I mentioned in “The Gasconade and the Cuivre” that a river called the Rio Buenaventura appeared on early 19th century maps as an actual river flowing from the Great Salt Lake to the Pacific Ocean near San Francisco Bay. The trouble is that it never existed in an era when explorers were determined to find a navigable river flowing from the central United States to the Pacific Ocean.
John Charles Fremont led expeditions in the area where the Rio Buenaventura would be if it existed between 1842 and 1845. Fremont was a military man, explorer, and politician. A Senator from California, he became the 1st Republican nominee for President. The Civil War began 4 years later, and Abraham Lincoln became the 1st Republican President. Fremont and Kit Carson followed the Oregon Trail together in 1842 and became friends. Fremont made it all the way to the Columbia River in what is now Oregon. Both men contributed much to our knowledge of the West. Fremont also befriended many rough mountain men and sought adventures like the expeditions that he led. One of Fremont’s goals became to find the best way for settlers heading west to follow to reach the coast. This goal was a reason for his expeditions as was a desire to see the Rio Buenaventura and report where it flows.
Fremont headed for California and discovered that the Rio Buenaventura does not exist. It was a hoped for myth. He recognized the fact that the Columbia is the only major river that flows west to the Pacific Ocean and participated in creating a map in 1845 that proved to be a genuine guide for Oregon Trail followers and other wester travelers. He crossed the Mojave Desert, a major feat of endurance.
Fremont was truly one of the major explorers of the American West. He traveled through a lot of land that mountain men never saw. In some ways he was as important as Lewis and Clark, and he approached exploring as they had. He studied plants and added to geologic knowledge. He wanted to see the land for himself and did. Fremont was an unheralded man of vision who earned and deserves a higher place in American history.