Early the morning of February 21, Kit Carson woke up and
started the fire. Fremont joined, with the rest of the men to
follow. According to Fremont’s journals they paused for awhile
to enjoy purple ranges bordered with bright yellow gold and a
beautiful blue sky as the sun rose before them. Weak coffee and
mule meat provided fuel for the start of their day and the
beginning of their trek into the western side of the Sierras.
This day’s journey would take them across six miles of
clear ground alternating with snow encrusted fields. Path
finding was difficult, often leading to impassable banks, and
snow appearing heavier at the tree line below. Weather was like
an April day, with strong winds, and occasional snow flurries.
One roll of thunder, and a quick look towards the Sacramento
Valley in the distance revealed blue skies beyond the clouds and
a view of the San Francisco Bay.
The orange glow of fires in the distance brought the
promise of civilization in the Sacramento Valley and Sutter’s
Fort, but later proved to be Indians camping along the Tulare
River some eighty miles away on the shore of the bay. As they
set up their own camp in the mountains after their struggle
through the difficult and snowy terrain, they had only mule to
look forward to for the evening’s meal.
Travel would continue, over draws and canyons and snowy
drifts. Ridges were no better, with timber, and brush to fight
through. Granite, slate, lava, and creeks flowing madly over
polished boulders took what little strength the men had to
conquer. Food was so scarce, that each day or so another horse
or mule was shot to supply food for the entire party. By the
time they reached present day Strawberry Valley, the men were on
the verge of collapse.
A mule was noted nibbling on the tail of a horse. Others
took bites out of saddles and bridles desperate for some form of
nourishment. It was a relief when they reached a creek with
rushes tender with fresh shoots, and a halt was ordered for the
February 24, a party of eight men was chosen to forge ahead
with the strongest of horses to head towards Sutter’s Fort for
supplies and fresh mounts. An Indian trail led them through
groves of massive oaks with branches intertwined with mistletoe.
The sound of birds and summer wind greeted them. After ten miles
of travel, camp was set up in an oak and pine bottom near a
roaring stream. One of the half starved horses was killed for
their meal once again.
Rain would greet them two days later, as they found
themselves following a stream and mountains increasing in height
as they descended. Narrow precipices made difficult going for
men and horses. Lightening struck across the dark sky and heavy
downpours continued through the afternoon. The red clay soil
they traversed became slick and sticky. The men were wet and
uncomfortable as they tackled a steep and narrow canyon that
eventually became impassable beside rushing river waters. They
camped on a slope, embracing a wet and miserable night.
The following day the going was not much better. The
stream, sixty feet wide and gushing over boulders was somehow
forded and they got to the opposite hill. Only one mile was
traveled before camp was made on the slope. A mule was killed
once again, his head boiled in a large kettle with water for a
Lack of sufficient food, exhaustion from traversing snow
and sticky red clay mud, as well as continued exposure to both
freezing and wet weather began to take its toll on the group. As
they continued to work through steep cliffs that dropped off to
river canyons Charles Towns was unable to keep up, but was found
and brought back by one of the men named Jacob. Three horses
were lost to exhaustion as well.
Camp was set up in a ravine and a few men went back for
the missing horses. Among the horses was one of Fremont’s
favorites. Baptiste Derosier took off looking for it and failed
to return by night fall, causing concern. The weather was
warmer, and the party moved on hoping that Derosier had hooked
up with the group they had left behind. Meanwhile, a delusional
Charles Towns decided the warmer weather meant summer had
arrived and took a swim in the icy river. Towns was rescued from
the raging waters before he drowned.
While Towns was recovering from his swim, Derosier suddenly
appeared, sat by the fire and relayed his story of wandering
around lost on the mountain, hungry, fatigued, and fearful of
perishing. As he talked, it was obvious he thought he had been
gone for several days, as opposed to a few, and was deranged.
In spite of the desperate condition of the men, the party
had to continue on with the hope that the next mountain slope
would lead them into the Sacramento Valley and Sutter’s Fort. In
their critical state, with mountain precipices replacing the
river canyons, only a few miles were accomplished until the next
encampment. Here at least, springs and fresh grass were in
abundance. Charles Preuss, not realizing the men had already
stopped for the day, disappeared next. It was nightfall before
his absence was noticed by anyone.
On March 3, a search began for Preuss. Evidence of his
trail was picked up along the river. Shouts and gun shots in the
air received no answer as they descended from pine forests to
oaks. At one point an Indian heard the cries, and answered back,
and there was even more cause for alarm should they be greeted
by an unfriendly group.
Preuss himself continued to follow the river with
expectations it would lead him right into the Sacramento Valley.
Wild onions, ants and raw frog legs sustained his hunger, but he
noted in his journals that he mostly missed a good smoke and
tobacco for his pipe. After a few days he discovered a few
Indians roasting acorns, offering his pocket knife in return for
His pockets full of nourishment, he continued on until he
reached a spot where ashes smoldered from a noon stop the
Fremont party had made. Encouraged by the warmth lingering in
the fire pit Preuss pushed ahead until sunset to catch up with
them. The shape of Fremont’s teepee in the distance proved a
welcome sight. Preuss caught up with Fremont and the rest of the
party camped near the site of present day Coloma. Tales were
swapped and roast horse and mule were cooked around the evening
The morning of March 6 the men continued, now
through beautiful country with the sun to warm them. All manner
of wild flowers, among tall green grass lay beneath towering oak
trees. Many of the oaks featured wild grapevines twisting
intricately amongst their branches. This was foothill country,
and the great Sierra Nevadas were behind them at last.
The horses and mules found enough to feast on to renew
their strength. The men marveled at deer, quail, geese and more.
At the junction of the North-Middle Fork and the South Fork of
the American River they followed the river bank and fresh tracks
of cattle and horses. Before long they discovered a village of
Maidu Indians. Unable to communicate with them, they found a
spot beneath the shadow of a large oak and lunched on acorn
meal, then moved on. Shortly after they approached a high knoll
with a little adobe house overlooking the river and the valley.
The site of glass windows excited them. More Maidu Indians
greeted them instead of the hoped for Mexican ranchero and its
family. A little further on, they reached a large village of
Indians, clean and dressed in cotton shirts and civilized
dresses. One particularly well attired Indian approached them in
Spanish, “I am a vaquero in the service of Captain Sutter, and
the people of this Rancheria work for him,” he said.
It would not be long now before Fremont and his men would
meet up with Captain Sutter at his fort. They would fill their
stomachs, drink good wine, and have a roof over their head
through Sutter’s generosity before heading back up with supplies
to rescue the rest of the expedition. By March 8 all men had
arrived at Sutter’s Fort living in comfort for two weeks.
Out of sixty-seven horses and mules, only thirty-three
survived. Fortunately, they left the Sierras with the same
human count they had entered with. It would be another four
months of travel and adventure before they would return to St.
Fremont would unite with his beloved, Jessie, and together
they would prepare the reports that would introduce the world to
the territory he had covered. These reports would eventually
lead simple men and their families to brave similar journeys in
search of a new life in a promised land. The howitzer he had
taken along and abandoned in the wilderness, as well as military
and political intentions of future jaunts to California would
eventually come back to haunt him, but for now John C. Fremont
was a hero.