John C. Fremont again departs from St. Louis to explore the West, having only recently returned from his first western expedition.
The son of a French father and American mother, Fremont had an unstable and nomadic childhood, and money troubles often plagued his family. As a young man, he showed an aptitude for mathematics and surveying, and in 1838, he won a commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers. In 1842, he received an assignment to make a survey of the Platte River, and set out with 24 companions, including the famous guide Kit Carson. During five months of travel, Fremont crossed the South Pass in central Wyoming and explored the Wind River Mountains.
Scarcely before he had time to recover from his first expedition, Fremont was preparing to depart on his second. On this day in 1843, Fremont left St. Louis on a much more ambitious journey to explore the Oregon country. In Colorado the party met up with Carson, who had again agreed to serve as a guide. On September 6, the Fremont caught site of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, “stretching in still and solitary grandeur far beyond the limits of our vision.” By early November, they arrived at Fort Vancouver, across the Columbia River from the present-day site of Portland.
Having surveyed the Oregon country, Fremont’s orders were to return east via the Oregon Trail. Fremont, however, apparently decided this would be an inadequately grand approach, and decided instead to head south and cross the Sierra Nevada in the middle of the winter. The journey was awful and nearly disastrous. Fremont and his men struggled with the deep snow and bitter cold; they often got lost and ate their horses to survive. Thanks to the skill of Carson and amazing good luck with the weather, the expedition eventually emerged from the mountains and limped into Sutter’s Fort on March 6, 1844. After resting for three weeks, they returned east by a route that took them through the Wasatch and Uinta Mountains of Utah.
With the help of his wife, Jessie, Fremont wrote a detailed account of his western adventures. The report made some notable errors. Fremont foolishly identified the country around the Great Salt Lake as fertile-a mistake that contributed to the Mormons decision to migrate to the area. However, Fremont’s account did provide the first comprehensive scientific survey of vast areas of the West.
Fremont went on to lead two other successful expeditions to the West. His reports of these and his earlier journeys made him a national hero and he later went into politics. He lived into his early 70s, but the four western journeys he made before he was 40 remained his greatest achievements.