Fremont's Fourth Journey (1848-49)
Bill Long 6/28/07
Fifth Essay; From Mesa Mountain to Taos, NM
The diarists (as far as I can discover) stopped writing from December 19-22, 1848. So bleak were their prospects that the last words we hear until Dec. 22 are "horror desolation despair." The camp where they stayed was nicknamed "Camp Dismal;" no explanation more is needed. On Dec. 22, it seemed that Fremont "gave up" the idea temporarily of crossing the Divide. He would move camp to the South of Mesa Mountain, then (on Dec. 26) send a detachment of men to New Mexico for resupply and then continue on his trek. As of this date I don't believe that any men were yet lost (they would end up losing nearly 1/3 of the expedition's men); Fremont still held hope that they could cross the mountains here.
We need to pause for a second longer on Fremont's motivation. We know that the trip across the moutains was funded by MO businessmen who wanted a transcontinental railroad route from MO through the 38th parallel (southern CO). But we also know that Fremont was just about at the lowest ebb of his early career. His three earlier exploring expeditions in the previous six years had won him international acclaim, and by age 35 his name was upon the lips of all in Washington.
But 1848 had been a miserable year for him, both professionally and personally. It opened with his court-martial trial in Washington for blatantly disrespecting and disobeying orders of General Stephen Kearny in CA (Kearny had come to "assist" the American efforts to "liberate" CA in 1847 after having "liberated" New Mexico the previous year; there was a power struggle between Kearny and Stockton--who was of lower rank than Kearny-in CA and Fremont sided with the wrong guy--Stockton). Fremont was found guilty and court-martialed. Even though he was pardoned by President Polk, Fremont lost his employ (he refused to rejoin the army), his reputation and his salary. Kearny ended up dying later on in 1848, but Fremont was still a young man (34 years old). We saw in a previous essay how 1848 was also miserable for Fremont for personal reasons--his infant son died.
Why, then, would Fremont have wanted to send a relief team to New Mexico to enable him to continue the trip West, even after the disaster so far? Well, I think it is because he was trying to "make up" for his sense of personal failure which had overcome him in 1848. If he "gave up" here, it might be the admission of two great failures in one year. He couldn't let that happen. So, he had to press on.
From Dec. 22 to Dec. 26, then, they moved to a place south of Mesa Mountain, to a camp they variously called "Christmas Camp" and "Camp Hope." The weather was not as punishing; the men were in better spirits, and a plan was emerging where things would "get better." That plan was as follows: On December 26 a group of four led by Henry King and including Bill Williams (why did they still trust this guy?) would be given $1,800 for supplies and then set out on a trip about 100 miles (one way) to purchase items needed for the men to get over the mountains. In the mean time, the other 29 or so men on the trip would move the baggage off Mesa Mountain, do minimal work and try to get themselves back into good "shape" for the rest of the journey. Fremont assumed that the 100 mile trip (200 miles round trip) would take about 8-10 days. Therefore, they were planning on being along on their trip by early January 1849. Of course, nothing worked out as planned.
Plans Go Awry
The rescue parties faced severe problems, so severe in fact, that they eventually had to be rescued by Fremont and his men in mid-January. They made it down to the headwaters of the Rio Grande with difficulty but then Bill Williams suggested that they not follow the river but take a shortcut (sound familiar?) diagonally across the valley to cut out about 10 miles in their trek down the river. Many historians think that Williams suggested this because he knew that Indians hostile to him personally (he had participated in a raid on them during the previous years) inhabited the area. Thus, he exposed the others to danger because of his personal "issues." And, sure enough, Henry King, the leader of the group, died. The men became so desperate that there were even suggestions of cannibalism.
But all of this was unknown to Fremont and the other 28 or so men back at the foot of Mesa Mountain. On Christmas Day Fremont had so little concern that he spent the day reading William Blackstone's treatise on the common law (why he thought it was a good idea to pack that is anyone's guess). But for the next several days the remaining men split off into smaller companies to gather baggage and explore the surrounding countryside. They were waiting for reinforcements.
On January 9, 1849, when the "rescue crew" was nowhere in sight, Raphael Proue, a veteran of earlier expeditions, died from cold and exhaustion. This caused Fremont to spring into action. Along with four other men he decided to take off to New Mexico on Jan. 11, giving strict orders to the rest to "finish transporting the baggage to the river, to store it there in the lodge, and then to follow us." I don't know why people were still transporting baggage, nor do I have a crystal clear understanding of how the Fremont party folk were spending the time between Dec. 26 and Jan. 9.
A few days later Fremont and his men had the good fortune to come across a friendly (Ute) Indian, who spoke some Spanish, and they could communicate with him about their needs. With gifts and promises of a reward, Fremont conviced him to lead his party to settlements in northern New Mexico. The Indian provided four horses for them, a welcome relief to exhausted men. While they were were traveling on Jan. 16 they came upon the "skinny and hollow-eyed" survivors of the group dispatched on Dec. 26. While Fremont and company were trying to move south, then, with the "advance" party (which was near death), the remainder of the men began their hazardous trek towards New Mexico. Several died in the process, frozen and starving along the way.
Making it to New Mexico/Conclusion
Finally, about January 23 or 24, Fremont made it to Taos, NM. Others of his men were scattered on the New Mexico highlands or Southern CO, but they would straggle into Taos in the next few weeks. By Feb. 10 all the men were accounted for, Fremont was feeling in fine fettle again and he decided the men and he who were willing would continue on to CA. But, they would do it by a different route (the Gila Route through New Mexico and AZ).
I haven't provided all the "gory" details of the trip. Perhaps it ought to be made into a movie some day. It was harrowing beyond belief, and much of the harrowing nature of it could have been avoided if the men would just have "listened" either to others or to their own inclinations. Instead, they followed the advice of a mountain man who was significantly compromised. In addition, Fremont made the fateful decision in Pueblo to go on. Maybe the financial backers in St. Louis woudn't have understood a refusal to go on. Maybe Fremont felt that he could handle anything that nature sent his way. But in this case he could not. He would continue on to CA, to a ranch just purchased and, fortunately, standing over some significant gold finds. Fremont would, temporarily, become prosperous, only to lose it in the 1850s. He lived very hard, as we see....