In his sleep he heard a groan: it was the groan of a man receiving the tomahawk in his brains. All sprung to their feet. The Klamaths were in the camp: the hatchet and the winged arrow were at work. Basil Lajeunesse, a brave and faithful young Frenchman, the follower of Fremont in all his expeditions, was dead: an Iowa was dead: a brave Delaware Indian, one of those who had accompanied Fremont from Missouri, was dying: it was his groan that awoke Carson. Another of the Delawares was a target for arrows, from which no rifle could save him — only avenge him.
It was 1846. Mexico, Great Britain and the United States all eyed the area of Alta California as a prize to be kept or taken. War was immanent. In an era and area where communication could take weeks, months, or forever, John Fremont acted on his own initiative and birthed a republic, albeit a short-lived one. If not for Fremont's bold, independent action, and that of Commodore John Sloat, USN, California likely would have become part of British North America.
Taken from: Benton, Thomas Hart. "Thirty Years' View: Or, A History Of the Working Of the American Government For Thirty Years" (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1856). Edited by Gary M. Bohannon.
In the month of May 1845, Mr. Fremont, then a brevet captain of engineers (appointed a lieutenant colonel of Rifles before he returned), set out on his third expedition of geographical and scientific exploration in the Great West. Hostilities had not broken out between the United States and Mexico; but Texas had been incorporated; the preservation of peace was precarious, and Mr. Fremont was determined, by no act of his, to increase the difficulties, or to give any just cause of complaint to the Mexican government. His line of observation would lead him to the Pacific Ocean, through a Mexican province — through the desert parts first, and the settled part afterwards of Alta California. Approaching the settled parts of the province at the commencement of winter, he left his equipment of 60 men and 200 horses on the frontier, and proceeded alone to Monterey, to make known to the governor the object of his coming, and his desire to pass the winter in the uninhabited parts of the valley of the San Joaquin.
The permission was granted, but soon revoked, under the pretext that Mr. Fremont had come into California, not to pursue science, but to excite the American settlers to revolt against the Mexican government. Upon this pretext troops were raised, and marched to attack him. Having notice of their approach, he took a position on the mountain, hoisted the flag of the United States, and determined, with his sixty brave men, to defend himself to the last extremity — never surrendering; and dying, if need be, to the last man. A messenger came into his camp, bringing a letter from the American consul at Monterey, to apprise him of his danger: that messenger, returning, reported that 2,000 men could not force the American position, and that information had its effect upon the Mexican commander.
Waiting four days in his mountain camp, and not being attacked, he quit his position, descended from the mountain, and set out for Oregon, that he might give no further pretext for complaint, by remaining in California. In the first week of May, he was at the north end of the Great Tlamath lake, and in Oregon. On the 8th day of that month, a strange sight presented itself — almost a startling apparition — two men riding up, and penetrating a region which few ever approached without paying toll of life or blood. They proved to be two of Mr. Fremont's old voyageurs, and quickly told their story. They were part of a guard of six men conducting a United States officer, who was on his trail with despatches from Washington, and whom they had left two days back, while they came on to give notice of his approach, and to ask that assistance might be sent him. They themselves had only escaped the Indians by the swiftness of their horses. It was a case in which no time was to be lost, or a mistake made.
Mr. Fremont determined to go himself; and taking ten picked men, four of them Delaware Indians, he took down the western shore of Upper Klamath Lake on the morning of the 9th, and made a ride of sixty miles without a halt. But to meet men, and not to miss them, was the difficult point in this trackless region. It was not the case of a high road, where all travellers must meet in passing each other: at intervals there were places— defiles, or camping grounds— where both parties must pass; and watching for these, he came to one in the afternoon, and decided that, if the party was not killed, it must be there that night. He halted and encamped; and, as the sun was going down, had the inexpressible satisfaction to see the four men approaching.
The officer proved to be Lieutenant Gillespie of the United States marines, who had been dispatched from Washington the November previous, to find Mr. Fremont, wherever he should be. The verbal communications were that Mr. Fremont should watch and counteract any foreign scheme on California, and conciliate the good will of the inhabitants towards the United States. Upon this intimation of the government's wishes, Mr. Fremont planned to turn back from Oregon, and return to California.
The night Captain Fremont met Mr. Gillespie presented one of those scenes to which Fremont was so often exposed, and which nothing but the highest degree of vigilance and courage could prevent from being fatal. The camping ground was on the western side of the Upper Klamath Lake, the horses picketed with long halters on the shore, to feed on the grass; and the men (fourteen in number) sleeping by threes at different fires, disposed in a square; for danger required them so to sleep as to be ready for an attack; and, though in the month of May, the elevation of the place, and the proximity of snow-clad mountains, made the night intensely cold. His feelings joyfully excited by hearing from home (the first word of intelligence he had received since leaving the U. S. a year before), Mr. Fremont sat up by a large fire, reading his letters and papers, and watching himself over the safety of the camp, while the men slept.
