Trails of the Pathfinders - G. B. Grinnell


New-year's day found them travelling through the desert, over a rough, sandy road. The next day they reached a field of hot springs, the vapor from which was visible a long way off. Fremont was growing uneasy. He had very little idea where he was. There appeared to be no game in the country, except hares, though occasional signs were seen of sheep and antelope. His animals had begun to die, and he felt the necessity of proceeding with great caution. Because of the uncertainty of water for his animals, he formed the plan of exploring the country in advance each day, and leaving the main party behind. On January 10, a beautiful lake, some twenty miles broad, was seen from the top of a ridge, and they proceeded toward it. On the way herds of mountain-sheep were seen on the hills. When they came on a little stream about a mile from the margin of the lake, they found a broad Indian trail following the shores of the lake to the southward. This was followed for a short distance, and then ascended a precipice, against which the water dashed below, and it was very difficult to get the howitzer along this trail. Mountain-sheep in numbers, and ducks, and some fish were seen, and the party passed the pyramid which rises out of the lake and gives it its name. The last of the cattle driven from the Dalles was killed here for food. On January 15 a few Indians made their appearance about the camp, and one of them was persuaded to come into it. It was difficult to communicate with him; but from what he said, it was inferred that at the end of the lake was a river, which subsequent investigation showed ran into the lake, which has no outlet. Here, to the great delight of the white men, the Indians brought in fish to trade. Fremont calls them salmon trout, and says that they were from two to four feet in length. They appeared to form the chief food of these Indians, who, Fremont says, hold the fishery in exclusive possession, and who are different from the "Digger" Indians so frequently spoken of in crossing the desert. It appeared that these Indians were in communication either with the whites or with other Indians knowing the whites, for they possessed articles of civilized manufacture.

The party now followed up the stream running into Pyramid Lake, travelling along toward the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They were on an Indian trail, and hoped soon to find the Buenaventura River, for which they had been looking. Columns of smoke rising over the country at intervals made them sure that the Indians were notifying each other that strangers had come into the country. Their animals were growing thin and weak; their feet were much worn away by the rocks, and many of them were lame. Fremont decided, therefore, that he must abandon his course to the eastward and must cross the mountains into the valley of the Sacramento River as soon as possible.

Keeping on southward along the mountains, they crossed streams issuing from them which tempted them to try for a pass; but the' heavy snows which appeared to lie on the mountains induced the leader to keep on farther southward. January 24 an Indian came into the camp and offered the strangers a little bag of pine nuts, which they purchased from him. They also gave him some presents; and as nearly as they could understand his signs he promised to conduct them to the opening of a pass of which he knew. From here on they constantly saw Indians, all of whom traded pine nuts to them, and all were armed with bows and stone-pointed arrows. The level of the country appeared to be growing higher, and the snow grew deeper. They put one of their guides on a horse, but he was evidently unacquainted with the animal, and did not even know how to guide it. Soon they entered the range, and having left the desert country, found a country well timbered, and which appeared to produce considerable game. They climbed to the head of the stream, passed over a ridge, and saw from the summit a sunlit country where there was evidently grass. Here the Indians were wearing snowshoes, and accompanied the party, running around them, and swiftly and easily travelling over the snow. They appeared to have no idea of the power of fire-arms, and thought themselves perfectly safe so long as they kept out of arm's reach.

Descending on the head of this next stream, Fremont learned, before he had gone very far, that this was merely the head of another stream running eastward into the Great Basin, and that they still had to cross a great ridge before they could reach Pacific waters.

The Indians here had heard of a party of twelve white men who, two years before, had ascended the river and crossed to the other side; but this was done when it was summer-time and there was little or no snow to oppose the passage; and at present the Indians declared it could not be done. Nevertheless, they agreed to furnish a guide to take the whites as far as possible. Provisions were now getting low, and consisted chiefly of pease, a little flour, some coffee, and a quantity of sugar. It was on this day, January 29, that the howitzer, which had been dragged so far, was finally abandoned. On January 31 they continued to climb the mountains among the snow. Indians kept visiting them in greater and greater numbers, and from all were heard most discouraging accounts of the possibility of crossing the range. An old man told them that if they could break through the snow, at the end of three days they would come upon grass, which would be about six inches high; and here Fremont decided to attempt the passage and to try to reach Sutter's ranch on the Sacramento. Preparations were made, therefore, to face the cold of the heights, and clothing was repaired and put in order, and a new guide was engaged, who was also fitted out with special reference to the hardships likely to be met with. A dog that had been with them for some little time was killed, and this, with a few rabbits purchased from the Indians, gave the party a strengthening meal.

