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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
June 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 4
Nicollet was the first explorer to make careful use of the barometer in calculating interior altitudes in America. A user of the barometer, he said, must know every part of the instrument and be ready to repair it, however inadequate his facilities, if necessary. (Frémont’s ingenious repair of a broken barometer by scraping thin a buffalo horn and bending it in tubular form to replace the glass exemplifies Nicollet’s point.) He must, Nicollet said, be familiar with all the meteorological laws relating to these instruments, so that when variations occur he will know which are periodic, which accidental. He must exercise sleepless care of his treasures.
But compared with some other tasks, barometrical observations were easy. The scientific explorer had to make exact observations on geology, botany, ornithology, and zoology. He had to note the weather, with precise temperatures. He had to collect specimens—the right specimens. He had to make contributions to ethnology by notes on Indian life. If he were worth his literary salt (and few were), he had to record scenes and incidents that would commend his narrative to the general reader. In short, he had to be alert to everything all the time.
On all this Nicollet, supplementing others, gave quickly absorbed lessons to the ardent young Frémont. Never did scientist have a more eager learner. The best mode of ascertaining the true time, Nicollet writes, “is to measure the absolute altitudes of the sun, or of some principal stars, taken both east and west of the meridian of the spot where the observation is made.” Two or three series of observations are requisite, the stars being selected “to fulfill the theoretical conditions required lor good hour-angles.” Of course for two or three series, the sentries must awaken the tired observer, and precise detailed calculations must follow. But to determine time in this way, the azimuth must be known. And so must the latitude, for without it the hour-angle of the spherical triangle could not be ascertained.
Out of the partnership of Nicollet and Frémont grew the map that the former bound with his Report; “one of the greatest contributions ever made to American gcography,” writes Lieutenant G. K. Warren in his history of western exploration before 1855.
It was a marvelous training for a scientific explorer, at once precise and broad: far better than that which West Point at this time gave young officers of the Topographical Corps. Frémont was as well equipped as any predecessor and better than most, and should in some respects have improved upon their work. What comparisons can we draw between his achievements and those of others?
Lewis and Clark are in a sense hors concours, defying rivalry. They had the advantage of being the first comers in most of the great area they traversed. They were men not merely of exceptional gifts but of complementary talents—Clark the administrator, engineer, and practiced woodsman; Lewis the scientist, artist, and writer.
As scientific explorers they set a mark which Frémont might well envy. They made careful observations of temperature and weather, records of the miles traveled, and notes on flora and fauna. Lewis, in particular, wrote descriptions of the natural scenery—for example, the Great Falls of the Missouri—possessing vividness and charm. They drew outline maps, plans, and miscellaneous sketches of high value. They were keenly observant of Indian customs, dress, and economy; Lewis’ description of how an Indian tepee was made, erected, and used is almost a model piece of exposition. They took skins of some animals not before known—a badger, for example and described others so closely that identification became easy. They collected botanical and geological specimens.
Lewis and dark stand at the head of our explorers; But—and it is no derogation of their merits to say so—they suffered from some unescapable limitations. Their scientific instruments—only a sextant, a chronometer, and a spirit level—and their mathematical and astronomical knowledge were alike inadequate for the accurate fixing of positions. Of necessity their measurements of distance were rough. Their smattering of geology being slight, their interest in it was restricted. They passed over areas rich in gold and silver, the region of the Montana gold rush, without noting the gold flecks in the sands and the nuggets on the bars. After all, they were pathbreakers; specialized work had to come later.
Zebulon M. Pike, too, was a pathbreaker, one whose much greater deficiencies were partly beyond his control. His bold southwestern expedition of 1805–7 had in view an apparent object, the rcconnoitering of Spanish borderlands for the benefit of a possible future American expeditionary force, which was not scientific and which he could not avow in the book he later published. But Pike’s narrative (1810), compared with Frémont’s, is scientifically thin and literarily dull. He had no instruments to reckon latitude or longitude, no talent for map-making, no real interest in wild lifeᰬ--little beyond a narrow military outlook. His descriptions of natural scenes are flatter than the Llano Estacado of the Texas Panhandle.