The winds were savage, the cold penetrating just below the timberline near La Garita Mountains in Colorado. John C. Fremont looked at his camp where 34 men faced starvation. Their mules had frozen to death, all 120 of them. The expedition had tried to cross a 12,000 foot pass without success. The men struggled to the southeast side of the pass, but their provisions were gone.
This trip was meant to find a railroad route from St. Louis to California. The funding for the expedition came not from the Army, but from his father-in-law, Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton.
Fremont was no stranger to the terrain. By 1848, he'd crossed North America three times as leader of the Army's Corps of Topographical Engineers and earned the nickname "Pathfinder" in the process.
Now with the grim specter of death by starvation waiting patiently, he gathered four men, led by Henry King, 25, and sent them south towards New Mexico, instructing them to find help at the first settlement they came across.
Two weeks crawled by and no help arrived. The January snows and frigid temperatures made life unbearable and already ten men died.
Fremont decided to set out with a second party and hope the first group would send assistance back, but on January 17, 1849, those hopes were dashed. They found the original rescue party towards the south of the San Luis Valley. The men "were wild and emaciated" and only three of them were left.
Fremont asked where Henry King was at, and the men pointed to a place "a little way off". According to a book written by Fremont's father-in-law, "There he found the man dead and horribly devoured. He had died of exhaustion, fatigue, and his comrades had fed upon him." This was 25 years before Packer ate of his party.
Fremont took the remaining three men and continued towards New Mexico.
They crossed paths with a Ute warrior who recognized Fremont from an earlier expedition. He invited the men to his camp and there they were given food and horses.
They reached Taos, and Fremont sought out his friend Kit Carson. They asked U.S. Army officials to send men, horses and provisions back to his men still stranded in the San Juan Mountains.
Only 22 were left alive, the rest were found "dead upon the road, scattered at intervals as each had sunk exhausted and frozen" near campfires where they waited for death. The survivors were sent to Taos where they found Fremont organizing a new expedition.
The idea of finding a route through the Rocky Mountains at the 38th parallel was forgotten.
Many asked why the expedition was lost despite Fremont's experience. In a letter dated January 27, 1849, which Fremont sent to his wife Jessie he blamed the guide Bill Williams He'd hired the man at Bent's Fort because Kit Carson who guided his earlier expeditions was sick. According to Fremont, Williams seemed ignorant of the whole region they were passing through.
Others though placed the blamed at Fremont's door as well, saying he failed to take into consideration the warning given by the Indians and white traders that the snow was too deep, and crossing the mountains was impossible. Letters written by Fremont himself, told of the warnings he refused to heed.
It seemed the party had missed the trail to the well-known Cochetopa Pass, but it would have been easy to do so if blinded by a blizzard as the party had been. Instead they wound up at a much higher elevation.
As to the cannibalism, Fremont never mentioned it any letters, however he must have talked about it to his father-in-law who included it his book. He did mention to men in another transcontinental expedition in 1853-54 through the same area; he made the men swear they would never eat each other even if they faced starvation. Members of that expedition wrote about the conversation.
Fremont went on to become a senator representing California. In 1856, he ran against James Buchanan in a presidential race.
During the Civil War, President Lincoln fired him as the general in charge of western territories because he repeatedly ignored the President's orders.
Fremont died in 1890, when he was 77. His life was marked by success, but losing a third of his men who resorted to cannibalism was something he wished the history books would forget.
The following article described the discovery of remains thought to be the Fremont party:
Between the Opal Fork of the Rio Grande and the Saguache, on the high mountain west of the San Louis Park, a party of gentlemen found the bleached and decaying skeletons of six men stretched out on the ground as if they had been undisturbed since death claimed them for his own. There were besides the skeletons of no less than 46 horses lying in the same locality. On examination of the spot they found not less than a hundred trees that had been cut down at a distance of eight or ten feet from the ground. The practiced eyes of a frontiersman could easily discern that the felling of the trees had been accomplished by white men.
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by Marlene Pardo Pellicer