Iowa History Daily: On June 24, 1841, John Charles Fremont steamed out of 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 the role it played 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, in order to determine that position, and the Topography of the adjacent country.”
Along for the ride, fortunately for botanists and historians alike, was botanist Karl Geyer. Fremont and Guyer met working on topographical surveys with Nicollet, and 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 expedition of Fremont 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