California – Fremont’s Famous Ride

The following narrative, vouched for by John Bigelow, Fremont’s eminent biographer, was published in the National Intelligencer, Washington, D. C., Nov. 22, 1847. The journey was undertaken by Colonel Fremont to inform General Kearney of the outbreak of an insurrection at Los Angeles. It ranks among the most remarkable “rides” recorded in history :

“This extraordinary ride of 800 miles in eight days, including all stoppages and near two days’ detention—a whole day and a night at Monterey, and nearly two half days at San Luis Obispo—having been brought into evidence before the army court martial now in session in this city, and great desire being expressed by some friends to know how the ride was made, I herewith send you the particulars, that you may publish them if you please, in the National Intelligencer as an incident connected with the times and affairs under review in the trial, of which you give so full a report. The circumstances were first got from Jacob, afterwards revised by Colonel Fremont, and I drew them up from his statement.

“The publication will show, besides the horsemanship of the riders, the power of the California horse, especially as one of the horses was subjected, in the course of the ride, to an extra-ordinary trial in order to exhibit the capacity of his race. Of course this statement will make no allusion to the objects of the journey, but be confined strictly to its performance.

“It was at daybreak on the morning of the 22nd of March, 1846, that the party set out from La Ciudad de Los Angeles (the City of the Angels) in the southern part of Upper California, to proceed, in the shortest time, to Monterey on the Pacific coast, distant full four hundred miles. The way is over a mountainous country, much of it uninhabited, with no other road than a trace, and many defiles to pass, particularly the maritime defile of el Rincon or Punto Gordo, fifteen miles in extent, made by the jutting of a precipitous mountain into the sea, and which can only be passed when the tide is out and the sea calm, and then in many places through the waves. The towns of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, and occasional ranches, are the principal inhabited places on the route. Each of the party had three horses, nine in all, to take their turns under the saddle. The six loose horses ran ahead, without bridle or halter, and required some attention to keep to the track. ‘When wanted for a change, say at the distance of twenty miles, they were caught by the lasso, thrown either by Don Jesus or the servant Jacob, who, though born in Washington, in his long expeditions with Colonel Fremont, had become as expert as a Mexican with the lasso, as sure as the mountaineer with the rifle, equal to either on horse or foot, and always a lad of courage and fidelity.

“None of the horses were shod, that being a practice unknown to the Californians. The most usual gait was a sweeping gallop. The first day they ran one hundred and twenty-five miles, passing the San Fernando mountain, the defile of the Rincon, several other mountains, and slept at the hospitable rancho of Don Thormas Robberis, beyond the town of Santa Barbara. The only fatigue complained of in this day’s ride was in Jacob’s right arm, made tired by throwing the lasso, and using it as a whip to keep the loose horses to the track.

“The next day they made another one hundred and twenty-five miles, passing the formidable mountain of Santa Barbara, and counting upon it the skeletons of some fifty horses, part of near double that number which perished in the crossing of that terrible mountain by the California battalion, on Christmas day, 1846, amidst a raging tempest, and a deluge of rain and cold more killing than that of the Sierra Nevada—the day of severest suffering, say Fremont and his men, that they have ever passed. At sunset, the party stopped to sup with the friendly Captain Dana, and at nine at night San Luis Obispo was reached, the home of Don Jesus, and where an affecting reception awaited Lieutenant-Colonel Fremont, in consequence of an incident which occurred there that history will one day record; and he was detained till 10 o’clock in the morning receiving the visits of the inhabitants (mothers and children included), taking a breakfast of honor, and waiting for a relief of fresh horses to be brought in from the surrounding country. Here the nine horses brought from Los Angeles were left, and eight others taken in their place, and a Spanish boy added to the party to assist in managing the loose horses.

“Proceeding at the usual gait till eight at night, and having made some seventy miles, Don Jesus, who had spent the night before with his family and friends, and probably with but little sleep, became fatigued, and proposed a halt for a few hours. It was in the valley of the Salinas (salt river called Buena Ventura in the old maps), and the haunt of marauding Indians. For safety during their repose, the party turned off the trace, issued through a canyon into a thick wood, and laid down, the horses being put to grass at a short distance, with the Spanish boy in the saddle to watch. Sleep, when commenced, was too sweet to be easily given up, and it was half way between mid-night and day when the sleepers were aroused by an estampede among the horses, and the calls of the boy. The cause of the alarm was soon found, not Indians, but white bears—this valley being their great resort, and the place where Colonel Fremont and thirty-five of his men encountered some hundred of them the summer before, killing thirty upon the ground.

