CHAPTER II. FREMONT AND THE DISCOVERY OF LAKE TAHOE
Like so many other great discoveries that were to have an important effect upon the lives of countless numbers of people, the discovery of Lake Tahoe was accidental. Nor did its finder comprehend the vast influence it was to possess, not only upon the residents of California and Nevada, but upon the travel-loving and sight-seeing portion of the population of the whole world.
John C. Fremont, popularly acclaimed "the pathfinder," was its discoverer, on the 14th day of February, 1844. In the journal of his 1843-44 expedition he thus records the first sight of it:
Accompanied by Mr. Preuss, I ascended to-day the highest peak to the right from which we had a beautiful view of a mountain lake at our feet, about fifteen miles in length, and so nearly surrounded by mountains that we could not discover an outlet.
It cannot be deemed out of place in these pages, owing to the significance of the discovery by Fremont, to give a brief account of the exploration and its purposes, in the carrying out of which Tahoe was revealed to the intrepid and distinguished explorer.
Fortunately for us, Fremont left a full story of his experiences in the Nevada country, complete in detail, and as fresh and vivid as if but written yesterday. This account, with illuminating Introduction, and explanatory notes by James U. Smith, from whose pioneer father Smith Valley is named, was republished in the Second Biennial Report of the Nevada Historical Society, from which, with the kind permission of the secretary, Professor Jeanne Elizabeth Wier, the following extracts are made.
Fremont had already made his first exploration of the Rocky Mountains and South Pass in the summer of 1842. It was in this expedition that, standing on the highest peak of the Rockies, he looked down into the vast area beyond, known as the Great Basin, comprising with its mountain ranges the whole western portion of the continent of North America. This he determined to explore, and it was on this second expedition that Lakes Pyramid and Tahoe, the Truckee River, etc., were discovered.
Later, Fremont made his third western journey, that in which he came into conflict with the Mexican officials of California, became governor of California, and was finally placed under arrest by General Kearny, and taken back to Washington to be tried for mutiny. The results of that unfortunate Kearny conflict are well known.
At the official close of the dispute he made his fourth expedition and finally his fifth, all of which are fully treated in Smucker's and Bigelow's Life of Fremont.
To return now to the second expedition. In the words of Mr. Smith:
The object of the expedition was purely for the purpose of exploring and otherwise getting scientific information about the great territory between the Missouri frontier and the Pacific Ocean. Emigrants were making their way westward to the new Oregon Territory, and hunters and trappers had been visiting portions of that region. Farther north the fur companies had their posts and did a regular business with the trappers and Indians. But little was known about the regions further south, and especially the great territory between the Rocky and Sierra Nevada Mountain chains, and that little was freely adulterated with fiction.
Great Salt Lake was supposed to be a very strange and wonderful lake, the islands of which were covered with woods and flowers, through which roamed all kinds of game, and whose waters were sucked down in a great awe-inspiring whirlpool into an underground passage under the mountains and valleys to the distant sea. Another myth, or rather pair of myths, in which geographers placed sufficient faith to give a place on the maps of the time, was the great Buenaventura River, and that semi-tropical Mary's Lake, the waters from which found their way through the Sierra Nevadas to San Francisco Bay. Mary's Lake was supposed to be a body of water such as a traveler dreams about, whose clear waters were bordered by meadows ever green, a place on whose shores he could pitch his tent and cast aside all thought or care of the morrow. Fremont counted on this lake as a place where he could recuperate and make ready for a final dash eastward across the unknown country to the Rocky Mountains and thence home to the Mississippi River. Contrast these anticipations with the hardships and fears he encountered while groping his way through the Black Rock Desert, north of Pyramid Lake.
But Fremont was a good leader followed by courageous men, and disappointments did not make weaklings of either him or his men. His party, on leaving Missouri, consisted of thirty-nine men - Creoles, Canadian-Frenchmen, Americans, a German or two, a free negro and two Indians. Charles Preuss was Fremont's assistant in topography, and it is likely that he made his sketches, several of which were published in the original report. Another member of the party, and one who joined it in the Rocky Mountains and is of special interest to us, was Christopher Carson, commonly known as "Kit" Carson. Fremont speaks of him in very friendly and flattering terms. At the time of the meeting with Carson, he says: "I had here the satisfaction to meet our good buffalo hunter of 1842, Christopher Carson, whose services I considered myself fortunate to secure again." On another occasion, when Carson had successfully performed a responsible errand, he says: "Reaching St. Vrain's Fort ... we found ... my true and reliable friend, Kit Carson." Fremont left Kansas City, Mo., May 29, 1843.