Frémont Steals California

A junior Army officer, acting on secret orders from the president, bluffed a far stronger Mexican force into conceding North America's westernmost province to the United States

In June 1842, Army topographer Lt. John Charles Frémont and 22 men left Chouteau’s Trading Post near present-day Kansas City to survey a wagon trail that would lead through the northern Rockies to Oregon. By August a small splinter group led by Frémont and his most famous scout, Kit Carson, snaked their way through the Wind River Mountains, determined to plant a flag on what was believed to be the continent’s highest peak. Read more »

Western Hero

Overrated

It’s hard to choose the most overrated of the West’s many overrated heroes. It’s a fool’s congeries that has to include George Armstrong Custer, who made the biggest mistake of his short, vainglorious life when he decided to attack an Indian encampment down on the Little Bighorn. It has to give a nod to Zebulon Pike, father of a half-century misconception that the Great Plains was fundamentally uninhabitable, and to “the Pathfinder,” John C. Frémont, who without Kit Carson to lead him around by the nose could not have found his bum with either hand.Read more »

Winterkill, 1846

The tragic journey of the Donner Party

To the brothers George and Jacob Donner the way to California seemed clear and simple. Both in their sixties, solid and well-to-do thanks to their own hard work, but beginning now to feel their age and the long Illinois winters in their bones, the two men sat in the glow of the hearthfire that winter of 1845-46 and turned again the wellthumbed pages of The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California .Read more »

The Taking Of California

A low comedy for high stakes:

For three hundred years California drifted in a backwash of time. Spain had discovered the region in 1542 but had done little about it until the latter part of the eighteenth century, when fears of Russian interest in the province inspired her to settle a handful of missionary priests, half-educated soldiers, and thoroughly uneducated civilians in a few pinprick outposts scattered along the coast from San Diego Bay to San Francisco Bay. After Mexico won her independence from Spain in 1821, the Mexicans had done little better by California.Read more »

The Melancholy Fate Of The Loser

It isn’t every day that one can see a man pushing a peanut with his nose along the main street of an American town. But it is not an impossible sight, either, especially when election wagers are being settled after what ex-President Truman has called our “four-yearly spasm.” Sometimes the penance is performed with an orange or golf ball. Or the loser transports the winner over an agreed-upon route in a baby carriage or handcart. Losers have gamely walked barefoot, been rotten-egged, eaten crow—literally—for their fallible political judgment.Read more »

A Record Filled With Sunlight

John Charles Frémont never succeeded in living up to his fame, yet he was one of America’s great explorers

Rolling plains covered with dry bunch grass stretch for miles on every side. Far on the northern horizon lifts an enormous square-topped butte, giving individuality to that quarter of the landscape. Westward, faint in the distance but brought into hard relief as the sun sets, are penciled the snowy peaks of an isolated mountain chain; and close inspection shows that near their base the country dips into a narrow valley, with cottonwoods indicating a stream whose waters are fed by these distant summits.

 
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