausted, he sent back to Fort Hall seven of his extra men under the charge of Francois Lajeunesse. The party was now reduced to eight, five of whom were to make the first voyage of discovery on the Great Salt Lake, while three should remain on the shore as camp keepers. It was only now discovered that the boat was badly put together, and when put in the water and loaded it leaked air in rather a serious way, so that the constant use of the bellows was needed to keep it afloat. Fortunately they had good weather at starting, for the day was very calm; and they reached one of the islands to find the rocks along the water's edge encrusted with salt, and a windrow from ten to twenty feet in breadth, consisting of the larvae of some small insect which inhabited the water, and had been washed up on the shore. These worms, so called, are the common food of certain tribes of Indians living in the neighborhood of these salt or alkaline lakes. There was little on the island to attract explorers, and in view of the frail nature of their craft, and the danger of storms, they did not stay long, but re-embarking reached the shore at a point quite distant from their camp. Food continued scarce and a day or two later they killed a horse for food.

At Fort Hall a few horses and oxen were purchased, the latter for food, and here Fremont sent back eleven of his men, among them Basil Lajeunesse, a good man whom Fremont was sorry to lose. Leaving Fort Hall September 22 the journey was continued down Snake River.