Edward Kern

We ascended a trail for a few miles along the creek, and suddenly found a stream of water five feet wide, running with a lively current, but losing itself almost immediately. This little stream showed plainly the manner in which mountain waters lose themselves in sand at the eastern foot of the Sierra, leaving only a parched desert and arid plains beyond.

The stream enlarged rapidly and the timber became abundant as we descended…we found ourselves again traveling among the old orchard-like places. —Col. John Charles Fremont, The Expeditions of John Charles Fremont.

The Naming Started With a River

The Pathfinder—or so they called the government explorer—had gathered a narrative about himself (part fact, part myth) as a military hero, adventurer, and trailblazer. He took such a liking to the young man, his topographer, that he named the wild river after him. The Pathfinder was well-known. Back East, people read picture books recounting his exploits. But the young man, the topographer, was not well-known at all. At least, for all his calculations, measurements, maps, sketches, and notebooks, at least now something would be left behind. They would call it the Kern River.

“Detail of Forest Camp at Shasta Peak” by accomplished artist and explorer Edward Kern.
“Detail of Forest Camp at Shasta Peak” by accomplished artist and explorer Edward Kern.

The river ran down from the mountainous region west of Walker’s Pass, named for the trapper and mountain man, Joseph R. Walker. It slashed and burrowed its way through rock and soil, down into the swampy area that would soon be named “Baker’s Field,” for State Senator Col. Thomas Baker.

Other place names would follow to recall the topographer: Kern Island, Kern City, Kern River Slough, Kern Lake, Kern River Canyon, and Kernville.

The County that formed around the river 150 years ago this year would also come to bear the topographer’s name. And down through history, countless businesses, civic groups, government agencies, and public spaces would come to bear his surname. How is it that this quiet, amiable, often sickly young man from Philadelphia, who never resided in the county which bears his name, came to play such a critical role in the expansion westward of the American experiment?

An unplanned encounter in Missouri, during which he met two of his personal heroes, would change the course of his life.


Edward Meyer Kern was born October 26, 1822 [some sources, 1823] in Philadelphia, PA, the youngest child born to John Kern III and Mary (Bignell) Kern. Kern, along with his two older brothers, Richard Kern (b. 1821 ) and Benjamin (b. 1818), would all figure prominently in westward expeditions which represented what some saw as America’s “Manifest Destiny.”

Trained formally as an artist, Edward Kern mastered a number of skills and specialties in his schooling, including botany, cartography, taxidermy, and geology. As William J. Heffernan wrote in his biography of Kern (Edward M. Kern—The Travels of an Artist-Explorer, 1953), “…if the occasion demanded, he put aside his scientific gear, and shouldered his rifle in skirmishes with hostile Indians.” [Historic Site Markers Kern County, Kern County Historical Society, 1991, p. 38]

Heffernan’s qualification on that score may be overdrawn, as there exists little evidence that Kern was even infrequently engaged in bloodshed. The overall portrait that emerges is that of a quiet, studious wanderer, less a man of action than of thought. His purpose as a government artist was to observe, record, capture in charcoal or watercolor, the distinctive natural features of the lands explored. The accurate and compelling recordation of routes, along with their flora, fauna, soils, rocks, and wildlife, would prove invaluable to both future expeditions and for the assessment of discovered territories.

The Pathfinder, John Fremont
The Pathfinder, John Fremont

As to his look, he is generally described as tall, lanky, with wavy red hair and beard, deliberate and careful in his movements. He laughed easily but was given to self-deprecation. His epilepsy first became apparent when he was four years old, and was a lifelong burden.

There would be other burdens, most of them arising from his association with the Pathfinder, John Fremont.

In St. Louis, MO, the early summer of 1845, possibly on the steamboat where John Charles Fremont spent much of his time, Edward Kern met the renowned explorer, who had already become a national celebrity. It was a time of expansionism, fueled by mercantile interests, academics, novel writers and the government itself, which was anxious to promote the future value of explored territories. Fremont had not just advocated the idea of manifest destiny. He had traversed the mountains, deserts, canyons, and vistas of the West, and reported his explorations in detailed accounts. Wrote the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Fremont has touched my imagination. What a wild life, and what a fresh kind of existence! But ah, the discomforts!”

Kern also met another celebrity, whose reputation as a mountain man, Indian fighter, and scout had already filled the pages of paperback books in the East: Charles “Kit” Carson, who had already accompanied Fremont on his first two successful expeditions. Carson’s fluency in several Indian tongues, as well as his “boots-on-the-ground” knowledge of topography throughout the West, had been invaluable.

Kern soon signed onto Fremont’s next expedition, which was originally intended only to find the eastern source of the Arkansas River. Clearly, Fremont was impressed with the young man from Philadelphia, and wrote in his memoir, “He was besides an accomplished artist; his skill at sketching from nature and in accurately drawing and coloring birds and plants made him a valuable accession to the expedition.”

Fremont set out with 55 men from St. Louis on June 1, 1845. Replacing Charles Preuss, Kern was the expedition’s cartographer, topographer, and artist, salaried at $3.00 a day.


The Indian Massacres

Kern’s expeditions with Fremont introduced him to legendary mountain man Kit Carson.
Kern’s expeditions with Fremont introduced him to legendary mountain man Kit Carson.

