Historical West

A Pathfinder’s Trail

Following John C. Fremont’s trailblazing route from St. Louis to Oregon and California.

oregon-trail

Thousands of overland immigrants to Oregon and California from 1845 to 1849 followed a path first blazed by John C. Fremont.

After Congress named Fremont to head the survey of the Oregon Trail, Fremont left Washington, D.C., on May 2, 1842, and traveled to St. Louis, Missouri, where he spent nearly three weeks at Chouteau’s Landing, equipping a party that included German cartographer and surveyor Charles Preuss and Kit Carson, the primary guide as Fremont explored the West. This first exploratory trip by Fremont took him over the route of the Oregon Trail, crossing Kansas, Nebraska and entering Wyoming at Fort Laramie, which was then a fur trading post along the North Platte River.

Continuing on the trail the emigrant wagons had begun carving into the landscape, Fremont followed beside the North Platte to the present-day location of Casper, Wyoming, and then struck cross-country to the Sweetwater River, which led him to South Pass. He turned north into the Wind River Range, placing a flag on one high summit that ultimately became Fremont Peak, before returning to the east.

The following year, Fremont headed west again, this time initially guided by mountain man Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick and again accompanied by Preuss, who would collect plant specimens, make topographical sketches and undertake other scientific explorations. Carson was along as well. When Fitzpatrick took some members of the party north along the Oregon Trail, Fremont and Carson crossed into Colorado before turning north into Wyoming.

Jumping Off Point

Just like Fremont chose St. Louis as the optimal place to gather the best men for his exploratory trips, a visit to the Gateway Arch and Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis is the perfect starting point for this journey. Nearby you will find a variety of entertainment and dining options at Laclede’s Landing, located along the river in a former manufacturing district. The namesake, Pierre Laclede, set up his trading post here in 1764. St. Louis-based fur traders were the source of great local wealth, and they helped to make the city a logical starting point for westward exploration, from Lewis and Clark’s expedition of 1804-06 to Fremont’s own groundbreaking journey.

The jumping off point for Fremont’s trip was Westport. From there, strike out for two great history museums that always put me in the mood to travel the country: the National Frontier Trails Museum in Independence and the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City.

When Fremont passed through Nebraska, following the route of the Oregon Trail, he found no significant improvements along the trail. By the close of 1848, the Army would establish Fort Kearny along the Platte River, and the re-created fort is a good waypoint on a modern journey. In addition, you should also tour the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument. If you prefer Fremont’s style of travel, enjoy a hike at Fort Kearny State Recreation Area or a view of the region from the observation tower at Yanney Heritage Park.

Headin’ Into Buffalo Country

Head into my home country by following U.S. 30 west across Nebraska and into Wyoming. Fremont first came into Carbon County, Wyoming, in early August 1843, camping on the principal fork of the Medicine Bow River near an “isolated mountain called the Medicine Butte.” An overnight stay at the Elk Mountain Hotel in Elk Mountain places you at the base of Fremont’s “Medicine Butte.” You’ll find the lifestyle here about as quiet as it was when he was in the region.

On August 3, 1843, Fremont continued west, seeing “bands of buffalo.” That evening Carson “brought into the camp a cow which had the fat on the fleece two inches thick,” which Fremont said “was the first good buffalo meat we had obtained.” His men had traveled 26 miles that day, and the following day hunters brought in “pack animals loaded with fine meat” as the party continued toward the North Platte, reaching the river after nightfall.

With a fresh supply of meat, Fremont camped at the North Platte in the vicinity of what would become the site of Fort Steele. The men were drying the buffalo meat when they were “thrown into a sudden tumult, by a charge from about 70 mounted Indians” who had come over the low hills. The attack came to an abrupt halt when the charging Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians saw the small cannon Fremont had with him. Fremont later wrote the “display of our little howitzer, and our favorable position in the grove certainly saved our horses, and...

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