In the mid 1800s, John Charles Frémont—a lieutenant in the Army Topographical Corps—was commissioned by the U. S. government to explore and map the Pacific Northwest in order to guide pioneers into the unknown West. In his second overland expedition of 1843-44, Frémont handpicked twenty seven men—mountain men, trappers, surveyors and cartographers—to accompany him; among them was famous explorer, Kit Carson. Equipped with sixty-seven horses and mules, and a bronze mountain howitzer (a wheeled cannon), Frémont and his crew explored and mapped the Oregon Trail between Missouri and Fort Vancouver.
At the start of his trip back towards Missouri, Frémont—low on provisions and fearing death from cold and starvation—made a risky decision to turn west and cross the Sierra Nevada to Sutter's Fort in California. It was the middle of winter; the mountains were covered by a deep snow, and Frémont had severely underestimated the challenge that bestowed him. Washoe Indians tried to warn the crew that crossing the Sierra during winter would be impossible. They described, “Rock upon rock; snow, upon snow.”
Not heeding their warnings, Frémont and his men headed west, passing through northern Mono County the last week of January of 1844. While at Long Camp near present-day Carson Pass—the most noted camp from the expedition—Frémont’s surveyor and cartographer Charles Preuss complained about the conditions: "We are now completely snowed in. The snowstorm is on top of us. The wind obliterates all tracks which, with incredible effort, we make for our horses. The horses are about twenty miles behind and are expected to arrive tonight, or rather, they are now no longer expected. How could they get through? At the moment no one can tell what will really happen. It is certain we shall have to eat horse meat."
Despite all odds, Frémont successfully reached Sutter’s Fort in March of 1844, where they stayed and rested for a month. Choosing a much safer route, the crew headed south through the San Joaquin Valley, then easterly along the Old Spanish Trail to pass into Utah.
A plaque was dedicated to this expedition in 1977 and is located at Devil's Gate Summit on Highway 395 (between Sonora Junction and Bridgeport), on the right when traveling south. The actual site where Frémont passed through Mono County is located at Big Bend-Mountain Gate area, Toiyabe National Forest, Bridgeport.
The plaque commemorates the area in Mono County where, on January 27, 1844, Fremont's expedition passed through. His team was headed to cross the Sierra's west of this point . Due to the harsh weather conditions, his party did not cross over the Sierra's at this point; they headed north along the eastern slopes of the Sierra's until they reached present-day Carson Pass on February 20th, 1844: "On a pine tree in this pass Kit Carson's name was cut, with the year 1844. At Carson Pass the expedition again leaves the Great Basin, crossing the Sierra Nevada summit to the Pacific Slope" (James O. Serugham, The Narrative of the Conquest of a Frontier Land, Vol. 1. 1935).
Learn more about the 1843-44 Frémont Expedition through the Sierra at the Kit Carson Marker nomination.
Mono County is a rugged—yet beautifully scenic—region of high desert and Sierra peaks that holds dearly a colorful mining history from the days of the California Gold Rush. It is said to have received its name from the term “Monache,” which was applied to the Native Americans inhabiting the region prior to settlement. Mono County was formed in 1861 from parts of Calaveras and Fresno county territory; however, its eastern boundary remained undetermined for several years. When lines were finally drawn in 1863, Mono County’s first county seat—Aurora—ended up in Nevada. Bridgeport became the new county seat, and remains in that position today. Home to historically important Gold Rush towns such as Bodie and Dog Town, remnants of pioneer mining activities can still be seen today.