History of American Exploration from 1842 to 1865

About the history of American exploration from 1842 to 1865 including explorations of Sir John Franklin and John Charles Fremont.


1842-1845 Having forgiven his handsome son-in-law John Charles Fremont (1813-1890) for eloping with his daughter, Sen. Thomas Hart Benton chose him to lead an expedition to explore Oregon and other Pacific regions in 1842. Fremont found no new territory, but he planted a flag on the highest peak, later named Fremont Peak, in what is now Wyoming. In his next expedition, which began in 1843, Fremont searched for the legendary Buenaventura River, which geographers had fabricated just because it seemed logical that a river should link the Pacific and Great Salt Lake. In January and February of 1844 his party crossed the Sierra Nevada, where the men's feet froze, and some were snow-blinded, and one went crazy before they were finally able to descend into the "perpetual spring" of the Sacramento Valley. Fremont's report on the trip was valuable in that it scotched the myth of the Great American Desert and made a true assessment of the fertility of the Great Plains. On his third trip Fremont opened up a new route from the Great Salt Lake to northern California and participated in the Bear Flag revolt against the Mexican government. Called the "Pathfinder," he was a romantic figure who captured the imagination of Americans. In 1856 he ran unsuccessfully for president as the Republican party's first candidate.

1845-1859 At the age of 59, rotund Sir John Franklin (1786-1847) was chosen by the British government to take a stab at navigating the Northwest Passage in the Erebus and the Terror, two propeller-driven steamers which could also travel under sail. He and his crew of 129 men disappeared after being sighted in Baffin Bay by a whaler in July, 1845. More than 40 rescue attempts, which included sending out polar foxes with metal message boxes attached to their collars and loosing labeled balloons, failed to turn up any trace of the lost expedition, in spite of the Admiralty's offer of pound100,000 reward for its rescue. In searching for Franklin, explorers John Richardson and John Rae explored more than 10,000 mi. of Canadian coastline. In 1859, on King William Island, Francis McClintock, sent on a rescue mission by Lady Franklin, came upon the skeletons of the men and a report of what had happened. Franklin had died in June, 1847. In 1848 the 105 men who had survived two winters decided to abandon ship and head south, where, according to Eskimos they had resorted to cannibaling the dead before the end finally came for them all.

1848-1865 Amateur butterfly collector Henry Walter Bates (1825-1892) and naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), both self-educated young men from Britain's working class, financed a trip to South America in 1848 with money Wallace had earned as a railroad surveyor. On board ship en route to Brazil, they met botanist Richard Spruce (1817-1893), who decided to join them, as did Wallace's brother Herbert later. Separately and together, they explored the region near Para (now Belem) at the mouth of the Amazon, the upper Amazon Basin, and Rio Negro, collecting specimens and observing wildlife. In 1852, shortly after Herbert died of yellow fever, Alfred Wallace decided to go home. Three weeks from port his ship caught fire, and he watched helplessly from a dinghy as all his specimens burned, including his live birds and monkeys, the last of which clung to the bowsprit before dying in the flames. Wallace's trip was instrumental in his development of the theory of natural selection, which he postulated concurrently with Charles Darwin.

Bates stayed on until 1859, exploring the Tapajos and Solimoes river basins, garnering understanding of mimicry in insects (edible species come to resemble nasty-tasting ones in a miracle of self-protection), and gathering a collection of 14,712 species of animals, 8,000 of them new to science. His book, The Naturalist on the Amazon, made him famous.

Spruce stayed on until 1865 and went home with 30,000 plant specimens, many previously unknown to science, but he could not get his material published and died in obscurity. He had written, "There . . . grasses are bamboo 60 or more feet high . . . . Violets are the size of apple trees."

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