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On the Sutter Buttes, 1846
Locating the Vantage for John Charles Frémont's Third Expedition Artist Edward Kern's View. And the two expedition campsites.
Where is this place?

Buttes of the Sacramento (Sutter Buttes) by Edward M. Kern, 1846

Frémont, Memoir of My Life, Bedford, Clark & Company, Chicago 1887:
On the 30th we encamped at the "Buttes of Sacramento." This is an isolated mountain ridge about six miles long, and at the summit about 2690 feet above the sea. At our encampment on a small run at the south- eastern base we were about eight hundred feet above the sea. The mornings here were pleasantly cool for a few hours, but before ten the heat of the sun became very great, usually tempered by a refreshing breeze. Our camp was in one of the warmest situations of the Sacramento Valley. The summer winds being steadily from the northwest, this block of mountains entirely intercepted them. We felt the heat here more sensibly than at any other place to which our journeying brought us in California. The hunters always left the camp before daylight, and were in by nine o'clock, after which the sun grew hot. Game was very fat and abundant; upwards of eighty deer, elk, and bear were killed in one morning. This country was a perpetual delight to the Delawares [James Sagundai at left]. Its wonderful abundance of game, always in fine condition, and its comfortable climate, with everywhere water and wood and grass, giving the hunter a good camp wherever night might overtake him, kept them constantly happy. If they could have been suddenly transported into it they might have thought that they had died and awakened in the happy hunting grounds.

It was a lovely camp for the animals; the range consisted of excellent grasses, wild oats in fields. red and other varieties of clover, some of which were now in mature seed and others beginning to flower. Oats were already drying in level places where exposed to the full influence of the sun, remaining green in moister places and on the hill-slopes.

At this point I established the last main point for longitude, making observations of moon culminations on the 4th and 5th of June. These gave for the longitude 121° 38' 04". The latitude was 39° 12' 03".

During our stay at the Buttes, camp was moved to a small run or spring at the northeastern base in longitude 121° 33' 36", latitude 39° 14' 41". I give the position of both these points because they were the last astronomical observations made during this journey.

Note: Because of the necessity of using pocket chronometers in this rough travel, the field determined longitudes given here, while perfectly adequate for the scale of the large map of the west that would be constructed from them, have not enough precision, or consistency, to locate these camps. But, because land navigation required the use an artificial horizon, a self-leveling mercury first-surface mirror, Frémont's latitudes are always very good (within yards in most cases), because when the doubled altitudes are halved, the reading error is also halved. And problems of horizon shifts due to refraction and thermal effects are eliminated, so that very accurate determinations may be made. This cannot be done at sea on a moving deck. Where those determined lines of latitude intersect a watercourse on modern survey maps can be taken with perfect precision as the second line of position.


Local historian Dave Freeman has pointed out to me that the diary of John Sutter indicates that 1846 was a very dry year, and that small creeks on the lower slopes may have been dry by June. In a USGS paper published in 1916, they give a rather conflicting entry from mission records calling 1845 "Drought. Wet in north; dry in Southern California, Cattle starved." But because of the ephemeral nature of the creeks on the slope of the butte, I now suggest two locations on Frémont's determined lines of latitude "at the base," as described in the narrative, which were on more substantial watercourses. These camp positions take into consideration the large number of animals to be watered, as many as 200 expedition horses, and that number swelling as settlers arrived from the Napa Valley and upper Sacramento Valley. The suggested sites, Blue Creek, and Snake River, are shown on this 1909 topographic map. By 1909, reclamation had already altered (to straight field boundaries) parts of the courses of Blue Creek and the Snake River, so I need to find an earlier map. Today these once wild streams, that provide irrigation water to many hundreds of acres, are maintained by State Reclamation District No. 2054. During potentially flooding events, the water enters the Sutter Bypass.

Frémont: Here terminated the geographical work of the expedition. We remained at the Buttes until the 8th of June, during which time the mean temperature was 64° at sunrise, 79° at 9 in the morning, 86° at noon, 90° at 2 P.M., 91° at 4, and 80° at sunset; ranging from 50° to 79° at sunrise, 85° to 98° at 4 P.M., and from 73° to 89° at sunset.

The longitudes established on the line of this journey are based on a series of astronomical observations resting on the four positions, determined by lunar culminations. The position established here was the last of the four. This line of astronomical observations, thus carried across the continent, reaches the Paciflc Ocean on the northern shore of the Bay of Monterey. (Frémont-Preuss 1848 map)

Kit Carson's dictated (c.1856) autobiography, edited by Blanch C. Grant, Taos, 1926:
We kept on our march to Peter Lawson's [Lassen's], and had no difficulty on the route. Then down the Sacramento [River] to the Buttes. Here camp was made to await positive orders in regard to the [Mexican] war and [also] to hunt.


Los Picos de Sutter- The Sutter Buttes.

