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Who Discovered Carson Pass?
Copyright© September 2001 by Bob Graham

Not Kit Carson.

Frémont's 2nd Expedition crossed it in February of 1844, and left the first written record of it, but Carson did not discover it, or ever claim he had, and Frémont did not name it "Carson Pass," or give it any name at all. It is simply recorded in the Report as "the PASS."

"This was 2000 feet higher than the South Pass in the Rocky mountains, and several peaks in view rose several thousand feet still higher. Frémont, February 20, 1844."
Carson Pass about 1940

Frémont did name the "Carson River" after his hunter, scout, guide, and friend Kit Carson. And Kit did leave his blaze on a tree near the top of the pass. But it was not called "Carson Pass" by Frémont or Carson or anyone until by later gold seekers following the "Carson River Route". They were following the tracks of the Mormon Battalion's 1848 exit from California on their way to Salt Lake. The Mormons had sought out the pass because they knew Frémont had crossed in the vicinity in 1844. Except for the actual Pass itself, the two routes were quite different.

Actually, the Mormons had chosen to settle at Salt Lake because Frémont had mapped it in 1843. Three partys of westbound immigrants, informed of the route by the eastbound Mormons, crossed the pass from east to west in 1848, but for several years starting in 1849, many tens of thousands used the pass. It was then called the "East Pass of the Carson Route," or the "First Pass," as there was a second, and higher, pass to cross just few miles west, until a road was built around the Carson Spur in later decades.

New Helvetia [Sacramento], June 30, 1848:
A party of men who have been exploring a route across the Sierra Nevada mountains, have just returned, and report that the have found a good wagon road on the declivity ridge between the American fork and the McCossamy [Mokelumne] rivers, the distance being much less than by the old route [Donner or Johnson Passes].The Californian, Monterey

This road, along the ridge described, is the western leg of the old Carson Route used by the '49ers. It exists today as a fine secondary highway, variously known as the Iron Mountain Road, the Mormon Immigrant Trail Road, and Alternate U.S. 50. It goes up from the Mormon encampment at Sly's Park (now Jenkinson Lake Reservoir), past Iron Mountain, Leek Spring, and joins SR 88 just below Tragedy Springs--the place where the Battalion discovered the remains of their three missing scouts murdered and hacked to pieces by Indians, who, not recognizing its value, left the gold they had been carrying scattered about. This ridge is also the historic boundary of the Maidu, to the north, and Miwock tribes to the south.

But Frémont never travelled the ridge; the route over the pass used by the Mormon Battalion only intersects Frémont's route at the actual pass itself.

Frémont's 2nd Expedition and the Mormon Battalion had different objectives

The Mormon Battalion was trying to cross the mountains with wagons, and cannon, in summer.

Frémont was trying to cross with 67 horses and mules in winter--something never previously accomplished, and something never since attempted!
Because of the animals, he had to travel along ridge tops at the highest elevations, because, there, the wind had removed much of the snow, and deposited it into bottoms and canyons, where he could not go.
Why didn't he just leave the animals and snowshoe across in a few days to Sutter's Fort--by the time he got to Sutter's, the animals that had survived were in such poor condition that they had to be replaced anyway?
Because the success and objectives of the exploring and mapping expedition required that he transport many hundred of pounds of instruments, notebooks and charts, and mineralogical and botanical specimens.

go Frémont's botanical contributions.

The first use of the pass is lost in time. It was a trans-Sierra trade route used by the Washo Indians, and very likely by people long before the Washos. The fragment of an obsidian core flake I picked up on the trail a couple of years ago. The trail was traveled, in part, by Joseph LeConte in 1870, and the original trail approaching the pass used by Frémont, and later LeConte, remains today as a stock trail.

How did Frémont get there?
Charles Preuss, expedition cartographer, near present-day Markleeville on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada.
February 3, 1844: We are getting deeper and deeper into the mountains and snow. We pay one roving Indian after another to guide us across. They march with us a few miles and leave us as soon as they have a chance. Now we have engaged another one who is to take us all the way across to the white people. Apparently we are going to camp here at the foot of the mountain chain, which is the actual divide. Tomorrow we shall see whether or not we are not again the subject of an illusion.

The Indian, a Washo, they called Mélo.

