Fremont's Fourth Journey (1848-49)
Bill Long 6/28/07
Fourth Essay; Getting Stuck at Mesa Mountain
The Fremont biographers tell us in general terms that after the party made it through the Mosca Pass on December 3, 1848 that the party headed West. They were seeking a way through the Continental Divide; if they reached it, they were confident that the land on the other side would be a balmy, flat and prosperous tableland. How, then, to make it through the Divide? If I only read the biographers I would receive the following "mixed" message. Fremont wanted to take a route through the Cochetopa Pass (north); he argued with Williams along the way (after Dec. 3), and Williams recommended the more southern Carnero Pass. However, what actually happened is that the party tried to scale Mesa Mountain (12,944'), which is about 40 or so miles south of Carnero Pass. They were rebuffed at Mesa and had to beat a hasty retreat, which they did with great difficulty, to New Mexico. The pictures painted by the biographers are a bit more complex than that, but this is their "gist."
But the more I read and re-read the "standard" accounts, the more uneasy I became. First of all, how did they get across the San Luis Valley? I don't want the precise route (unless someone can give it to me!), but I want to know if they went across the vast open spaces in comfort or with problems. What was the weather like that December? What were they "aiming" at in their trip? Then, I want to know why they tried to climb Mesa Mountain when both of the leading people on the trip (Fremont and Williams) said they were going elsewhere? Then, I would like to know the pain attendant upon the decisions made. In short, I would like to know some of the real issues, emotions and physical struggles attending the party between December 3, when the crossed the Mosca Pass and December 22, when Fremont finally decided to call things off and seek rescue help rather than a way over the Continental Divide.
Sharpening Our Understanding
Richmond tells us that the temperature during early December, as the party made its way north of the great sand dunes across the San Luis Valley and towards the passes (Cochetopa--Fremont's goal; Carnero--Williams' goal) was 6 below zero at night, and that the men travelled with frozen feet and inch-long icicles hanging from their beards. Across the valley they proceeded. On December 8, Fremont and Williams came to a disagreement. Fremont wanted to head north to the Saguache Valley and follow that arcing River toward Cochetopa, while Williams wanted to take the more direct route due West across the valley and along Carnero Creek to the area just south of the Carnero Pass. The Carnero route would potentially save two days.
But just as Williams seemed ignorant of the time-saving Medano Pass in getting through the Sangre de Cristo range, so he seemed ignorant of the way to get from Carnero Creek to the pass. Indeed, as Richmond says:
"While all the trails chosen by Williams did lead to the regions Fremont wanted to cross, it apears now that the old guide selected the worst possible routes to reach the fourth expedition's objectives" (p. 12).
How so? Well, when they had been proceeding along Carnero Creek, south and east of the passes, they came to a place called Hell Gate. At this prominent rock formation it was incumbent on them to bend north and follow the creek towards Moon Pass, Hat Springs Creek, Luders Creek and then over the Carnero Pass (about 10,000' in elevation). But when they got to Hell Gate they continued on a westerly fork of the Carnero Creek because the rock formation and depth of snow made it almost impossible for them to head north. So they continued due west, improvising as they went. The next part of the trip, from about December 12-14, took them up 2,000 feet toward Boot Mountain and then to the valley directly to the West. But Richmond captures the sense of this when she says:
"The balking mules, stumbling over rocks and burnt timber and floundering in snow fifteen feet deep, were pulled up the mountainside by 'riatas' tied to their noses...Only 300 yards were passed December 13, after an hour and a half of toiling and tugging" (p. 14).
After surmounting this obstacle they descended into a valley before facing the biggest hurdle of them all, Mesa Mountain. It seems (and Richmond isn't particularly helpful on this point), that somewhere along the way Williams had convinced Fremont and others that a trek directly over Mesa Mountain would take them immediately into a broad, flat and verdant tableland on the other side of the Continental Divide. That is, he may have represented that this mountain stood on the great divide. But, in fact, it doesn't. In fact, Williams may have told them that the waters directly on the far side of Mesa Mountain were streams flowing westward--indications that they would soon be on the "easy" side of the Divide.
But this was false. The waters just to the west of Mesa Mountain were streams that curled around to form the headwaters of the Saguache River--a river that flows through the middle of the valley they had just exited. As Richmond says, referring to their time after they left Mesa Mountain:
"Actually, the expedition had reached one of the headwaters of the Saguache River. This misconception by Fremont and his men exemplifies the truly tragic nature of the expedition--in spite of extensive suffering and losses, they were still far from their goal, the Continental Divide and the western slope of the Rockies" (pp. 19-20).
Mesa Mountain--and Reflecting on Where We Are
On Dec. 15, they camped within 1/4 mile of the summit of Mesa Mountain. But conditions had rapidly deteriorated. Mules had been dying right and left, wandering off in crazed conditions because they were frozen (even though they had enough to eat), falling hundreds of feet into ravines and perishing. On Dec. 16, in a last ditch effort to get to the Divide, Fremont sent a party to break a trail using huge mauls made by tree trunks. Diarist Thomas Moran describes the snow drifts as between 18-25 feet deep. Richmond continues:
"The temperature was twenty degrees below zero. The icy blasts froze fingers, feet, ears, and noses. The stupor of hypothermia affected judgments. Charles Preuss related that even the experienced old guide Williams lay down and 'wanted to die' at the summit...the trail was littered with fallen packs and saddles--the pads as well as blankets, ropes, coats, manes and tails having been devoured during the night by the starving animals. Dying mules lay gasping where they had collapsed while others, frenzied by stress, exhaustion, and hunger, rushed willdly from the trail and plunged from the ridge into snow-filled depressions, some of which were estimated by McGehee to be 100 feet deep.." (pp. 18-19).
This was truly the worst day of the trip---so far. Then, on December 17-18, the weather turned worse. A blizzard buffeted the party for several days. Each morning the men had to scrape six to eight inches of new snow from their beds. One of the diarists, Ben Kern (brother of the painter), with eyes blinded by smoke from the campfire and hair and clothing frozen by dripping water in the tent, spoke about his "horror desolation despair."
What should they do? I think I need one more essay to "finish" the story.