Stories of American Life and Adventure - Edward Eggleston

How Fremont Crossed the Mountains

It is many years now since Captain Fremont made his great journey over plains and mountains to California. At that time California belonged to Mexico. The wild country east of it belonged to the United States. There were hardly any roads and no railroads in the country west of the Missouri River. Fremont was sent out to explore that country; that is, he was sent to find out what kind of a country it was. The white people knew very little about it.

Fremont had a large party of men with many horses. After months of travel he found himself near the great Californian mountains. These mountains are called the Sierra Nevada, or "Snowy Range."

Here some Indians came to see him. He had a talk with them by signs, for he could not speak their language. They told him he could cross the mountains in summer. They said it was "six sleeps" to the place where the white men lived over the mountains. They meant that a man would have to pass six nights on the road in going there. But it was now winter, and they told him that no man could cross in the winter. They held their hands above their heads to show him that the snow was deeper than a man is tall.

But Fremont told the Indians that the horses of the white men were strong, and that he would go over the mountains. He showed them some bright-colored cloths, which he said he would give to any Indian who would go along as a guide. The Indians called in a young man who said he had been over the mountains and had seen the white people on the other side. He agreed to go with Fremont. Fremont now talked to his men, and told them there was a beautiful valley on the other side of the mountains,—the valley of the Sacramento. He told them that Captain Sutter had moved to this valley from Missouri, and had become a rich man. It was but seventy miles to Sutter's Fort. The men agreed to try to cross the mountains.

They had but little left to eat. They killed a dog and ate it that very evening. They would not have much chance to get food in crossing the mountains, but they started in bravely the next morning. They did not talk much. They knew that it was very dangerous to cross the mountains in February.

For days and days they fought their way through the snow, which got deeper and deeper as they went higher up into the mountains. Traveling grew harder and harder. The horses had nothing to eat but what could be found in little patches of grass where the wind had blown the snow off the ground. Whenever a horse or mule grew too weak to travel, the men killed it and ate it.

One day an old Indian came to see them. He told them they must not go on. He said, "Rock upon rock, rock upon rock, snow upon snow, snow upon snow, and even if you get over the snow, you will not be able to get down the mountain on the other side."

He made signs to show them that the walls of rock were straight up and down, and that the horses would slip oft. This frightened the Indians in Fremont's company, and one Indian covered up his head and moaned while the old man was talking.

The young Indian guide was afraid to go on. He ran away the next day, taking all the pretty things that Fremont had given him, and a blanket that Fremont had lent him to keep warm.

The men now made snowshoes, so that they could walk over the snow without sinking in. Sleds were made to draw the baggage on, for the horses were getting too weak to carry anything. They found the snow twenty feet deep in some places. The men had to make great mauls or pounders to beat down the snow, to make a hard road on which the animals could travel. Fremont's men now grew very hungry, for they had little to eat except when they killed a starving mule or a dog.

At last the whole party reached the top of the mountains at a place where they were nine thousand feet high. They had been three weeks in getting to the top. They had yet the hard task of getting down on the other side. But they could see the beautiful country of California below them. They began to work their way down over the snow and rocks.

After some days Fremont took a party of eight men, and went on to get provisions for the rest. But for a long distance he found no grass, and his animals began to give out. One of his men grew so hungry and tired that he became insane for a while. Another got lost from the party, and found them only after several days. He told the rest that he had suffered so much from hunger that he ate small toads, and even let the large ants creep upon his hands so that he could eat them.

One day Fremont saw some Indian huts. The Indians ran away when they saw the white men coming. Fremont found near these huts some great baskets as big as hogsheads filled with acorns. Inside the huts he found smaller baskets with roasted acorns in them. The men took about half a bushel of these roasted acorns, and left a shirt, some handkerchiefs, and some trinkets, to pay for them.

At last they came to a place where there were paths, and tracks of cattle. The horses, having found grass to eat, grew strong enough for the men to ride them. One day Fremont found some Indians, one of whom could speak Spanish.

The Indian said, "I am a herdsman, and work for Captain Sutter."

"Where does he live?"

"Just over the hill. I will show you."

In a short time Fremont and his white men were at the house of Sutter. But Captain Fremont rested only one night. The next morning he started back with food for his starving men, who were coming on behind. The second day after he left Sutter's he met his men.

They were a sad sight. They were all on foot. Each man was leading a horse as weak and lean as he was himself. Many of the horses had fallen off the rocks, and had been killed. Only half of the mules and horses that had started over the mountains had lived to get across. As soon as Fremont met his men, he told them to camp. He fed the poor starving fellows beef and bread and fresh salmon. The next day they all reached the beautiful Sacramento River, where the city of Sacramento now stands.