The Sutter Buttes are a small circular complex of the eroded remains of 1.6 million years old early Pleistocene era volcanic lava domes which rise as buttes above the flat plains of the Central Valley of California. The highest peak, South Butte, reaches about 2,130 feet above sea level. Frémont gives the height as "about 2690 feet above the sea," but most of the excess is because of his mistaken base elevation of "about eight hundred feet above the sea." Lt. Emmons, in 1841, had , by triangulation, estimated the summit as "seventeen hundred and ninety-four feet" above the level of the base.
The Buttes are located just west of Yuba City in the northern part of the Central Valley. They are named for John Sutter, who received a large land grant from the Mexican government in the late 1830s. The Sutter Buttes are sometimes referred to as the world's shortest mountain range, and sometimes as the southernmost volcano of the Cascade Volcanos.

Frémont's third Expedition artist Edward Kern made a drawing up on the buttes from one of those camps at the base (see above satellite image).

There is today a service road going up onto South Butte to a collection of radio and microwave repeaters. There are also web cameras that are accessed by local TV stations for weather reports. One of those cameras, when looking 153.42 crow miles north toward 14,179' Shasta Peak, happens to be at Kern's very 1846 vantage point when he made his drawing. Look familiar?

Edward Kern's Vantage

Buttes of the Sacramento (Sutter Buttes) by Edward Kern, 1846
Standing atop South Butte looking north toward Shasta peak

Back side of South Butte looking west
toward the Coast Range

The horses and men are pictured on the edge of a BIG drop-off! Note view of back side. The men and horses were near the antenna.
Both Kern and I show Shasta Peak far to the north as in a telephoto view.

Did Kern make use of the camera obscura?

Who mapped the course of the Humboldt River on the 1848 Frémont-Preuss map? Hint: Frémont was not on the Humboldt river during his 3rd mapping expedition.

Before Frémont's visit, were the visits in 1829 and 1833 by Michel Laframboise of the Hudson's Bay Company. Next was the visit in October 1841 by Lt. Emmons of the United States Exploring Expedition, led by Charles Wilkes. The illustrative plate below was engraved by J. W. Steel from a drawing by expedition artist Alfred T. Agate.

But be aware that the chosen scenic location from which the artist made his original sketch was not necessarily the actual camp location.

The country continued much the same until, on the [October] 15th, they came in sight of the Prairie Butes [sic]. a regular collection of hills, rising out of the level plain like islands from the water. These are very deceptive in height, and may be seen from a great distance. The party encamped on a small creek, called by the trappers the Little Fork of the Butes [Butte Slough].The hunters said that the party employed by the Hudson Bay Company last year caught more than one hundred beavers during their sojourn in this neiglibourliood with their cattle.

On the 16th, they passed towards the Butes and encamped, after an ineffectual search for water, at a place that had been occupied for the same purpose by Michel [Laframboise], in the valley or "Krall" [corral?] of the Butes. Here they found two deep holes of stagnant water, the remains of a rivulet that was now dried up...

There is little doubt that each of the Butes was once a volcano. They are grouped within an oval space , which has a circumference of about thirty miles: the longest diameter of the oval figure lies in a northeast and southwest direction. The valley passes through the southern part, and opens out on the eastern: it is about seven miles in length; and here the party found water. This valley may be considered as a prolongation of the exterior plain, though parts of it are somewhay higher, as appeared by it not having been overflowed. The highest of the Butes was made by a triangulation executed by Lieutenant [George Foster] Emmons and Mr. [Henry] Eld, seventeen hundred and ninty-four feet. They have the appearance of once having been much higher and more extended than they are now....

The Butes were ascertained to be in the latitude of 39º 08'N.; yet it has been generally believed that these were on the dividing line between Oregon and California.

In that last line represents a confusions names, because Shasta Peak (Frémont's "Shastl") was sometimes called by the French trapper's word "Butte," and is indeed very near the 42nd parallell.

The Emmons camp was very near that of Frémont. Here it the vantage of the plate in the Report.

Were all those people really up there as pictured in Kern's view on South Butte? Probably not. But there is a road up an ascending ridge to this point today which probably was not a challenge for horse travel back then.

This field sketch is of Laguna Pueblo and was done by Edward Kern's brother Richard Kern about 1850. Kern was at that time employed by Lt. James Hervey Simpson of the U. S. Topographical Corps, who was conducting surveys in the newly acquired Southwest.

Below is an engraving by Seth Eastman based on Kern's sketch for publication in Henry Schoolcraft's Indian Tribes.

Quite obviously, in this case, human figures were added to the original scene to show scale and add interest. They are, of course, placed where they add balance to the composition.

These images were scanned from In the Shadow of Frémont: Edward Kern and the Art of Exploration. 1845-1860, Hine, Robert V., University of Oklahoma Press, Noeman, 1982.

See also people in Report illustrations at:

go Frémont's Long Camp near Carson Pass, Charle's Preuss's vantage for his 1844 drawing of Carson Pass.
go Pyramid Lake, Nevada

©1999, 2013
Bob Graham