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"The arrangements for our expedition go on handsomely; I am having excellent instruments made, and [am] myself engaged in hard study, among other things, descriptive botany. We must have the geologic formation, geographical position, and elevation above the sea for all our plants." Frémont to botanist John Torrey

John Charles Frémont Botanical Explorer

Among Frémont's most lasting and important works are those in the field of botany, a field large largely ignored by his biographers. Stanley L. Welsh

Frémont had a great interest in botany. He named "Lake Bonpland" (today Tahoe) after French botanist Aimé Jaques Bonpland who had traveled with Humboldt in Mexico and South America. Frémont also named the Humboldt River--probably unaware that it was the same river named Mary's River by Peter Ogden, although it had been called by many other names. In the course of his five explorations of the West, Frémont collected over 1,400 botanical specimens, many new to the taxonomy--163 new species or varieties, 19 new genera.

Stanley L. Welsh, a professor of botany at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah has written John Charles Frémont Botanical Explorer, which was published by the Missouri Botanical Gardens Press.

click cover image for more information

Not all of the collection, however, survived the rigors and accidents of the travels.

Frémont: March 6, 1844:
But the party left in the mountains with Mr. Fitzpatrick were to be attended to; and the next morning, supplied with fresh horses and provisions, I hurried off to meet them. On the second day we met, a few miles below the forks of the Rio de los Americanos; and a more forlorn and pitiable sight than they presented cannot well be imagined. They were all on foot--each man, weak and emaciated, leading a horse or mule as weak and emaciated as themselves. They had experienced great difficulty in descending the mountains, made slippery by rains and melting snows, and many horses fell over precipices, and were killed; and with some were lost the packs they carried. Among these, was a mule with the plants which we had collected since leaving Fort Hall, along a line of 2000 miles travel. Out of 67 horses and mules with which we commenced crossing the Sierra, only 33 reached the valley of the Sacramento, and they were only in a condition to be led along.

hspace=8A few of the specimens collected on this leg of the journey did survive. Libocedrus decurrens (incense cedar) is tagged (by Frémont) "no. 33. February 25, 1844" in the collection of the Missouri Botanical Gardens.
Why did this one survive?
It survived because it was collected two days after Frémont had separated from the main party in an effort to travel ahead rapidly and seek supplies from Sutter. The pack mules were then behind, under charge of Tom Fitzpatrick, and it was one of these mules and its pack that was lost.

Note: This image at right is not of the original collected specimen, but of the same tree.

go See here an actual specimen sheet from Frémont's expedition to California. Scutellaria antirrhinoides var. californica, Gray (scullcap) in the collection of the National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C.


And a report of the expedition specimens was published by botanist John Torrey as Plantae Fremontianae; or Descriptions of Plants Collected by Col. J. C. Fremont, in California, Washington, Smithsonian Institution, 1853.

After the passing the crest of the Sierra Nevada in the epic 1844 mid-winter crossing, Frémont's cartographer, the German-born Karl Ludwig "Charles" Preuss, commented on the trees.

Preuss: February 25th:
Magnificent trees grow here. We have measured the circumference of cedars at twenty-eight and one-half feet, four feet from the ground. In my own botany I call this tree "pencil tree" because almost all pencils are encased with this timber. The live oak occurs here frequently, not a beautiful, but a very useful tree for lumber, especially for boatmaking. The leaves are entirely different, not at all like other oaks.

The place where Preuss made this entry in his diary is can be visited. It is just across the South Fork of the American River from Highway 50, just below Riverton. The cedar is as common and as large today among ponderosa pine, sugar pine, silver fir, Douglas fir, and various oaks and big leaf maple. The "live oak," which Preuss remarks, is Quercus wislizenii--the interior live oak, also called canyon live oak, and maul oak. An evergreen, the leaves are multi-morphic--several leaf types appearing on the same tree. Frémont remarked the oak also:

About half a dozen years ago I found myself again attending to plants with more method...I began to bring them home in my hat, a straw one with a scaffold liner in it, which I called my botany-box. I never used any other, and when some whom I visited were evidently surprised at its dilapidated condition as I deposited it on their front entry table, I assured them it was not so much my hat as my botany-box.. Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods, 1864

Frémont: February 24, 1844:
The opposite mountain side was very steep and continuous--un-broken by ravines, and covered with pines and snow; while on the side we were traveling, innumerable rivulets poured down from the ridge. Continuing on, we halted a moment at one of these rivulets, to admire some beautiful evergreen trees, resembling live oak, which shaded the little stream. They were forty to fifty feet high, and two in diameter, with a uniform tufted top; and the summer green of their beautiful foliage , with the singing birds, and sweet summer wind which was whirling about the dry oak leaves, nearly intoxicated us with delight; and we hurried on, filled with excitement, to escape entirely from the horrid region of inhospitable snow, to the perpetual spring of the Sacramento.

 an email from a Forest Service nature guide.

