San Benito Lifestyle

BL Longform: Fremont Peak reopens to camping and recreation

A home to foxes, bumblebees, sparrow hawks and early California soldiers.

The native people called the mountain “the Place of the Two Skies.” The early Spanish called it Gavilan, from their word for “sparrow hawk.” It was renamed Fremont Peak after Captain John C. Frémont, who spent four days at the summit during a failed military expedition in 1846.

Today, people know the 3,169-foot summit in San Benito County as a tourist destination, a state park campground, an ideal location for stargazing, and a great spot for enjoying a breathtaking view of both San Benito and Monterey counties.

The park is currently open for day use with a $6 fee. Spaces in the Oak Point campground are available by reservation with a $25 per night fee. The Valley View campground is scheduled to reopen in April or early May. The observatory is closed until further notice due to COVID restrictions.

Fremont Peak. Image courtesy of Fremont Peak State Park.
Fremont Peak. Image courtesy of Fremont Peak State Park.

The local history of Fremont Peak began a long time ago, according to author, geologist and San Benito resident Jim Ostdick, when the shifting of tectonic plates forced the land to move north from Southern California and up from below the sea.

“If you know how to identify rocks, you can see that you are walking through marble,” Ostdick said. “Marble is metamorphic limestone, just like Mt. Everest, which is rock that is formed at the bottom of the ocean. The theory goes that it was pushed up this way over the last 20 million years, which is relatively recently in geological terms.”

Frémont’s connection to the peak was relatively brief and just a footnote in his career. Author Steve Inskeep’s recent biography of Frémont, “Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War,” devotes a mere five paragraphs to the episode in his 480-page book—and misstates the location of the nearby Mission San Juan Bautista as “Mission San Jose.”

Frémont was attached to the U.S. Army’s Bureau of Topographical Engineers. Between 1842 and 1845, he led three expeditions into areas that are now the Western United States. He had 60 well-armed troops to command and the assistance of famed frontiersman Kit Carson. He also had permission from the U.S. government to go where he wanted, regardless of his being in Mexican territory. 

While ostensibly under orders to go to Oregon, Frémont instead went to Santa Cruz and from there to Monterey. Tensions between Mexico and the United States were high and his presence there with 60 men alarmed both José Castro, the commandante general of Mexico for the region, and Thomas O. Larkin, the American consul stationed in Monterey.

Both Castro and Larkin prohibited Frémont from bringing his troops into Monterey, though Frémont himself was allowed to stay in the city. Castro warned Larkin that Frémont was to not go further into the area. Frémont ignored Castro, gathered his men and marched toward San Juan Bautista.

Frémont was secretly being encouraged in his provocation by the U.S. government, in the person of Commodore John D. Sloat. Sloat sent word that Frémont was not to be impeded in his movements in California and Frémont took full advantage of this freedom.

The Mexican government had few troops in California, so Frémont’s 60 men were a substantial threat. Castro gathered up about 60 men, fresher and better equipped than Frémont’s, and marched toward him. Frémont wisely did not challenge them directly.

On March 6, 1846, Frémont skirted confrontation by taking his men up Fremont Peak. A small fort was quickly built from felled trees and the American flag was raised.

There is some question as to how far up the peak his men camped, and no remains of the fort have been found.

Castro stationed his men at the bottom of the peak, leaving Frémont no way to go forward. On March 9, the flag on the peak blew down and Frémont, announcing it as a bad omen, broke camp that afternoon. They retreated to Monterey during the night. 

In less than a month Frémont was engaged in one of the most tragic episodes of his career, the Sacramento River Massacre.

Upon reaching Lassen Ranch in the Sacramento Valley, Frémont was told that the local Indians were preparing to attack white settlers. On April 5, he advanced on a Native American camp located on the Sacramento River and ordered his men to attack, offering no quarter. Over 1,000 men, women, and children were slaughtered, with Frémont’s forces suffering not a single casualty.

The massacre was only one of such actions taken by Frémont, and the accounts of these actions, written by Frémont and published in Eastern newspapers, made him a hero. Viewed from a more historically accurate perspective, it was, as Kit Carson described at the time, “perfect butchery.”

On July 7, 1846, Monterey surrendered to Commodore Sloat without firing a shot. On July 11, it was reported to Sloat that Castro had taken several American officers prisoners and was regrouping in San Juan.

The Californian account of Fremont's return.
The Californian account of Fremont’s return.

Frémont set off to confront him and on July 12 entered the town. Castro had fled, but left a stash of armaments at the mission, which The Californian reported as being nine cannons, 200 muskets, 20 kegs of powder, and 60,000 pounds of cannon shot. After securing the weaponry, Frémont once again brought his troops to the top of the peak, then marched back to Monterey, never to return.

The peak reverted to what it was before, a place for wildlife and Native peoples. And today, visitors appreciate it perhaps more for its natural beauty than its brief military history.

“A lot of people are interested in the history of the peak and who John Frémont was,” said Carlos Ramos, an interpretive specialist at Fremont Peak, “but we have more people who are interested in the natural sciences and Native history of the area. This is the land of the Ohlone and Amah Mutsun tribes. When you are looking down into the valley from Fremont Peak, you are looking at Popelouchum, which was their home. You see the agriculture area now, but then it would have been filled with oak trees and grasses.”

Part of the interpretation involves displays of animal pelts and skulls, which Ramos uses to explain the ecology of the peak.

“These are deer, gray fox, mountain lion, and wild boar pelts and skulls so people can see the kinds of animals you would find on Fremont Peak,” Ramos said. “One thing we talk about is how the wild boars are non-native and they tear apart the ecosystem. They are invasive, growing to be around 200 pounds, and they dig up the roots of the oak trees. This means fewer acorns for the native animals to eat.”

There are 25 campgrounds in the park and hiking trails. There is also an observatory, currently closed, that is maintained by the Fremont Peak Observatory Association.

“There’s a circle of trails that go around the peak,” Ostdick said. “Some built by the Boy Scouts and some by the conservation corps. If you want to do the loop it takes an hour or so depending on how fast you walk. The walk up to the peak is not that steep until you start getting to the top. The view is beautiful from there, on a clear evening you can go up there and watch the sunset over the ocean.”

 

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Robert Eliason

I’ve been a freelance photographer since my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. My dad taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.   I have had gallery showings and done commercial work but photojournalism is a wonderful challenge in storytelling.   The editors at BenitoLink have encouraged me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  It is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community.