Oregon Trails: Fremont Expeditions

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KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — 170 years ago this year, one of the most famous American explorers left his mark on Southern Oregon and Northern California, and now an exhibit of artifacts found in lake county a decade ago is on display to mark the anniversary of that exploration party’s sojourn in our area.

A display case at the Klamath County Museum is showing what may be one of the most unlikely historic exhibits in Klamath Falls in many years. It’s a collection of late 18th and early 19th century coins believed to have been left behind by members of one of John C. Fremont’s expeditions through Oregon and California.

“They came to us from the Fremont-Winema National Forests, and they are an important artifact for this area because they represent Fremont’s expeditions through this area,” said Niles Reynolds, with the Klamath County Museum.

This is the first time they’ve all been on public exhibit. And that may be timely, because this is the 170th anniversary of Fremont’s first expedition through the basin. This marker on Highway 140, between mileposts 51 and 52, marks the place where Fremont’s 1843 expedition was attacked by Indians and a member of the group killed. Members of his expedition sought revenge by wiping out a Klamath village near this place across the lake, near present day Chiloquin.

“He’s referred to as the ‘Great Pathfinder,’” said Reynolds, “And he was really exploring the area, and laying down tracks for other people to come in.”

From his journal in 1843, he entered the Klamath Country, then it was called “Tlamath” with a “T”, instead of a “K”.

He recorded: “December 10th…the country began to improve; and about 11 0’clock we reached a spring of cold water on the edge of a savannah, or grassy meadow, which our guides informed us was an arm of the “Tlamath” lake; and a few miles further we entered upon an extensive meadow, or lake of grass, surrounded by timbered mountains. This was the Tlamath Lake.”

After his experience with the natives, he had words of caution for future settlers.

“…near to Indians noted for their treachery, it will naturally, in the progress of the settlement of Oregon become a point for military occupations and settlement.”

After leaving the Basin, Fremont headed east, making other discoveries along the way.

“December 16th… At our feet, more than a thousand feet below–we looked into a green prairie country, in which a beautiful lake, some 20 miles in length, was spread along the foot of the mountains, it’s shores bordered with green grass… We exclaimed at once that the names of Summer Lake and Winter Ridge should be applied to these to proximate places of such sudden and violent contrast.”

Today, that view point is still known as Fremont Point.

A little over a week later, Christmas Day, they discovered another landmark lake, Christmas Lake, as well as Abert Lake and later, Pyramid Lake in northern Nevada.

In 1846 and ‘47, during the chaos of California gaining its independence from Mexico, Fremont found himself seeking refuge back in the basin, actually settling for a while where Klamath Falls is now.

“The things that he was able to establish in his journals, uh, and his explorations were incredibly valuable to the people, especially during the Gold Rush, when you just saw that massive settlement coming in,” said Niles Reynolds

Maps like this one guided gold seekers to California, Mormons to Utah, and settlers to Oregon for the next 20 years, and helped map the routes for railroads across the country.

The exhibit of artifacts from the Fremont expedition at the Klamath county museum is an unusual opportunity to see some tangible evidence of one of the great explorers of the old West. The explorations of John Fremont helped open the door for a lot of the later settlement from the Oregon Trail to the California gold rush.

The Fremont Coin exhibit at the Klamath County Museum is open until September, when it will be moved to Carson City, Nevada to join other artifacts in a big exhibit honoring the famous explorer. The Klamath County Museum is open daily from Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.