The full record of this epic journey is found in The Crossing

For those reading the above John Charles Frémont Botanical Explorer, the following corrections should be noted for the area of the Long Camp. The collected specimens of the trees mentioned were lost when a pack mule fell into the canyon of the South Fork of the American river. The author, Stanley L, Welsh, made his identifications [page 71] from trees mentioned by Frémont in the narrative of the report.
Not being personally familiar with the area (6000-8600 feet on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada), Dr. Welsh's identifications are those of trees that Frémont would first encounter some days later on the descent of the west slope at an elevation below 6000'. Climate, and life-zones, can change radically within only a few miles in the Sierra Nevada.

For an early work (1805) on life zones that was no doubt familiar to Frémont, read Essay on the Geography of Plants, Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland, Edited by Stephen T. Jackson, Translated by Sylvie Romanowski, University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Frémont named the Humboldt River after von Humboldt, and Lake Bonpland (now lake Tahoe) after Humboldt's botanist.

The expedition had left the Markleeville (5600' el.) region of sage and piñon, Pinus monophylla, which was first collected (above right) by Frémont on this expedition, and had entered a region of tall timber; the "tall cedar, Libocedrus decurrens, was first encountered at Grover's Hot Springs (6000' el.).

What follows illustrates the change which occurs at the crest of the Sierra Nevada between east slope and west slope forests--something not familiar to Stanley L. Welsh, who is located in Utah, on the opposite side of Frémont's identified "Great Basin."

Frémont's narrative
February 10, 1844,
8000' el.
Welsh Identification
Actual East slope tree

"white pine"

Pinus lambertiana, sugar pine

Pinus monticola, western white pine

"hemlock spruce, occasionally as large as eight feet in diameter four feet above the ground; but in ascending, it tapers rapidly."

Tsuga mertensiana, mountain hemlock.
Present, but scarce, and only to to 30" diameter at base.

Juniperus occidentalis, western juniper.
VERY notable here.

"white spruce"

Abies concolor, silver fir

Abies magnifica, red fir, silvertip

"red pine (pinus colorado of the Mexicans)"

Pinus ponderosa, ponderosa, yellow pine

Pinus jeffreyi--jeffrey, red pine from the purple cast of the bark

February 21, 1844
"resembling white pine"


Pinus albicaulis, Whitebark pine (ID by Peter Lathrop)

February 24, 1844
"trees resembling live oak." Described at Fry Creek of S. Fk. American River, el. 3,600'.

Quercus wislizenii

Quercus chrysolepis
Golden oak, maul oak, canyon live oak.

Frémont's expeditions made him a world celebrity, but also gained him international recognition by scientists. The Prussian Orden Pour le Mérite für Wissenschaften und Künste was personally presented to Frémont by Baron Alexander von Humboldt in 1850, and also the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society--still today the most prestigious award in the field--and the Gold Medal of the Société de Géographia, Paris.

"The important services rendered to science by that distinguished traveller, Colonel Frémont, are known to all who have read the reports of his hazardous journeys. He has not only made valuable additions to the geographical knowledge of our remote possessions, but has greatly increased our acquaintance with the geology and natural history of the regions which he explored." John Torrey, Plantae Fremontianae

Note: Alan H. Hartley, a researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary, from Duluth, Minnesota, tells us at longcamp.com that Frémont's Reports (The Expeditions of John Charles Frémont, Jackson & Spence edition), Geographical Memoir upon Upper California, and Memoirs of My Life, and Torrey's Plantae Frémontianae have yielded nearly 600 citations for possible inclusion in the OED.

go Frémont's methods of determining coordinates.
go Frémont's contributions to Geology.
go Frémont's contributions to Meteorology.
go LAKE TAHOE DISCOVERED! Two accounts: Frémont's narrative of February 14, 1844, and a recent climb (February 16, 2004) of Red Lake Peak by Peter Lathrop of Carson City, NV.
The mountain barometer.
Find out how correcting errors in the published coordinates in Frémont's 1845 Report led to the discovery of his "Long Camp" site.

©1999, 2007
Bob Graham