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Monday, May 18, 2015

Sierra Nevada Explorers

I spent the last week on a research trip traveling up and down Highway 395 in eastern California and the Carson Valley of Nevada. My goal: take more pictures and do more research for my Eastern Sierra Brides 1884 novella series.

North of Bridgeport I found this historical marker regarding John C. Fremont's attempt to find a pass over the Sierra Nevada mountains that would take him and his party to Sutter's Fort near Sacramento.

The text of the plaque titled Fremont's Trail 1844 reads as follows:

Fremont's Trail 1844 marker
On January 27th, a cold, winter day in 1844, Captain John C. Fremont and his guide, Kit Carson, led a small band of half-starved men west past this point. They were in search of the fabled Buena Ventura River which they believed would give them easy passage through the high range to the west and on to the fort of John Sutter. A short way northwest of here, they were forced to abandon their howitzer because of the deep snow, as their tired men could no longer pull the 1,500 pound gun and caisson. In desperation, Fremont decided to force a winter crossing of the great Sierra Nevada. They succeeded, and with his band of courageous men, reprovisioned themselves at Sutter’s Fort and then
Looking towards eastern slope Sierra Nevadas
recrossed the Great Basin, arriving in St. Louis, Missouri on August 6, 1844. A year later, Fremont
was back in California and was the United States officer who, on January 15, 1847, received the surrender of the California forces under General Andres Pico at Cahuenga Pass.

 Plaque dedicated September 10, 1977 Bodie Chapter of E Clampus Vitus, Mono County Board of Supervisors

Lost Cannon Creek looking west

In what is known as Little Antelope Valley, which is immediately west of Antelope Valley through which Hwy 395 runs, is a creek known as Lost Cannon Creek. It is believed that the howitzer mentioned in the plaque was abandoned somewhere along this creek, possibly as the men attempted to cross the tops of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the west. Although it is known from expedition records where the cannon had been abandoned, it has never been found.

Lost Cannon Creek looking east
Eventually, the men found a pass further to the north which Fremont named after his guide, Kit Carson. Carson Pass, which tops out at a little over 8,500 feet, is the route I traveled to and from where we stayed in Antelope Valley.

Carson Pass after a snowstorm in May 2015
In looking into the history of the first European adventurers to enter the valleys east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, I discovered that the first on record is Jedidiah Smith and his party in 1827. However, he did not enter California over the top of the Sierra Nevadas. In 1826 he traveled west through the Great Salt Lake valley, and down what is now Utah, followed the Colorado River and turn west in order to skirt the Sierra Nevada mountains on the south. He crossed Cajon pass, which at 3,776 feet, is less than half the altitude of the northerly Carson Pass. Today, Highway 15 linking Los Angeles, CA to Las Vegas, NV crosses Cajon Pass.

Jedediah Smith
In 1826, all of the territory through which Jedediah Smith et al traveled was owned by Mexico. They were not sent by the U.S. government, but as part of a private venture to scout out new beaver hunting sites. The Smith party arrived at the San Gabriel mission between San Diego and Los Angeles, where they were welcomed by the monks with a memorable feast. However, once their arrival came to the attention of then-governor of Alta California, Jose Maria Echeandia, Smith and his men were put under arrest. In spite of Smith's insistence that the men were there to earn money for food and supplies to continue their journey home, the Mexican government remained suspicious of their motives, fearing encroachment on Mexican territory by U.S. citizens. Eventually he ordered the men to leave the way they came with a promise to never return to California again.

Jedediah Smith trail - First trip in red
Jedediah Smith did leave the way he came, but only until he crossed the Cajon Pass. He turned north and followed the Old Tejon Pass up to the San Joaquin Valley. By early May 1827, the men had gathered over 1,500 beaver pelts which they needed to get to the Rendezvous near the Great Salt Lake. They started north and east up the American River canyon, looking for the fabled Buenaventura River which would take them over a  pass through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Due to heavy snow, they turned back and traveled south to the Stanislaus River, a river with which I am quite familiar since I lived within miles of it for many years and rafted down it a couple of times (the lower river, no white water). There they turned east and crossed the Sierra Nevada Mountains over the area that today is known as Ebbetts Pass.

Even with paved road, this is a very steep and winding road, with very tight hairpin curves on the eastern slope. To provide an example, my husband and took a three cylinder Daihatsu over Ebbetts Pass about twenty years ago. We traveled the route just fine until we tried to come home. The engine on the car was not powerful enough to make it up the east slope. We had to turn around and travel north to Carson Pass in order to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

From 1844 and the exploration of John Fremont into then-Mexican territory searching for a pass over the Sierra Nevada mountains to my stories set in 1884 Lundy and Bridgeport is a mere forty years. In that time, California became a state in the United States of America, gold and silver had been discovered, and all manner of fortune-seekers had moved into the region. The Eastern Sierra Brides 1884 is a series of novellas set in this exciting historical period of time.


 Zina Abbott is the pen name used by Robyn Echols for her historical novels. Her novel, Family Secrets, was published by Fire Star Press in October 2014 and her novelette, A Christmas Promise, was published by Prairie Rose Publications in November 2014. The first two novellas in the Eastern Sierra Brides 1884 series, Big Meadows Valentine and A Resurrected Heart, are now available.
The author currently lives with her husband in California near the “Gateway to Yosemite.” She enjoys family history and any kind of history. When she is not piecing together novel plots, she pieces together quilt blocks.

Please visit the Zina Abbott’s Amazon Author Page by clicking HERE.


  1. You have me hooked on blogs :) I learn something each time I read yours. Thank you!

  2. I'm hooked on your blogs also. And, even tho I know the history of my home state, I enjoy reading it thoroughly! Thank you Robyn, for bringing California history to life and my favorite part of the state, the beautiful Sierra Nevada's.

  3. Entertaining and educational. Of course, I love history in almost any form I can get it. Thank you. Great photos also. Doris McCraw

  4. Great blog and great maps. I learn something new every time someone posts a piece of California history. I've been up and down the Sierras all of my life
    and there's still so many places I have yet to explore.

  5. A great trek. California is diverse in her topography. thanks for sharing

  6. I'm always amazed at the great challenges the explorers took to discover new territories in our great country. Imagine near starving or freezing to death as you tramped up one gigantic mountain after another trying to map out a new path to a new place as yet undiscovered by the white men. I enjoy the fact that you actually get out and explore these places you write about. I had a man ask me yesterday why authors feel the need to visit the places they write about. I answered you have to touch it, taste it, see it and smell it to add flavor and a measure of authenticity to your story. Great blog Robyn.

  7. What an exciting adventure you had on your road trip. In the comfort of a vehicle without stress or strain I imagine it's difficult to really comprehend what those explorers endured. It must be fun to map out where these monuments were and then go on the trip to see them. It's like a treasure map. I wonder where the heck that cannon is. Wouldn't it be a thrill to find it?
    I loved all the picture and wish you continued success with your series.