The History of the Fremont Cannon, Part II
The importance of this "French connection" is quite obvious. Features that were necessary in the original French model of the cannon, such as its ease of travel and size-specific firepower, made the weapon uniquely suited to the singular goal of colonial conquest. It proved to be effective in accomplishing the goals of its French commanders against Algerians, and the Americans who observed it in action surely must have imagined what it could do against attacks by America's own hostile natives. With that in mind, it is easy to see why observers for the U.S. Army found this particular style of cannon so appealing. The similarities between France's colonial aspirations in Algeria and America's Manifest Destiny in the West were merely surface details; hostile natives stood in the way of both conquering forces reaching their desired goals. It is through this connection that the cannon alternately becomes a symbol of American empire and aggression, optimism and oppression, and finally military might.
Frémont, Carson, Preuss, the cannon and the rest of the expedition set out on May 29, 1843 for Oregon. From the beginning the task of managing and transporting the cannon fell to three men commanded by Louis Zindel, a Prussian man with approximately nineteen years of artillery experience as a non-commissioned officer. There was a brief, uneventful period in June where Frémont took charge of the cannon, and the expedition briefly halted on July 19 when the cannon's carriage broke and needed to be repaired. On August 4, the party had a run-in with an Arapaho and Cheyenne war party in which Frémont credits the cannon with sufficiently intimidating them in what might today be called a bit of 19th-century "shock and awe." By the end of August the expedition had reached the Rocky Mountains and reported looking out onto the Cache Valley in what is now northern Utah. Surprisingly, Frémont wrote at length about the plight and demise of the buffalo on the American plains, conflicting with a particular entry in Preuss's diary which will be mentioned later. With the exception of the aforementioned instance of apparent aggression, Frémont's trip appeared to be quite uneventful with regards to the cannon's usage during this time.
September of 1843 began with almost the same type of lackadaisical ennui as the previous months; Indians are repeatedly mentioned as an omnipresent threat, but the howitzer is not brought to bear on them. His travels in and around the Great Salt Lake are full of scientific observations of various kinds regarding the native plants in the area. At one point on September 10 the cannon was fired to greet the men as they returned from a boating excursion, and it was fired again three days later to reveal their location to locals in the area. The party reached Fort Hall nine days after that and continued through the month without incident.
October began with progressively more plant notations and only scant descriptions of interactions with Native Americans. From the Dalles they proceeded south through Oregon and into (what they thought was) the Great Basin, again without so much as a mention of the cannon and made camp near Mount Hood at the end of the month. While crossing a tributary river of the Columbia on November 3, Frémont briefly mentioned fording the river with the cannon "occasionally several feet under water" before reaching the other side and peacefully trading with a group of Native Americans. Their trek through Oregon saw heavy rainfall and more encounters with natives, but again the cannon was not needed. On a flat plain with many streams Frémont remarked that the howitzer's carriage could be easily carried along by hand. Finally, on December 10 outside of Klamath Lake Frémont ordered the cannon be fired in response to what he viewed as suspicious and hostile activities of surrounding Indians. According to his report, it was the first time the group's guides had ever seen the cannon fired and it "inspired them with triumphant feelings," and the smoke signals being made by the Indians immediately ceased as a result.
Two days later, Frémont remained on guard as large groups of local Indians insisted upon getting an up-close view of their camp. By Christmas Day, the group had camped on the shores of a lake in what is now southern Oregon that Frémont named after Col. Abert, his superior at the Topographical Corps; as part of their brief celebration, the howitzer was fired and the men were each treated to a small amount of brandy. New Year's Day came and went with persisting fog to wade through, but the next few days saw the discovery of one of the more unique sights on Frémont's expedition. On January 12th he first took note of an "unknown body of water" and the next day the group followed a path along the rim of the lake which the cannon could not traverse. They made the decision to "leave [the cannon] on the rocks until morning," and Frémont dubbed his discovery Pyramid Lake. As they moved farther south, thick snow obstructed their progress, and with each passing day the Sierra loomed higher before the party where the cannon would be lost.
Given the controversial circumstances surrounding the cannon as Frémont left with it for the West, it probably should not come as a surprise that Frémont himself didn't mention it that much in his official report. Aside from at least two instances where the cannon legitimately frightened off potential Indian attackers, the weapon played no other role aside from an occasional show of force. At least during the time he and his wife were assembling all the pieces of what would become his report, Frémont appears to have shown some awareness as to what it could mean for his future, and how he reacted accordingly in the way in which he wrote his report. At this point in the expedition's trip, Frémont could claim that the cannon served its purpose as a deterrent and that he was justified in bringing it along, provided he did not lose it. However, as the following two accounts will show, Frémont's "official" written report of his expedition has some intriguing discrepancies with what others on the trip experienced.
The only man who accompanied Frémont on this expedition whose legacy and legend were comparable to those of the lieutenant was none other than Christopher "Kit" Carson. In a biographical account which was dictated a mere twelve years after the expedition, Carson doesn't so much as mention the howitzer. By his recollection, Carson joined Frémont's expedition as a guide in much the same way the cannon found its way into the party, as an "inspiration of the moment." A boat the group was traveling in near the Great Salt Lake suddenly began leaking, and afterwards the party journeyed to Fort Hall in what is now Wyoming apparently to restock their provisions. Carson attested to the fierce conditions the party faced some time later in the Sierra Nevada, but any mention of the howitzer or any other significant danger the party faced which would have required employment of the cannon was absent from a source remarkably close to the events on the expedition.
