July 2005 Issue Explore Historic California - Magazine for Enthusiasts





A Time To Celebrate:  The Fourth of July

by Cecile Page Vargo

Part I:  Along the Trail

         As pioneers rolled covered wagons across the vast North American continent to a new land, the love and loyalty for the country they were leaving behind remained with them. Even the brave men who paved the way to this new frontier for these pioneers would stop and pause for a moment of brief celebration and patriotism when July 4th came around. The celebration of old and familiar holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and other events monumental or otherwise,  gave weary travelers something to look forward to other than the arduous work of their journeys and expeditions. It also helped them to remain connected to the land and the loved one's back in the States.

Corp of Discovery Greets Day With A Bang

          Diaries from these travels more often than not noted Independence Day. Not quite two months into their journey of exploration into unknown territories, Captain William Clark of the Lewis & Clark Corp of Discovery noted July 4th 1804 :

         "Ushered in the day by a discharge of one shot from our bow piece, proceeded on, passed the mouth of a bayou leading from a large lake on the S.S. (starboard, or right side,) which has the appearance of being once the bend of the river, and reaches parallel for several miles. We came to on the L.S. (larboard, or left side, known today as port side) to refresh ourselves. Joseph Fields got bitten by a snake, and was quickly doctored with bark by Captain Lewis.

           We passed a creek twelve yards wide, on the L.S., coming out of an extensive prairie reaching within two hundred yards of the river. As this creek has no name, and this being the Fourth of July, the day of the Independence of the United States , we called it "Fourth of July 1804 Creek." We dined on corn. Captain Lewis and I walked on shore above this creek and discovered a high mound from the top of which he had an extensive view. Three paths came together at the mount. We saw great numbers of goslings today which were nearly grown. The lake is clear and contains great quantities of fish and geese and goslings. This induced me to call it Gosling Lake.  A small Creek and several springs run into the lake on the east side from the hills. The land on that side is very good."

No Time To Rest on the Fourth

          Explorer Stephen Long led an expedition across the plains to the Rocky Mountains in 1820.  Forty miles east of the peak which is now named after Long, they paused briefly to celebrate the birth of the nation they had come from. Edwin James, a physician, accompanying Long, noted the day in his journal:

          "We had hoped to celebrate our great national festival on the Rocky Mountains , but the day had arrived, and we were still at a distance. Being extremely impatient of any unnecessary delay, which prevented us from entering upon the examination of the mountains, we did not devote the day to rest, as had been our intention. We did not, however forget to celebrate the anniversary of our national independence, according to our circumstances. An extra pint of maize was issued to each mess, and a small portion of whiskey distributed."

          The maize Edwin James talked of was a delightful addition to the soup kettle of boiling buffalo meat, instead of the usual barley.

Fremont's Trailside Celebrations

          As he paved his way for his country's manifest destiny under the direction of Senator Thomas Hart Benton, "the great pathfinder", John C. Fremont, managed to allow his men a bit of Fourth of July celebrating time also:

           July 4, 1842 : The first of Fremont's expeditions was under way. At Brady's Island near present day North Platte, smoke from a distant wildfire woke up Fremont and most of his men. The rest were aroused by an Independence Day salute and the smell of hot coffee and fresh roasted buffalo. The men were surprised with cups of red wine and a toast to the holiday, followed by a cheer to the United States of America. In the midst of the celebration a buffalo calf barreled through the camp, with two wolves not far behind it. The wolves circled the camp, soon to be joined by an entire pack of 20 - 30 wolves. The wolves took turns closing the distance between the calf and the buffalo herd. A couple of bulls, feeding away from the main herd, began attacking the wolves only to be driven off by the entire pack. The men watched as the calf was half eaten before it actually died.

          Following breakfast, and the wolf attack on the nearby buffalo, Fremont gave orders to move out.  The men were disappointed, as they had hoped they would have a day off for the Fourth of July holiday. Gear was packed, mules hitched to carts, horses were saddled and mess fires destroyed.  They crossed the prairie watching more buffalo herds heading to a river for water, as they traveled along. They passed the buffalo, and set up camp a few miles from North Platte. Here they prepared for their Fourth of July celebration meal consisting of preserves and fruitcakes that friends had given them when they were in St. Louis, as well as macaroni soup, buffalo meat, and several pots of hot coffee. Cheyenne Indians that had joined the party showed great curiosity about the feast, and asked if the white man celebrated many "medicine days." A keg of brandy was passed around after the meal, followed by a toast to the flag. The men found the Cheyenne boy staggering around the camp drunk great entertainment.

          July 4, 1843 :  The expedition traveled non stop after breakfast on this 4th of July. They waited until they reached St. Vrain's Fort on the east bank of the South Fork of the Platte River to celebrate Independence Day. Marcellan St. Vrain and a few of his employees stood at the open gates of the fort to greet the explorers. A simple meal was served in the dining room of one of the single story adobe buildings.

