One hundred and fifty-two years ago, Lt. John C. Fremont of the U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers, with four members of his survey expedition, paddled an inflatable rubber boat from the mouth of the Weber River due west to a small island in the Great Salt Lake.
Hungry and short of provisions, Fremont hoped to find game while surveying the lake from the island summit.
This was the second of the explorer’s military expeditions–the first in 1842 had taken him to South Pass and the Wind River Mountains along the Continental Divide. He was becoming famous, and ambitious.
With Fremont on this September morning in 1843 were Christopher “Kit” Carson, an intrepid hunter and guide who already enjoyed a position of respect among men of the mountains; and Charles Preuss, a gifted, literate mapmaker who kept careful diaries written in his native German, but whose outward demeanor rarely mirrored his waspish personal thoughts.
Two employees, French Canadian engages Baptiste Bernier and Basil Lajeunesse, had served with Fremont before, and constituted what the lieutenant regarded as his “small family.” Before setting out for the island, eight of the party of 17 were sent north to Fort Hall, a Hudson’s Bay Co. trading post in present Idaho, for supplies; and four men were assigned to remain ashore to guard the baggage and horses while the survey party did its work.
The decision to land on the smaller island was Fremont’s choice because of the food shortage.
After a meal of yampah root, seasoned by “a small fat duck,” the expedition was tiring of boiled birds and becoming restless. The men warmed themselves at the campfire on the night of Sept. 8 and wondered what the new day would hold in store.
Preuss, as usual, was not so enamored of the adventure. He was more interested in how his food tasted. “So close to the Salt Lake and we have to get along without salt!” he confided to his diary.
But Fremont’s plans for an early start were soon dashed. In unpacking the India-rubber (guttapercha) boat, they discovered that instead of being strongly sewn like the one used a year earlier in exploring the canyons of the Upper Platte River, this boat’s air cylinders had been pasted together–and poorly at that–by a manufacturer rushed for time. He had been told to cram two months’ work into a week, and this was the result
At sunrise the rubber raft was inflated, with men alternating on the bellows. When two of the lengthy cylinders leaked and threatened to sink the boat, one man was constantly at the bellows while the others rowed for all their worth.
Midway to their intended landing point, the wind grew stronger and the air cylinders started to collapse. Again the bellows were pumped feverishly. At last, the boat made it to the island beach. It was about noon on Sept. 9.
Carson, who was no stranger to danger and hard times as a mountaineer, recalled in his autobiography, “We found nothing of any great importance. There were no [freshwater] springs and the island was perfectly barren.” Preuss was even less charitable in his diary. “We ferried with our miserable rubber boat to the island, which Fremont christened Disappointment Island because he expected game there but did not find it.” Having thus unburdened himself, he turned to exploration. “We found plenty of salt and have boiled down some of it. I believe that three, or certainly four pounds of water make one pound of salt. I have never seen anything like it. We found the salt 15 feet deep near the island.” While Fremont and Preuss set up their instruments to begin the survey, Carson took the opportunity to stroll around the island. On the 800-foot summit, he rested near a schist rock formation and left his mark.
Perhaps it was Bernier or Lajeunesse who stood with him, but in later years, this famous plainsman recalled: “We ascended the mountain, and under a shelving rock cut a large cross, which is there to this day.” When Capt. Howard Stansbury took his survey party to the island seven years later, he noticed the cross, but had no clue as to its origin. He passed it off with just a single sentence in his famous report on the Great Salt Lake.
The Mormons, who had settled the Great Salt Lake Valley in 1847, were aware that Fremont had named the land mass Disappointment Island, but because of its shape, the Saints renamed it Castle Island.
To Stansbury, however, fell the official responsibility of placing it on a U.S. map. He chose to recognize the adventurous explorer who first set foot upon its shore. He set it down as Fremont Island, and so it remains today.
When Fremont’s party departed on the morning of Sept. 10, the lieutenant was dismayed to discover he had left the lens cap to his “spy glass” on the summit, and ruefully observed it would probably remain there undisturbed by Indians, to furnish
“matter of speculation” for some future traveler.
(The lens cap was found in the 1860s by Jacob Miller, a Mormon using the island as a sheep range.) For Fremont, clambering aboard Preuss’ “miserable rubber boat” and returning safely to the mouth of the Weber was easier said than done. Carson’s recollection was understated: “We had not gone more than a league, when a storm came up,” he said. “The boat was leaking wind.” Fremont urged them to “pull for their lives,” Carson remembered, that “if we did not reach shore before the storm, we would surely all perish.” Pulling at the oars with all their might, they barely made it.
“Within an hour, the waters had risen eight or ten feet,” Carson said.
Scrambling through the brushy wetlands, Fremont ordered his men to carry the baggage the quarter-mile to firm ground, while Preuss and Lajeunesse set off on foot to the main camp and the horses, some nine miles distant.
Two years later, in October 1845, Fremont returned with another expedition and again explored islands in the Great Salt Lake, among them the largest, which supplied the party with fresh meat, and which he named Antelope Island.