home

articles

news

links

book

search

new item

new item

Frémont's Famous Ride

Excerpted from
THREE YEARS IN CALIFORNIA,
by the Rev. Walter Colton, Alcalde, Monterey.
New York, A. S. Barnes; Cincinnati, H. W. Derby & Co., 1850.

The ride of Col. Frémont 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 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. Frémont, 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.

The party left los Angeles on the morning of the 22d, at daybreak, though the call which took the colonel to Monterey, had reached him only the evening before. Their path lay through the wild mountains of San Fernando, where the steep ridge and precipitous glen follow each other like the deep hollows and crested waves of ocean, under the driving force of the storm. It was a relief when a rough ravine opened its winding gallery on the line of their path. They reached at length the maritime defile of E1 Rincon, or Punto Gordo, where a mountain bluff shoulders its way boldly to the sea, leaving for fifteen miles only a narrow line of broken coast, lashed at high tide, and in the gale, by the foaming surf. The sun was on the wave of the Pacific, when they issued from the Rincon; and twilight still lingered when they reached the hospitable rancho of Don Thomas Robbins-one hundred and twenty-five miles from los Angeles.

The only limb in the company which seemed to complain of fatigue was the right arm of Jacob, incessantly exercised in lashing the loose horses to the track, and lassoing the relays. None of the horses were shod-an iron contrivance unknown here, except among a few Americans. The gait through the day had been a hand-gallop, relieved at short intervals by a light trot. Here the party rested for the night, while the horses gathered their food from the young grass which spread its tender verdure on the field. Another morning had thrown its splendors on the forest when the party waved their adieu to their hospitable host, and were under way.

Their path lay over the spurs of the Santa Barbara mountains; and close to that steep ridge, where the California battalion, under Col. Frémont, encountered on the 25th Dec., 1848 a blinding storm, which still throws its sleet and hail through the dreams of those hardy men. Such was its overpowering force, that more than a hundred of their horses dropped down under their saddles. Their bleaching bones still glimmering in the gorges, and hanging on the cliffs, are the ghastly memorials of its terrific violence. None but they, who were of their number, can tell what that battalion suffered. The object of that campaign accomplished, and the conquest of California secured, the colonel, with his friend and servant, was now on his brief return.

Their path continued over the flukes and around the bluffs of the coast mountains, relieved at intervals by the less rugged slopes and more level lines of the cafiada. The hand-gallop and light trot of their spirited animals brought them, at set of sun, to the rancho of their friend, Capt. Dana, where they supped, and then proceeding on to San Luis Obispo, reached the house of Don Jesús, the colonel's companion; at nine o'clock in the evening-one hundred and thirty-five miles from the place where they broke camp in the morning!

The arrival of Col. Frémont having got wind, the rancheros of San Luis were on an early stir, determined to detain him. All crowded to his quarters with their gratulations, and the tender of a splendid entertainment, but his time was too pressing: still escape was impossible, till a sumptuous breakfast had been served, and popular enthusiasm had expressed its warm regard. This gratitude and esteem were the result of that humane construction of military law, which had spared the forfeited lives of the leaders in the recent insurrectionary war.

It was eleven o'clock in the morning before the colonel and his attendants were in the saddle. Their tired horses had been left, and eight fresh ones taken in their places, while their party had been increased by the addition of a California boy, in the capacity of vaquero. Their path still lay through a wild broken country, where primeval forests frowned, and the mountain torrent dashed the tide of its strength. At eight in the evening they reached the gloomy base of the steep range which guards the head waters of the Salinas or Benaventura, seventy miles from San Luis. Here Don Jesús, who had been up the greater part of the night previous, with his family and friends, proposed a few hours rest.

As the place was the favorite haunt of marauding Indians, the party for safety during their repose, turned off the track, which ran nearer the coast than the usual route, and issuing through a canfiada into a thick wood, rolled down in their serapes, with their saddles for their pillows, while their horses were put to grass at a short distance, with the Spanish boy in the saddle to keep watch. Sleep once commenced, was too sweet to be easily given up; midnight had passed when the party were roused from their slumbers by an estampedo among their horses, and the loud calls of the watch boy.

The cause of the alarm proved not to be Indians, but gray bears, which infest this wild pass. It was here that Col. Frémont with thirty-five of his men, in the summer preceding, fell in with several large bands of these ferocious fellows, who appeared to have posted themselves here to dispute the path. An attack was ordered, and thirteen of their grim file were left dead on the field. Such is their acknowledged strength and towering rage, when assaulted, the bravest hunters, when outnumbered, generally give them a wide berth. When it was discovered that they had occasioned this midnight stampede, the first impulse was to attack them; but Don Jesús, who understood their habits and weak points, discouraged the idea, stating that "people gente can scare bears," and with that gave a succession of loud halloos, at which the bears commenced their retreat. The horses by good fortune were recovered, a fire kindled, and by break of day, the party had finished their breakfast, and were again in the saddle.