Towards midnight, he heard a movement among the horses, indicative of alarm and danger. Horses, and especially mules, become sensitive to danger under long travelling and camping in the wilderness, and manifest their alarm at the approach of any thing strange. Taking a six-barrelled pistol in his hand, first making sure of their ready fire, and, without waking the camp, he went down among the disturbed animals. The moon shone brightly: he could see well, but could discover nothing. Encouraged by his presence, the horses became quiet, and he returned to the camp, supposing it was only some beast of the forest that had disturbed them. He returned to the camp fire. Lieutenant Gillespie woke up, and talked with him awhile, and then lay down again.
Finally nature had her course with Mr. Fremont himself. He lay down to sleep, and without waking up a man to watch — relying on the loneliness of the place, and the long ride of the day, as a security against the proximity of danger. It was only the second time in his twenty thousand miles of wilderness explorations that his camp had slept without a guard. The whole camp was then asleep.
A cry from Carson roused it. In his sleep he heard a groan: it was the groan of a man receiving the tomahawk in his brains. All sprung to their feet. The Klamaths were in the camp: the hatchet and the winged arrow were at work. Basil Lajeunesse, a brave and faithful young Frenchman, the follower of Fremont in all his expeditions, was dead: an Iowa was dead: a brave Delaware Indian, one of those who had accompanied Fremont from Missouri, was dying: it was his groan that awoke Carson. Another of the Delawares was a target for arrows, from which no rifle could save him — only avenge him. The attackers had waited till the moon was in the trees, casting long shadows over the sleeping camp: then approaching from the dark side, with their objects between themselves and the fading light, they used only the hatchet and the formidable bow, whose arrow went to its mark, without a flash or a sound to show whence it came.
All advantages were on the side of the attacking indians: but the camp was saved! the wounded protected from massacre, and the dead from mutilation. The men, springing to their feet, with their arms in their hands, fought with skill and courage. In the morning, Lieutenant Gillespie recognized, in the person of one of the slain assailants, the Klamath chief who the morning before had given him a salmon, in token of friendship, and who had followed him all day to kill and rob his party at night — a design in which he would certainly have been successful had it not been for the promptitude and precision of Mr. Fremont's movement. Mr. Fremont himself would have been killed, when he went to the horses, had it not been that the Klamath chief counted upon the destruction of the whole camp, and feared to alarm it by killing one, before the general massacre.
It was on the 9th of May — a day immortalized by American arms at Resaca de la Palma — that this fierce and bloody work was done in the far distant region of the Klamath lakes.
The return route lay along the shore of the lake, and during the day the distant canoes of the Klamaths could be seen upon it, evidently watching the progress of the party, and meditating a night attack upon it. All precautions, at the night encampment, were taken for security — horses and men enclosed in a breastwork of great trees, cut down for the purpose, and half the men constantly on the watch. At leaving in the morning, an ambuscade was planted — and two of the Klamaths were killed by the men in ambush — a successful return of their own mode of warfare. At night the main camp, at the north end of the lake, was reached. It was strongly entrenched, and could not be attacked; but the whole neighborhood was infested, and scouts and patrols were necessary to protect every movement.
Captain Fremont arrived in the valley of the Sacramento in the month of May, 1846, and found the country alarmingly, and critically situated. Three great operations, potentially fatal to American interests, were then going on. These were: 1) The massacre of the Americans, and the destruction of their settlements, in the valley of the Sacramento; 2) The subjection of California to British protection; and 3) The transfer of the public domain to British subjects. And all this with a view to anticipate the events of a Mexican war, and to shelter California from the arms of the United States.
The American settlers sent a deputation to the camp of Mr. Fremont, in the valley of the Sacramento, laid all these dangers before him, and implored him to place himself at their head and save them from destruction. General Castro was then in march upon them: the Indians were incited to attack their families, and burn their wheat fields, and were only waiting for the dry season to apply the torch. Juntas were in session to transfer the country to Great Britain: the public domain was passing away in large grants to British subjects: a British fleet was expected on the coast: the British vice-consul, Forbes, and the emissary priest, McNamara, ruling and conducting everything: and all their plans so far advanced as to render the least delay fatal.
It was then the beginning of June. War had broken out between the United States and Mexico, but that was unknown in California. Mr. Fremont had left the two countries at peace when he set out upon his expedition, and was determined to do nothing to disturb their relations: he had even left California to avoid giving offense; and to return and take up arms in so short a time was apparently to discredit his own previous conduct as well as to implicate his government. He felt all the responsibilities of his position; but the actual approach of Castro, and the immediate danger of the settlers, left him no alternative. He determined to put himself at the head of the people, and to save the country.
