SAN LUIS VALLEY — When you were sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner in 2014, 166 years ago on Nov. 27, 1848, a party of men and animals with hundreds of pounds of supplies were struggling through brush and rocks as they descended Williams Creek to arrive at the Gardner Butte in Huerfano County. From there, one noted the sight of the “little Spanish Peaks”, or what we know as the Sheep Mountains. This was the fourth expedition of John Charles Fremont. On his first three trips searching for an all-weather route for a transcontinental railroad through the Rocky Mountains, he had traveled the northern route twice, and up the Huerfano once, on trips financed by the government. This time, as a former Army topographical engineer, he was a civilian, and bankrolled by his famous father-in-law, Thomas Hart Benton, a powerful senator from Missouri. Fremont’s companions included a physician, surveyor, biologist, cartographer, artists, hunters, packers and adventurers. Among them were several who kept journals. The group had successfully crossed the plains without assistance, but facing the trek through the mountains, Fremont had camped near Fort Pueblo on the Arkansas River to find and hire a guide, hopefully Kit Carson. One found him instead. William Sherley Williams, best known
as Old Bill, rode into camp and offered his services. Fremont and Williams were acquainted because Old Bill had guided an earlier Fremont expedition most of the way to California, though he’d refused to enter the Sierras because of snow. Old Bill was said to know the mountains better than anyone. He had lived with several tribes of Indians, spoke many languages, and was extremely independent. His solo forays into the mountains were well known, as was his unreliability. He owed money to many, especially a tribe of Utes he had swindled, so was leery of running into after he had traded their furs and hides for several gallons of whiskey, which he proceeded to polish off by himself. Fremont stopped at the community of Hardscrabble and purchased 130 bushels of shelled corn for his animals, which totaled about 100 when he headed into the wilderness. This was packed onto the mules along with the other goods, including tents, ropes, harness, snowshoes, candles, soap, skillets, kettles and eating utensils, medicines, trade goods, gunpowder, rifles, knives, hatchets, horseshoe iron and blacksmith tools, picket stakes, bedrolls, winter clothing and food. Also packed were special items belonging to the individuals including a sextant, sketchbooks, presses for preserving biologic specimens, telescopes, barometers and other equipment. The physician even brought the latest in instruments to perform amputations. In other words, they were not traveling light. They had just expended five days and considerable energy to make the usual two-day trip from the Arkansas River to the Huerfano. Now they ascended the latter and crossed Mosca Pass into the Sand Dunes. There the snow was extremely deep, and the temperatures well below freezing. They thrashed their way north and west into the mountains near today’s Saguache, through blowing snow estimated to be as deep as 18 feet. Men were exhausted and frost bitten, mules were dying, and baggage lay in their wake. Dec. 16 was described as the most difficult day of their journey so far. On Dec. 17 they found a sheltered spot somewhere in the vicinity of Wannamaker Creek, and they relaxed in the thought of reaching the Continental Divide and starting downhill. They established a camp in nearly five feet of snow and rested. Several of the men pressed on to find a route, but returned after seeing nothing but mountain after mountain in the distance. They were far from their goal. Then things got worse. A blizzard accompanied by extreme low temperatures left the mules screaming in distress, and in just three days, more than half died. The remaining animals were driven to a spot where some one had spied grass growing through the snow, only to find that grass was actually treetops. The mules were crazy with cold, exhaustion, and dehydration. They died where they stood. The men called this place Camp Dismal. They began eating mule meat. They laboriously built fires from what trees they could find and cut, and the stumps left were later found to be eight or 10 feet above the ground. Several parties had gone out to explore, to find better shelter or a path out, but now the entire group was spread through the mountains. On Dec. 22, most were regrouped and settled into a new camp at timberline, just three miles from Camp Dismal. The new site was called Camp Hope, then Christmas Camp after they spent the holiday there. A small party was sent south to find food and rescue. They were bound for the settlements of northern New Mexico, as much as 100 miles away. The others stayed in the snow. Their Christmas banquet consisted of elk stew, minced mule-meat pies, rice, biscuits, coffee and alcohol – a special treat for the day. The men slowly made their way downhill and again were split into different camps at varying altitudes. They were soon reduced to eating rawhide from the mule equipment because the mule corpses had been left behind. By Jan. 11 some of the men had reached the Conejos valley floor. Above them, the first victim of the horrendous situation had died two days before. On Jan. 16, the rest of the survivors joined them. Food was impossible to find: even the rawhide supply had run out. They slowly worked their way eastward. On Jan. 25, after Fremont and a few others had gone ahead to find relief, a hunter who had left several days before, returned, bringing meat and cornmeal from Arroyo Hondo to the south. By this time, 10 men had died. With food and the assistance from Utes and New Mexicans, the remaining men made it to Taos and safety on Feb. 12. Fremont had already arrived, and was ready to continue his own way to California. This particular horror was not over, however. Not long after their arrival in Taos, Old Bill, with artist Ben Kern and some volunteers from the community, returned to the mountains to retrieve the equipment. There, in March, Williams and Kern were killed by Utes, possibly the same ones Old Bill had so dreaded meeting. So, there were 12 dead, of 33. This expedition of Fremont’s has caused quite a bit of controversy. Was Old Bill, at 61, too senile to follow the usual trail through Cochetopa Pass? Was he trying to sabotage the trip to obtain the expensive equipment to sell? Was he avoiding the usual trail because of his nemesis, the Utes? Was he simply lost? And the big question – Did the men stay alive by eating their fellow travelers? Possibly the one known fact of the circumstances was the weather conditions. This was said, then and now, to be the worse winter ever experienced in the San Luis Valley. Fremont went on to serve as governor of California and ran for president as a Republican in 1850, his reputation intact. Old Bill’s was another story.