More Victims of Fremont Expedition Die

By the middle of February, 1849, mountain man Bill Williams and the two men who’d survived the failure of the Fremont expedition in the Sangre de Cristos with him, were in Taos recovering. Before the end of the month was out, the 62-year old Williams and the Fremont expedition medical doctor Benjamin Kern headed back out into the snow-covered wilderness. Their mission was to retrieve Dr. Kern’s medical equipment and supplies and his two brothers’ art materials and papers. The goods were in a cache on the Continental Divide near the Rio Grande headwaters, where they’d been placed after the expedition’s pack mules succumbed to starvation and cold. Williams and Kerns were accompanied by a handful of Mexican assistants, who managed the pack outfit.

It was a fateful trip for the two Americans.  While they made it back to the cache, they did not make it out alive.

The Utes in the region had been in war mode since the previous summer. Since then, they’d been raiding the settlements up and down the Southern Rockies and the plains to the east. When they combined with the Apaches to clash with U.S. troops in the Raton mountains, the U.S. military leaders started getting concerned. Lt. Joseph H. Whittlesey was ordered out to bring the tribe into line.

Whittlesey started north from Taos on March 11 with 37 men and four scouts, one of them Lucien B. Maxwell. The next day, about fifteen miles north of Red River, his forces attacked a Ute village and forced those they hadn’t killed into the cold and snow.  About a dozen Utes fled toward the Rio Grande. When they happened on the Williams/Kerns encampment on the Continental Divide, they saw an opportunity to revenge what Whittlesey had done.

The Utes shot Old Bill Williams and Dr. Kern, ordered the men with them to stay put, and carried off the supplies and pack mules as partial payment for the destruction of their winter camp. It is said that when the Utes realized they’d killed Williams, they gave him a chief’s burial. If this is true, it’s more respect than he received from Fremont, whose family later blamed Williams for the failure of Fremont’s expedition and the subsequent death of so many of his men, an accusation that seems to have no basis in fact.

 

SOURCES: Robert G. Cleland, This Reckless Breed of Man, UNM Press, 1976; Alpheus H. Favour, Old Bill Williams, mountain man, U of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1962; Leroy R. Hafen, Ed., Fur Trappers and Traders in the Far Southwest, Utah State UP, Logan, 1997.

Alexis Godey Rescues Fremont’s Men

On Friday, February 9, 1849 eight of the original 33 in Colonel John C. Fremont’s Fourth Expedition rode into the settlement of Little Pueblo on the Colorado River. They were frostbitten, hungry, and unable to walk, but they were alive, thanks to Alexis Godey.

The Fremont expedition was supposed to identify a railroad route across the Rocky Mountains. Instead, virulent winter conditions brought it to a standstill. They’d started from the eastern slopes in November, but by mid-January it was apparent even to Fremont that they couldn’t go any farther.

With men and supplies giving out, Fremont, Alexis Godey, topographer Charles Preus and two other men went for help. However, by the time they got to Taos on January 13, Fremont was in no condition to return for the rest of his men, who by that time had broken into scattered groups, each trying desperately to survive.

Feb 9 illustration.Alexis Godey.Find a grave

 

Alexis Gody, originally hired as the expedition’s hunter, almost immediately headed back into the mountains for his companions. He fought his way north with 30 animals and four Mexican assistants. The first group he located consisted of the three Kern brothers, Captains Cathcart and Taplin, Missourian Micajah McGehee, and J.L. Steppenfeldt, all of them close to dying from starvation. He loaded them onto the mules and headed for the closest settlement. It took another three days, through yet more snow and ice, but they when they reached Little Pueblo on February 9, they were all still alive.

Godey was about 30 years old in 1849. He’d been with John Fremont during the Bear Flag Revolt in California and was cited for valor after the Battle of San Pasqual. He was known for his courage,  coolness under pressure, and stubborn resolution: courage and resolution he’d need to rescue the men Fremont had left behind.

Godey would go on to act as the head guide for another railroad survey expedition, this one Lt. Robert William’s 1853identification of a route from Texas to California along the 32nd parallel. Godey wasn’t the only member of William’s team who’d been in the mountains with Fremont. Williams’ cartographer was none other than Charles Preuss, Godey’s and Fremont’s companion on that initial January escape to Taos.

Sources: Alpheus H. Favour, Old Bill Williams, Mountain Man, U of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1962; Leroy Hafen, Fremont’s Fourth Expedition, Arthur H. Clark Co., 1960; https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/15547524 1/2/18; http://www.longcamp.com/godey.html  1/2/18

John Fremont Stumbles Into Taos

On this day in 1849, Saturday, January 13, celebrated explorer John C. Fremont stumbled into the Taos plaza so battered by exposure and starvation that no one recognized him.

Fremont had left what is now Pueblo, Colorado, 52 days earlier on a mission to identify a practicable railroad route across the Rockies to California. He had 32 men and 120 supply-laden mules with him.

Even before he’d left Pueblo, there was trouble. He’d already lost a guide. When former mountain man “Uncle Bill” Wootton took a look at the signs and realized just how bad the coming winter was likely to be, he backed out. But former Army Colonel Fremont refused to give up. He’d been forced to resign from the military in a cloud of disgrace two years earlier and was determined to redeem himself. Come hell or high water, he was determined to prove that a year-round transcontinental railroad operation across the mountains was feasible. If men and mules could cross the path he had in mind under winter conditions, then surely trains could, too.

Fremont hired “Old Bill” Williams to take Wootton’s place. While Williams was a brilliant tracker, he  wasn’t exactly known for his tact. Since Fremont was known for his stubbornness, the partnership seemed destined for trouble. And trouble happened pretty quickly. When Williams announced that the expedition should veer from the route Fremont had laid out, trouble ensued. Fremont relieved Williams of his guide duties and gave them to men who Fremont had worked with before but who didn’t know the region.

As Wootton had predicted, the weather turned treacherously nasty and grew increasingly difficult as Fremont’s men tried to force their way through snow-bound canyons and across icy mountainsides. All of the mules either died of starvation or froze to death. Frostbite and snow blindness plagued both the animals and the men. Not only was the expedition’s goal doomed, but the conditions were so bad that the men feared for their lives. In a desperate attempt to make it to safety, Fremont divided his company into small groups and sent them south to try to reach Taos.

John C. Fremont.Simmons 3 wives

Only 21 men of the original 32 would make it out alive and Fremont himself would need weeks of nursing by Josefa Carson before he fully recovered from the ordeal. Even with the survivors in Taos and whole, the loss of life would continue. Williams would die trying to retrieve valuable records and medical equipment  that had been left behind in the rush to escape the winter conditions Uncle Bill Wootton had warned Fremont about.

Although a year-round transcontinental railroad was eventually built across the Rocky Mountains, it was not constructed on the route that Fremont tried to blaze that winter of 1848/49. The glory of that deed would go to other men.  Fremont’s exploring days were over .

Sources:  Alpheus H. Favour, Old Bill Williams, Mountain Man, U of Oklahoma Press,  Norman, 1962; Leroy R. Hafen, Ed., Fur Trappers and Traders of the Far Southwest, Utah State U Press, Logan, 1972; Marc Simmons, Kit Carson and His Three Wives, UNM Press, Albuquerque, 2003.