When they started, the snow soon became so deep that it was absolutely necessary that a road should be broken for the animals. This was done in systematic fashion, and for several days they advanced by very short marches, but without meeting any obstacles greater than the depth of the snow. Sometimes the lack of feed at the end of the day's march would render it necessary to send back the animals to feed at some point on the trail just passed over, where there was good pasture. Two or three days of this hard work was very discouraging. However, Fremont's energy never faltered. He and Carson and Fitzpatrick, on snowshoes, went ahead, reconnoitring in all directions and trying to pick out a good road, and on February 6 they reached a peak from which they saw the valley of the Sacramento; and Carson recognized various natural features which he had not seen for fifteen years.

The difficulties of travel for the horses was so great, and the hillsides so steep, that many of the animals found the greatest difficulty in getting along themselves and could not carry their loads. Sledges were made, therefore, on which the men drew the baggage over the snow; but of course this made progress very slow indeed. The hunters went out to look for game, but found none.

It was on February 20 that they camped with the animals that were left, and with all the material of the camp, on the summit of a pass in the dividing ridge, about a thousand miles from the Dalles, whence they had started. The prospects of the descent were not promising. Before them were rough mountains, among which lay deep fields of snow; but shortly after they started on their way, they heard the roll of thunder, and looking toward the valley saw a thunder-storm in progress. As the sky cleared, they could see a shining line of water leading toward another broader and larger sheet; and in these they recognized the Sacramento River and the bay of San Francisco. Yet so frequent had been their disappointments during their wanderings through the rough mountains that they hardly dared to believe that they were at last to penetrate the warm, pleasing country where they should be free from the hardships and exposure of the last few months. This night they killed a mule for food, and again the next night. February 23 was their hardest day, for they were forced to travel along steep and slippery mountain-sides, where moisture, snow, and ice, together with the tough evergreens of the mountain, made walking difficult and wearisome; but on this night a storm showered upon them rain and not snow. The men, exhausted by the labor of travel and by the lack of food, were beginning to lose strength and courage.

However, now they were constantly descending. The thermometer was just about freezing, and they had left the Sierras behind. The green grass was beginning to make its appearance. The river was descending rapidly, and growing larger. Soon they came to deciduous trees and a warmer atmosphere. The country was covered with growing plants, and the voices of singing birds were heard in the summer air. They were still killing the horses for food.

Fremont now believed that the main difficulties of the road were over, and leaving Fitzpatrick to follow slowly with the main camp, he started ahead with a party of eight, intending to reach Mr. Sutter's house as soon as possible, and to return with provisions and fresh animals for the party. Fitzpatrick was left in command of the others, with instructions to bring on the animals slowly, for all were very weak.

But they were not yet out of their troubles. For much of the way the river ran through narrow canyons, and the travellers were obliged to clamber along the mountain side, over a road rough and almost impassable for their enfeebled live-stock. However, at their camps they found grass. As they went on they were obliged to leave their animals behind, and Fremont left his favorite horse, Proveau, which could no longer keep up. One of the men started back to bring the horse, but did not return until the second day, when it was apparent that his mind was deranged. This day Mr. Preuss, who had gone ahead, did not appear at night, and his absence caused much anxiety. The next day they met some Indians, and kept on down the river, still continuing their search for the lost man. They came upon tracks of Indians, little piles of mussel shells and old fires where they had cooked. On March 4 they came on an Indian village, where they found houses, and near each one a store-house of acorns, In the houses were basketfuls of roasted acorns, and although the Indians had fled, the travellers supplied themselves with this food, leaving various small articles in payment. In a village not far below three Indian women were captured. They were much frightened, but, encouraged by good treatment, offered food. This night Mr. Preuss came in, very weak from starvation, but not otherwise in bad condition. He had subsisted on roots, ants, frogs, and had received some acorns from Indians whom he met.

At the next village Indians were found wearing shirts of civilized manufacture, and then they came to another and larger village, where the people were dressed more or less in European clothing. Here was a man who could speak Spanish, a vaquero in the service of Captain Sutter, whose fort was but a short distance away. At the fort Fremont was met by Captain Sutter, who gave him a cordial reception, and a night of enjoyment of all the luxuries that he had so long been without. The next day, with fresh horses and provisions, Fremont hurried back to meet Fitzpatrick, and brought in the rest of the party. The second division had had a hard time, having lost many animals; so that of the sixty-seven horses and mules with which they started to cross the Sierras, only thirty-three reached the valley of the Sacramento. The beef, the bread, and the salmon, which Fremont brought, put heart into the starving men, and before long they had reached a permanent camp not far from Sutter's fort.

Captain Sutter had come to California from the western part of Missouri in 1838-39, and had settled in the Sacramento valley on a large grant of land received from the Mexican Government. Though he had at first had some trouble with the Indians, he succeeded, by his judicious treatment, in converting them into a peaceable and industrious people. They did practically all the work of the ranch, and were paid in shirts, blankets, and articles of clothing. The soil was fertile, and its yield ample. Cattle and horses were abundant. He had a number of mechanics, who made whatever he needed.

