Frémont Expedition to Oregon and California
(1843 - 1844)
Botanical specimens are precious cargo, and when carried hundreds of miles on the back of a mule, disasters are sometimes unavoidable. The botanical collection of the Frémont Expedition to Oregon and California would have included about 1,400 plants, some of which were edible or had medicinal uses. But, as John C. Frémont explained, “[a] fatality seemed to attend our plants in this expedition.” When crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains into California, the mule carrying the plant specimens fell “from a precipice into a torrent,” and neither the mule nor the collections could be saved. Then, with only a month of travel remaining, all of the specimens collected from California onwards were drenched when the expedition was caught in floodwaters rising from the Kansas River.
The expedition began, with hopes high, in the prairie lands near the Kansas River. Frémont was not only the leader, but also the botanist on the expedition. He noted that the prairies were “every where covered with a considerable variety of grasses” such as the buffalo grass Sesleria dactyloides (now known as Bouteloua dactyloides), which was particularly abundant near the source of the Kansas River. As the elevation increased, trees became more common and “[t]he slopes and broad ravines were absolutely covered with fields of flowers of the most exquisitely beautiful colors.” Eventually, the expedition moved from grassy prairie to a desert-like region dominated by sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), which grew so densely that it often impeded the progress of the expedition.
Frémont then explored portions the Great Salt Lake in Utah. He observed numerous plants, including Fremontia vermicularis (now known as Sarcobatus vermiculatus), a saline species he had collected on previous expeditions. As the expedition continued traveling northwest, the sagebrush Artemisia tridentata remained the characteristic species of the landscape. Frémont described that the bush’s “uniform tint of dark gray, gave to the country a gloomy and sombre appearance.”
On November 4, 1843, the expedition arrived at its western limit on the Columbia River. By reaching this point, Frémont had “accomplished the object of uniting [his] survey with [Wilkes’], and thus presenting a connected exploration from the Mississippi to the Pacific.” Although the expedition had been instructed to return eastward through the unexplored Great Basin, poor grass and difficult mountains convinced Frémont to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains into Sacramento Valley, California, and from there return eastward. The expedition members endured harsh conditions while crossing the Sierra Nevada Range, but were rewarded upon reaching Sacramento Valley by the beauty of the plant life.
Some plant specimens survived the hardships of the trip and are now part of the National Herbarium collection, including the flower “Frémont’s goldfields” (Dichaeta fremonti, now known as Lasthenia fremontii), which is native to California. In California, Fremont also collected the Mojave indigobush (Dalea arborescens, now known as Psorothamnus arborescens) and the fall tansyaster (Machaeranthera asteroides). The expedition returned along the “Spanish Trail,” where trees and flowers were plentiful. Indeed, at one point the vegetation was so thick that “red stripes of flowers” were mistaken from a distance for red sandstone.
Although most of the botanical collection was destroyed or badly damaged, Botanists John Torrey and Asa Gray were able to identify some of the plants, including four new genera and approximately twenty new species. Frémont considered the destroyed specimens a “great loss as the botanical riches of the country are very great” (letter 89), but in the Annual Report, Torrey expressed his trust that this loss would “be partly made up the present and next seasons, as much of the same country will be passed over again, and some new regions explored.”
Jackson, Donald and Spence, Mary Lee. The Expeditions of John Charles Frémont. Vol. 1, Travels from 1838 to 1844. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970.
Viola, Herman J. and Ralph E. Ehrenberg. Introduction to The Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains, by John C. Frémont, pp. Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988.
USDA PLANTS database. United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service. National Plant Data Center. http://plants.usda.gov/ (for information on plant species Bouteloua dactyloides, Artemisia tridentate, Sarcobatus vermiculatus, Lasthenia fremontii, Psorothamnus arborescens, and Machaeranthera asteroides).