‘Sight Unseen’ describes expedition through the unmapped world

Chris Banner

By A Contributor

Before opening “Sight Unseen:  How Fremont’s First Expedition Changed the American Landscape,” the reader would do well to read John C. Fremont’s “Report on an Exploration of the Country Lying between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains, on the Line of the Kansas and Great Platte Rivers” (1842), published by the government printing office in 1843.

The books are available online and elsewhere. The reader will discover what Fremont really said and what his interests and concerns really were.

The “Report” of the four-month-long expedition consists of four parts, “narrative” of the expedition (71 pages), “catalogue of plants,” “astronomical observations,” and “metrological observations.”

The “narrative” is the day-by-day recounting of the expedition’s roundtrip from St. Louis to what today is Kansas City. From there, they followed the Oregon Trail west along the Kaw River until they arrived at the Blue River where Manhattan is today.

They followed the Blue until they could cross over to the Platte in Nebraska.

After two months of travel, they reached the Continental Divide where Fremont climbed the highest peak in the Wind River Range. They returned through Nebraska. The narrative tells what the party observed and experienced on their way.

Fremont wrote primarily for congress and the army but also intended for it to be read by the general public, writing in a vivid, popular style. Fremont was more concerned with a record of day-to-day events and descriptions of the flora and fauna, rivers, weather, geology, altitude, topography, exact locations and other things like that, rather than landscape esthetics and other considerations, which Menard discusses.

Because of its practical and easy to read nature, the “Report” became a best seller and was used years afterwards as a guide by emigrants on their way to Oregon.

The “introduction” of Menard’s interdisciplinary study discusses the history of the American need for expansion and new settlement, beginning in the early 1600s until after the Spanish-American War.

In Fremont’s time, the basic question was whether the U.S. should stop with the Louisiana Purchase and the Missouri River, or expand and become continent wide.

“Above all, Fremont’s Report began to create what George Kateb has called an ‘aesthetic craving’ for expansion, implying that a nation able to encompass an entire continent would satisfy an inherent desire for beauty and order.” (p. xxix)

The meaning of the title, “Sight Unseen,” is that Fremont’s “Report” created the need to annex, see and settle land where few white people had ever been.

The dominant issue of the book is landscape esthetics and the role it played in the settlement movement from earliest Colonial times.

By landscape, Menard means man’s relationship to a natural, distant prospect or vista. He argues that in addition to the practical considerations of wanting more land, the migrants, eastern land speculators, and people of power and influence felt an esthetic need to order their existence.

This involved developing and working with a geographic grid system based on latitude and longitude, which Menard discusses at length.

Part 1, “Picturesque America” has six chapters.

The first discusses various American’s views of their landscape, which had come from the inherited European esthetic and statements by earlier reports that the West was uninteresting and inferior. Fremont, in his careful, detailed and appealing descriptions of the landscape helped to establish an American esthetic. 

The subsequent five chapters also tell us of Menard’s views of the larger meaning of the party’s path and the places they saw; their dealings with the army, Indians, traders, and settlers and a lot about what various explorers, artists and authors before and after them had to say.

Part 2, “Westward the Course of the Empire” has three chapters, which discuss the expansionist movement and the part the “Report” played in it. Menard discusses the question of expansion from the points of view of people from the Puritan divines to several nineteenth century writers and philosophers. He even finds Old Testament quotations relevant to the issue; the effect of Fremont having reached the Continental Divide and America’s tallest known peak, Americans’ views of the country’s limits; how the dispute on expansion broke down by political party and North-South sectionalism; and several other considerations.

The fourth chapter, “To the Pacific and Beyond,” deals with what came after the publication of the “Report.” We read of Fremont’s subsequent, illustrious career. His “Report” helped to correct existing maps and to further the cause of greater accuracy in American cartography, thereby making travel and settlement easier. 

Until John O’Sullivan introduced the term, “Manifest Destiny” in 1845, expansionists did not have a flag to rally behind.

Afterwards, there was no stopping them.  By 1853, the U.S. had acquired the land that is now the 48 states. People referred to the “Report” as authoritative in backing many causes including building a trans-continental railroad running on roughly Fremont’s path.

“Sight Unseen” is probably intended to set the “Report” in its historical perspective. However, with its development of ideas at most barely mentioned in the “Report,” it comes across more as an attempt by Menard to show himself off rather than a true consideration of Fremont’s work.

“Sight Unseen” is written in a literary style but it is not quick and easy reading. It is more for the specialist in the relevant literature. The casual reader could find the book tough going.

Christopher Banner is a Manhattan resident.

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