To repulse Castro was not sufficient: to overturn the Mexican government in California, and to establish Californian Independence, was the bold resolve, and the only measure adequate to the emergency. That resolve was taken, and executed with a celerity that gave it a romantic success. The American settlers rushed to his camp — brought their arms, horses and ammunition — were formed into a battalion; and obeyed with zeal and alacrity the orders they received. In thirty days all the northern part of California was freed from Mexican authority — Independence proclaimed — the flag of Independence raised — Castro flying to the south — the American settlers saved from destruction; and the British party in California counteracted and broken up in all their schemes.
This movement for Independence was the salvation of California, and snatched it out of the hands of the British at the moment they were ready to clutch it. For two hundred years — from the time of the navigator Drake, who almost claimed it as a discovery, and placed the English name of New Albion upon it — the eye of England has been upon California; and the magnificent bay of San Francisco, the great sea-port of the North Pacific Ocean, has been surveyed as her own. The approaching war between Mexico and the United States was the crisis in which she expected to realize the long-deferred wish for its acquisition; and carefully she took her measures accordingly. She sent two squadrons to the Pacific as soon as Texas was incorporated — well seeing the actual war which was to grow out of that event — a small one into the mouth of the Columbia, an imposing one to Mazatlan, on the Mexican coast, to watch the United States squadron there, and to anticipate its movements upon California.
Commodore Sloat commanding the squadron at Mazatlan, saw that he was watched, and pursued, by Admiral Seymour, who lay alongside of him, and he determined to deceive him. He stood out to sea, and was followed by the British Admiral. During the day he bore west, across the ocean, as if going to the Sandwich Islands: Admiral Seymour followed. In the night the American commodore tacked, and ran up the coast towards California: the British admiral, not seeing the tack, continued on his course, and went entirely to the Sandwich Islands before he was undeceived. Commodore Sloat arrived before Monterey on the second of July, entering the port amicably, and offering to salute the town, which the authorities declined on the pretext that they had no powder to return it — in reality because they momentarily expected the British fleet.
Commodore Sloat remained five days before the town, and until he heard of Fremont's operations: then believing that Fremont had orders from his government to take California, he having none himself, he determined to act himself. He received the news of Fremont's successes on the 6th day of July: on the 7th he took the town of Monterey, and sent a dispatch to Fremont. This latter came to him in all speed, at the head of his mounted force. Going immediately on board the commodore's vessel, an explanation took place. The commodore learned with astonishment that Fremont had no orders from his government to commence hostilities — that he had acted entirely on his own responsibility.
This left the commodore without authority for having taken Monterey; for still at this time, the commencement of the war with Mexico was unknown. Uneasiness came upon the commodore. He remembered the fate of Captain Jones in making the mistake of seizing the town once before in time of peace. He resolved to return to the United States, which he did — turning over the command of the squadron to Commodore Stockton, who had arrived on the 15th.
The next day (16th) Admiral Seymour arrived; his flagship the Collingwood, of 80 guns, and his squadron the largest British fleet ever seen in the Pacific. To his astonishment he beheld the American flag flying over Monterey, the American squadron in its harbor, and Fremont's mounted riflemen encamped over the town. His mission was at an end. The prize had escaped him. He attempted nothing further, and Fremont and Stockton rapidly pressed the conquest of California to its conclusion. The subsequent military events can be traced by any history: they were the natural sequence of the great measure conceived and executed by Fremont before any squadron had arrived upon the coast, before he knew of any war with Mexico, and without any authority from his government, except the equivocal and enigmatical visit of Mr. Gillespie.
The fate of California would have been the same whether the United States squadrons had arrived, or not; and whether the Mexican war had happened, or not. California was in a revolutionary state, already divided from Mexico politically as it had always been geographically. The last governor-general from Mexico, Don Michel Toreno, had been resisted — fought — captured — and shipped back to Mexico, with his 300 cut-throat soldiers. An insurgent government was in operation, determined to be free of Mexico, sensible of inability to stand alone, and looking, part to the United States, part to Great Britain, for the support which they needed. All the American settlers were for the United States protection, and joined Fremont. The leading Californians were also joining him. His conciliatory course drew them rapidly to him. The Picos, who were the leading men of the revolt (Don Pico, Don Andres, and Don Jesus), became his friends. California, became independent of Mexico by the revolt of the Picos, and independent of them by the revolt of the American settlers, had its destiny to fulfill — which was, to be handed over to the United States. So that its incorporation with the American Republic was equally sure in any, and every event.