Their path, issuing from the gloomy forests of the Soledad, skirted the coast range, and crossed the plain of the Salinas to Monterey, where they arrived three hours to set of sun, and ninety miles from their last camping-tree. The principal citizens of Monterey, as soon as the arrival of Col. Frémont was announced, assembled at the office of the alcalde, and passed resolutions inviting him to a public dinner; but the urgency of his immediate return obliged him to forego the proffered honor.

At four o'clock in the afternoon of the day succeeding that of their arrival, the party were ready to start on their return. The two horses rode by the colonel from San Luis Obispo, were a present to him from Don Jesús, who now desired him to make an experiment with the abilities of one of them. They were brothers, one a year younger than the other, both the same color-cinnamon-and hence called el canelo, or los canelos. The elder was taken for the trial, and lead off gallantly as the party struck the plain-which stretches towards the Salinas. A more graceful horse, and one more deftly mounted, I have never seen. The eyes of the gathered crowd followed them till they disappeared in the shadows of the distant hills.

Forty miles on the hand-gallop, and they camped for the night. Another day dawned, and the elder canelo was again under the saddle of Col. Frémont, and for ninety miles carried him without change, and without apparent fatigue. It was still thirty miles to San Luis, where they were to pass the night, and Don Jesús insisted that canelo could easily perform it, and so said the horse in his spirited look and action. But the colonel would not put him to the trial; and shifting the saddle to the younger brother, the elder was turned loose to run the remaining thirty miles without a rider. He immediately took the lead, and kept it the whole distance, entering San Luis on a sweeping gallop, and neighing with exultation on his return to his native pastures. His younger brother, with equal spirit, kept the lead of the horses under the saddle, bearing on his bit, and requiring the constant check of his rider.

The whole eight horses made their one hundred and twenty miles each in this day's ride, after having performed forty the evening before. The elder cinnamon, who had taken his rider through the forty, carried him ninety miles further to-day, and would undoubtedly have taken him through the remaining thirty miles had Col. Frémont continued him under the saddle. After a detention of half a day at San Luis Obispo by a rain-storm, the party resumed the horses they had left there, and which took them back to los Angeles in the same time they had brought them up. Thus making their five hundred miles each in four days, with the interval of repose occupied in the ride from San Luis to Monterey and back. In this whole journey from los Angeles to Monterey and back making eight hundred and forty miles-the party had actually but one relay of fresh horses; the time on the road was about seventy-six hours.

The path through the entire route lies through a wild broken country, over ridges, down gorges, around bluffs, and through gloomy defiles, where a traveller, unused to these mountains, would often deem even the slow trot impracticable. The only food which the horses had, except a few quarts of barley at Monterey, was the grass on the road; though the trained and domesticated horses, like the canelos, will eat or drink almost every thing which their master uses. They will take from his caressing hand bread, fruits, sugar, coffee; and, like the Persian horse, will not refuse a bumper of wine. They obey with gentlest docility his slightest intimation; a swing of his hand, or a tap of his whip on the saddle, will spring them into instant action, while the check of a thread-rein on the Spanish bit will bring them to a dead stand; and yet in these sudden stops, when rushing at the top of their speed, they manage not to jostle their rider, or throw him forward. They go where their master directs, whether it be a leap on the foe, up a flight of stairs, or over a chasm. But this is true only of the conduct and behavior of those horses trained like the canelos, who vindicate, in the mountain glens of California, their Arabian origin. They are all grace, fleetness, muscle, and fire; gentle as the lamb, lively as the antelope, and fearless as the lion.

go Other acounts of this ride.

Professional assiduity, unusual self-control, readiness to endure any amount of monotonous hard work, deprivation, and exhaustion--these were traits of Frémont that we should not allow his many adventures, and the picturesqueness of the scenes in which he moved to obscure. It is significant that Carson, like that other expert frontiersman Alex Godey, regarded him with deferential respect. To both he was as efficient a man of action as they could desire--and in addition a scientist.
Allan Nevins, DeWitt Clinton professor of history, Columbia University

go Frémont's Capitulation of Cahuenga.
go Frémont's Emancipation Proclamation in Missouri.
Frémont's famous 1842 climb of Fremont Peak.
Frémont's discovery of Lake Tahoe.
Frémont's "Long Camp" in the deep snow near the summit of the Sierra Nevada in 1844.
Frémont's contributions to meteorology


©1999, 2007
Bob Graham