The blacksmith of Fremont's party, desiring to remain in California, was here discharged, as were also four others of the party. Derosier, one of the best men in the outfit, the one who a few days before had gone back after Fremont's horse, wandered away from the camp and never returned.

On March 24 the party having recovered from the suffering endured in crossing the mountains, and being now once more strong, set out to continue their journey. An ample stock of provisions had been secured, and a fresh supply of animals, consisting of one hundred and thirty horses and mules, and about thirty head of cattle, were also secured. An Indian herder was furnished by Captain Sutter to look after the stock, a great part of which was absolutely wild. From this point it was purposed to go south, up the valley of the San Joaquin, to a pass at its head. Thence they were to move southeastwardly to reach the Spanish trail, which led to Santa Fe. Their southward journey was delightful. Fremont speaks in terms of enthusiasm of the flowers they met with, of the beautiful groves of oaks, the songs of the birds, the sweet odors that perfumed the air. Elk and antelope were in great abundance, and the wild horses were so numerous that the travellers feared for the safety of the wild stock they were driving with them. On April 7 they crossed the divide between the head-waters of the San Joaquin and the Tule Lakes. The passage brought with it more or less change in climate and a distinct change in surroundings. Indians were met with constantly, and most of them seemed well disposed. As they lowered their altitude, after passing over the divide, the way became more rough, though the feed for the animals was still good.

Fortunately Fremont's party was ahead of the annual Santa Fe caravans, which insured them good grass at the camping places. They had not gone far before they met parties of Mohave Indians, who seemed friendly enough; but on the day following, two Spaniards, a man and a lad, came into camp telling of their party of six having been attacked by Indians, about eighty miles beyond the encampment. They had with them about thirty horses, and were suddenly attacked by a party of Indians, who had previously been in camp and seemed friendly. The horse guards—the two who had just come into Fremont's camp—drove their animals through the attacking party and escaped with their horses, which they had left about twenty miles behind on coming to Fremont's camp. When the white men came to the place where the horses had been left, it appeared that the animals had been driven off by Indians. Carson and Godey with the Mexican Fuentes started after them; but in the evening the Mexican returned, his horse having given out.

"In the afternoon of the next day a war-whoop was heard, such as Indians make when returning from a victorious enterprise, and soon Carson and Godey appeared, driving before them a band of horses, recognized by Fuentes to be part of those they had lost. Two bloody scalps, dangling from the end of Godey's gun, announced that they had overtaken the Indians as well as the horses. They informed us that after Fuentes left them, from the failure of his horse, they continued the pursuit alone, and toward nightfall entered the mountains, into which the trail led. After sunset the moon gave light, and they followed the trail by moon-shine until late in the night, when it entered a narrow defile and was difficult to follow. Afraid of losing it in the darkness of the defile, they tied up their horses, struck no fire, and lay down to sleep in silence and in darkness. Here they lay from midnight till morning. At daylight they resumed the pursuit, and about sunrise discovered the horses, and immediately dismounting and tying up their own, they crept cautiously to a rising ground which intervened, from the crest of which they perceived the encampment of four lodges close by. They proceeded quietly, and had got within thirty or forty yards of their object when a movement among the horses disclosed them to the Indians. Giving the war shout, they instantly charged into the camp, regardless of the number which the four lodges would imply. The Indians received them with a flight of arrows shot from their long bows, one of which passed through Godey's shirt collar, barely missing the neck. Our men fired their rifles upon a steady aim, and rushed in. Two Indians were stretched on the ground, fatally pierced with bullets; the rest fled, except a lad that was captured. The scalps of the fallen were instantly stripped off; but in the process, one of them, who had two balls through his body, sprung to his feet, the blood streaming from his skinned head, and uttering a hideous howl. An old squaw, possibly his mother, stopped and looked back from the mountain-side she was climbing, threatening and lamenting. The frightful spectacle appalled the stout hearts of our men; but they did what humanity required, and quickly terminated the agonies of the gory savage. They were now masters of the camp, which was a pretty little recess in the mountain, with a fine spring, and apparently safe from all invasion. Great preparations had been made to feast a large party, for it was a very proper place for a rendezvous, and for the celebration of such orgies as robbers of the desert would delight in. Several of the best horses had been killed, skinned and cut up, for the Indians, living in mountains and only coming into the plains to rob and murder, make no other use of horses than to eat them. Large earthen vessels were on the fire, boiling and stewing the horse beef, and several baskets containing fifty or sixty pairs of moccasins indicated the presence or expectation of a considerable party. They released the boy, who had given strong evidence of the stoicism or something else of the savage character, by commencing his breakfast upon a horse's head as soon as he found he was not to be killed, but only tied as a prisoner. Their object accomplished, our men gathered up all the surviving horses, fifteen in number, returned upon their trail, and rejoined us at our camp in the afternoon of the same day. They rode about one hundred miles in the pursuit and return, and all in thirty hours. The time, place, object and numbers considered, this expedition of Carson and Godey may be considered among the boldest and most disinterested which the annals of western adventure, so full of dating deeds, can present. Two men, in a savage desert, pursue day and night an unknown body of Indians into the defiles of an unknown mountain, attack them on sight without counting numbers, and defeat them in an instant—and for what? To punish the robbers of the desert, and to avenge the wrongs of Mexicans whom they did not know. I repeat, it was Carson and Godey who did this—the former an American, born in the Boonslick county of Missouri; the latter a Frenchman, born in St. Louis—and both trained to western enterprise from early life."

