The Great Crevasse

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John Charles Frémont was one of the those skyrockets that arch up across the American sky now and then—a wild quick climb, a dazzling shower of sparks, and then a headlong plunge down into the darkness. Seen from a distance, the man seems to have had a minimum of solid substance, so that it is hard to understand what people used to see in him.

Yet he burned with a bright light once. Many men believed in him passionately, and not all of them were innocents who gave their faith to men without stature. (There was Kit Carson, for instance.) If he did not precisely open the West, he made Americans aware of it, he put a gloss and a shine on it, he helped stamp the consciousness of a continental destiny on the American mind. A little later his name became part of a drum-beat rhythm . . . Free soil, Free men, Frémont! . . . and if, in the end, he was not the man the time of drums called for he at least had been a rallying point for men greatly in earnest.

He was an interesting man, in other words; and one of the interesting chapters in his career is reviewed in William Brandon’s The Men and the Mountain , which is the story of Frémont’s fourth, and disastrous, Rocky Mountain expedition in 1848.

Frémont was trying to chart a railroad route to California. The country badly wanted such a route, but under the rising tensions of the approaching Civil War the North and South were acutely jealous and suspicious of each other, and neither section would consent to a route which seemed to favor its rival. St. Louis, as an eastern terminus, might be a good compromise point; so Frémont, strongly backed by his father-in-law and political sponsor, Senator Thomas Hart Benton—but definitely not sponsored by the U.S. Government—set out from St. Louis to blaze the way.

He was a man in trouble, just then, and he needed to redeem himself. His part in the conquest of California had ended badly; the army had court-martialed and dismissed him for refusing to take orders from General Stephen Kearny, and for Frémont—a romantic if there ever was one, and possibly a little headlinehappy to boot—it was above all things important to perform some new deed that would restore all of his lost glory. He would head west, straight across the middle of the Colorado Rockies; further, to show that the route was feasible for year-round rail travel, he would make the trip in the middle of the winter. So he got together a group of 35 men, including some first-rate mountain men, and set out.

Unfortunately, he was heading into the most tangled set of mountains in the United States, and he had picked one of the worst winters in history. His party got up to the Continental Divide, bogged down in snow and utterly impassable landscape, ate all of its mules and most of its moccasins, and then disintegrated in wholesale misery, with the loss of ten lives. As a picture of men beset by the elements and fighting their way through to survival against incredible odds, the story is one of the striking chapters in American westward exploration.

But Mr. Brandon makes it more than that. He is chiefly interested in Frémont himself, the romantic who pursued a dream into the mountains. What happened to this romantic who risked three dozen lives to redeem his lost reputation and ran headlong into failure and abject defeat?

What happened to him, Mr. Brandon makes clear, was pretty much what happened to the party as a whole: a moral disintegration, born not so much of physical hardship as of the consciousness of failure. For, says Mr. Brandon: “To the unfortunate romantic when he fails as he must to live up to his imaginative ideals the world becomes all a despised place and only fit for unworthiness. Very likely unrealistic romantic ideals have tripped up far more lives than have difficult realities. They play a strange role in the drama of human happiness, such ideals, forever lifting up and hurling down, Lucifer’s fall re-enacted in continuous performance. It might be they are the gentleman himself.”

So Frémont blamed the mountain men who were with him, blamed the party as a whole, and complained of men who had endured the very ultimate: “I have never seen men so soon discouraged by misfortune.” He had won fame on his earlier expeditions, this one had been a sad fizzle, the fault must lie in the men he led: “This party was not constituted like the former ones.” He even alleged that Old Bill Williams, the famous mountain man who had been his guide, had deliberately misled him; and with this, says Mr. Brandon, “Frémont at last sounded the rock bottom of the crevasse that had been opened in his soul.”

Well, Frémont and most of his men finally got out of the mountains, Frémont went on to California—by the safer, well-charted southern route—and by the time he got there the world had changed. The gold boom was on, a worthless ranch Frémont had bought earlier was a bonanza, and in a short time Frémont was a millionaire, a U.S. senator, and a man on his way to be nominated for the presidency. He had great days ahead of him, and more great failures; but nothing, apparently, quite like what happened to him in the Colorado Rockies in the dreadful winter of 1848.

The Men and the Mountain , by William Brandon. William Morrow & Co. 337 pp. $5.