           July 4, 1844 : Already in Bent's Fort, Fremont remained there to celebrate Independence Day in the finest style. A feast was served, consisting of buffalo meat, roast beef, turkeys, chickens, fresh pies, and cakes. Fine coffee with milk, and "hailstorms" ( a form of mint julep made of ice from the ice house, and wild mint found in the shade and dampness of nearby streams & whiskey), washed down the meal. The men enjoyed  cigars and aguardiente while watching Cheyenne, mountain men, and locals chant, yell, and dance around. Cannons were fired off. Three cheers were made for the Yankees, followed by  "to hell with the British", and another round of drinks to toast the day. Meanwhile a long bearded fiddler stomped his foot for yet another dance.

          July 4, 1845 : One hundred and ten miles out of Westport on the Santa Fe Trail , the Fremont expedition rolled out of bed once again for another Independence day celebration on the trail. They had their rifles in hand for a Fourth of July Salute over Captain Fremont's teepee, and the brandy was passed around. This time they remained in camp after hard traveling, so animals could rest, men could bathe, launder and mend clothes, and enjoy a little shooting match fun. Traders and teamsters from a Santa Fe caravan joined in the celebrations with their own jugs of whiskey. It was later reported that the men "did some high drinking" that day.

Pioneers Pine for Home On The Holiday

          Diary of Mary Stuart Bailey July 4, 1852 :

          "Started at 3 o'clock to find feed or know where it was. Had to go 4 or 5 miles off the road. Found water & good grass. Camped on the sand with sage roots for fuel. It is wintery, cold and somewhat inclined to rain, not plesant. Rather a dreary Independence Day. We speak of our friends at home. We think they are thinking of us. "Home Sweet Home". I dare not think of it while so far away from the hundreds of dear friends so dear to me from where I haven a long, long time separated. They now find very easy access and grateful admission into my heart. It is sad to think that everyday takes me farther from them."   

          Mary Stuart Bailey and fellow travelers found themselves at Independence Rock on July 6th, instead of the 4th. They were behind schedule, so did not stop.

           Diary of Helen Carpenter July 4, 1857 :

          "This has not seemed at all like "Independence Day" but just the same old jolts with plenty of dust thrown in. I did succeed in finishing my book, "Dread or the Dismal Swamp ." Have been quite a while in getting through it. It is hard toread when it is too warm and the mosquitos bite and the wagon jolts and the dust comes in until you lose the place. Do not think I will try to read anything else. We had a beautiful camp beside the river. Directly opposite perpendicular bluffs 74 or 100 feet high rose from the very bank of the river making a delightful change from the levels we have had to look at so long.

          As it was the 4th Reel wanted something extra for supper. Well what should it be? He said "Corn starch." I never heard of that being a rth of July dish and further more I did not know how to cook it. But he did "just as Aunt Hannah used to." So I stood by and saw him burn his fingers and scorch the starch which when done was of the consistency of very thin gravy. But we ate it, for on a trip like this one must not be to particular."

         A footnote to Harriet Bunyard's 1869 diary found in "Ho For California: Women's Overland Diaries from the Huntington Library" which  had no mention of the Fourth of July, "It is rare for overland travelers not to comment on the nation's birthday and to have some sort of celebration. However it is likely that most of the train were former Confederates and not yet ready to return fully to the celebration of the Union they had so recently fought."

 Ho for Independence Rock!

         Independence Rock, mentioned in Mary Stuart Bailey's diary, was discovered in the 1820's. Fur trappers were the first white men to encounter the giant granite outcropping measuring 1,900 feet long, 700 feet wide, and 128 feet high as they traveled across Wyoming to the Far West . A man known as M. K. Hugh was said to have carved the first inscription on this humongous boulder in 1824, although time and weather have taken away all evidence that he ever did so. Legend has it that mountain man Thomas "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick named the giant slab, "Rock Independence" as he passed  by on the Fourth of July. William Sublette, who stopped with the first wagon train across the new overland route known as The Overland Trail, is usually credited for the naming of Independence Rock., however. July 4, 1830 Sublette and 80 pioneers camped and celebrated the holiday, Sublette declaring the rock Independence after that celebration. The parade of wagon trains that followed in the upcoming years made it their goal to stop at the 27 acre landmark on the Fourth of July also. They knew if they arrived by this date, there was a good chance they would get to their eventual destination before weather kicked in and hampered their efforts. Over 5,000 emigrants carved their name on the "Great Register of the Desert" that towered over the vast prairie.



Seeking Pleasure in the Old West

by David Dary

University of Kansas Press


Fremont : Explorer for a Restless Nation

by Ferol Egan

University of Nevada Press


Ho For California : Women's Overland Diaries from the Huntington Library

Edited & Annotated by Sandra L. Myres

Huntington Library


Journals of Lewis and Clark

by John Bakeless

A Mentor Book / New American Library

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