Frémont, near present-day Dresslerville Nevada:
January 31, 1844. We had scarcely lighted our fires, when the camp was crowded with nearly naked Indians; some of them were furnished with long nets in addition to bows, and appeared to have been out in the sage hills to hunt rabbits. These nets were perhaps 30 to 40 feet long, kept upright in the ground by slight sticks at intervals, and were made from a kind of wild hemp, very much resembling in manufacture those common among Indians of the Sacramento valley. They came among us without any fear, and scattered themselves about the fires, mainly occupied in gratifying their astonishment...

We gathered together a few of the most intelligent of the Indians, and held this evening an interesting council. I explained to them my intentions. I told them that we had come from a very far country, having been traveling now nearly a year, and that we were desirous simply to go across the mountain into the country of the other whites. There were two who appeared particularly intelligent&emdash;one, a somewhat old man. He told me that, before the snows fell, it was six sleeps to the place where the whites lived, but that now it was impossible to cross the mountain on account of the snow; and showing us, as the others had done, that it was over our heads, he urged us strongly to follow the course of the river, which he said would conduct us to a lake in which there were many large fish. There, he said, were many people; there was no snow on the ground; and we might remain there until the spring. From their descriptions, we were enabled to judge that we had encamped on the upper water of the Salmon Trout River [it was not the "Salmon Trout," or Truckee River; it was the East Fork of the Carson River]. It is hardly necessary to say that our communication was only by signs, as we understood nothing of their language [Washo, a goHokan language]; but they spoke, notwithstanding, rapidly and vehemently, explaining what they considered the folly of our intentions, and urging us to go down to the lake.

Tah-ve, a word signifying snow, we very soon learned to know, from its frequent repetition. I told him that the men and the horses were strong, that we would break a road through the snow; and spreading before him our bales of scarlet cloth, and trinkets, showed him what we would give for a guide. It was necessary to obtain one, if possible; for I had determined here to attempt the passage of the mountain. Pulling a bunch of grass from the ground, after a short discussion among themselves, the old man made us comprehend, that if we could break through the snow, at the end of three days we would come down upon grass, which he showed us would be about six inches high, and where the ground was entirely free. So far, he said, he had been in hunting for elk; but beyond that (and he closed his eyes) he had seen nothing; but there was one among them who had been to the whites, and, going out of the lodge, he returned with a young man of very intelligent appearance. Here, said he, is a young man who has seen the whites with his own eyes; and he swore, first by the sky, and then by the ground, that what he said was true. With a large present of goods, we prevailed upon this young man to be our guide, and he acquired among us the name of Mélo--a word signifying friend, which they used very frequently. He was thinly clad, and nearly barefoot; his moccasins being about worn out. We gave him skins to make a new pair, and to enable him to perform his undertaking to us.

Mélo actually only stayed with them for a few days.

This is the place from which Mélo showed him the way. Frémont described it as "a short distance of dividing ground" that lies between Charity and Faith Valleys. Looking northwest, Red Lake Peak is to the right, and Elephant back to the left. "Carson Pass" is just to the right of the tall tree in the center. The coordinates are N38° 40' 23" by W 119° 54' 56" and elevation 7901'.

Frémont, February 4, 1844:
Towards a pass which the guide [Mélo] indicated here, we attempted to force a road; but after a laborious plunging through two or three hundred yards, our best horses gave out, entirely refusing to make any further effort, and, for the time, we were brought to a stand. The guide informed us that we were entering the deep snow, and here began the difficulties of the mountain; and to him, and almost all, our enterprise looked hopeless. I returned a short distance back, to the break in the hollow, where I met Mr. Fitzpatrick.
go See a close-up from the advance camp reached on February 10, 1844.

To-night we had no shelter, but we made a large fire around one of the huge pines; and covering the snow with small boughs, on which we spread our blankets, soon made ourselves comfortable. The night was very bright and clear, though the thermometer was only at 10°. A strong wind, which sprang up at sundown, made it intensely cold; and this was one of the bitterest nights during the journey.

Two Indians joined our party here; and one of them, an old man, immediately began to harangue us, saying that ourselves and animals would perish in the snow; and that if we would go back, he would show us another and a better way to cross the mountain. He spoke in a very loud voice, and there was a singular repetition of phrases and arrangement of words, which rendered his speech striking and not unmusical.

We had now begun to understand some of the words, and, with the aid of signs, easily comprehended the old man's ideas. "Rock upon rock--rock upon rock--snow upon snow," said he; "even if you get over the snow, you will not be able to get down from the mountains." He made us the sign of precipices, and showed us how the feet of the horses would slip, and throw them off from the narrow trails that led along their sides. Our Chinook, who comprehended even more readily than ourselves, and believed our situation hopeless, covered his head with his blanket, and began to weep and lament. "I wanted to see the whites," said he; "I came away from my own people to see the whites, and I wouldn't care to die among them, but here" &emdash;and he looked around into the cold night and gloomy forest, and, drawing his blanket over his head, began again to lament.

