Not many people know about the disastrous 1848-1849 winter trek of John C. Frémont and his men. Thirty-three men with one hundred thirty mules and plenty of supplies set out for California along the 38th parallel. Frémont brought along an expert topographer, a doctor, an artist, and many loyal men from his previous California campaigns. John C. Frémont was one of the premiere trailblazers of his time, yet through arrogance or poor judgement, or a little of both, he incurred devastating losses in this fateful journey.
The author develops the story through multiple viewpoints; that of John C. Frémont, Dr. Andrew Cathcart, Edward Kern, Bill Williams, and others. I especially enjoyed the chapters in the doctor’s point of view. All of these men lent a different slant to the story, but throughout it all, the reader is led to believe that Frémont had an oversized ego and a distance from human emotion and connection. Yet, he still managed to make him appear to care about his men and their condition.
The story begins with the team heading westward across the mountains in good cheer and good health. Bill Williams, the guide, tells Frémont the route along the 38th parallel is too dangerous, but Frémont doesn’t listen and instead pushes forward. Later, as the mental acuity of the guide begins to wane, they find themselves boxed into an impassable area buried deep under snow in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, fighting to keep themselves alive. By the time Frémont understands that Bill Williams is lost, he has one option. He leaves most of his men behind in small camps and goes to New Mexico for relief. The story of the relief efforts is heartrending.
This biographical novel is engaging and thoroughly researched. Snowbound was my introduction to the author Richard S. Wheeler, and I’m quite happy to have discovered his book. I’ll be looking for more books by this author.