Modern history


Chapter 9


Fremont’s second exploratory expedition, undertaken in 1843, proved an even greater success than the first. En route to Oregon, Fremont and his party lingered beside the Great Salt Lake and, by studying the region’s hydrology, correctly surmised that its rivers and streams were strictly inland bodies of water. At the time, a curious and persistent myth, perpetuated in scholarly publications, asserted that the Great Salt Lake was drained by a monstrous whirlpool that somehow connected, through a network of subterranean rivers, with the Pacific Ocean.

Fremont gradually came to realize that all the country between Utah’s Wasatch Mountains and California’s Sierra Nevada was landlocked; this was a major contribution to North American geography, and Fremont’s term for the desert sink, the Great Basin, graces atlases today.

In the late summer of 1843, Fremont’s party reached Oregon, where he mapped the Columbia and its tributaries and caught magnificent glimpses of Mount Rainier, Mount Saint Helens, and Mount Hood. Growing restless, Fremont then strayed from his original assignment and crossed the international border into what was then called Alta California.

Fremont seemed unconcerned that his illegal incursion into Mexican territory might lead not only to his own arrest but also to an international incident that would embarrass government officials in Washington. He was now preoccupied with a hunt that transcended mere borders: He was looking for a mighty waterway that, if it existed, could change the course of history. Many maps of the day showed a major east-west river that led from the Great Lakes all the way across the continent to the Pacific Ocean. This fabled conduit, called the Buenaventura, was widely accepted as a scientific fact even though no known explorer had actually seen it.

With visions of cartographic glory, Fremont was set on finally proving, or disproving, the Buenaventura’s existence and thus solving one of the most vexing continental puzzles of his day.

But once he set foot in California, the misadventures began to pile up. He promptly led his party into the winter snowdrifts of the Sierra Nevada, and it was only through luck—and Kit Carson’s good judgment—that the expedition was able to avoid the sort of grisly ordeal that would befall the Donner Party a few years later. When they staggered out of the mountains, frostbitten, half naked, and eating scalded dog-meat, they were, Carson thought, “in as poor condition as men could possibly be.” One man became “deranged…and perfectly wild from the effects of starvation,” said Carson, while the ravenous mules ate “one another’s tails and the leather of the pack saddles.”

Restored with good food provided by American settlers, the party turned south and marched down the full length of California’s Central Valley before veering toward the Mojave Desert and points east. Along the way, one of Fremont’s men died in a gun accident, another was killed by Indians. Inevitably, Mexican officials got wind of Fremont’s uninvited presence in California and threatened to send an army after him.

So Fremont exited the California stage altogether and slinked into Nevada, passing a bucolic watering hole known as Las Vegas. In the desert, Carson chased after a band of Indian horse thieves and showed Fremont how to drink water from a barrel cactus. As the party slowly made its way east toward civilization, Fremont admitted he had never found the fabled Buenaventura River, but that in itself was an important find. Like the Great Salt Lake whirlpool, the Buenaventura was another great hoax that could be consigned to geography’s dustbin. The party reached Bent’s Fort on July 2, where a July Fourth celebration was held in their honor.

In August 1844, Fremont stumbled into Washington like a ghost; the gaunt explorer was a year late and rumored to be dead. His much-anticipated expedition narrative, which he turned in a few months later, was so well received that the congressional printing office bound the first and second reports in a single volume and published ten thousand copies. Again the newspapers printed excerpts and hailed Fremont as the American Magellan. He was already being touted as a future candidate for president. And why not? Fremont had set in motion one of the great mass migrations of history: The following summer the Oregon Trail saw an even greater hegira of emigrant caravans, with thousands and thousands of pioneers headed west. Many of these emigrants were Mormons. On the strength of Fremont’s glowing descriptions of the Great Salt Lake country, Mormon leader Brigham Young decided to move his whole flock from Nauvoo, Illinois, to Utah.

The army, willing to overlook the fact that Fremont had blatantly disobeyed orders by lurching into California, promoted him to captain. The national media, meanwhile, gave him a new sobriquet drawn from James Fenimore Cooper: From then on, John C. Fremont was known as The Pathfinder.


If Fremont had become a household name, so had his scout. By 1845, thanks to the expedition reports, Kit Carson’s name, with its sturdy alliterative snap, had crossed the threshold of the national imagination. Fremont painted Carson as an explorer of nearly mythic competence and perspicacity on the trail. He consistently came across as courageous but never rash, a person with a sure presence of mind. And also, crucially, a person who seemed to have enormous stores of luck on his side: Time after time, the stars smiled on Kit Carson. In nearly every contretemps Fremont got himself into, Carson found the way out.

The special thing that Carson had couldn’t be boiled down to any one skill; it was a panoply of talents. He was a fine hunter, an adroit horseman, an excellent shot. He was shrewd as a negotiator. He knew how to select a good campsite and could set it up or strike it in minutes, taking to the trail at lightning speed. (“Kit waited for nobody,” complained one greenhorn who traveled with him, “and woe to the unfortunate tyro.”) He knew what to do when a horse foundered. He could dress and cure meat, and he was a fair cook. Out of necessity, he was also a passable gunsmith, blacksmith, liveryman, angler, forager, farrier, wheelwright, mountain climber, and a decent paddler by raft or canoe. As a tracker, he was unequaled. He knew from experience how to read the watersheds, where to find grazing grass, what to do when encountering a grizzly. He could locate water in the driest arroyo and strain it into potability. In a crisis he knew little tricks for staving off thirst—such as opening the fruit of a cactus or clipping a mule’s ears and drinking its blood. He had a landscape painter’s eye and a cautious ear and astute judgment about people and situations. He knew how to make smoke signals. He knew all about hitches and rope knots. He knew how to make a good set of snowshoes. He knew how to tan hides with a glutinous emulsion made from the brains of the animal. He knew how to cache food and hides in the ground to prevent theft and spoilage. He knew how to break a mustang. He knew which species of wood would burn well, and how to split the logs on the grain, even when an axe was not handy.