On May 9, 1846, in the mountainous area of Bitter Springs, near what is today Fort Irwin, the expedition suffered the theft of more than a dozen horses. Fremont dispatched Kit Carson and Alexis Godey to retrieve the stock and punish the thieves. On the following day, he and his band came upon the fruits of that revenge. As he wrote in his memoir:

Two indians were stretched on the ground, fatally pierced with bullets; the rest fled, except for a lad that was captured. The scalps of the fallen were instantly stripped off; but in the process one of them, who had two balls through his body, sprung to his feet, the blood streaming from his skinned head, and uttering a hideous howl. An old squaw, possibly his mother, stopped and looked back from the mountainside she was climbing, threatening and lamenting. The frightful spectacle appalled the stout hearts of our men; but they did what humanity required, and quickly terminated the agonies of the gory savage.

Kern also later made an engraving of a brutal counterattack against a Klamath Lake area tribe believed to have earlier attacked the expedition. Historians now deem that slaughter to have been a case of mistaken identity, as the many victims of the slaughter belonged to another, rival tribe, and not the original attackers.

The bloody deeds had been the work of Kern’s hero, Kit Carson, and Alexis Godey. Appalled or not, there is no record of a protest from Kern (as there would be later from the previous cartographer Preuss, who wrote years later, “Are these whites not much worse than the Indians?”). In fact, Kern documented the Paiute massacre of women and children in an engraving, and sketched depictions of other violent encounters with Indian tribes. There is no record of his conscience being at all weighed down by the bloody spectacles. But nothing of what we otherwise know regarding his character and disposition suggests that he either approved of or supported the brutality. Or protested it.


The Donner Party Delay

In June of 1846, Gen. Fremont left Sutter’s Fort in the Sacramento Valley, to command at the Bear Flag Revolt against Mexico. He left 23-year-old Edward M. Kern in command. During that command, news arrived to Kern that the Donner Party, whose destination had been Sutter’s Fort, was stranded.

A series of mishaps, including early spring snow storms, had trapped 87 members of the Reed-Donner party in the Sierra Nevadas. Historians continue to argue about why the tragedy happened, why the rescues did not succeed, and who bears responsibility for the fate of 39 souls who died in the pass. John C. Fremont bore responsibility for appointing an inexperienced Edward Kern to lead Sutter’s Fort; and Kern himself, who made indecisive pronouncements on a possible rescue, and who never followed through on vague promises, bears his share of blame.


His Brothers

In 1848, Edward Kern convinced his brothers, Richard (also an artist), and Benjamin, a physician, to join him on Fremont’s Fourth Expedition, which had as its target the Rocky Mountains, Southern Colorado, and Northern New Mexico. By the time the party reached the Pueblo, CO, area, bitter cold and blinding snow became life-threatening. Ten members of the band died.

The Kern brothers departed for New Mexico and, on the way, to accelerate their travel, hid goods and some of their work product in a cave. Once in New Mexico, Benjamin and one of Fremont’s guides returned to find the goods, but were set upon and killed by a band of Ute Indians.

Edward and Richard, bitter toward Fremont for what they saw as his abysmal failure to plan, and his abandonment of his men, stayed on in New Mexico. In 1853, after working closely together on documenting by drawing the vast regions of Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, the brothers took assignments on separate missions, Edward on an expedition to find a more direct route from Santa Fe to Fort Leavenworth, and Richard with the Gunnison-Beckwith Expedition to survey a possible rail route through the Rockies. Richard Kern died during that expedition.

During the following eight years, Edward Kern embarked on a series of expeditions which took him to China, Japan, Siberia, and Tahiti. He returned to Philadelphia in 1860.

In early May of 1861, possibly for political reasons, President Lincoln made Fremont Major-General in the Union Army, and gave him full command of the Department of the West, with headquarters based in St. Louis. For reasons not disclosed in the available memoirs, Fremont reached out once again to Kern who affiliated with him, either burying or forgiving the past. The affiliation was short-lived, however. Fremont misallocated the resources at his disposal and was charged with corruption regarding the supply line. A later proclamation for emancipation regarding slaves in Missouri, preceded by an order of martial law, set him at loggerheads with Lincoln. He was soon relieved of his duties, as was Kern.

Kern returned to the city of his birth and opened an artist’s studio where he taught young men the basics of art and drawing.


On November 24, 1863, “Fightin’ Joe” Hooker’s Union Army forces took Lookout Mountain in “The Battle Above the Clouds” and William Tecumseh Sherman crossed the Tennessee River to take up strong positions on the north end of Missionary Ridge. And one day later, in Philadelphia, the city of his birth, far from the California county which would bear his name just three years later, Edward M. Kern died at his Center City home. He was one month into his fortieth year.

While some termed it a death due to “natural causes,” most historians attribute it to his epilepsy. His long-time affiliation with Fremont began with admiration and concluded in hatred. It had caused him to lose two brothers, his confidence in any ability to lead in a crisis, and, arguably, a good deal of his humanity. GENERATIONS

Art courtesy College of the Siskiyous Library Mount Shasta Collection (forest camp), library of congress (fremont), wikimedia.org (novel)

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