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Free Men. Free Soil. Frémont!

Jacob Dodson
A young black man in the West

Frémont: February 5, 1844, near a pass in the snow-covered Sierra Nevada.

The night had been too cold to sleep, and we were up very early. Our guide [Mélo, a Washoe] 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.

The exploring party was now on entirely on its own in a very dangerous situation. Neither Kit Carson nor Tom Fitzpatrick had ever been in this part of the country. But, having faith in his determined latitude, Frémont and Jacob Dodson set out to scout an escape from the mountains.

February 16. I started with Jacob on a reconnoitring expedition beyond the mountain. We traveled along the crests of narrow ridges, extending down from the mountain in the direction of the valley, from which the snow was fast melting away. On the open spots was tolerably good grass; and I judged we should succeed in getting the camp down by way of these. Towards sundown we discovered some icy spots in a deep hollow; and, descending the mountain, we encamped on the head-water of a little creek, where at last the water found its way to the Pacific. The night was clear and very long. We heard the cries of some wild animals, which had been attracted by our fire, and a flock of geese passed over during the night. Even these strange sounds had something pleasant to our senses in this region of silence and desolation.

The sounds:

Who was Jacob Dodson?

Dodson, a free black youth, was employed as a servant in the family of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, Frémont's father-in-law. Said to have been six feet tall and very strong, Dodson was about eighteen years old when he volunteered to accompany Frémont's second expedition. Frémont valued his abilities and trustworthness, and, when things got rough, Jacob was always included with the strongest men of the party.

September 7, 1843 near Salt Lake. Badeau, with Derosier and Jacob were left in charge of the camp.

Feb 8 1844, near Carson Pass. With me remained Mr. Preuss, Mr. Talbot, Carson, and Jacob.

Feb 25, 1844, with rescue party on the American River. I started ahead this morning with a party of eight consisting (with myself) Mr. Preuss, Mr. Talbot, Carson, Derosier, Towns, Proue, and Jacob.

Feb 28, 1844 in the canyon of the American River. My favorite horse...Proveau could not keep up, so I left Jacob to bring him on, being obliged to press forward with the party, as there was no grass exposed here.
Towns became light-headed, wandering off into the woods, and Jacob brought him back.

The financial report of the exploration lists him as a voyager and shows payment of $493 (about $50,000 today's dollars) for his services between May 3, 1843, and September 6, 1844, and with special mention in the government Report that "Jacob Dodson, a free young colored man of Washington city, who volunteered to accompany the expedition, and performed his duty manfully throughout the voyage."

Frémont's Famous Ride

As a member of Frémont's third expedition, and with Frémont's California Battalion of Mounted Riflemen, Dodson played an active part in the Conquest of California during the war with Mexico. It was also Jacob Dodson who accompanied Frémont and Don José de Jesús Pico on the famous ride in March of 1847 from Los Angeles to Monterey and back.

"The ride of Col. Fremont in March, 1847, from the ciudad de los Angeles to Monterey in Alta California--a distance of four hundred and twenty miles--and back, exhibits in a strong light the iron nerve of the rider, and the capacities of the California horse. The party on this occasion, consisted of the colonel, his friend Don José de Jesús Pico, and his servant Jacob Dodson. Each had three horses, nine in all, to take their turn under the saddle, and relieve each other every twenty miles; while the six loose horses galloped ahead, requiring constant vigilance and action to keep them on the path. The relays were brought under the saddle by the lasso, thrown by Don Jesús or Jacob, who, though born and raised in Washington, in his long expeditions with Col. Fremont, had become expert as a Mexican with the lasso, sure as a mountaineer with the rifle, equal to either on horse or foot, and always a lad of courage and fidelity."
[Alcalde] Walter Colton, Three Years in California, 1850, p. 378

go MORE: The ride covered more than 800 miles in eight days, which included the one and a half days stopover in Monterey.

Jacob Dodson later became a messenger to the United States Senate, and at the outbreak of the Civil War raised a regiment of 300 black men to fight for the Union, but President Lincoln refused their services.

That Jacob Dodson was an educated and very capable person is evidenced in a May 4, 1857 letter from Jessie Benton Frémont to Elizabeth Blair Lee regarding the preparation of Frémont's Memoirs: "All the astronomical & tedious part of the work is finished, as far as Mr. Frémont goes into it. If Jacob [Dodson] were here he could get rapidly through another part, but he seems dull about coming."
And on June 2nd: "Jacob has come on with me [to New York] & I have my pen in hand as much as five hours & a half at a time. We finish with him today & much work is done."*

I have found little information on Jacob Dodson. Any contributions of further details are earnestly solicited. The only very personal information I have found is that, in his diary, expedition cartographer Charles Preuss complained of Jacob snoring too much; but Preuss complained about almost everything.

Most comes from Expeditions of John Charles Frémont , ed. Donald Jackson and Mary Lee Spence, 2 vols. Chicago, 1970 and * Herr, Pamela and Spence, Mary Lee, The Letters of Jessie Benton Frémont, University of Illinoise Press, Urbana and Chicago, 1993.

And mention on these two websites:
http://historytogo.utah.gov/blckutah.html
http://gesswhoto.com/paradise1.html

See also People of Color on America's Western Frontier, a site created and maintained by researcher Bennie J. McRae, Jr.

Jacob Dodson was not the only black associated with the Frémont expeditions. Johnny August Janisse was a member of Frémont's first expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1842. He was entrusted with the carriage of the delicate barometer used to determine the height of the nearly 14,000' Frémont Peak in the Wind River Range--the first barometric measurement of a high mountain ever attempted in America.

go How do I hike there?
go Take a walking tour of the ascent of the mountain.
go An overview of the entire route from Markleeville to Carson Pass.
go Just who discovered Carson Pass, anyway?
go What is THE REPORT?
go Frémont was a lifelong abolitionist, and ran as an abolitionist as the first republican party candidate for president in 1856:
Free Soil, Free Men, Free Kansas, Frémont!
He came close to winning the 3-party race. Had he won, the South was poised to succeed.go In 1860, as Major General of the Western Department, Frémont issued an Emancipation Proclamation in Missouri. Lincoln fired him.


©1999, 2007
Bob Graham