“The result of our journey began to be very uncertain; the country was singularly unfavorable to travel; the grasses being frequently of a very unwholesome character, and the hoofs of our animals were so worn and cut by the rocks, that many of them were lame, and could scarcely be got along.”
-John C. Frémont, journal entry (January 1, 1844)
“This is in every way the most difficult and dangerous country to campaign in I know of on the continent.”
-Clarence King, U.S. survey geologist (1867)
John Charles Frémont may not have been the first white explorer to trudge through the high desert of northern Nevada, but he was the first to triumphantly put its name on the map. “East of the Sierra Nevada,” he wrote in his 1848 geographical memoir, “and between it and the Rocky Mountains, is that anomalous feature in our continent, the GREAT BASIN, the existence of which was advanced as a theory after the second expedition, and is now established as a Geographical fact.” It ultimately took him three trips to figure out what, exactly, he was schlepping around in, and even then he fudged the details a bit.
Maps from those expeditions depict peaks slightly transposed, ranges realigned to more competently suggest, as he wrote, “a singular feature…shut in all around by mountains.” Yes, the basin is a hydrologic dead end—none of its rivers or lakes find drainage to the sea. Yes, the basin is hemmed in on the east and west by formidable ranges. But Frémont imagined a bowl rimmed by mountains in every direction, when in reality—in geographic fact—the north and south boundaries are less montane and more riverine, and rather indistinct at that. But he was willing to overlook those inconsistencies. “More Asiatic than American in its character, and much resembling the elevated region between the Caspian Sea and northern Persia,” he continued in his memoir, “mountain is the predominating structure in the interior of the Basin, with plains in between—the mountains wooded and watered, the plains arid and sterile.”
By the mid-18th century, the 200,000-square mile expanse that would become known as the Great Basin was the last largely unexplored tract of North America below the Arctic Circle. Its obscurity loomed huge in the imaginations of those early Euro-American adventurers, whose names—Bridger, Jackson, Carson, Colter, Bent, Walker, Ogden, Sublette, Frémont—are, in the words of Marc Reisner, “writ large all over the American West.” Among other flights of fancy, these men envisioned discoveries of complex aboriginal civilizations and a navigable waterway draining the West’s interior to the Pacific. They encountered neither, but it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying. Numerous expeditions crisscrossed the basin during the first half of the 1800s—first for furs, then for knowledge, and inevitably for gold, but few of the prevailing rumors bore truth. The “Buenaventura” River, as that fabled waterway came to be known, simply didn’t exist, nor did its populous native attendants. In his memoir Frémont dismissively wrote of a “sparsely inhabited” interior home to “savages hardly above the condition of mere wild animals.” The basin was otherwise mostly empty. Still, that didn’t stop many thousands more from spanning it, from the 1840s onward, for the promises that lay beyond its westward rim.
It began—singularly, incidentally—with beavers. In 1825 Jedediah S. Smith and company, likely the first whites to see any portion of Nevada, broke trail and set trap lines from the Rockies to the Sierras in what was, at the time, the foremost pursuit of enterprising mountain men: procuring beaver pelts. Beaver pelts made fine hats, and during the 1820s and 1830s demand was such that cured plews—as the finest pelts were called—could fetch between six and ten dollars apiece, a week’s wages in those years. And there were plenty of beavers to go around, at least for a spell. Other trappers quickly followed suit: Peter Ogden in 1831, Milton Sublette in 1832; Kit Carson, Joseph Walker and B. L. E. Bonneville in 1833. Ogden, describing the then-unnamed Humboldt River in 1830, wrote in his journal that “a fine large stream apparently well-lined with willows was in sight…I made all speed to meet it and the first thing that presented itself was a Beaver House apparently well-stocked; a most pleasant sight to me.” Trapping beaver in untrammeled wilderness was no walk in the park, as Ogden’s next sentence attests: “…I hope it will repay us for the all trouble and anxiety it has caused me to reach it.”
