Fact Check: 19th Century Sierra Nevada

In writing a book on the Sierra Nevada juxtaposing the geologic and human histories of the region, GG keeps stumbling over little things that make for really fun stories but seem to have no basis in fact.  So let’s air out a few and see if anybody can figure out what is really going on…

Story: A fine source for these chestnuts is the life of John Charles Frémont. In some ways it seems as though he might have viewed the term “manifest destiny” as applying to his own life and not the mythical sense Americans carried in conquering the lands from sea to shining sea. Drama was his forte. Perhaps the most dramatic moment was his telling of the exploits of his second expedition, one that would be forced to cross the Sierra in the dead of winter.  After following the Oregon Trail to Oregon, Fremont turned south; one of his goals, he said, was to find the San Buenaventura River, a river shown on some maps going from the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean across modern Utah and Nevada and across the Sierra Nevada. His report tells of Kit Carson scouting ahead, looking for beaver sign that would show that they were in the drainage of the Buenaventura. But finally he gives up, realizing there is no such river and he turns west to cross the range in dramatic fashion. As they cross the range, he notes that the Sierra prevents the waters of the Great Basin from making it to the Pacific.

Fact check: Except there is little likelihood that Frémont was seeking the Buenaventura at all.  First, he had met with Joseph Walker, who had circumnavigated the Sierra before and knew there was no such river.  Second, his cartographer, Charles Preuss kept a diary, and while he mentions the other targets of the expedition, nowhere does the Buenaventura make an appearance.  Given this knowledge, why was Fremont muddling about on the east side of the Sierra in the dead of winter?  Was he just looking for a good excuse to go into California?

There is another Frémont chestnut…

Story: Frémont later helped wrest California from Mexican control but ran afoul of his superior in the army.  Before leaving for the east as a prisoner of sorts, Fremont arranged for some property to be bought–the property Las Mariposas was purchased, but supposedly Fremont wanted some land near the San Francisco Bay, not a worthless plat of land in the Sierran foothills. After the court-martial and a failed expedition tried to cross the San Juan Mountains in the winter, Fremont continued on his way to California in late 1848 in part to get back his $3000 purchase price.  Encountering some Sonorans on the way to California, he is said to have first learned that gold had been found at Sutter’s Mill. He engaged some of the Mexicans to come mine on his Las Mariposas ranch, his plans to return the property dropped in the face of sudden good fortune.

Fact check:Except that it seems unlikely Frémont was mistaken about the purchase–he had been informed of it in February of 1847, well before his June departure, and made arrangements that led to an attempt to occupy the land, which failed in the face of Indian hostility.  Prior to leaving the east coast, he arranged for a sawmill to be sent to San Francisco. It was land he had in fact crossed in an earlier expedition; he was likely one of the very few of European descent to have ever seen the land to that point. What is more, news of the gold find had passed through Missouri as Frémont was mounting his ill-fated expedition; it seems implausible that he would not have learned of news such as this at that time.  No mention of the purchase of Las Mariposas being a mistake shows up in his letters (as compiled by Spence and Jackson) or his 1856 campaign biography.  It seems the whole story (other than meeting the Sonorans) was probably made up to enliven things by Jessie Frémont in writing her manuscript on Frémont’s life, a story lapped up (with no citation) by biographer Allan Nevins.

Story: On to good old Josiah Dwight Whitney.  He had a sharp tongue, poor political skills, pretty poor geologic judgement all things considered and so an easy target.  Supposedly he needled John Muir as nothing more than an ignorant sheepherder (as GG’s daughter says, “ooh, SNAP!”) when Muir opined that Yosemite was not a tectonic graben but was instead a glacial valley. The quote shows up in Farquhar’s History of the Sierra Nevada as well as other works on the Sierra.

Fact Check: Did Whitney say any such thing?  He did ridicule the idea of Yosemite being glacial, but he did so about when Muir had reached Yosemite and before any of Muir’s thoughts on the matter could possibly have reached him. If he said mean things about Muir later–which is entirely in character for him–they were said somewhere else.  They are not in his published letters. The source cited by Farquhar (The Yosemite Guidebook) lacks the quote attributed to it and might well have been completed before Muir set foot in the valley. Sure, it makes for a great story of how Muir the naive Scotsman showing the scientific puffery of Whitney to be wrong, but Muir was better trained in glacial geomorphology than Whitney, having been schooled in it in his few years at the University of Wisconsin (Whitney’s training was primarily as a chemist and mining geologist, if you can claim such training in the 1840s).

Story: Whitney again.  The California Geological Survey named the highest peak in the Sierra–which turned out to be the highest in the lower 48 states–in their 1864 survey of the High Sierra. Clarence King, a member of the survey, tried several times to scale the peak, claiming success once only to later learned he had climbed Sheep Mountain (now Mt. Langley). He was beaten to the summit by three fishermen from Lone Pine, who felt the peak should be called Fishermen’s Peak. Natives of Lone Pine, which sits below the peak, spent considerable effort in trying to rename the peak, ultimately failing.

Fact Check: All that is true (as far as GG can tell), but why did Whitney so tick off these folks?  Was it that he didn’t produce the guide to finding minerals that they had hoped?  Was it that he said or did something on his brief tour of Owens Valley following the destructive earthquake in 1872? If you know, please speak up! [PS January 2016: There was a letter to the editor of the local paper noting the new name and needling Whitney as “that earthquake sharp”, which suggests it was Whitney’s attitude when surveying the aftereffects of the 1872 earthquake that got under people’s skins.]

So, are stories like these too good to die at the hands of facts?  It seems that several of them live a long life….



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