The Merced River

Flowing down from beautiful Yosemite Valley the Merced River skirts by the Rancho las Mariposas, a former Mexican land grant once owned by the famous explorer and leader of the California Battalion in the War with Mexico, John C. Fremont. 44,386 acres of land once thought to be the richest body of land belonging to a single person in the world, and Fremont, for whom Thomas Larkin had bought the property from ex-governor Juan Batista Alvarado for $3,000, was at first extremely unhappy with it’s location.

Yosemite Valley by Albert Bierstadt

John C. Fremont by Bass Otis

Deep in a wilderness bounded by the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and the San Joaquin, Chowchilla and Merced Rivers, it was occupied by unfriendly Indians and lay over a hundred miles from the nearest settlement. But after Fremont learned of the discovery of gold at Coloma he changed his mind when gold was also found in the region of the Rancho las Mariposas, but he was powerless to stop the thousands of miners who flooded in.



  1. Fremont is one of the most interesting historical figures in Western history, and one of the great risk-takers, too. Unfortunately, some of his risks turned out to be losing propositions to him, though not to history. Wish I knew more about him! One of these days ….

    Very interesting post, John! Makes me want to learn more!

    • I agree, Carol, Fremont is a hard man to pin down, he runs hot and cold. He was married to the daughter of a powerful senator and that gave him some influence, but not enough. His journals of the early expeditions with Kit Carson became a trusted handbook for those on the trail west but mostly because his wife, an excellent writer, significantly reworked them. He insisted that he should be military governor of California when officers that far outranked him said differently. Even a schoolboy knows you say “Yes sir” to a general and shut up. He was court marshaled and convicted. Because of his father-in-law he was allowed to resign from the army. And after that he still became the first republican to run for president. There were more strange things, including rumors of murder. Perhaps Fremont had a mental condition; he could have been bi-polar or something like that.

  2. Fascinating. Fremont is most interesting. Of course we have our ‘crazy’ Chivington. He actually once owned part of the area that became known as Manitou Springs. When the town grew, he tried to get it back…not the most popular person in history with the Indians or the owners of the town.

    • Fremont, with a lot of help from his wife, wrote the guide books that almost everyone who headed west in 1849 carried. She cleaned up his journals and made them presentable and he was called “The Great Pathfinder” for them. But then he was court marshaled for failing to obey a superior officer and resigned from the army, lost the Rancho de los Mariposas to squatters, made very poor decisions on his last expedition and got a lot of men killed. He was also the first republican presidential candidate in the election before Lincoln. I’d say Fremont is pretty interesting too.
      I only know a little about Chivington. He led the Sand Creek Massacre I believe.

  3. I am currently about 280 pages into Passion and Principle, by Sally Denton, a recent history of the Fremonts that is well enough written to rival the fiction of Isabel Allende in novels such as Daughter of Fortune. And this is real stuff, a colossal look at the whole enterprise of manifest destiny that began with Fremont’s first surveying expedition.

    Several years ago, I read Bear Flag Rising, by Dale Walker, also excellent, from which perspective together with this one, a reader might get some sense of just how controversial a figure Fremont was. Denton’s take on Fremont when he was under Stockton is kinder than that of Walker, and perhaps given recent scholarship, hers might be the more accurate. She certainly makes it clear that Polk had all but set up Fremont as pawn and fall guy, while super baddy Kearny finished the job that railroaded Fremont into a court martial that Jessie Fremont at the end of her life compared to the Dreyfuss affair.

    Strong reading. I was born in Berkeley in 1940, was in Troop 4 of the Boy Scouts, whose enterprising scoutmaster rejected the paramilitary Wolfboro as summer camp in favor of an isolated one of his own choosing. That choice
    was on the small beach and rise on the western side of the old Spicer’s Reservoir, that domain now drowned. So, short on any deep knowledge of the area’s history, I spent several summers hiking and camping in the middle of it.

    We now live above Glen Ellen, where I am a volunteer with Jack London State Park. In retirement, I have had a chance to fill in the gaps about the whole history of this area, of course an enormous cross section of the story. Silverado Squatters, by Robert Louis Stevenson, was one of my references in learning more about the area where we now live, our home on Bennett Ridge near the southern end of Annadel State Park.

    Anyhow, this afternoon I decided to take a look at the Las Mariposas land grant, to discover exactly where it was, what Mt. Bullion looked like, etc. It was poking around in that search that I saw your name come up, which of course was an added curiosity to me. Are you also descended from “Old Put?” I wonder if Joe Putnam is, and sometimes I wonder who isn’t.

    Anyhow, since Sally Denton’s book is a new addition to our historical literature, I thought I would mention it on the chance that you might not yet be familiar with it. It sat on my book shelf for two years before I decided that despite its title, it was real history, not hagiography. I have from it a very much enlarged picture of U.S. history in the period covered by the political life of Thomas Hart Benton. I have also come to the discovery that Fremont, whatever his faults, was an altogether extraordinary man, and witness to that seems to stand the unanimous opinion of all the tough men who accompanied him on his expeditions, especially so the disastrous, privately funded fourth. I look forward to reading your two bits, see what I can see from that angle.

    • I’m not too closely related to the man who owned the old Put mine, but I do appreciate your interest in Fremont. His wife rewrote his journal and made them presentable to the public but Fremont himself seems a troubled man. He was court martialed for refusing to obey an order after what could have been seen as a heroic effort to help win the war in California, his next mission was seriously flawed and many died. He wound up almost destitute, a troubled man.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.