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Fremont Explores Iowa: Iowa Time Machine June 24, 1841

Iowa Time Machine ⏰: On June 24, 1841, John Charles Fremont steamed from St. Louis on a $5 fare headed for the mouth of the Des Moines River. Embarking on a mission to chart the river to the Raccoon Confluence, the early Iowa exploration stands out for the scientific discoveries related to plant and animal life made along the way.

Fremont, born in Georgia during the early 1800s yet opposed to slavery, gained national fame as an explorer for the United States government during the 1840s. Although his later expeditions into the western United States, depredations against America’s Indigenous peoples, and role in California’s Bear Flag Republic loom larger, Fremont’s Iowa expedition of 1841 represents an important early moment in his career.

Fremont’s biographers seem to mention his Iowa exploration only because of its role in his courtship and marriage. Soon after Fremont met the then fifteen-year-old daughter of Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, it appears the Senator managed to have Fremont sent by Colonel John James Albert on a mission to: “repair without delay to the mouth of the Racoon [sic] fork of the Des Moines, to determine that position, and the Topography of the adjacent country.”

Fortunately for botanists and historians alike, botanist Karl Geyer was along for the ride. Fremont and Guyer met while working on topographical surveys with Nicollet, and they had previously dipped into Iowa to study in the Spirit Lake area during the late 1830s. The expedition of 1841 represents the first scientific recordings of Iowa’s flora in the historical record. Since Fremont did not have approval or funding to bring a botanist, Guyer signed on as a boat hand at $1.50 per diem.

The Fremont expedition fades behind larger explorations of Iowa, like the march of the Dragoons in 1835 or Nathan Boone’s surveys. However, the 1841 expedition left behind significant records of landscapes on the Lower Des Moines River while also identifying 37 different species of flowering plants. Iowa’s southwesternmost county bears Fremont’s name to memorialize the man’s contributions to the state’s early history. #IowaHistoryDaily #IowaOTD #IowaHistoryCalendar


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