In the spring of 1842, Captain John C. Fremont made his first exploration of the Great Plains. He left Washington on the second of May and went to St. Louis. On the boat from St. Louis up the Missouri he met Kit Carson and engaged him as guide. Fremont organized his expedition at the trading-house of Cyprian Chouteau. Charles Preuss was his topographical engineer, or surveyor, and the youngest son of Senator Benton was a member of the party. The stores and baggage were carried in eight carts or wagons drawn by mules. The entire party numbered nearly forty persons. Fremont left the post of Chouteau on the 10th of June, going south some ten miles to the Santa Fe Trail. This trail led out to the parting of the ways, where the Road to Oregon began, near the present town of Gardner, in Johnson County, Kansas. Fremont reached the crossing of the Kansas River late on the 14th, finding the river swollen from recent rains. This was not the crossing at the point where Topeka was afterwards laid out, but at Uniontown, in the western line of Shawnee County. That crossing was a ford, having a rock bottom, and no ferry was then maintained there. The Chouteaus had long been in the Indian trade near that crossing, and they doubtless recommended it to Fremont. Fremont says he expected to find the river fordable. As it was running bank-full “with an angry current, yellow and turbid as the Missouri,” he made his cattle and horses swim. He had a collapsible rubber boat designed for the survey of the Platte, and on this he carried over his carts and baggage. The last load was amid-stream when the boat was upset, but almost everything was rescued and saved. On the 15th the party moved up the Kansas about seven miles and camped in a fine prairie, where the wet baggage was spread to dry. On the 17th Fremont recorded in his Journal that a large body of emigrants bound for Oregon under Dr. White was about three weeks in advance of his expedition. There were sixty-four men and “sixteen or seventeen families,” carrying their effects in heavy wagons.
Fremont followed up the valley of the Kansas River until the morning of the 19th of June. At the mouth of the Vermillion the old Kansas village was seen. It was a dead town. The Pawnees had attacked it in the spring of 1842, and the Kansas Indians had moved further down the river. On the 18th the river was in sight of the expedition, though from eight to twelve miles distant. The Vermillion of the Blue was crossed at ten o’clock on the 20th, and the camp for the night was made on the banks of the Big Blue River near the present Marysville. Antelope were seen running over the plains that day, and Carson killed a deer. About two o’clock on the afternoon of the twenty-first of June the fortieth parallel was crossed, and the expedition passed out of what was shortly to be Kansas.
This exploration of 1842 by Fremont seemed to fix very definitely in literature the course of the Oregon Trail through Kansas. There was a sort of notoriety or reputation attaching to the exploration of Fremont which it is hard to understand at this day. The South Pass had been discovered nearly twenty years when Fremont set out on his first expedition. Women had ridden horseback through it nearly ten years before, and just ten years previous to his passage through it Captain Bonneville had driven his park of wagons through it and far beyond it. Yet Fremont was later credited in the popular mind with having discovered the South Pass. This probably arose from the fact that his reports and maps were promptly published by the Government, and they carried the first definite information of the Oregon Trail to the people at large.
Fremont returned in the fall of 1842, descending the Platte. He began immediately to prepare for a second exploration, and this he accomplished, starting in the spring of 1843.
On the 17th of May, 1843, Fremont landed at Kansas, known also as Kansas Landing, and sometimes as Chouteau’s Landing. It is now Kansas City, Missouri. He stopped at the residence of Major Richard W. Cummins, Indian Agent for the tribes of that region, and who lived then at the Landing. Before his plans were perfected he received a letter from his wife urging him to depart at once and complete his arrangements at Fort Bent. Pursuant to this message he set out on the 29th of May, taking with him a brass howitzer obtained from General S. W. Kearny at St. Louis. Thomas Fitzpatrick was employed as guide, and Kit Carson was found later on. It afterwards developed that Fremont had been summoned to Washington to explain why he was taking that brass cannon on a scientific expedition. Mrs. Fremont did not forward the notice of the summons, but sent her order for him to get under way at once.
The men of the second expedition were Creoles, Canadian-French, and Americans, numbering all told thirty-nine men. They were armed with Hall’s carbines and the twelve-pound howitzer which came so near stopping the exploration. William Gilpin joined the party on the 31st at Elm Grove, and he continued into Oregon. At Elm Grove were a number of emigrant wagons, among them that of J. B. Childs, of Jackson County, Missouri, who was in command of the emigrant party, which was bound for California. They were carrying furniture and household goods, farming implements, and the machinery for a mill designed to be erected in some branch of the Sacramento. The route taken was the Oregon Trail to the crossing of the Kansas River at Uniontown, where Fremont had crossed the previous year. Trains of emigrant wagons were always in sight of Fremont, and many were at the ford or crossing. Settlers were even then pouring over the Oregon Trail for the Pacific Coast.
Fremont did not cross the Kansas at the ford with the emigrant trains, but continued his way on the south side of the river to the junction of the Republican and the Smoky Hill. There he crossed his expedition over the Smoky Hill on a raft, and on the 11th of June set out up the Republican. This stream was followed approximately to its source, the expedition coming out on the South Platte on the 30th of June. It visited the Pacific Coast, and returned the following year, descending the Arkansas, crossing to the Smoky Hill, and then turning to the Santa Fe Trail, arriving at Kansas Landing July 31, 1844.
The third expedition of Fremont was organized on the frontier of Missouri, as he says, but no specific location is given. It was certainly near Kansas City. The details of the organization are indefinitely given. Some one had chosen twelve Delaware Indians to go with him, and these included Sagundai, who later carried back dispatches from California, and Swanok, who had destroyed the Republican Pawnee town. Fremont says that, as his expedition had for its object the exploration of the Rocky Mountains and the country beyond, no examination of the Great Plains country was made. Fog envelopes the movements of the party until its departure from Bent’s Fort, on the 16th of August, 1845. It is not known that any part of the expedition passed over any portion of the Oregon Trail.
There was another Fremont expedition, in 1848. This went up the Smoky Hill.
In 1853, Fremont crossed the Great Plains for the last time. He followed his trail of 1843 closely, stopping a few days at Uniontown, or that vicinity. To Uniontown he had followed the Oregon Trail.