“The character of these bears is well known, and the bravest hunters do not like to meet them without the advantage of numbers. On discovering the enemy, Colonel Fremont felt for his pistols, but Don Jesus desired him to lie still, saying that `people could scare bears'; and immediately hallooed at them in Spanish, and they went off. Sleep went off also ; and the recovery of the horses frightened by the bears, building a rousbag fire, making a breakfast from the hospitable supplies of San Luis Obispo, occupied the party till daybreak, when the journey was resumed eighty miles, and the afternoon brought the party to Monterey.

“The next day, in the afternoon, the party set out on their return, and the two horses rode by Colonel Fremont from San Luis Obispo, being a present to him from Don Jesus, he (Don Jesus) desired to make an experiment of what one of them could do. They were brothers, one a grass younger than the other, both of the same color (cinnamon) and hence called el canalo, or los canalos (the cinnamon or the cinnamons). The elder was to be taken for the trial; and the journey commenced upon him at leaving Monterey, the afternoon well advanced. Thirty miles under the saddle done that evening, and the party stopped for the night. In the morning the elder canalo was again under the saddle for Colonel Fremont, and for ninety miles he carried him without a change, and without apparent fatigue. It was still thirty miles to San Luis Obispo, where the night was to be passed, and Don Jesus insisted that canalo could do it, and so said the horse by his looks and action. But Colonel Fremont would not put him to the trial, and, shifting the saddle to the younger brother, the elder was turned loose to run the remaining thirty miles without a rider. He did so, immediately taking the lead and keeping it all the way, and entering San Luis in a sweeping gallop, nostrils distended, snuffing the air, and neighing with exultation at his return to his native pastures; his younger brother all the time at the head of the horses under the saddle, bearing on his bit, and held in by his rider. The whole eight horses made their one hundred and twenty miles each that day (after thirty the evening be-fore), the elder cinnamon making ninety of his under the saddle that day, besides thirty under the saddle the evening before ; nor was there the least doubt that he would have done the whole distance in the same time if he had continued under the saddle.

“After a hospitable detention of another half a day at San Luis Obispo, the party set out for Los Angeles on the same nine horses which they had ridden from that place, and made the ride back in about the same time they had made it up, namely, at the rate of one hundred and twenty-five miles a day.

“On this ride, the grass on the road was the food for the horses. At Monterey they had barley; but these horses, meaning those trained and domesticated, as the canalos were, eat almost anything of vegetable food, or even drink, that their master uses, by whom they are petted and caressed, and rarely sold. Bread, fruit, sugar, coffee, and even wine (like the Persian horses), they take from the hand of their master, and obey with like docility his slightest intimation. A tap of the whip on the saddle springs them into action; the check of a thread rein (on the Spanish bit) would stop them; and stopping short at speed they do not jostle the rider or throw him forward. They leap on anything—man, beast, or weapon, on which their master directs them. But this description, so far as conduct and behavior are concerned, of course only applies to the trained -and domesticated horse.”

While on the subject of California horses and the horseman-ship of the Californians, the following reference to those subjects, quoted from the works of Hubert Howe Bancroft, are interesting :

“Speaking of the splendid riding, Sepulveda says that the few who were not good riders were looked upon with a sort of contempt. Their attachment to their steeds was as great as the Arab’s, and the greatest token of friendship between man and man was the present of their best horse.

“The Californians always galloped, says Gomez, never reining in to smoke. When the horse tired, the traveler would catch the first other one he saw, and so continue changing his steed, always sure of recovering it on returning. The hat was small at the opening and a string was put on to secure it. The rider usually had his mouth open as if to keep the hat-string tight, and the hat secure; often as he rode along he filled the air with popular ditties. If rain overtook the horseman, he would ride into the first house he came to, if there were no outhouses or sheds.

“The story goes that a horseman of San Jose won a wager that he could start at full gallop with a salver of a dozen wine glasses filled to the brim, and after fifty rods stop suddenly and hand down the salver without having spilled a drop.

“In horsemanship, the Californians compared favorably with the sturdy Chilians and the flimsily attired and almost effeminate Peruvian. Both the Californian man and horse were superior to the Mexican in strength and weight, and by the different arrangement of the saddle-gear—the girth exactly in the center, and stirrup forward, almost an appendage from the pommel—his figure erect and well poised. The Gaucho of the pampas perhaps might excel him in some of the light exercises; but for hard work, strength and agility, the Californian stood unrivaled.

“Serrano remarks that when Californian women rode on horseback they used the same trappings and saddles as men, though without ornaments; some are exceedingly skillful in managing a horse, mounting alone and with agility. As the saddles on which they ride have the saddle-bow and stirrups taken off, they used as a stirrup for one foot a silk band, one end made fast at the pommel, the other at the cantle. When the lady was not a skillful rider and afraid, the caballero seated her on the saddle, took off his spurs, mounted on the crupper, and taking the reins guided the horse.”