Norman speaks on FremontFor the Front Porch Chat at the Stutsman County Memorial Museum June 17, Keith Norman spoke about the Fremont Expedition that took place during the summer of 1839.
For the Front Porch Chat at the Stutsman County Memorial Museum June 17, Keith Norman spoke about the Fremont Expedition that took place during the summer of 1839.
The key players in this first documented exploration of our region were John Fremont (the son of a Virginia woman and a French immigrant) and Joseph Nicollet (born in France to wealthy parents who became destitute after the French Revolution when they sent Nicollet to America for a better life).
After his arrival in America, the U.S. government sent Nicollet to the headwaters of the Mississippi River to clarify maps done in 1805 by the Pike Expedition. The older, more experienced Nicollet was later joined by Freemont, a gifted mathematician. They were commissioned to explore the Pipestone Quarries in western Minnesota in 1838. The clay stone (limestone in a clay deposit) in the quarries was used by the American Indians to make ceremonial peace pipes.
In 1839, the explorers/mapmakers, Nicollet and Fremont were commissioned to explore the lands between the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. They were stationed at Fort Snelling near present day Minneapolis and went by riverboat down the Mississippi and up the Missouri to Fort Pierre. The party of 11 men and 17 horses crossed over to the Huron, S.D., area and followed the James River north. They reported being plagued by mosquitoes and saw herds of buffalo as far as the eye could see.
There was a concern that a member of the party might get lost if they got separated from the rest of the group. One member of the party was a Prussian artillery officer named Louis Zindel. Zindel made what looked like giant bottle rockets they would shoot off if someone got lost. The lost member of the party would see the rocket and be able to locate of the rest of the party.
One of their destinations was Bone Hill, a hilltop off a small creek near what is now Adrian. They wanted to explore the landmark where there was a Medicine Wheel or walkway-type structure made of buffalo bones, made by some culture pre-dating the plains Indians. They didn’t know its purpose or history, they just considered it old.
They went overland to the Sheyenne River in the present day Kathryn area where they encountered a huge Indian encampment, reportedly more than 1,000 teepees. The Indians had a large dog feast in honor of their visitors.
Norman speculated that the Indians may have been friendly to early explorers, because they could trade buffalo hides for knives, guns and kettles (to please their women). This would change within a few years when the “white men” came in large numbers and took possession of the lands, decimated the buffalo herds and took advantage of their hospitality.
They continued to follow the Sheyenne River north to the Devils Lake (Spirit Lake) area, where they spent about a week before returning to Fort Snelling. Norman stated the expedition took most of the summer and Nicollet, who had been sickly, died (in his 40s) in Washington D.C. before the report about the expedition was completed, so Fremont completed the report and made a map of the areas they explored, also claiming the accolades for the accomplishment.
Fremont married a senator’s daughter and she became his biggest publicist. He partnered up with Kit Carson to explore the Oregon Trail and got credit for the report about that expedition, because Carson was illiterate. He became relatively famous as an explorer and pathfinder from these expeditions.
He was endorsed by the Republican Party to run for president of the United States in 1856, but was defeated by Buchanan. Lincoln won the presidency in 1860. Freemont served as a Union general in the American Civil war. He was endorsed by a radical wing of the Republican Party for the 1860 election but subsequently withdrew his candidacy.
As a point of interest, Norman mentioned that there are a few theories as to how the James River got its name: One undocumented story speculates that a French Canadian Indian (Metis) hunter/trapper got lost and when he was found he tried to save face by stating he was just sitting by his river. His name was Jacques, so the men who found him started referring to it as the River Jacques.
Another school of thought was that an engineer/surveyor for the Northern Pacific Railroad by the name of Rosser came from Jamestown, Va., and was reminded of his hometown when he saw the town in North Dakota. He named the town Jamestown and the river was named the James River after the town.
In any case, Nicollet and Fremont called it the River Jacques (James River) on their map of the area in 1839.
The speaker at Sunday’s Front Porch Chat will be Alden Kollman, who will talk about Pierce Blewett, a man of many talents: grain merchant, railroad master, mayor of Jamestown, and Democratic candidate for Governor, among others.