A Record Filled With Sunlight

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Any comparison of his reports with others brings his comprehensive scientific findings into clear distinction. Take his observations for four days, September 12, 13, 14, and 15, 1843, just after leaving Great Salt Lake. He gives two calculations of longitude and latitude, with a record of the means used in making them. He furnishes the altitude of a peak, the altitude of the pass between it and Bear River and the width and altitude of the Bannock River Valley. He identifies, with both English and Latin names, six varieties of trees found along Clear Creek, and one in the pass. He gives the temperature of some hot springs. He records thermometer readings at various hours, chiefly sunrise and sunset, but once at midnight. At eight points he inserts comments on the quality of the soil. Indeed, these four days include an emphatic statement on the fertility of the river and creek system in the Great Salt Lake area that swayed Brigham Young and the Mormons in their emigration of 1846–47.

It was Frémont who did most to dispel the impression, created by Long and others, that the trans-Missouri plains were barren. He writes repeatedly that the land is generally excellent, that water alone is needed, and that adequate moisture is often available. “The soil of all this country,” he writes July 11, 1843—meaning the wide region between the Mississippi and the Rockies—“is excellent, admirably adapted to agricultural purposes, and would support a large agricultural and pastoral population.” The first scientifically trained man to reach the shores of the Great Salt Lake, he supplied the earliest adequate account of it. He was first to reach Pilot Peak on a short cut across the Nevada Desert upon the general line later defined as the Hastings Cutoff. He did some very real pathfinding in southern Oregon, northern California, and the Sierras. He was the first man, as Alexander von Humboldt noted, to describe the volcanic character of certain Rocky Mountain areas, and to dilate on the volcanicity of the Cascades.

His greatest geographical contribution, however, lay in his identification and description of the Great Basin, the huge region whose special peculiarity had escaped B. L. E. de Bonneville and others. Frémont invented the term still used for the basin, or collection of small basins, between the Wasatch Range on the east and the Sierra on the west—a mountain-rimmed region with no outlet for its streams. Even yet, a better description of its major characteristics than that given by Frémont’s reports would be difficult to find. The image of the Great Basin haunted Frémont from the moment he first seized and broadly sketched it. He had explored much of its high periphery on the Utah, the northern, and the California sides. “It cannot be less than 400 or 500 miles each way,” he writes, “and must lie principally in the Alta California [then including Nevada-Utah]. … Of its interior but little is known. It is called a desert, and from what I have seen of it, sterility may be its principal character; but where there is so much water, there must be some oasis.”

Frémont’s estimate of distances was fairly correct. The Sierra and the Wasatch, their steep faces fronting each other, lie 400 to 500 miles apart. The mountain and plateau country between is much eroded, but since the stream cannot run to the sea, the eroded materials fill the space between the barren peaks to a great depth. An artesian well driller near Huxley, Nevada, has brought up well-preserved redwood from a depth of 1,900 feet. During the glacial period, when rains were heavy, two great bodies of water filled the basin; one, covering much of present-day Nevada, now termed by geologists Lahontan Lake, the other in Utah (with Great Salt Lake its vestige) called Lake Bonneville. Frémont’s reference to an oasis is echoed by modern writers who have called the settled fertile parts of Utah “an oasis at the foot of the Wasatch.” When Humboldt in his final volume adopted the explorer’s term, he remarked: “Our knowledge of this configuration is one of the chief points of Frémont’s great hypsometrical investigations in 1843–44.”

While we cannot call Frémont a great man, we can maintain that as an explorer—the first distinctively scientific explorer produced by the United States—he had qualities of greatness. Alas that his career was warped into inferior channels, while he was yet in his early prime, by the Mexican War. The sun that rose so auspiciously on the well-equipped young man marching purposefully and joyously into the West of 1838 sank into the dust and commotion of California in 1846. The smoke of battle hid complications and frustrations that Frémont, turning back from Oregon on what he deemed an imperative summons, could never have guessed; and before it cleared away the quarrel with General S. W. Kearny had forced him from the Army and deprived him of government support in further exploration. His scientific labors were virtually ended, for the two privately equipped expeditions which he later led failed of significant results.