Dennis Cassinelli: Fremont’s Great Basin expedition of 1843-1844

Some of the information for this article was taken from “Exploration and Early Settlement in Nevada,” by Terri McBride of the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office.

John C. Fremont was the son-in-law of western expansionist Sen. Thomas Benton of Missouri. With Benton’s political influence, Fremont became the leader of two of the most important surveys of the American West for the U.S. Topographic Engineers. The 1843-1844 expedition and the 1845 expeditions led by Fremont established his reputation as an important American explorer.

During the 1843-1844 expedition, Fremont was the first to scientifically map and describe the Great Basin. Congress enthusiastically printed 20,000 copies of his maps and the routes he had explored. This publication was referred to extensively by the Mormon emigrants and by opportunists seeking routes to the California gold fields. It also depicted the “Spanish Trail” through Southern Nevada.

The expedition left Kansas City, Missouri, in May 1843 with Fremont leading 39 men with mules, horses, equipment and a large bronze mountain howitzer. Charles Preuss was the cartographer and the guide was Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick. When the party reached the Rocky Mountains, they were joined by mountain men Kit Carson, Joseph Walker and Alexis Godey. The expedition followed the Oregon Trail, then it headed south of the Columbia River Basin and entered northwestern Nevada in December 1843.

The party traveled through High Rock Canyon and reached the Black Rock Desert on New Year’s Day 1844. On Jan. 10, 1844, Fremont found a lake he named Pyramid Lake, due to the pyramid shaped formation that reminded him of the Egyptian pyramids. They then followed the Truckee River south to the Wadsworth area and continued south to the Carson River. Fremont called the Truckee River the Salmon Trout River due to the large cutthroat trout caught there. Fremont named the Carson River in honor of his friend and guide, Kit Carson.

After reaching the area near present Bridgeport, the expedition realized there was no river that crossed the Sierra Nevada mountains to the Pacific Ocean. With this discovery, Fremont declared the region to be a “Great Basin.” He then decided it was best to attempt a crossing of the Sierra before the winter snows isolated them from the Sacramento Valley. The expedition headed west toward present Markleeville and started up the East fork, then the West Walker River Canyon toward Carson Pass.

Deep snow slowed their progress and the pack animals had difficulty making their way through the snow, rocks and ice. Some friendly Washoe Indians warned them they probably wouldn’t be able to make the crossing over Carson Pass in the winter. Fortunately, the Indians had pine nuts and other food items to trade with the travelers. They also showed them how to make some snowshoes to make walking through the deep snow easier.

As the party made its way through a steep, rocky canyon they called Deep Creek Canyon, they made the decision to give up on the effort to carry the bronze mountain howitzer any further, so they abandoned it on Jan. 29, 1844. It has since been rediscovered and is on a rotating display in the states Fremont explored.

By following ridge tops to keep out of the deeper snow drifts, the expedition was finally able to reach Carson Pass. Fremont was able to gaze out over the trees and mountains to see the Sacramento Valley and in the clear winter air, he saw the Coast range in the distance. Within a few days, part of the group reached Sutter’s fort and waited for the others to make their way down.

After rest and stocking up on provisions, the Fremont expedition resumed its travels, but this time it took the southern route along the Old Spanish Trail through Southern Nevada and Las Vegas. It then headed north to complete its journey back to Oregon. The following year, in 1845, Fremont made another expedition to Nevada where he explored the Great Basin and much of the interior of what is now the state of Nevada.

This article is by Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli, who can be contacted on his blog at All Dennis’ books sold through this publication will be at a 50 percent discount plus $3 each shipment for postage and packaging.


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