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July 2012- Lost on the Dakota Prairie

July 2012- Lost on the Dakota Prairie

The Pathfinder was lost.

A rolling sea of grass in what would become South Dakota stretched before John C. Frémont.

The young lieutenant had assisted French explorer and mathematician Joseph Nicollet in surveying and mapping the land between the Mississippi and Missouri rivers in 1838, and again in 1839. In 1839, soon after the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers expedition set out from Fort Pierre Chouteau, near what is now Fort Pierre, it encountered a herd of buffalo. When the hunt ended, Frémont looked around for his fellow hunters. None were in sight. Frémont dismounted from his tired horse and walked for hour after hour.

“Toward midnight I reached the breaks of the river hills at a wooded ravine and just then I saw a rocket shoot up into the sky, far away to the south. That was camp, but apparently some 15 miles distant,” Frémont wrote in his memoirs.

A signal had been sent to the lost man. Frémont decided to wait for daybreak to find camp. Before going to sleep, Frémont placed his gun by his side in the direction from which the rocket had been fired.

At dawn, he saddled his horse and began riding in the direction indicated by the rifle. Frémont soon saw three riders on horseback approaching at full gallop.

“They did not slacken their pace until they came directly up against me, when the foremost touched me. It was Louison Freniere (a guide accompanying the expedition.) A reward had been promised by Mr. Nicollet to the first who should touch me and Louison won it. And this was the end of my first buffalo hunt,” Frémont wrote.

A historic marker about 15 miles east of Pierre, off SD Highway 34, states that in 1839 the nearby river was called Medicine Knoll River by Nicollet and Frémont, “who held a 4th of July pyrotechnic display on the Medicine Knoll 12 miles up the creek.”

Frémont, 1813-1890, was an explorer, soldier and political leader.

He led many surveying expeditions in what is now the western United States. He was dubbed “The Pathfinder” by the tabloid-style newspapers of the day. Frémont’s reports touched off a wave of interest in the West. Under Frémont’s influence, American settlers in California revolted against Mexican authorities.

Frémont became the first Republican candidate for president of the United States. He was married to one of the most desirable women of the time – Jessie Benton, the daughter of powerful U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. The discovery of gold on Frémont’s property in California made him rich.

But if Frémont knew the peaks of glory, he also knew the valleys of despair. He was court-martialed, relieved of his command in the Civil War, and lived much of his later years in poverty.

This moment in South Dakota history is provided by the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation, the nonprofit fundraising partner of the South Dakota State Historical Society. Find us on the web at