Dennis Cassinelli: Fremont’s first New Year’s Eve in Nevada, 1843
It has been more than 60 years since I took my first hunting trip into the vast desert country of northwestern Nevada. This is the area of northern Washoe County that includes the Black Rock Desert, Soldier Meadows and the dry expanse of Massacre Lake. A few miles closer to the California border lies the slender marsh called New Year Lake. For thousands of years, this region had been inhabited only by hunting and gathering Indian tribes. Then in December 1843, the expedition of John C. Fremont arrived, searching for the legendary Buenaventura River and Mary’s Lake.
It was a discouraged little band of explorers on New Year’s Eve 1843 that wished each other “luck.” For days, Fremont’s band of half-frozen men had been sure it was nearing Mary’s Lake. Now, it was wading in the snow and salt grass of Soldier Meadows, and Mary’s Lake was still unfound. To make matters worse, the hoofs of the animals were so worn and cut by rocks, many of them could barely stagger along.
Five nights before, Kit Carson’s horse had been stolen by the Indians. The next day, the party had surprised an Indian family in wickiups, captured the squaw and questioned her. She was so terrified by her first glimpse of white men, she closed her eyes to ward off the sight and screamed. She eventually calmed down and spoke in a Snake dialect, but had little news or information to give them.
This day, the band had wandered down the magnificent gorges of High Rock Canyon, a “strip of grass underfoot with a strip of sky above,” almost a crack in the towering cliffs above. Spirits soared. High Rock Canyon was running full, and the lush grass, willow groves and slope of the land made them confident the canyon would lead them Mary’s Lake. The steep walls echoed their shouts and calls.
Suddenly, the colorful canyon ended, flaring out into a small valley, floored by an alkali lake (High Rock Lake) and rimmed with tall sagebrush. Fremont realized there was no Mary’s Lake and sent scouts out to explore Little High Rock Canyon to the right. Finally, a scout reported an ancient Indian trail over the brow of the hills and told of a deep pothole filled with sweet water in the sandstone. After watering the animals the disappointed band of men and continued slowly on through the sage covered hills and down a steep slope to Soldier Meadows.
In the chilly late afternoon, they reached the bottom of the valley at a junction of small streams. The streams were tightly frozen and had to be cut to water the stock. Here would be a cold camp for the first New Year’s Eve in what would become Nevada. Captain Fremont logged another wasted day in the search for Mary’s Lake and the Buenaventura River, both of which were now obviously just a myth.
By now, Fremont was beginning to realize why this great area had been so studiously avoided by the Spaniards, Mexicans, mountain men and others. These vast desert valleys and barren wastes seemed to fill him with uneasiness and foreboding. He noted that “The country was singularly unfavorable to travel.” His notes seemed more concerned with survival. New Year’s Eve was but a sample of what was yet to come. Later on, the expedition did discover other treasures, including Pyramid Lake, the Truckee River and Lake Tahoe. On his approach to Pyramid Lake, they passed by a forest of fallen trees that were petrified.
These explorers were the pathfinders for this part of the American West, despite the discouragement they felt on New Year’s Eve of 1843.
This article is by Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli, who can be contacted on his blog at denniscassinelli.com. All Cassinelli’s books sold through this publication will be at a discount plus $3 for each shipment for postage and packaging.