Seated around the tree, the fire illuminating the rocks and the tall bolls of the pines round about, we presented a group of very serious faces.
go See this campsite in Charity Valley.

And the next morning:

Frémont, in Charity Valley, February 5, 1844:
The night had been too cold to sleep, and we were up very early. Our guide [Mélo] was standing by the fire with all his finery on; and seeing him shiver in the cold, I threw on his shoulders one of my blankets. We missed him a few minutes afterward, and never saw him again. He had deserted. His bad faith and treachery were in perfect keeping with the estimate of Indian character, which a long intercourse with this people had gradually forced upon my mind.

Charles Preuss--The guide [Mélo] stole some things and decamped, leaving bow and arrows behind.

Frémont was obviously a bit miffed, but he had now been shown his pass.

He was now entirely on his own. After arriving at their at their advance camp (Long Camp--within 2 1/2 miles from the PASS) on February 10th, he and Jacob Dodson crossed the pass, and made a 2-day exploration ahead to find a route of descent. Mélo didn't get his name attached to the pass, but it might have been more fitting to have named it Mélo Pass, or Frémont Pass, rather than Carson Pass.
go See the route


It has often been written that the route of Frémont's expedition crossing was an unfortunate one--that it would have been better to have gone directly up the Carson River to Carson Pass. Frémont himself thought this in later life and recorded it in his Memoirs.

But I have gained an entirely new insight from hiking the route, and considering the alternatives. I now believe that the route taken, as pointed out by the Indians, was probably the only route that could have been successfully followed in the winter with deep snow with 67 horses and mules.

Frémont was trying to cross with 67 horses and mules in winter--something never previously accomplished, and something never since attempted! Why didn't he just leave the animals and snowshoe across in a few days to Sutter's Fort? The success and objectives of the exploring expedition meant that he had to transport many hundred of pounds of instruments, notebooks and charts, and mineralogical and botanical specimens.

Frémont's comments, "We were obliged to abandon the hollow entirely, and work along the mountain-side, which was very steep, and the snow covered with an icy crust...often compelled to make large circuits, and ascend the highest and most exposed ridges, in order to avoid snow, which in other places was banked up to a great depth," illustrate the difficulty of getting the animals through the snow. The problem would have been the same up through the canyon, of the West Fork of the Carson, except that there are no "mountain-sides"--the walls of the Carson Canyon are vertical. This, and other wagon routes, were passable in summer only! Until this era of modern highways, the only traffic through the Carson Canyon in winter was Snowshoe Thompson carrying the mail to Genoa, Nevada on skis. However, had Frémont followed up the East Fork of the Carson he would have gotten into the Markleeville area days sooner.

It is doubtful that there is any other route over which the expedition could have made a successful winter crossing. Thanks to the Indians, they found one.
goSee a cross section of the line of travel.

East Fork Carson River, September 1855: There is an Indian Tribe [Washo] settled upon [the East Fork of the Carson River] , that from the days of Frémont, appear to have been uniformly friendly to the whites. They bear a high reputation for honesty amonst the inhabitants of Carson Valley. George H. Goddard, Marlette Surveys.

go In December 1845,Frémont crossed the Sierra by the Truckee route (later Donner Pass), but he didn't follow the emigrant route down the Bear River: his route was that followed by the Central Pacific Railroad in the 1860s and today's Interstate 80. Here for the first time put to a modern map.

go Finding Frémont 's Long Camp.
go Washo: see Indigenous Peoples Institute.
go Follow the entire hike from Grovers to Charity Valley.
go An overview of the route all the way to the Pass.
go See the beginning of the route beyond the Pass.
go WATCHING THE HEAVENS CHANGE. How polaris has moved 2 degrees closer to the celestial pole during recorded California history, and why John C. Frémont got up at 3:00 a.m. to sight polaris in 1844--wasn't it there all night long?
go Lake Tahoe discovered February 14, 1844!

Follow the entire route in THE CROSSING.
also see this


A new University of Oklahoma Press edition of Tom Chaffin's now classic Pathfinder: John Charles Fremont and the Course of American Empire.

"The most eloquent, understanding, and yet very candid biography of Frémont that has appeared to date"--Howard R. Lamar, Yale University


©1999, 2007
Bob Graham