Series (History): Conquering California

Conquering California, Part 5 of 17: Fremont’s Return


This is Part 5 of a 17-part series. If you’ve already forgotten what happened in the last part, you can follow this link, and get yourself up-to-date.

To start at the beginning, follow this link.


Drive-by Massacres


He may have fumed about it, but he did as he was told by U.S. Consul Larkin. Fremont headed north for Oregon. But that was a long journey by horseback, and lots of things can happen on long journeys.

On March 30, 1846, his expedition reached the Lassen Ranch, in the upper Sacramento Valley. There, some American immigrants claimed that an encampment of Indians was preparing to attack white settlers.

This news offered just the kind of action Fremont and his men had been craving. They eagerly searched for the encampment. And on April 5, they encountered a large gathering of the Wintu tribe, near the current-day city of Redding, California.

Fremont ordered an advance on the camp.

The Wintu were pinned against the Sacramento River, and were unable to flee. They consisted mostly of women and children. They fought back as best as possible, but were no match for the well-armed advancing force.

Kit Carson was one of the attackers, and he described it as “perfect butchery”. Bucks, squaws, and papooses were cut down en masse by rifle fire. Many natives fled for the hills, or jumped in the river and tried to swim away. But they were chased down by Fremont’s men and tomahawked to death. Other members of the expedition stood on the river bank and took potshots at natives trying to swim to safety.

Up to 700 natives were killed on land, and 200 in the water, making the Sacramento River Massacre one of the bloodiest massacres of the West.

Fremont’s expedition continued into Oregon, killing Native Americans on sight, as they went. It was sort of like a modern-day, drive-by shooting rampage.

In the Oregon Territory, his forces met and murdered some of the Klamath people. But on May 9, 1846, they retaliated against Fremont, by killing several members of his expedition. Three days later Fremont conducted the Klamath Lake Massacre to “set things square”, killing 14 members of a nearby village.

But that’s how massacre math was done in those days. You set things square by taking the number of deaths on your side, then squaring it, and squaring it again. And that’s how many you kill on their side.


Fremont’s Return


In the middle of all this excitement, a U.S. Marine appeared. Lieutenant Archibald H. Gillespie had been sent from Washington with a secret message for both U.S. Consul Larkin, and Captain Fremont. On May 9, the same day the Klamath tribe killed members of Fremont’s party, Gillespie finally caught up with the man he was pursuing, and delivered the message. This message conveyed to the explorer that war with Mexico was inevitable.

Fremont’s eyes lit up when he read this missive. He saw an opportunity to realize his father-in-law’s Manifest Destiny ambitions, and get in really good with his wife’s side of the family. He and Gillespie immediately returned to California.

Meanwhile, more winds of war were blowing. U.S. Consul Larkin had sent a request to Commodore John D. Sloat of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Squadron, for a warship to protect U.S. citizens and interests in Alta California. Sloat responded by sending the USS Portsmouth, which arrived in Monterey on April 22, 1846.

USS Portsmouth, sailing to the rescue.

Larkin and the Portsmouth captain, John Berrien Montgomery, learned of Fremont’s return to California. They figured the army Captain might need some support, so the Portsmouth was moved into San Francisco Bay in late-May, where it moored at Sausalito.

On May 24, 1846, Fremont arrived back at Lassen Ranch, in the upper Sacramento Valley, ready and hoping for war. There he learned about the presence of the USS Portsmouth.

He sent Lieutenant Gillespie to Sausalito to request supplies, including 8,000 percussion caps, 300 pounds of lead, one keg of powder, money, and food. His official reason for making this request was the pretext of supplying his expedition for the trip back to St. Louis. Yeah, right.

On May 30, 1846, Fremont arrived near Sutter Buttes, about 45 miles north of Sutter’s Fort, and set up camp. He decided his first move should be to take Sutter’s Fort and raise the American flag. Sutter’s Fort was in New Helvetia, which is now known as Sacramento.

Near the site of Fremont’s encampment, at Sutter Buttes. (Photo by Isaac Crumm, 1/6/07, from Wikipedia)

But first, there was more slaughtering to do. Local Native American groups were on the move, preparing for a harvest. But the paranoid Fremont imagined they were actually preparing for an imminent attack. So on May 31, he preemptively attacked the natives and killed several, in the Sutter Buttes Massacre.

Lieutenant Gillespie found the Portsmouth on June 7, and delivered Fremont’s request for supplies. These supplies were then taken by the ship’s launch, up the Sacramento River, to a site near Fremont’s camp at Sutter Buttes.

Come on back in a few days, for Part 6: The Instigation.

26 replies »

    • Yes, unfortunately we humans have been massacring each other for thousands of years. Perhaps shining a spotlight on such events helps to prevent future atrocities, but I kind of doubt it.


        • I think Africa is one such place. It’s not a very safe continent to visit. And then there was ISIS, and all their slaughtering and killing. Of course, we had our massacres in Vietnam, and who knows, maybe even Iraq and Afghanistan. No, it’s not really letting up.


  1. I echo Jason Frel’s comment – this was very depressing … especially if you’re a Native American. “Butchery” describes it perfectly. I think I’ll end it there before I go on a rant.

    Liked by 1 person

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