These were important skills, all of them, though they were hard to measure and quantify. But in the right person, a person who was also cheerful on a trail he already knew well, who had a few jokes up his sleeve and possessed an absolute honesty—they were invaluable.

Fremont’s nickname, The Pathfinder, was a misnomer several times over. For it was Carson, not Fremont, who had usually “found” the path—and often as not he was merely retracing trails that had already been trod by trappers, Indians, or Spanish explorers. In Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales series, the main protagonist, Natty Bumppo, a.k.a. Hawkeye, a.k.a. the Pathfinder, wears buckskins, lives with the Indians and follows their ways. It was Carson, not Fremont, who actually lived a life that resembled Cooper’s hero.

Fremont seemed to understand that in curious ways, Carson complemented him. If Fremont was impetuous, visionary, erratic, and at times vainglorious, Carson was cautious, pragmatic, steady, and always humble. Though Fremont brought flourishes of high culture to the trail, the illiterate Carson was versed in a different kind of learning, a practical knowledge that was just as eclectic and even harder won. Fremont described Carson as “prompt, self-sacrificing, and true.” He was a man “of great courage; quick and complete perception, taking in at a glance the advantages as well as the chances for defeat.” In another passage Fremont fairly sang, “Mounted on a fine horse, without a saddle, and scouring bare-headed over the prairies, Kit was one of the finest pictures of a horseman I have ever seen.”

But there was one particular passage in Fremont’s second report that crystallized Carson’s reputation and forever fixed his name in the public mind. Naturally, the episode had to do with Indians. Somewhere on the Old Spanish Trail, deep in the Mojave Desert, Fremont’s men encountered a desperate Mexican man named Andreas Fuentes and an eleven-year-old boy, both of whom had been ambushed by Indians (which tribe is unknown). The attackers had stolen thirty horses and killed two men Fuentes was riding with, leaving their mangled bodies on the trail. Two women riding with the party had been staked to the ground and badly mutilated before they, too, were killed.

On hearing this tragic tale, Kit Carson and fellow mountain man Alex Godey took pity on Fuentes and vowed to help. For two days Carson and his comrade followed the horse tracks and chased down these “American Arabs,” as Fremont called them. Finally Carson and Godey located the thieves and rushed into their crowded encampment. The Indians had already eaten several of the stolen horses. Dodging their arrows, Carson and Godey promptly shot two of the Indians, scattered the rest, and seized the surviving horses. Before leaving the scene, Godey stooped to strip off the scalps of the two slain Indians. But according to Fremont, when Godey raked his knife over the second Indian’s scalp, the warrior “sprung to his feet, the blood streaming from his skinned head, and uttered a hideous howl,” firing an arrow at Godey that passed through his shirt collar.

Godey raised his rifle and “quickly terminated the agonies of the gory savage.”

The following day Fremont was amazed to hear the sound of approaching hoofbeats. It was Carson and Godey returning with Fuentes’s recaptured horses. Godey was carrying his rifle like a pole, from which dangled two fresh Indian scalps. Fuentes shed tears of gratitude, and Fremont was in awe. As far as he was concerned, this act was the apotheosis of chivalry. He wrote, “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.”

Who would do such a thing? Fremont asked rhetorically in his report. “Kit Carson, an American, born in the Booneslick county of Missouri…trained to western enterprise from early life.”

And so by 1845 the image was already sealed: Kit Carson became a kind of action figure hero, the noble rescuer, righteous avenger, white knight of the West. That his brutality might have an inglorious underside seemed not to cross the adoring public’s mind, any more than did the possibility that both the Fremont and Fuentes parties were trespassing on ancestral Indian territory. Fremont could count on his scout to find the way and set things right—and readers could, too. More than any other single factor or incident, this passage from Fremont’s second expedition report is where the Kit Carson legend was born; he would have to live down the legend, and respond to the expectations it created, for the rest of his life.

Carson could not read Fremont’s glowing words about him, of course, and it is doubtful whether he even knew about them. But Carson’s gratitude to Fremont ran deep. The two men had traveled many thousands of miles together and had fought their way out of many scrapes. For all his peculiarities of manner and lapses in judgment, Fremont had proven a brave and tough explorer—and he was never dull. In many situations he had shown flashes of brilliance (although he was usually the first to admit it). There was no questioning his abilities as a field topographer, and in his own fitful, grandiose way he had demonstrated a certain talent for leading and inspiring men.

In any case, Carson genuinely seemed to like his boss and felt much in his debt. Fremont had given him a new lease on life—the promise of a new career just as the trapping profession was drying up—and he’d paid the unheard-of sum of a hundred dollars a month. Carson was the sort of person who, once befriended, was steadfast as a family dog. It was perhaps the sweeter flip side of the Scotch-Irish revenge trait: Like a grudge, he wouldn’t let you go. Years later, in praising Fremont in his dictated memoirs, Carson said that he found it “impossible to describe the hardships through which we passed, nor am I capable of doing justice to the credit which Fremont deserves. I can never forget his treatment of me while I was in his employ, and how cheerfully he suffered with his men.”

And so for the rest of his life, Carson would always remain in the Fremont camp. The loyalty was mutual. When in the summer of 1845, Fremont set out for yet another assignment to explore the West—this one proving his most ambitious and far-flung odyssey of all—he of course chose Kit Carson to be his guide.

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