From the Museum Archives: Fremont the Pathfinder in Northwest Colorado
John C. Fremont, “The Pathfinder,” is one of the most enigmatic and controversial figures in American history. He was also a larger-than-life character who embodied the romantic ideals of the burgeoning American West. In 1844 he made his mark in Northwest Colorado.
Fremont’s full story is truly complex. He led five major expeditions in the 1840s to 1850s — the fourth, through southern Colorado, ended in cannibalistic disaster — became the first governor of California (technically), was governor of Arizona Territory (though never really spent time there), was court-martialed (commuted by President Polk), was the first presidential candidate of the Republican party, issued an Emancipation Proclamation behind President Lincoln’s back, etc.
Born in 1813, Fremont came from modest means. Even so, his charisma allowed him to work his way into the world of intellectual and political elites. That same charisma also led him to elope with the daughter of high-powered Washington senator Thomas Hart Benton. Backed with his father-in-law’s influence and his wife’s keen writing prowess — sprinkled with more than a few embellishments — Fremont became the face of westward expansion.
Fremont’s first expedition in 1842 was to map part of the newly established Oregon Trail. Though it was a pretty straight forward mission, he was able to make a name for himself by unnecessarily climbing the “tallest” peak in the Rocky Mountains to plant an American flag. Fremont instantly became a national celebrity. That peak, Fremont Peak, is located in today’s Wyoming and stands at 13,745 feet — there are over 100 taller peaks in the Rocky Mountains.
Fremont’s second expedition was considerably more ambitious. In 1843, along with Kit Carson as his guide, Fremont’s crew traveled the length of the Oregon Trail to the Pacific coast. After Oregon they made their way south through much of California before turning northeast through the Great Basin. They then entered today’s Northwest Colorado.
On June 7, 1844, Fremont arrived in Browns Park in today’s Moffat County. They camped along the banks of the Green River near the Gates of Lodore.
His journal stated they were “…opposite to the remains of an old fort on the left bank of the river…” These were the remains of Fort Davy Crockett which was abandoned just a few years prior. On June 9 they continued through “a remarkably dry canyon, fifty or sixty yards wide (Bull Canyon)… issuing from this we entered another rent of the same nature (Irish Canyon)… the canyon opened upon a pond of water, where we halted to noon (Irish Lake).”
From Irish Lake they made their way to the Little Snake River and traveled upriver through today’s Baggs, Dixon and Savery until climbing over into North Park and heading south over Muddy Pass, the junction of Highway 40 and Highway 14 to Walden.
Fremont’s first two expeditions provided a large and accurate image of the American West. His written accounts and the accompanying maps were widely published and directly attributed to one of the largest human migrations the world had ever seen. Fremont went on to become a very wealthy man, yet he died absolutely broke.
If you’re ever looking for an interesting read, his story is a good one to consider!
Paul Knowles is assistant director of the Museum of Northwest Colorado. To learn more, drop by the Museum of Northwest Colorado at 590 Yampa Ave., or visit the museum’s Facebook page, facebook.com/MuseumNorthwestColorado.