In June 1846, General Stephen Watts Kearny rode out of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, with two thousand soldiers, bound for California. At the time, the nation was hell-bent on expansion: James K. Polk had lately won the presidency by threatening England over the borders in Oregon, while Congress had just voted, in defiance of the Mexican government, to annex Texas. After Mexico declared war on the United States, Kearny's Army of the West was sent out, carrying orders to occupy Mexican territory. When his expedition ended a year later, the country had doubled in size and now stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific, fulfilling what many saw as the nation's unique destiny--and at the same time setting the stage for the American Civil War.
Winston Groom recounts the amazing adventure and danger that Kearny and his troops encountered on the trail. Their story intertwines with those of the famous mountain man Kit Carson; Brigham Young and his Mormon followers fleeing persecution and Illinois; and the ill-fated Donner party, trapped in the snow of the Sierra Nevada. Together, they encounter wild Indians, Mexican armies, political intrigue, dangerous wildlife, gold rushes, and land-grabs. Some returned in glory, others in shackles, and some not at all. But these were the people who helped America fulfill her promise.
Distilling a wealth of letters, journals, and military records, Groom gives us a powerful account that enlivens our understanding of the exciting, if unforgiving, business of country-making.
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November 08, 2011
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Excerpt from Kearny's March by Winston Groom
A People in Motion
Late on an August afternoon in 1845, the most famous man in America, U.S. captain John Charles Fr�mont, departed Bent's Fort, the last outpost of American civilization, which lay in the foothills of Colorado's Rocky Mountains. With him were several score of the toughest, most experienced mountain men of the day-fur trappers and Indian fighters such as Kit Carson, Joseph Walker, and Bill Williams; the French-Canadians Basil Lajeunesse, Antoine Robideaux, Alexis Godey, and Auguste Archambault; a party of nine Delaware Indians; and an eighteen-year-old free black man who was Fr�mont's valet. Sixty-one of them in all, they made a formidable armed party, each man carrying a .50-caliber Hawken "buffalo rifle," two pistols, and any number of knives. They were headed west, into the setting sun, with instructions to chart the unknown.
Fr�mont's fame had reached him surprisingly early, at the age of thirty-two, after his first journey of exploration several years before, in which he disproved the widely held myth that the vast plains west of the Mississippi River were nothing more than a worthless, uninhabitable wasteland-the so-called Great American Desert. It was further enhanced by his second expedition, which "disclosed to multitudes a shining new land of flowers, sunshine, and wealth." American explorers in those days were accorded the sort of exultation once given to modern-day astronauts. Theirs was a difficult, often dangerous, but fascinating and useful world that let the common man see what lay beyond his antlike horizons.
Daniel Boone became a legend in his own time by pioneering the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap, and early in the century Lewis and Clark unveiled the secrets of the Northwest Territory. The U.S. Navy thrilled the nation with its report of the Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842 (the renowned "Ex.Ex."), which charted the Pacific from Alaska to the South Seas, including a detailed look at the American West Coast. But Fr�mont's revelations struck a note that set the country atremble, for by this time it was fairly bursting with European immigrants and others yearning for cheap, fertile land to sow and reap.
Aided in some measure by his wife's flair for literary composition, Fr�mont's published reports sent whole communities scurrying to acquire "prairie schooners," the great covered wagons that took Americans on their westward migration. It didn't hurt, by the way, that the wife, Jessie Benton Fr�mont, was the daughter of Thomas Hart Benton, at the time the most influential man in the U.S. Senate, who saw to it that his son-in-law's findings were distributed wholesale by the U.S. Government Printing Office.
Fr�mont's present mission was, ostensibly, a strictly scientific one, established to discover and chart the western expanse of the continent. To that end his expedition carried with it the most sophisticated instruments of the day: "a fine refracting telescope, two pocket chronometers, two sextants, a reflecting circle, a siphon barometer and cistern barometer, half a dozen thermometers and an assortment of compasses." And if the delicate barometers got broken, altitude would be determined by taking the temperature at which water boiled. A brilliant young artist and draftsman named Edward Kern was along to sketch flora, fauna, and topographical features. Also included were sacks of trinkets, clothing, and tools for the Indians they would inevitably encounter, as well as ample ammunition should the Indians prove hostile. The press had already branded Fr�mont the "Pathfinder," but in fact he found few paths that had not already been traveled by the Native Americans or indeed by the mountain men. The difference was that Fr�mont was able to map them and describe them in a way that only a trained engineer and scientist could.
Fr�mont was by now well versed in the rigors of such undertakings. The previous year he and his party got up the High Sierras too late, nearly froze and starved, and survived only by eating their pack animals and even the pet dogs that some of the men had acquired. Death could come in a flash in these fierce, uncharted climes-ambush by a war party; the sudden charge of a thousand-pound grizzly or the leap of a cougar; quicksand, desert thirst, prairie fire, flash floods, and heaven help the man who fell ill.
Now a new menace was in the air, the threat of war-war with Mexico, war with England. The U.S. Congress had just voted to grant the independent Republic of Texas statehood. Mexico immediately severed diplomatic relations and promised war if the Americans went through with it. Britain had begun making bellicose noises over U.S. claims to the immense Oregon Territory that included what are now the states of Oregon, Washington, and parts of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. Likewise, it was feared that the English, who possessed the world's most powerful navy, would come in on the part of Mexico if she went to war with the United States.
These problems were likely on Captain Fr�mont's mind as his little army plodded out of Bent's Fort toward the distant, snowcapped Rockies. Sixty men doesn't sound like much in the long scheme of things, but in the 1840s, in the sparseness of the western half of the contin-ent, sixty well-armed, well-trained men were a force to be reckoned with, considering that in the entire province of California fewer than one thousand Mexicans could be counted on as a military force.
Fr�mont believed, or so he later said, that he was under secret instructions from the president himself, James K. Polk, to seize California from the Mexicans if war broke out. Navy Secretary George Bancroft had issued similar orders to Commodore John Drake Sloat, commander of the U.S. Pacific Squadron. At the time, there was a sizable community of American emigrants living there, most residing in towns along the coast or on farms in the Sacramento Valley. It was anticipated that these sturdy people would rise up against the Mexican authorities in the event of war, or perhaps instigate a war themselves.
It was shaping up as an explosive adventure, but Fr�mont felt up to the task. If successful he knew he would come home covered in glory. Little did he dream that instead he would return under arrest and facing a court-martial for mutiny, a hanging offense.