Fremont’s Expeditions of the American West


John C. Fremont by Ehrgott, Forbriger and Co

The explorations of John Charles Fremont, made under an act of Congress, were of much importance in placing before the people a faithful description of the region west of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.

His first expedition was made in 1842 with only 21 men from the St. Louis, Missouri area, principally Creole and Canadian voyageurs who had become familiar with prairie life in the service of the fur companies in the Indian country. Charles Preuss, a native of Germany, was his assistant in the topographical part of the survey; Lucien B.  Maxwell of Kaskaskia, Illinois was engaged as hunter, and Christopher “Kit” Carson was the guide.

From St. Louis, the party proceeded to Cyprian Chouteau’s trading house on the Kansas River, about 10 miles west of the Missouri state line. From there, they left on June 10, 1842, and after traveling about ten miles they reached the Santa Fe Trail, upon which they continued for a short time.

After traveling about 11 miles, they encamped early on a small stream before continuing along the Santa Fe Road, before camping once again on a small creek, called by the Indians, Mishmagwi. On June 12th the party seems to have camped near the site of what would later become Lawrence, for in Colonel Fremont’s narrative he said:

We encamped in a remarkably beautiful situation on the Kansas bluffs, which commanded a fine view of the river valley, here from 3 to 4 miles wide. The central portion was occupied by a broad belt of heavy timber, and nearer the hills the prairies were of the richest verdure [rich green vegetation].

On the 14th he crossed to the north side of the river, probably near the point where Topeka is now located. On the 16th he said:

 “We are now fairly in the Indian country, and it began to be time to prepare for the chances of the wilderness.”

Black Vermillion River, Kansas

Black Vermillion River, Kansas

The party continued its journey along the foothills of the Kansas Valley, and on the 20th crossed the Black Vermilion River, “which has a rich bottom of about one mile in breadth, one-third of which is occupied by timber.” After a day’s march of 24 miles, they reached the Big Blue River, and encamped on the uplands of the western side, near a small creek, where there was a fine large spring of very cold water. At noon on the 22nd, a halt was made at Wyeth’s Creek, in the bed of which were numerous boulders of dark, ferruginous sandstone, mingled with others of the red sandstone variety. At the close of the same day, they made their bivouac in the midst of some well-timbered ravines near the Little Blue River, 24 miles from their camp of the preceding night. Crossing the next morning a number of handsome creeks, with water clear and sandy beds, at 10 a.m. they reached a beautifully wooded stream, about 35 feet wide, called Sandy Creek and, as the Otoe Indians frequently wintered there, was also called Otoe Fork. After another hard day’s march of 28 miles, they encamped on the Little Blue River. Then their route lay up the valley, and on the night of the 25th, they halted at a point in what is now Nuckolls County, Nebraska.

At this time, Fremont wrote:

From the mouth of the Kansas River, according to our reckoning, we had traveled 328 miles, and the geological formation of the country we had passed over consisted of lime and sandstone, covered by the same erratic deposits of sand and gravel which forms the surface rock of the prairies between the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.

St. Vrain Fort Marker, Colorado

St. Vrain Fort Marker, Colorado

They then marched up the Platte Valley, but upon reaching the forks, the main party was sent up the north fork, while a few men under Fremont passed up the south fork to St. Vrain’s Fort, Colorado. From here they marched northward to the north fork and joined the main body at Fort Laramie, Wyoming. Although the Indians were on the warpath farther up the river, Fremont determined to proceed. They continued to advance without serious interruption, arrived at the Sweetwater River, marched through South Pass, Wyoming and a little later, ascended the highest peak of the Wind River Mountains. The return journey down the Platte River was made without notable incident.

Fremont’s second exploration was made in 1843, his party consisting principally of Creole and Canadian French, and Americans, amounting in all to 39 men.

To make the exploration as useful as possible, Colonel Fremont determined to vary the route to the Rocky Mountains from that followed in 1842. Instead, he decided upon a route up the valley of the Kansas River to the head of the Arkansas River, and to some pass in the mountains, if any could be found, at the sources of that river. By making this deviation, it was thought the problem of a new road to Oregon and California might be found with a better climate and more knowledge obtained of an important river and the country it drained.

Kansas River

Kansas River

The departure was made from what is now Kansas City, Kansas on the morning of May 29, 1843, and at the close of that day, the party encamped about four miles beyond the frontier, on the verge of the great prairies. Resuming their journey on the 31st, they encamped in the evening at Elm Grove, and from then until June 3rd followed the same route as the expedition of 1842. Reaching the ford of the Kansas River, near the present site of Lawrence, they left the usual emigrant road to the mountains and continued their route along the south side of the river, where their progress was much delayed by numerous small streams, which required them to build frequent bridges. On the morning of June 4th they crossed Otter Creek, and on the 8th arrived at the mouth of Smoky Hill Fork, forming thereby its junction with the Republican and Kansas Rivers. On the 11th they resumed their journey along the Republican Fork, and for several days continued to travel through a country beautifully watered with numerous streams, handsomely timbered, at which time Fremont would say:

“rarely an incident occurred to vary the monotonous resemblance which one day on the prairies here bears to another, and which scarcely requires a particular description.”

They had been gradually and regularly ascending in their progress westward, and on the evening of the 14th were 265 miles by their traveling road from the mouth of the Kansas River  At this point the party was divided, and on the 16th, Fremont, with 15 men, proceeded in advance, bearing a little out from the river. That night he encamped on Solomon’s Fork of the Smoky Hill River, along whose tributaries he continued to travel for several days. On the 19th he crossed the Pawnee Road to the Arkansas River, and on the afternoon of June 30th he found himself overlooking a valley, where, about 10 miles distant, “the south fork of the Platte River was rolling magnificently along, swollen with the waters of the melting snows.”

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