Trailblazing through uncharted, mythologized country, bestowing names to places unseen and almost unimaginable to those back east, these men in their beaver fever set in motion a momentous chain of events. The occidental edge of the continent was being cartographed, catalogued, reified. In Cadillac Desert, when Marc Reisner wrote that “[t]he settlement of the American West owed itself, as much as anything, to a hat,” one is hard-pressed to find a more fitting synopsis.
After the mountain men came the thronging emigrants, oxen-yoked and wagon-bound, spurred on by notions of wealth and freedom in the glorious Golden State. They came creaking through northern Nevada along the Applegate, Nobles, or Lassen routes, averaging two miles an hour in what were considered some of the harshest conditions along the journey: the waterless slog through the 40-Mile Desert, the vertiginous Sierra Nevada crossing. What began as a mere trickle of wagons in the mid-1840s swelled to several thousand during the 1849 gold rush, and the “overland” route—as these trails through Nevada became collectively known—found some permanence in the Western landscape and psyche. Horror stories such as that of the Donner Party, caught in cannibalistic straits in the high Sierra winter of 1846, belied the relatively low mortality among these particular emigrants. Though perilous and undoubtedly trying, the overland route claimed the lives of a mere two and a half percent of all involved—mostly by drowning, or being crushed by wagon wheels. Of course oxen, horses and mules died in droves, driven to exhaustion. Cholera likewise took its toll on those traveling by river. But the vast majority survived, an altogether surprising number. These were tough, determined people. In an 1849 journal entry typical of the wagon-weary overland emigrant, Alonzo Delano described the hardships of a desert crossing:
“Beyond us, as far as we could see, was a barren waste, without a blade of grass or a drop of water for thirty miles at least. Instead of avoiding the desert, instead of the promised water, grass, and a better road, we were in fact upon a more dreary and wider waste, without either grass or water, and with a harder road before us…What was to be done? It was thirty-five miles to the river and about the same distance to the spring ahead. Should we go back? Our cattle had already gone without food or water nearly thirty hours. Could they stand it to go back? Could they possibly go forward?”
Historians of the era seemed to delight in such characterization, that of the “pure hell every step of the way” experience of traversing Nevada’s dry, dusty terrain. Thomas Wren, in his A History of the State of Nevada, wrote in 1909:
“Year followed year, the emigrants looking simply on the Great Basin as a sort of purgatory which must be passed through to reach paradise, California, only to be endured because it was a shorter route and more desirable than the stormy voyage around Cape Horn or the toilsome line of march via Oregon.”
Another historian took the opprobrium one step further:
“What such a country was made for—so useless, so God-forsaken—was the standing question always entering into consideration…It is true that now and then one caught a glimpse of a valley which, with seasonable rains, might make a fine home; but to the average emigrant the country was repulsive in the extreme, and thought of only as separating them from the land that was pouring out its gold in the profusion of the El Dorado…As late as 1859, Horace Greeley made his memorable journey across the country and, remarking the repulsive appearance of the ‘Great Basin’, expressed the opinion that it would be better if the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains could be brought together and the intervening country eliminated from the surface of the earth.”
But in reading the emigrants’ journals and those of the earlier explorers, one gets the overall sense that things were not so cut-and-dry. Instead of absolute revulsion, instead of constant drudgery and lassitude, many of these individuals expressed a certain awe at their desolate surroundings. Awe, vitiated with horror. They were a pioneering sort, these travelers, sanguine in the face of adversity, brimful with conviction, possessed of a derring-do that occasionally bordered on the absurd. Yet the vast majority survived. Perhaps no emigrant encapsulated this tumult of emotion better than Israel S. P. Lord when, upon first seeing the Black Rock Desert in 1849, he wrote in his journal, “The whole is very picturesque and I turned back a score of times after leaving to give it the involuntary homage of a look. It is surprisingly beautiful, and the disadvantageous circumstances under which it was viewed in the midst of utter desolation could not wholly prevent me from admiring it.”