I would say that John C. Fremont is proof of Garrison Keillor’s observation that, “God writes a lot of comedy. The trouble is, he’s stuck with so many bad actors who don’t know how to play funny.” And that was why God created Charles Preuss.
The 27 year old Lt. John C. Fremont first met the 39 year old Charles Preuss just before Christmas of 1841. Fremont was an impulsive egomaniacal young officer with a character flaw, described succinctly by author Ferol Egan as : “He lacked character.” Typical of his spontaneous nature was Fremont’s hiring of the methodical and dour cartographer on the spot simply because the middle aged father of two was broke.
But if Fremont had rescued this European urbanite from poverty, he had also sentenced Preuss to five months of intensive labor, trapped in the wilderness with a lunatic, i.e. Fremont. The straight man and his second banana had met.
“We set out on the morning of the 10th (of June, 1842)”, wrote Fremont, as his 21 men left the site of present day Kansas City, seeking to map the eastern half of the Oregon Trail. The expedition was “well armed and mounted, with the exception of eight men, who conducted as many carts, in which were packed our stores, with the baggage and instruments…” Once truly upon the sea of grass Fremont waxed poetic. “Everywhere the rose is met with…It is scattered over the prairies in small bouquets, and, when glittering in the dews and waving in the pleasant breeze of the early morning, is the most beautiful of the prairie flowers.”
The same terrain failed to find the poet in Mr. Preuss, writing in German for his personal diary. “Eternal prairie and grass… Fremont prefers this to every other landscape. To me it is as if some one would prefer a book with blank pages to a good story….I wish I were in Washington”. And always hovering over Mr. Preuss there was the energetic and annoying commander. “There was such a hurry this morning, that Fremont became angry when my horse urinated. He whipped its tail when it had only half relieved nature.”
In Fremont’s record the expedition seems triumphant over any obstacle. “We reached the ford of the Kansas late in the afternoon of the 14th…(it) was sweeping with an angry current. The man at the helm was timid on water, and in his alarm capsized the boat…”
The timid man at the helm was, of course, Preuss, who blamed his near drowning on the decision to chance the current. “It was certainly stupid of the young chief to be so foolhardy where the terrain was absolutely unknown.” Unaccustomed to horseback, Preuss’ thighs quickly became chapped and Fremont ordered him to ride in a cart. But the Prussian was not grateful. “I have bruised my nose in this cart because of the bumpy road….I miss my wife.” A few days later Preuss insisted on halting to sketch a distant cluster of trees, until the forest moved. He had spotted the expedition’s first herd of buffalo.
This became the occasion for a feast described by Fremont (“At any time of the night might be seen pieces of the most delicate and choicest meat, roasting…on sticks around the fire”) and by Preuss (“We start with the bullion which is, of course, not skimmed off. If one could eliminate the dirt it would be a delicate broth. The marrow was too raw and too fat for my taste, the ribs, likewise, too raw”) It is almost as if they are on separate picnics.
On July 10th Fremont notes, “For a short distance our road lay down the valley of the Platte, which resembled a garden in the splendor of fields of varied flowers, which filled the air with fragrance.” Meanwhile Preuss struggled to learn the art of survival from men like scout Kit Carson. “I have decided to imitate one of our hunters by keeping my shirt on my body until it falls off.” But experience eventually led him to a happier solution. “I was lucky to engage one of the men to do my laundry.” Still, by Fort Laramie in present day Wyoming, Preuss is wearing two pairs of pants at a time “…so that one can cover the holes in the other.”
In mid August, with Preuss having mapped the south pass through the Rockies, Fremont picked a mountain almost at random and draged the party on a six day, five night exertion through snow and ice to the peak.
"I sprang upon the summit, and…fixing a ramrod in a crevice, unfurled the national flag to wave in the breeze where never flag waved before….We had climbed the loftiest peak of the Rocky mountains, and looked down upon the snow a thousand feet below; and, standing where never human foot had stood before, felt the exultation of first explorers.” It was an inspiring moment, soon to be recorded in paintings and poetry, but as Preuss suspected, Fremont had not climbed the highest mountain in the Rockies. He had not even climbed the highest mountain in Wyoming. But he took the time while on the summit to insist his freezing companions suffer through to a speech.
And only then was Mr. Preuss allowed time to read his barometer and sketch the landscape. Then, Preuss groused to his journal, “As on the entire journey Fremont allowed me only a few minutes for my work….After about fifteen minutes we started on our return trip.” On the way back down the mountain in the dark Preuss fell and tore his only pair of pants. He began to refer to Fremont as “The Field Marshal”.
On October 10th, the expedition returned to the mouth of the Kansas River, and by the end of October Fremont and Preuss were back in Washington. In spring of 1843 Fremont’s report was released (AN EXPLORATION OF THE COUNTRY LYING BETWEEN THE MISSOURI RIVER AND THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS…), and “touched off a wave of wagon caravans filled with hopeful emigrants” heading west. Fremont became famous as “The Pathfinder”, even though all the paths he had found were already found, and it was Preuss who had drawn the maps of them.
But Preuss’ diary would not be translated and published until the 1950’s. And only then would it become clear that John C. Fremont, long ago written off as a pompous self promoter, was actually one of the funniest writers in American history. As a social commentator once observed, “Life is full of second bananas. But they are never really funny without a straight man.”