CHAPTER XXXV. THE FREMONT HOWITZER AND LAKE TAHOE
Hundreds of thousands of Americans doubtless have read "How a Woman's Wit Saved California to the Union," yet few indeed know how intimately that fascinating piece of history is linked with Lake Tahoe.
Here is the story of the link:
When Fremont started out on his Second Exploration (fairly well dealt with in another chapter), he stopped at the Kansas frontier to equip. When he finally started, the party (108) was armed generally with Hall's carbines, which, says Fremont:
with a brass twelve-pound howitzer, had been furnished to me from the United States arsenal at St. Louis, agreeably to the command of Colonel S.W. Kearny, commanding the third military division. Three men were especially detailed for the management of this, under the charge of Louis Zindel, a native of Germany, who had been nineteen years a non-commissioned officer of the artillery in the Prussian army, and regularly instructed in the duties of his profession.
As soon as the news that he had added a cannon to his equipment reached Washington, the Secretary of War, James M. Porter, sent a message after him, post haste, countermanding the expedition on the ground that he had prepared himself with a military equipment, which the pacific nature of his journey did not require. It was specially charged as a heinous offense that he had procured a small mountain howitzer from the arsenal at St. Louis, in addition to his other firearms.
But Fremont had already started. He was not far on his way, and the message could have reached him easily. It was not destined to do so, however, until after his return. The message came to the hands of his girl-wife, Jessie Benton Fremont, the daughter of Missouri's great senator, Thomas H. Benton, and she knew, as Charles A. Moody has well written, that
this order, obeyed, would indefinitely postpone the expedition - probably wreck it entirely. She did not forward it. Consulting no one, since there was no one at hand to consult, she sent a swift messenger to her husband with word to break camp and move forward at once - "he could not have the reason for haste, but there was reason enough." And he, knowing well and well trusting the sanity and breadth of that girl-brain, hastened forward, unquestioning, while she promptly informed the officer whose order she had vetoed, what she had done, and why. So far as human wit may penetrate, obedience to that backward summons would have meant, three years later, the winning of California by another nation - and what that loss would have signified to the United States none can know fully, but any may partly guess who realizes a part of what California has meant for us.
In commenting later upon this countermand of the Expedition Fremont remarks:
It is not probable that I would have been recalled from the Missouri frontier to Washington to explain why I had taken an arm that simply served to increase the means of defense for a small party very certain to encounter Indian hostility, and which involved very trifling expense. The administration in Washington was apparently afraid of the English situation in Oregon.
Unconscious, therefore, of his wife's action, - which might easily have ruined his career - Fremont pushed on. The howitzer accompanied him into Oregon, back through into Nevada, and is clearly seen in the picture of Pyramid Lake drawn by Mr. Preuss (which appears in the original report), showing it after it had traveled in the neighborhood of four thousand miles.
The last time it was fired as far as the Fremont Expedition is concerned was on Christmas Eve, in 1843. The party was camped on Christmas Lake, now known as Warner Lake, Oregon, and the following morning the gun crew wakened Fremont with a salute, fired in honor of the day. A month later, two hundred and fifty miles south, it was to be abandoned in the mountains near West Walker River, on account of the deep snow which made it impossible for the weary horses to drag it further.
On the 28th of January Fremont thus writes:
To-night we did not succeed in getting the howitzer into camp. This was the most laborious day we had yet passed through, the steep ascents and deep snows exhausting both men and animals.
Possibly now the thought began to take possession of him that the weapon must be left behind. For long weary days it had been a constant companion. It had been dragged over the plains, mountains and canyons. It was made to ford rivers, plunge through quicksands and wallow through bog, mire, mud, marsh and snow. Again and again it delayed them when coming over sandy roads, but tenaciously Fremont held on to it. Now deep snow forbade its being dragged further. Haste over the high mountains of the Sierra Nevada was imperative, for such peaks and passes are no lady's playground when the forces of winter begin to linger there, yet one can well imagine the regret and distress felt by the Pathfinder at being compelled to abandon this cannon, to which he had so desperately clung on all the wearisome miles his company had hitherto marched.
On the 29th he writes: