A TRAGIC EXPEDITION
From J. Marvin Hunter’s Frontier Times Magazine, May, 1929
This Narrative of Fremont's Retreat From the San Luis Valley is Given as told by Thos. E. Breckenridge, a Survivor of the Expedition, to J. W. Freeman and Chas. W. Watson.
Our expedition left Westport, now called Kansas City, October 19, 1848, and followed the line afterwards pursued by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, to Fort Bend on the Arkansas River. At Fort Bend we found "Old Bill" Williams, one of the oldest mountaineers and guides in the West, a man of forty years' experience in the mountains and among the tribes which inhabited the country between the Pacific coast and the Mississippi river. Williams had been with Fremont's Topographical Corps on its trip from St. Louis to Sutter's Fort, California, in 1845. He was engaged by Fremont to guide our expedition, although he disagreed with Fremont in regard to the route to be followed.
The route outlined by Col. Fremont and Senator Benton led to Pueblo in the Arkansas Valley, thence to Hardscrabble, and over the West Mountain and the Sangre de Cristo range, striking the Rio Grande, which was to be followed to its source.
After resting one day at Fort Bend, we resumed the journey up the Arkansas Valley, reaching Pueblo, which consisted of half a dozen adobe houses.. We then pushed in a southwesterly direction about forty-five miles to Hardscrabble, where we stopped a week to recuperate and prepare for severe work in the mountains. The weather was unusually cold for the month of November, and the snow fell almost daily during our stay in camp.
Until we reached the summit of Wet Mountain, our party consisted of thirty-three men but at that point, Dick Wooton, one of Colorado's pioneers who had joined us at Fort Bend, turned back. After a good long look at the valley below and the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo mountains beyond, he exclaimed: "There is too much snow ahead for me", and immediately mounted his horse and disappeared down the mountain toward Hardscrabble, That was the last we saw of Dick Wooton. I have always since thought that Wooton's head was level on the subject of mountain travel in the winter.
After crossing the Sangre de Cristo range our stock was put on short rations, only one quart of corn a day being allowed to each animal. The men fared no better, as our flour was exhausted; but we thought we would find an abundance of wild game when we reached the valley of the Rio Grande, since called San Luis Valley, as well as plenty of grass for the stock. We were continually searching for something better, and the conditions were daily growing worse.
It was hard work pushing through the heavy snowdrifts, but the men worked cheerily, although we advanced only five or six miles a day. Our clothing was seldom dry and the snow fell continually. Little did we imagine the suffering that was before us.
On reaching the valley of the Rio Grande we found the snow about three feet deep. The weather had changed; it was very cold, and the northwest wind blew the snow in great clouds; but we pushed on, beating trails for the stock in the hope of reaching the Rio Grande as soon as possible, where we thought we would find grass for the stock. Our march to the river was very slow on account of the keen, piercing wind blowing the snow in our faces, the stock continually trying to turn around and go back to the trail. It seems to me those mules had a premonition of their fate. Animal instinct had forewarned them of the suffering in store in the gloomy mountains at the head of the Rio Grande. We could see the storm clouds approaching from the west, a great dark barrier rolling toward us.
Just before we reached the river, about three o'clock in the morning, we were aroused from our sleep by the announcement that our mules were gone. They had stampeded, and three of us were detailed to follow. It was intensely cold, but we immediately struck their trail, and at the end of four hours we overtook them. There were no prayers said in driving those mules back to camp. We reached the river only to find it frozen over and snow fully as deep as any place in the valley. The heavy storms had driven the game away and the snow covered the grass to such an extent that it was impossible for the mules to get even a mouthful to eat. The outlook was gloomy, indeed, but there was no grumbling among the men.
In camp there was a disagreement between Colonel Fremont and Williams. Williams was a man that said but little, but he was a long time with Fremont that night and when we turned in (we bunked together) he said they had disagreed in regard to which route we should follow. He said the snow was deeper and the weather more severe than he had ever known it to be before. He said he advised a route out of our difficulties, to go south around the San Juan Mountains, and then west along what is now the line between Colorado and New Mexico.
We pushed up the river, plunging through the snow and making but slow progress. Our provisions were almost gone, and we were obliged to do what had been done in 1845 in Nevada—Kill and eat the pack-animals. We would camp early and climb the cottonwood trees that grew along the river, cutting off the branches to feed the mules.
We continued to advance up the river, the snow growing deeper day by day. The weather was terribly cold and many of the men were frostbitten. We could see the mountains ahead, and on account of their tremendous height and distance, we felt it would be impossible to cross the range. Colonel Fremont knew it too, for he talked to Williams again, and Williams advised returning to the Sagauche, or south to New Mexico; but Colonel Fremont thought he could make a short cut over the La Garita Mountains and accomplish the same thing, for we turned north, left the Rio Grande, and began to ascend the mountains, following a little stream which I now think is Embargo Creek. Our trail lay through deep mountain gorges and among towering crags and steep declivities, which at any other time of the year, would have been dangerous to traverse, Several of our animals stumbled and fell headlong over the cliffs and were dashed to pieces on the rocks. To make matters worse it had commenced snowing again. It seemed as if the elements were against us, but the men held up well, and although all were more or less frozen, I cannot remember hearing one word of grumbling. Men would push ahead and make a trail until tired out when others would take their places. At night, all wet to the skin, we would gather around the great campfires, cook and eat our mule meat, and then wrapping ourselves in wet blankets, would go to sleep.
I have spent many winters in the mountains but have never experienced storms similar to these. On the seventeenth day of December, after many ineffectual attempts to force our way up the mountains, we found it impossible to make further headway. We remained in camp several days hoping the storm would cease, living on the carcasses of the faithful mules that had died from the cold and hunger. The storm continued night and day. It was impossible to see in any direction, for the high wind filled the air with drifting snow at all times. We could hear the roar of the snow slides as they rushed from the steep sides of the mountain peaks to the valleys below, carrying everything before them. Sometimes they were far away, at other times so close that the sound was like the crash of artillery. It is impossible for one who has never been placed in a similar position to imagine the state of terror we were in during our stay in that camp. Rightly it has been named "Camp Desolation."
We lived in holes dug in the snow, with campfires in the center. There were several such fires, and each camp was separate, as the snow was so deep that the men could not look into the next pit. We had as provisions for thirty-two men, probably fifty pounds of sugar about as much coffee, and a small quantity of macaroni and candles. I mention the candles as provisions for they were afterward found to be a luxury indeed. Our staff of life consisted of frozen mule meat. It was soon evident that to remain in camp meant to us starvation and death, and it became our main topic of conversation how to get relief. The snow growing deeper day by day, our hope of relief ever growing less, as our poor pack animals were dying fast. They had absolutely nothing to eat, and had eaten each other's manes and tails until there was not a hair left, At night their cries of hunger but added to the horror of our situation.
Finally Christmas eve came. We had been in camp eighty days, when Colonel Fremont sent for me to come to his tent. He had been studying the situation and our chances for escape. He admitted that the situation was very serious, but he was not despondent. He had a plan which he thought would give us relief if carried out. "Breckenridge," he said, "we have been in many tight places together, and I know you are one of the hardest, toughest men I have, and you are able to endure more than the average man; but what I shall ask of you will try both your nerve and endurance to the utmost. Relief we must have, and as soon as possible, and a small party can get along faster than a large one; therefore, I have concluded to send yourself, Kreutzfelt, and Bill Williams, under King, down the river for relief. King, Kreutzfeldt and Williams have volunteered—now will you go?" I said, "I will go. If anyone can make the trip, I can." He then said he thought Taos was probably the nearest point where we could get aid, and the distance was, as near as we could estimate, about one hundred and eighty miles.
In the morning we were ready to start. On account of the depth of the snow, we planned to carry as little weight as possible with us. We took one blanket apiece, a few pounds of sugar, a little macaroni, and a few candles. We had three Hawkins' rifles, and one pound of powder. We also had one shotgun. With this equipment our little band of four was to start on a desperate trip of one hundred and eighty miles, on foot, in the dead winter, through the roughest country of America. I will never forget that Christmas breakfast. We had no luxuries, but plenty of variety, especially in meats. The bill of fare was not prepared for the occasion, being in use every day.
BILL OF FARE - CAMP DESOLATION December 25, 1848.
SOUP Mule Tail
FISH Baked White Mule Boiled Gray Mule
MEATS Mule Steak. Fried Mule. Mule Chops. Broiled Mule. Stewed Mule. Boiled Mule. Scrambled Mule. Shirred Mule. French-fried Mule. Minced Mule.
DAMNED Mule. Mule on Toast (without the toast) Short Ribs of Mule with Apple Sauce (without the apple sauce)
RELISHES Black Mule, Brown Mule, Yellow, Bay Mule, Roan Mule, Tallow Candles.
BEVERAGES Snow, Snow-Water, Water
It really made no difference how our meats were cooked, it was the same old mule.
Before our departure I handed Colonel Fremont a sack, which every man was supposed in those days to carry, called a "possible sack". I told the colonel that in the sack was all the money I had, $1200.00 in Spanish doubloons, and I wished him to take charge of it, and bring it out with him when he came, and if anything should happen to me to send the money to my father in St. Louis. Colonel Fremont promised this, saying, "If anything happens, and it is lost, I will see that the money is made good to you."
The sack with the coin was left behind when Colonel Fremont broke camp. Human life at that time was of more value than Spanish coin. I have never had the loss made good to me by the government as promised. The following spring several men who did not wish to go on to California were sent into the mountains to the old camp to recover such property as had been left there. Bill Williams was in the party. They secured valuables, but on their return trip were attacked by a band of Indians and the entire party was massacred.
The first day out we advanced about five miles and at night camped under a large tree, making a fire of such dry limbs as we were able to break from the trunk, We slept but little on account of the intense cold. In the morning, after eating scant rations, we rolled our blanket s around the little store of provisions and were ready for another day's journey. By accident the sugar was tipped over in the snow and lost—to our great misfortune.
The second day's travel was about the same as the first. We camped at night under a pinyon tree, where we suffered greatly from the cold. The next morning the storm showed signs of abating. When ready to start, I found that my feet were numb, but we had not gone far before they began to warm up and I discovered from the peculiar, painful pricking sensation that they were frostbitten.
We reached the river about four o'clock in the afternoon of the third day as hungry as wolves. Two tallow candles, the last of our supplies, had served as breakfast hours before. This situation was growing desperate. We had traveled in three days but a short part of our journey, and there was not an ounce of food in sight. Before night I had the good fortune to kill a small hawk, which was cooked and divided among the four of us. The meal was rather limited and a trifle tough, but in our condition we could not afford to be particular.
We found some drift wood and kindled a good fire, but that was the only comfort. Starvation and death had begun to stare at us. In the morning we awoke early, stirred the fire, took a drink of water for breakfast, and set out. The progress was slow on account of frostbitten feet, At noon, in the absence of dinner, we buckled up our belts a couple of holes. In the afternoon the carcass of an otter was noticed on the ice. It did not take long to start a fire and cook a delicious morsel, though it was, by long odds, the gamiest I ever attempted to swallow.
As we struggled down the river, our feet became so sore and inflamed from freezing that we were obliged to sacrifice a portion of our blankets to wrap around them. We did not throw our boots away, but carried them along, suspecting that they might come into use for roasts, when we got so hungry that we could endure no longer. That night one of them was browned very nicely over the fire.
For days we had nothing to eat but parched leather. My memory is clouded concerning a portion of the time, so near was I to death, but to the best of my recollection, we lived eight days on our boots, belts and knife scabbards. It is an utter impossibility to describe the agony of those days.
On the afternoon of the last day before leaving the river, we had noticed Williams looking out toward the east with his hand over his eyes. We asked no explanation, knowing that if he had any information to impart we would receive it in due time.
That night while we were sitting despondently around the campfire, Bill said, "Boys, you saw me looking down the river this afternoon. Well, the river, just below where we are, makes a great oxbow bend. The distance across the neck between the rivers is about fifteen miles. The distance around by the river is much greater. My advice is to cross this neck, and not try to go round, and I have good reasons for asking you to take this course. This afternoon I saw smoke down the river bend. At first I was not sure, it was so thin and hazy, but later I became sure it was smoke, and boys, it don't come from the campfire of a white man—it is the smoke of an Indian camp, and if these are Indians on the bend, they are Utes."
We were glad to hear him say that they were Utes; we knew that Bill had lived among this tribe and could speak their language, and I had heard that he had a squaw among them. We would engage them to go back with us to the camp in the mountains and rescue our comrades.
Bill sat with his head between his hands for a long time as if in deep thought. Then he looked up and said, "I have and explanation to make. When I was a young man I was adopted by the Utes and lived among them. I was sent to Taos for supplies for my friends and was betrayed on a drunken spree. It was during this I blindly led the soldiers against my comrades. It was the meanest act of my life. For my treachery, every Ute Indian seeks my scalp".
It is needless to say that we crossed the loop, but that fifteen miles seemed to stretch out to eternity. In that distance were crowded in all the agonies of hell. The weather had cleared up, causing us to suffer from snow blindness. Only those who have been similarly affected can appreciate what agony this means. There was no timber or wood of any description to make a fire. At night we would pack the snow down and make a hole. In this we would spread a blanket; then sitting in a circle, with our feet together, we would draw the remaining part of the blanket over our head to shelter us from the piercing wind. Every day our blankets grew smaller. Those around our feet would wear out, and we were obliged to tear off new strips to protect them. God only knows how we suffered down in those holes in the snow. Sleep was out of the question except for a few minutes at a time.
Through the day we went staggering in, limping and toiling and growing weaker every day. We talked but little, and suffered in silence. I do not recollect that there was ever a word of regret for having started on this mission to do or die. Our stock of burnt boots was now gone. We began to chew the leather of our knife scabbards as we staggered on. When these were gone, we began on our belts.
There was no game in sight, although we still carried our guns. During those terrible days, while crossing this fifteen miles of snow, our one thought was to get to the river where we pictured game in plenty. When we were within a quarter of a mile of the river, King stopped and said, "I can go no further, I am sorry, but I am tired out, and will sit here until I am rested. When I am a little rested, I will follow."
We urged the poor fellow to make one more effort, offering to assist him, and telling him that when we reached the river the worst part of the journey would be over, and we should find plenty of game. Knowing that he was starving we tried to stimulate him with the hope of a good meal. It was of no use. He was even then too far gone. Poor King. He was about to cross that other river from whose bourne no traveler returns. Sadly we left him lying in the trail, "to rest," as he said, but "at rest" would more properly convey the idea of our feeling.
It required two hours to traverse that quarter of a mile. We suffered the greatest agony with our frozen feet. At last we arrived at the river about four o'clock in the afternoon, and setting fire to a large heap of driftwood hugged it close for warmth. We could not but think of King, and Kreutzfeldt volunteered to go back and help him into camp. Williams declared the exertion would be useless. He knew King was dead even before we reached the river. I asked him why and learned that while we were toiling through the snow he had looked back and seen a raven circling over the place where we had left our comrade. The circles had grown smaller and smaller, until the bird lit on the snow where King lay. This was a sign of death, which Williams declared he had never known to fail. Kreutzfeldt, however, was determined to go.
When he returned after some hours he reported that King was dead, and from the position of the body evidently had not moved after we left him. Kreutzfeldt now became very despondent. His mind seemed to dwell upon the poor fellow's death. When he had approached King he thought the latter was asleep, and was much startled to find his old companion dead. I could see that shock was affecting his mind. He could talk of nothing else.
That night I dreamed of mother's kitchen at Christmastime; of the roast meats and turkeys, the pumpkin pies and the cakes and fruit. Then I would awake to experience the terrible feeling of emptiness, the indescribable painful craving for food.
In the morning we broke camp and started down the river, not caring if we were alive by night. At this time I was the strongest of the party, so I went ahead and broke the trail. Toward night Kreutzfeldt played out entirely, and lying down, refused to go further. Before we had left the camp in the mountains we had agreed that if any of our party gave out, no time should be wasted on him. We were to push on and leave him to his fate.
But we concluded to wait for a short time and do what we could for our comrade. There was driftwood a few rods away which we set afire. Kreutzfeldt was dragged and rolled to a position near the fire.
Williams and I concluded that Kreutzfeldt would die before morning, and that we could do no good by staying. It was a very trying time. Williams being the older man, I was willing to do as he advised. His plan was for me to go on down the river, and in the course of time he would slip quietly away from Kreutzfeldt and follow.
I started on sorrowfully, so weak that I could walk but a few steps at a time without falling. Then I would crawl on my hands and knees until it was a relief to walk again. After going a short distance I went to the bank of the river, hoping I might see some kind of game. Putting some snow on my eyes to cool them, so that I could see, I raised my head cautiously above the bank and saw distinctly five deer but a few yards away, standing sideways to me.
I have been in many trying situations in my life, and in many places where death stared me in the face, but there was more excitement crowded into that moment than in all of the other years of my life put together. There they stood—what if they should run away. This was the supreme moment. Life or death rested on that shot. Usually I had plenty of nerve, but now, weakened by starvation and nearly blind, I had scarcely the strength to lift my rifle, when I did so I could not see through the sights on the barrel, I realized that if I missed that shot, Williams and Tom Breckenridge would never leave the Rio Grande Valley. Suddenly I thought of poor Kreutzfeldt, there in the snow, dying. I trembled like an aspen leaf. If I brought down one of the deer, his life would be saved. My nerves were steady on the instant. I would shoot and shoot to kill. I dashed more snow into my eyes, and pushing my rifle up over the bank, pointed it at the direction of the deer, and pulled the trigger. I was so weak from excitement that I could not walk, and I crawled out on the bank. To my inexpressible delight one deer was down. It proved to he a three-pronged buct. I was momentarily insane for joy. I cut the deer open, and tearing out its liver, devoured it as ravenously as I have seen hungry wolves devour the flesh of a buffalo. It was the sweetest morsel I ever ate.
With my knife I cut off a piece and started back stronger, a hundred times stronger, than when I crawled up the bank on my hands and knees. I had never lost hope, but now it was supreme within me. I was a new man. I could have danced for joy had it not been for my poor mutilated feet.
I hastened up the river where I had left Kreutzfeldt by the fire, carrying the venison with me. Williams was the happiest man I ever saw when his eyes fell on my burden. He came and took the meat in his long bony hands, and began tearing off great mouthfuls of the raw flesh like a savage animal. I hurried on to poor Kreutzfeldt. Poor fellow, there was but little life left. After a while he roused up and asked if he had not heard the report of a gun. I held the meat to his mouth. The change was instantaneous. It put new life into him. He seemed to be dazed. All at once it seemed to occur to him that we were saved. He sprang to his feet and hugged and kissed me, calling me his savior and preserver, and exhibiting more strength than one would expect in a man who had lain down to die. Moving our camp nearer the spot where the deer was killed, we built another fire. Kreutzfeldt was so elated over his meal of raw meat that he went out and brought in the carcass of the deer, a piece at a time, entrails and all. We felt that we might have use for everything.
That night we were three of the happiest men on earth. We sat up and cooked venison until midnight then turned in to our remnants of blankets. We cooked and ate deer meat all the next day. Strange to say, none of us were inconvenienced in the least from overeating.
While we were making ready to start the next morning, we saw a party of four coming on horseback from the river. On the instant all was excitement. It was natural for us to suppose they were Indians, and if so, it meant fight. To be sure we were outnumbered, but we felt strong now after our feasting, and just a bit inclined for a skirmish, and as we placed ourselves in positions that would give us the most advantages, Williams remarked that when the fight was over the Indians would have more hair or we would have more blankets.
We watched the party as it came slowly on. Suddenly Williams rose to his feet and shouted to the top of his lungs.
At the head of the party was Fremont himself. At first he did not recognize us, so changed and emaciated we were. Fremont's party had left the camp in the mountains with the intention of following the river, for they had confidence that we would eventually reach the settlement, His men were scattered along the river, suffering the terrible agonies of cold and hunger. Fremont had met a party of six Ute Indians who were trapping on the river. He sent their ponies and such provisions as they could spare, with one of their number as guide, back to the relief of his men now pushing on as fast as possible in search of further assistance,
Fremont remained just long enough to cook some venison, then pushed on, ordering us to follow as fast as we could, to the settlement which the Utes said was about forty miles down the stream, and leaving ten or fifteen pounds of jerked venison.
We immediately started on our journey) strong in the faith that we could get through—full of hope. Only forty miles! The distance was nothing—we felt strong.
But our frozen feet soon gave out. We were compelled to get down on our hands and knees. For nearly the entire distance we crawled through ice or snow. Before half the distance was covered our remnants of blankets had been used to wrap our frozen limbs. Our suffering was almost beyond description. Those who have been affected by snow blindness can appreciate our position. Our feet had been so frozen and thawed that the flesh had come off. It was a painful operation to dress those horrible sores. We were obliged to use day after day the same old pieces of woolen blankets covered with deer's tallow. Truly, that last forty miles was a trail of blood. It required ten days to reach the settlement—ten days of most excruciating pain. Looking back, after so many years, I cannot understand how we lived through it.
We finally reached the settlement, about ten o'clock at night. The people had been expecting us, as Fremont and his party had stopped there and informed them we were on the way. The settlement was located in a small valley, and called the "Red River Settlement." We were received very kindly by the Mexicans who did everything to alleviate our distress. The Alcalde's wife a Mexican woman, attended to our frozen limbs, bathing them several times a day in juniper tea. During the next three weeks the survivors of Colonel Fremont's party were brought in, many of them in a critical condition. When we first reached the Rio Grande there had been thirty-two of us — eleven had died from exposure and starvation.
I have been in the mountains many winters, but never experienced a storm that equaled in severity that of 1848.
20,000+ more pages of Texas history, written by those who lived it! Searchable flash drive or DVD here
Get 352 issues packed with stories like the one you just read