By some accounts, it does not appear as though Carson or the other men he was traveling with needed the howitzer's firepower. In the middle of one engagement with Native Americans, Carson and his cohorts held their own against attack with the Hall flint-lock, breech-loading rifled carbines they had been provided in St. Louis. They also herded the expedition's animals to a safe place before the attack began, so to call the men helpless without the cannon's firepower (at least, for this incident) would be grossly inaccurate. The respective personalities of Carson and Frémont certainly clashed, with Carson being the more reserved and focused one in the face of Frémont's occasionally domineering demeanor. Though it can not be officially confirmed from any of Carson's records, it's possible that he knew of the cannon's illegal presence when the group set out in spring of 1843. If he did indeed know about it and the problem it was soon going to pose for Frémont, Carson kept quiet about it and didn't take note of it in any recorded sources of the time.
One man did more than simply take note of the howitzer. He was an immigrant by the name of Charles Preuss, and on this expedition he served as a topographer and occasional sketch artist, in addition to recording his own personal observations in a diary. Regarding the instance in the summer when the cannon's wooden carriage broke and held up the group, Preuss could only forlornly note "If we had only left that ridiculous thing at home." His observations increasingly went the route of dark humor, at one time lamenting that, "To travel with a powder magazine in one's wagon is no pleasure, especially when one has to light a pipe constantly." Like Frémont, Preuss took note of the specific types of Indians the party encountered on their journey as well. One particularly disturbing revelation that Preuss discloses is written August 10, when he recorded that members of the group had been using the cannon to kill buffalo on the plains, calling it "a cruel but amusing sport." With observations like this, it's no wonder the Prussian mapmaker didn't gravitate to the howitzer the way Frémont did.
Preuss continued with his wry notations, recording an instance on August 23 when the cannon apparently alarmed an incoming band of Sioux warriors; fortunately that misunderstanding was sorted out and Preuss referred to the whole day's events as "monkey business" before complaining about Frémont's tendency to frequently change his mind. His humor increasingly turned to unflinching criticism of the expedition's leader; when Frémont gave away a wagon that was apparently slowing down the expedition, under December 1st he pointed out "the cannon causes just as much delay, and unless he presents it to someone as he did the wagon, we shall move ahead slowly." The cannon apparently became stuck fifteen days later, causing another day's delay, and Preuss records the cannon's untimely end in mere passing fashion on February 8.
In the case of Carson's and Preuss's respective accounts of the expedition, what isn't stated is only slightly more interesting than what is. Any connection between Carson and the weapon is strictly speculative at this time, and by all accounts the legendary mountain man did not appear to have required the cannon's services during the journey. Where Carson was respectful of Frémont's leadership, Preuss saw fit to question him from the safe distance of his diary. Considering all of the unfortunate events he witnessed with the cannon at the center, he was certainly justified in viewing it as an anachronism and a nuisance. In particular, his entry on killing buffalo with the cannon creates a more sinister side to its symbolism as an instrument of conquest and the so-called "taming" of the West. Through his topographer's eyes, Frémont's cannon is every bit a symbol of the lieutenant's spontaneity as it is his foolish naïveté.
Thanks to the cross-referencing of Frémont's official report of the expedition with the maps and personal diaries of Preuss, historians can at least agree on the exact sequence of events which culminated in the abandonment of the cannon. By late January of 1844, the expedition had moved south all the way to the East Walker River near the present-day town of Bridgeport, California. On January 26, Frémont and Carson scouted ahead to what would be the next day's camp site, Swauger Creek. That day he rode ahead with Fitzpatrick and encountered two formidable, parallel walls of granite (Devil's Gate), along with some hot springs. A series of steep peaks and valleys obstructed their progress after this, and at certain points they either had to force their horses through the deep banks of snow or simply leave them at the low points altogether. Clearly Frémont's plan for what lay ahead was not without its share of hardships.
Where the group proceeded next is still a touchy subject of contention. Upon reaching the plateau of Bucharm Flat, Frémont detailed the group's next move in his report as follows:
The valley of the [West Walker River] pursued a northwesterly direction, appearing below to turn sharply to the right, beyond which further view was cut off. It was, nevertheless, resolved to continue our road the next day down to this valley, which we trusted still would prove that of the middle stream between the two great rivers.
For believers that Frémont proceeded up and over into Mill Valley afterwards, the second sentence is proof. However, for detractors the second sentence is merely an abstract thought leftover from Frémont's notes which somehow ended up in the final draft of his report. By most accounts and analysis, the latter contention is the more likely of the two; contrary to what Preuss's map describes, crossing the West Walker after following the Little Walker and then proceeding up another steep grade to Mill Valley would have been nearly insurmountable in any timetable, let alone the one Frémont had laid out.
On January 28 Frémont and his group had made their way to a higher series of valleys and gullies known as Burcharm Flat. Numerous times, they were forced to take indirect routes over "the highest and most exposed ridges, in order to avoid snow, which in other places was banked up to a great depth." Though not nearly as imposing as the route he would have taken to Mill Valley, an elevation now referred to as Mt. 8422 stood in his way and made further progress difficult nonetheless. When camp was made for that night, the cannon was not with the group; it had been left on the south face of the unnamed mountain in a saddle-shaped depression near the top. Frémont noted it had been "the most laborious day we had yet passed through" and that both humans and pack animals were severely exhausted by the time night fell. The cannon's "zero hour" was fast approaching, and it would come to be known as the climax of its story and the end of one important phase of its journey.