A little later the party came to the place where the Mexicans had been attacked. There were found the two men of the party, both killed by arrows; but of the women there was no trace, they having evidently been carried away. Journeying onward, making short marches, and some that were very long, they kept on along the Spanish trail. May 4—the longest journey of all, between fifty and sixty miles without any water—the skeletons of horses were constantly seen along the trail. "Hourly expecting to find water, we continued to press on, until toward midnight, when, after a hard and uninterrupted march of sixteen hours, our wild mules began running ahead, and in a mile or two we came to a bold running stream—so keen is the sense of that animal, in these desert regions, in scenting at a distance this necessary of life."

The next day was spent in camp, that the animals might rest and feed. Indians were about them constantly, and apparently tried to steal their horses. They were very bold and insolent, but the whites bore it all, being unwilling to be drawn into a fight. These were the same people who had murdered the Mexicans; they were barefooted and nearly naked; the men were armed with bows and arrows, each carrying a quiver of thirty or forty shafts. The arrow-heads were made of clear, translucent stone, and Fremont says, "Shot from their long bows are almost as effective as a gun shot." A chief came into camp, and declared his confidence in himself and his people, and his belief that they could destroy the white men, merely on the ground that they were many while the whites were few. The Indians were seen hunting lizards, which they dragged from a hole by means of a long stick hooked at the end. The next day they followed the party, and promptly picked up every animal that was left behind to rest and feed. That night one of the best men, Tabeau, was killed by an Indian, having been shot with arrows not far from the camp. These Indians did not appear after this day. A day or two later the party met Joe Walker, the trapper, who now became guide for the expedition. With him were eight Americans, who, having started with the Spanish caravan, had heard that a party of white men were ahead, and had left the caravan and overtaken the explorers. On the way they had an encounter with the Diggers that had troubled Fremont, and killed two of them.

May 23, they reached Sevier River, a tributary of the lake of the same name. Here they were obliged to ferry themselves across in boats made of bundles of rushes tied together and bound to poles. Here, too, Badeau, a good man, was killed by accident; he dragged toward him a gun by the muzzle and the gun was discharged. Not far beyond they reached Utah Lake, which Fremont imagined to be the southern end of Great Salt Lake. He was much puzzled, however, that the northern end of the lake should be a saturated solution of salt, while the southern end was fresh. It does not appear to have occurred to him that these were two different bodies of water.

Having crossed the mountains to the valley of White River, he reached, on the 3d of June, what he calls the winter fort, a trading post belonging to Mr. A. Roubideau, on the principal fork of the Uintah River. On the 7th, they found themselves on the verge of Brown's Hole, a name well known to all old-timers in the West, and thirty years ago one of the greatest game countries in the world. Here mountain-sheep were found, and some killed. Two or three days later, buffalo were killed; and we may imagine the delight with which the travellers found themselves once more back on the range where fat cow was to be had. From here they went north into the Three Parks, travelling in pleasant weather through a country well watered, where grass and wood were to be had, and where buffalo; antelope, and elk were hardly ever out of sight. On June 4, they were in New Park, now called North Park, going southward up the Platte River. They soon came upon parties of Arapahoes and Sioux, and the camp was full of Indians. On June 22 they crossed the mountains and found themselves on the headwaters of the Arkansas. A day or two later they were present at a fight which took place between Utes and Arapahoes. The Ute women urged the white men to take part in the fight; but they felt that it was no concern of theirs, and were quite uneasy lest they themselves should be attacked. They kept travelling, and before night had put fifteen miles between themselves and the Indian village, and fortified themselves. They were now travelling rapidly down the Arkansas, meeting Indians constantly. Among these were a large village of Pawnees, who received the white men "with unfriendly rudeness and characteristic insolence which they never fail to display whenever they find an occasion for doing so with impunity." The Pawnees, indeed, seem always subject to the animadversion of the early traveller.

The party journeyed down the Arkansas for nearly three hundred miles, and on the last day of July, 1844, reached the little town of Kansas, on the Missouri. Fremont's second journey was over.