Author: alyssa

ALH Collection Highlights: On Discovery & the Naming of Things

One of the best things about working in archives and special collections is, to put it simply, the fact that we get to hang out with really cool stuff all day. As Julia pointed out in last month’s post, Archives & Local History (ALH) collection materials range from deeply odd to downright adorable, encompassing ancient artifacts and modern media. And there is truly so much more in between.

As an archivist, I am frequently reminded what a privilege it is to know history through direct experience, as something concrete that I can touch. The hard part of the job is figuring out how to share that—the sense of discovery, excitement, and deep familiarity with the material—when we can’t just put these rare collections out on a shelf for the public to browse.

Bridging that gap is not something that can be accomplished with a blog post, but I’m happy this opportunity exists to talk about collection news and highlight gems from our rare book collection. As the curator for ALH, a lot of my work happens in the background, unseen. I am going to try to write more often about our book collections, and in return I would love to hear what you think. I welcome any suggestions on material to collect or topics we should develop more. Get in touch with me at acarver@dclibraries.org.

NEW ACQUISITION

John Charles Frémont. Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842, and to Oregon and North California in the years 1843-’44. First edition. (28th Congress, 2nd session, serial 461, Senate executive document 174.) Washington: Gales & Seaton, printers, 1845. Call number: LH 978 FRE

This is a handsome copy of one of the most significant narratives of 19th-century western exploration, made even more valuable by the presence of the large folding map in the rear cover pocket. While it is not uncommon for older books to lose maps or illustrated plates over the years, this map of Frémont’s first two expeditions is especially scarce. Usually referred to as “the Preuss map” (in recognition of cartographer Charles Preuss), it helped to make the West more navigable during a period of increased public interest, when overland migration and the discovery of gold in California “led to a feverish popular demand for maps … no matter how geographically deficient.”1 Preuss’s map, on the other hand, was so accurate regarding the topographic details of Frémont’s route that it became the basis for many subsequent maps of the American West.

As great as it is, the map is not the reason I wanted this book for our collection. Instead, it is because Frémont’s 1843 expedition holds special local significance for Douglas County.

In the category of Colorado’s early white explorers, you might not come up with the name John Charles Frémont (1813-1890) first. He is perhaps more well-remembered for discoveries (and misadventures) further west, in Utah, California, and Washington. We usually count Zebulon Pike as the first explorer of this region, passing through the area south of Douglas County in 1806. Next came Stephen Long in 1820. Frémont didn’t arrive until 1842, but it’s actually his Second Expedition, of 1843-1844, that we are most interested in.

On July 9, 1843, Frémont recorded the route his party took from the South Platte River:

“…entering a country of picturesque and varied scenery; broken into rocky hills of singular shapes; little valleys, with pure crystal water … green spots of luxuriant grass, flowers of all colors, and timber of different kinds… To one of these remarkably shaped hills, having on the summit a circular flat rock of two or three hundred yards in circumference, some one gave the name of Poundcake, which it has been permitted to retain, as our hungry people seemed to think it a very agreeable comparison.”2

This passage isn’t just a painterly description of the landscape, but in fact the first documented sighting of the geological feature we know by the name of Castle Rock.

As for why “Poundcake Rock” didn’t stick, we can only speculate. Place names become fixed to locations over time because enough people agree on their usage, but almost 30 years passed before settlers established permanent communities in the Castle Rock area.

In fact, there was no system for standardizing place names and no agency with the authority to undertake such a project until 1890, when President Benjamin Harrison created the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN). Today, the BGN reviews proposals for new or changed place names, decides on the details of spelling and variant terms, and maintains the searchable Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) database. If you happen to be a strict grammarian and find yourself bothered by the lack of possessive apostrophes in the official names of our nearby mountains, you can blame the BGN. (Technically, it is Pikes Peak, not Pike’s Peak.)

Speaking of names, honorary eponyms come in many forms that aren’t geographic features like mountains, rivers, counties, or cities. Frémont’s expedition was not just a pathfinding mission; he also collected scientific data in the form of detailed weather observations and physical specimens in the form of fossils, shells, and plants. Unfortunately, many of Frémont’s botanical specimens did not survive the strenuous journey. Some remained intact enough to identify as new species, and over the course of his five expeditions Frémont described or gathered numerous unique specimens and varieties that still bear his name. However, of the hundred-plus results related to Frémont that appear in the U.S. Department of Agriculture PLANTS database, only a handful are native Colorado species. These include: dwarf mountain ragwort (Senecio fremontii), Fremont’s geranium (Geranium caespitosum var. fremontii), moss gentian (Gentiana fremontii), western mountain aster (Symphyotrichum spathulatum var. fremontii), and Fremont’s beardtongue (Penstemon fremontii), which, objectively speaking, has the best name and is the prettiest color.

John Frémont had a long, eventful, and frequently controversial life as an explorer, investor, military officer (serving in both the Mexican-American War and Civil War), and politician. The fact that he ran for president in 1856 as the first candidate for the newly formed Republican Party in a historic three-way race doesn’t even rank among the top-five most significant things he did.

To learn more about Frémont’s life and historical legacy, I recommend the recent biography by NPR radio host Steve Inskeep called Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War. Published in 2020, it is notable for examining the relationship between Frémont and his wife, Jessie, who has long been recognized as the coauthor of his expedition reports3,4. Her own ambition, talent, and political savvy have perhaps been overlooked until now. Had they lived in a different time, we might find ourselves in the Jessie Rock branch library, or looking up at Jessies Peak today.

Citations

1. Quote page 98; see 98-116. Wheat, Carl Irving. “Mapping the American West, 1540-1857: A Preliminary Study.” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, vol. 64, pt. 1, 1954, pp. 19-194.

2. Frémont, Report of the Exploring Expedition… , p. 113.

3. Leeder, Kim. “John Charles Frémont and Jessie Benton Frémont.” Early American Nature Writers: A Biographical Encyclopedia, edited by Daniel Patterson, Greenwood Press, 2007, pp. 146-153.

4. See p. 300. Weiss, Stephen Craig. “The John C. Fremont 1842, 1843-’44 Report and Map.” Journal of Government Information v. 26, no. 3, 1999, pp. 297-313.