Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Army Pathfinder John C. Fremont at The Cedars on the Snake River [otd 9/28]

John C. Fremont, ca 1861-1865.
Matthew Brady photo, Library of Congress.
On September 28, 1843, an expedition led by Second Lieutenant John C. Frémont reached a point along the Snake River that would later be called “The Cedars.”

In August, Frémont’s command had explored the area around the Great Salt Lake, and then turned north into Idaho. At various times he sent men, including famous guide Kit Carson, to Fort Hall for provisions.

Frémont first gained a name for himself on successful surveying expeditions between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. That notoriety and his personal charisma allowed him to woo and wed Jessie Benton, daughter of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton. (This despite the stigma of Frémont’s illegitimate birth.)

With Senator Benton’s backing, Frémont led successive survey parties west, including one that reached Wyoming’s South Pass, and then this 1843 trek. In mid-September, they left the Bear River watershed and marched toward the Snake River, camping near American Falls. Then, for September 28th, Frémont wrote, “at evening we found a sheltered camp, where there was an abundance of wood, at some elevated rocky islands covered with cedar, near the commencement of another long cañon of the river.” [My emphasis.]

Sixty years later, Milner Dam would be built near Frémont’s campsite at The Cedars [blog, May 7]. However, the presence of the Snake River canyon was of more immediate concern, because downstream from their camp it was almost impossible to descend to obtain water. Instead, they had to cut across a largely arid, sometimes rocky plain. Frémont wrote, “We encamped about 5 o’clock on Rock Creek – a stream having considerable water, a swift current, and wooded with willow.”

Perhaps a thousand emigrants had crossed Idaho before Frémont’s party explored the area. Few of them had sent letters East, and fewer of those provided any reliable information on the route. In early October, Frémont discovered the difficult Snake River ford that later travelers called the “Three Island Crossing,” near today's Glenns Ferry. Early fall rains had caused the river to rise, and the surveyors had to resort to their inflatable boat to cross.

Four days later, Frémont wrote, “We came suddenly in sight of the broad green line of the valley of the Rivière Boisée (wooded river).”

After noting that the upstream course turned sharply into “lofty mountains,” the party descended to “the bottoms of the river, which is a beautiful rapid stream, with clear mountain water, and, as the name indicates, well wooded with some varieties of timber – among which are handsome cottonwoods.”

Old Fort Boise, E. Weber & Co. Lithograph.
National Archives.
They followed along the river to (old) Fort Boise, where, Frémont said, “We were received with an agreeable hospitality by Mr. Payette, an officer of the Hudson’s Bay Company.”

They again used their boat, and two borrowed canoes, to cross the Snake River, which they found “broad and deep.” The following day they crossed the future Idaho-Oregon border into “very mountainous country.” The party arrived at the first white settlements in late October. Frémont and a few men went on to Fort Vancouver.

Frémont’s published report, with maps, became a vital guide for Oregon Trail pioneers who followed much the same route across Idaho.
References: [Brit]
Brevet Captain J. C. Fremont, Report of the Exploring Expedition to The Rocky Mountains … [1842-1843], Printed by order of the Senate of the United States, Washington D.C. (1845).
Jim Gentry, In the Middle and On the Edge, College of Southern Idaho (2003).
John D. Unruh, Jr, The Plains Across, University of Illinois Press, Urbana (1979).


  1. Tell us more about the "inflatable boat" the Fremont surveyors used - that sounds like another first.

  2. You're right -- that turns out to be very interesting. Rather than squeeze into this comment box, I added another item to the blog itself.