How Fremont crossed the Mountains
by Edward Eggleston
It is many years now since Captain Fremont made his great journey over
plains and mountains to California. At that time California belonged to
Mexico. The wild country east of it belonged to the United States.
There were hardly any roads and no railroads in the country west of the
Missouri River. Fremont was sent out to explore that country; that is,
he was sent to find out what kind of a country it was. The white people
knew very little about it.
Fremont had a large party of men with many horses. After months of
travel he found himself near the great Californian mountains. These
mountains are called the Sierra Nevada, or "Snowy Range."
Here some Indians came to see him. He had a talk with them by signs,
for he could not speak their language. They told him he could cross the
mountains in summer. They said it was "six sleeps" to the place where
the white men lived over the mountains. They meant that a man would
have to pass six nights on the road in going there. But it was now
winter, and they told him that no man could cross in the winter. They
held their hands above their heads to show him that the snow was deeper
than a man is tall.
But Fremont told the Indians that the horses of the white men were
strong, and that he would go over the mountains. He showed them some
bright-colored cloths, which he said he would give to any Indian who
would go along as a guide. The Indians called in a young man who said
he had been over the mountains and had seen the white people on the
other side. He agreed to go with Fremont. Fremont now talked to his
men, and told them there was a beautiful valley on the other side of
the mountains,—the valley of the Sacramento. He told them that Captain
Sutter had moved to this valley from Missouri, and had become a rich
man. It was but seventy miles to Sutter's Fort. The men agreed to try
to cross the mountains.
They had but little left to eat. They killed a dog and ate it that very
evening. They would not have much chance to get food in crossing the
mountains, but they started in bravely the next morning. They did not
talk much. They knew that it was very dangerous to cross the mountains
For days and days they fought their way through the snow, which got
deeper and deeper as they went higher up into the mountains. Traveling
grew harder and harder. The horses had nothing to eat but what could be
found in little patches of grass where the wind had blown the snow off
the ground. Whenever a horse or mule grew too weak to travel, the men
killed it and ate it.
One day an old Indian came to see them. He told them they must not go
on. He said, "Rock upon rock, rock upon rock, snow upon snow, snow upon
snow, and even if you get over the snow, you will not be able to get
down the mountain on the other side."
He made signs to show them that the walls of rock were straight up and
down, and that the horses would slip oft. This frightened the Indians
in Fremont's company, and one Indian covered up his head and moaned
while the old man was talking.
The young Indian guide was afraid to go on. He ran away the next day,
taking all the pretty things that Fremont had given him, and a blanket
that Fremont had lent him to keep warm.
The men now made snowshoes, so that they could walk over the snow
without sinking in. Sleds were made to draw the baggage on, for the
horses were getting too weak to carry anything. They found the snow
twenty feet deep in some places. The men had to make great mauls or
pounders to beat down the snow, to make a hard road on which the
animals could travel. Fremont's men now grew very hungry, for they had
little to eat except when they killed a starving mule or a dog.
At last the whole party reached the top of the mountains at a place
where they were nine thousand feet high. They had been three weeks in
getting to the top. They had yet the hard task of getting down on the
other side. But they could see the beautiful country of California
below them. They began to work their way down over the snow and rocks.
After some days Fremont took a party of eight men, and went on to get
provisions for the rest. But for a long distance he found no grass, and
his animals began to give out. One of his men grew so hungry and tired
that he became insane for a while. Another got lost from the party, and
found them only after several days. He told the rest that he had
suffered so much from hunger that he ate small toads, and even let the
large ants creep upon his hands so that he could eat them.
One day Fremont saw some Indian huts. The Indians ran away when they
saw the white men coming. Fremont found near these huts some great
baskets as big as hogsheads filled with acorns. Inside the huts he
found smaller baskets with roasted acorns in them. The men took about
half a bushel of these roasted acorns, and left a shirt, some
handkerchiefs, and some trinkets, to pay for them.
At last they came to a place where there were paths, and tracks of
cattle. The horses, having found grass to eat, grew strong enough for
the men to ride them. One day Fremont found some Indians, one of whom
could speak Spanish.
The Indian said, "I am a herdsman, and work for Captain Sutter."
"Where does he live?"
"Just over the hill. I will show you."
In a short time Fremont and his white men were at the house of Sutter.
But Captain Fremont rested only one night. The next morning he started
back with food for his starving men, who were coming on behind. The
second day after he left Sutter's he met his men.
They were a sad sight. They were all on foot. Each man was leading a
horse as weak and lean as he was himself. Many of the horses had fallen
off the rocks, and had been killed. Only half of the mules and horses
that had started over the mountains had lived to get across. As soon as
Fremont met his men, he told them to camp. He fed the poor starving
fellows beef and bread and fresh salmon. The next day they all reached
the beautiful Sacramento River, where the city of Sacramento now