One good thing about events in human history is that they actually happened, for better or worse. Historians, and 'eye witnesses,' tell the stories of events from their perspectives. However, these written or verbal accounts do not guarantee accuracy of what happened, but do give an overall timeline and an approximately true account of ill-fated adventures. Such is the case of John C. Fremont's 4th expedition, as it is known, to locate a railroad route from St. Louis to San Francisco in the winter of 1848-1849 on the 38th Parallel, which happens to be, straight through the San Juan Mountains!
RIO FRIO ICE FEST 1st ANNUAL FREMONT HAUNT - Prior to the start of the 2016 Fremont Haunt, a reenactment of Fremont's disaster and ultimate rescue of the living, Jack, the Fort Garland historian, recounted the story that Fremont, with 36 men and 120 mules, went against the suggestions of several trappers and guides, including Kit Carson. Fremont was told, matter of fact, that it was not a good idea to attempt crossing the San Juan Mountains in the winter. But, he took his expeditionary crew and went anyway. As deep winter closed in around Fremont's expedition in late December 1848 into January 1849, they went from campsite to campsite and ultimately, survival became the mission. Abandoning an attempt at finding a railroad route in late January, they decided to make their way down the Rio Grande toward the known settlement of Taos in the New Mexico territory. Their mules died of exposure, apparently 100 of them died in one night. Winter was the conquering winner and the men were on foot. Long walk of well over 100 miles!
According to Jack, the men had to eat mule meat, and finally eat the leather of shoes and leather clothing (leather does have nutrition as animal hide), as well as their candles which were made from beef tallow (fat). An unpleasant journey for all involved. Jack showed us how the men used their two most important tools of the day, their fire starter kit and their knife.
These guaranteed survival even more so than a rifle or pistol. Jack started a fire using his fire kit consisting of a flint and steel to make sparks to ignite char cloth. Jack's back up fire kit was a glass lens to concentrate the rays of the sun and a tinder fungus that grows on birch trees. Though related to aspen trees, so abundant in Colorado, aspens have no fire starting fungus that lives on them and tinder fungus was imported from the East. So good was this tinder fungus for starting fires that it was used as a trade product as if it were money.
LESSON # 1. "Learn from other's mistakes, because life is too short to make them all yourself." (Various author versions)
Fremont had ties to California on earlier expeditions and he surely had to have known about the tragedy from two winters before, the Donner Party having been stuck in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1846-47. History says that Fremont had many talents, good judgement sometimes, not being one of them. And why did his stubbornness overrule the wisdom of experienced mountain men? Determination is a good quality but can lead to bad decisions which can lead to disaster. Fremont, that year, skipped lesson # 1.
A FEW NOTES ON TIME and why a reenactment? - Just how long ago was 1849? “Duh!” you say, 167 years. But think of events in history, perhaps a historic lightning bolt in less than a hundredth of a second, a 5 minute earthquake, a twenty minute tornado disaster, a two day battle, a 4 day hurricane, a long winter. As we age, time seems compressed somehow and goes faster. One theory is that each day becomes a smaller increment in our lives and we only perceive it to go faster. And for events that create significant emotional reactions within humans, these disasters are in our memory as if they happened yesterday.
In 1849, my great great grandfather was a six year old Iowa farm boy. Little did he know that 13 years later he would volunteer in the 30th Iowa infantry during the Civil War, in which Fremont also served. I remember my grandmother telling me about her grandfather so I have firsthand information from her as well as his diary. But now that I am older, the Civil War seems much closer in time to me than when I was reading his diary as a teenager. Talking to my grandmother who had first hand stories compresses time for me and really closes the gap on just how recent the Civil War in history is... And, thusly, Fremont's failed mission thirteen years earlier.
One website I found provides information such that you can follow Fremont's expedition by their campsites to this day. The snow was so deep, to cut down trees for firewood, they cut them fairly high off the ground. These remnant high stumps can be found at various campsites that Fremont used during his expedition. Visit those stumps and think about the men who cut\ them down, not long ago...
Why reenact historical events? Civil war battles are the most common reenactments we have in this country. The re-enactors do it for their love of history, had relatives in the war between the states and were trying to understand how a particular battle or event unfolded and achieve in part, the emotions of those people in the battles. (Think - why do we make disaster movies based on real events?) Spectators will generally say that they hope to learn a little bit more about history and feel some of that emotional experience.
Rules for the Fremont Haunt - Teams of 7. One rescuer starts by the pedestrian bridge at Cole Park, has two rescue animals of their team's choice and when the starter says go - runs up river toward 6 teammates - 4 of whom are alive and they must haul two 'dead' teammates. The course is about a quarter mile.
I was able to interview the Adams State Girls Soccer team, who, to follow the rules of having two rescue animals, chose two dogs from the local shelter. I asked if they knew what they were reenacting. One answer - "Well, yeah, isn't that the point?"
"Yes," I replied. "Do you know what Fremont was looking for on his expedition?" They were not sure exactly. "How about time frame in history?" I asked. One said 1800s so I asked when and they guessed in fun until they narrowed it down. In fairness, I had only learned about it a few days earlier which is the magic of website learning. So I filled them in a bit on what I knew but they learned a lot more, as did I, from historian Jack's speech and demonstration. For me the event they were reenacting is recent history, to them at 20, ancient history. Back to that time compression!
Four teams participated - squared off and did a head to head with another team and the top two teams went for 1st and 2nd and two other teams for 3rd and 4th. I ran alongside the rescuers as they went to meet their team and distribute the rescue food which were packages of graham crackers. This became the hardest part of the rescue. The teams were not finished until the crackers were gone. I eavesdropped on the teams discussing and munching. "Wow, these suckers are dry!" one teammate said, while she was seeing how their competition was doing beside them. From that group, "Here, have some water to wash it down." Back to first group. "Hey, they brought water, are they allowed to do that? Is that cheating?"
Fun was had by all. It was a beautiful day on the river. I am sure when Fremont's men were able to eat a bit of rescue food, they too, looked around at the beauty of the San Luis
Valley in awe of the natural surroundings. Fremont Haunt # 2 - last week of January in 2017.
Lesson # 2 - If you plan on entering a team next year (for a good cause) plan on bringing water bottles for your team members to wash down those graham crackers, because, according to history, when trying to eat graham crackers really fast, "those suckers are really dry!"
Further reading - gorp.com - Rio Grande National Forest - Orienteering - will provide info for following Fremont's campsites. Web search for anything on John C. Fremont's 4th expedition. Lots of good historical information.