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VIDEO VAULT: 'Finding Fremont' examines the man behind the name

Exhibit Poster.jpg

Anyone who lives in Southern Nevada has almost certainly seen the name Fremont.

It can be found on the street serving as the spine of downtown Las Vegas, a local middle school and also the cannon, for which the University of Nevada Las Vegas and University of Nevada, Reno battle in an annual football game.

The new exhibit, "Finding Fremont: Pathfinder of the West," opening this weekend at the Nevada State Museum at Las Vegas Springs Preserve, provides some insight into John C. Fremont, the person behind the name.

"He was an interesting man," describes NSM Director Dennis McBride. "He was a controversial political figure. He lived very well and then he lived very poorly."

McBride says that a handful of Spanish explorers wandering through over the previous couple of decades had been the first people of European extraction to visit the area. Fremont's 1843-44 journey represented an effort by the United States to become familiar with its more recent acquisitions.

"His was the first formal, comprehensive western exploration expedition. And this is one of the places that he stopped along the way."

What we now know as Las Vegas would have been a welcome sight to weary travelers arriving after weeks in the barren desert.

"Springs in Kiel Ranch, springs in Paradise Valley, Tule Springs," lists McBride, using later names for the different oases found in the area. "You know, it was very wet. It was very green here. But the Meadows was the largest and the most well-known."

"Meadows" is another name for "Big Springs," where the Nevada State Museum is located today.

"This is where he watered his horses," says McBride from the area where the exhibit is being assembled. "The Springs Preserve is the original Las Vegas Spring. Actually, the Las Vegas Creek that eventually runs down into the Colorado River."

Fremont is the one who first wrote the name "Vegas" on a map designating this area. But he also explored a great deal of California and Oregon, as well as Central and Northern Nevada, which is why the two main universities in the state both claim him.

Every year, UNLV and UNR face each other in a football game called the "Fight for the Fremont Cannon," with the victor getting to take possession of the artillery piece and paint it in school colors for a year.

"The cannon is a replica designed after the original one held at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City," explains Exhibits Manager Tom Dyer. "It's a Mountain Howitzer. It's a small cannon, a 12 pounder. Takes about a 4 ½ inch ball."

The original is on loan to the Nevada State Museum at the Las Vegas Springs Preserve as part of the new exhibit. It was found in 1997 by a group called the Fremont Howitzer Recovery Team.

While it's hard to say with 100 percent certainty that this is the exact same cannon that was part of Fremont's journey, Dyer feels confident of the authenticity because of meticulous record-keeping by Fremont that led to the discovery.

"He left in his journal entries information about 'OK, this is where we had to leave on this mountain, near this stream, this is where it was,'" recounts Dyer. "Coming back through the Sierras they had to travel in the wintertime. And it just became too burdensome. They kept trying and trying, but it was too heavy to drag across the mountains. They finally had to make the decision to dump it."

Then there's the question of why such a cannon was needed in the first place. The topographical society sponsoring the journey was beginning to wonder that same thing as the departure day approached.

"And they sent a letter to that effect. His wife Jessie intercepted the letter just about the day he was ready to leave and said, 'John, you'd better go.' Never gave it to him," says Dyer with a smile.

"Jessie Benton Fremont was a celebrity in her own right," adds McBride. "She was a great writer and a political figure."

The marriage also led to another local place name, one that many here take for granted.

"Fremont had named Mount Charleston after his wife's hometown, and so he has that connection to the city," says Dyer, donning plastic gloves and holding up a side weapon which also part of the exhibit. "And so they gave him a beautiful presentation sword."

The marriage also allied him with an important political figure who championed Fremont's efforts.

"His mentor and father-in-law, Thomas Hart Benton who was the most powerful senator at the time was very interested in expansion and he put his faith in Fremont," says Dyer. "And he wasn't disappointed."

Fremont would himself take a run at the nation's highest elected office in 1856.

"He worked as the first Republican Presidential nominee when the Republican Party was founded," explains McBride.

Then as a Major General in charge of Missouri during the opening year of the Civil War, he took an active role in hastening an end to slavery.

"He issued the first Emancipation Proclamation way before Lincoln did it."

More than anything else, John C. Fremont is probably best known in Nevada for putting this city on the map — quite literally.

"He's the one who came through here in the early 1840s and essentially named Las Vegas, which of course is Spanish for 'The Meadows'," notes McBride. "So it's like calling the river 'River' or calling the mountain 'Mountain'. But we'll the meadows 'Meadows', only we'll say it in Spanish."

The exhibition, which includes the cannon, the presentation sword, maps, a timeline of Fremont's life and more, opens to the public beginning this Saturday at the Nevada State Museum in the Las Vegas Springs Preserve.

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