Pathfinder Fremont’s next best thing to a “selfie”

August 23, 1842

On this day in 1842, “The Pathfinder” John C. Fremont, placed his name on the roster of trappers, traders and explorers leaving their mark on Wyoming’s Independence Rock.

Independence Rock in early photo

It was a growing list of early travelers who stopped to validate their passage and was apparently a significant event for Fremont, as well.  Sent off to map a way West, he noted in his journal that he had added himself to a ledger of those “famous in the history of this country and some well-known to science.”  Jesuit missionary, Pierre Jean De Smet, had more modestly called it the “Great Register of the Desert.”

The 29-year-old Fremont was a Lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers and an avid proponent of America’s policy of Manifest Destiny.  He’d married Jessie Benton (left), the daughter of Missouri’s powerful Democratic senator, Thomas Hart Benton.  His new father-in-law had successfully pushed through appropriations to survey the route to Oregon.    Fremont was conveniently at hand to aid his expansionist vision.

He enlisted the help of famed frontiersman, Kit Carson.  Having met Carson on a riverboat trip, the would-be explorer convinced him to serve as his guide for this expedition.  It was just the first of four Fremont would undertake between 1842 and 1848.  (Right, Carson with Fremont)

Even as early as the year of Fremont’s visit, the rock had earned a place in frontier history.  Inscribing ones name on the Archean granite outcropping began in the beginning of the 1800s, when the first voyageurs and fur trappers were the only non-native travelers. 

Standing an impressive 130 feet above the prairie, the boulder measures 1,900 feet long and 850 feet wide, about six times larger than a football field.  Its imposing height became an important landmark along the Oregon, Mormon and California Trails. 

It was first recorded by trappers Jedediah Smith and Thomas Fitzpatrick.  The waters of the Missouri River were simply too treacherous for canoes laden heavy with furs.   The pair cached their pelts in the shelter of the rock and came back with pack horses to retrieve them later. (Right, posthumous sketch of Smith) 

 According to trail lore, it got the name Independence Rock from wagon masters who knew they needed to reach that spot by Independence Day, July 4, in order to cross over the high mountain passes before snowfall.

On the August day when Fremont carved his name, it was estimated fewer than 200 emigrants had passed that way.  By the time the railroad replaced the wagon route, some 400,000 settlers had made the five month trek on the Oregon Trail alone  It is estimated that nearly 10 per cent perished.

While as as few as 400 settlers may have died due to hostile attacks by Native American during the years the trail was in use, less than 0.1 per cent, accidents took a toll but disease was by far the biggest threat. 

Fremont’s map of the Oregon Trail

Fremont’s 1842 expedition is credited with producing the first “decent” map of the Oregon Trail, but it wasn’t  published until 1848.  

 Fremont became a rich man when gold was found on his California Ranch. Adding to his celebrity, he was one of that state’s first two senators.  It was not enough, however, when he ran as the first presidential candidate for the new Republican party in 1856, defeated by James Buchanan. (Right, Fremont campaign poster)

Despite his success as a mapmaker and politician, he proved to be less talented as a soldier.  In the military, he was considered by many to be brash and impetuous.  Sacked twice and court-martialed once for insubordination, he was first reinstated to duty by President James Polk during the country’s war with Mexico.  But he was relieved of command for insubordination a second time by President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.

Fremont was apparently even worse as a business man.  While managing to amass a fortune in gold, he also managed to lose it all by purchasing a railroad.  He was sent West one more time in 1878 when President Rutherford Hayes appointed him Governor of the Arizona Territory. 

He resigned the governorship under pressure in 1881 after refusing to spend time in the territory.   He lived the remainder of his life on Staten Island, New York.  He died there in 1890 at 77 of peritonitis and was buried in Rockland Cemetery in Sparkill, New York.   It was believed he was penniless.  Jesse Benton Fremont had kept the couple financially afloat for a number of years, writing stories of the West for various magazine.  She died 12 years later in a poor section of Los Angeles at the age of 78. 

For a recalcitrant soldier and a financial disaster Fremont has enjoyed a rather large legacy.  No less than 13  cities are named “Fremont” as well as four counties in Western states, three mountains, a river, a canyon and a national forest.   In addition, a dozen schools bear his name along with three hospitals and a library in Florence, Colorado.  Independence Rock National Historic Site, located an hour southwest of Casper, Wyoming, is a treasure under threat from vandalism and overuse.  While the National Park Service manages the site, it belongs to the people of America, who are ultimately responsible for preserving it. 

The park includes a large parking area, interpretive kiosk and a paved “Top of Independence Rock 1870” footpath where wagon ruts can still be seen. Visitors are asked to treat the site respectfully and observe the prohibitions on defacing, removing or digging in the area.  A special use permit for overnight camping can be obtained by calling Edness Kimball Wilkins State Park at (307) 577-5150. For a complete guide to park use go to Rock

© Text Only – 2018 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.