Imagine an Upper Klamath River Basin and Upper Klamath Lake abundant with salmon populations. It wasn’t so long ago when several of the earliest Euro-American explorers to reach the Klamath River Basin noted the bountiful salmon runs that the Klamath River supported. An intriguing account comes from the memoirs of John Charles Fremont, the well-known explorer, and politician. Driven to explore by his deep fascination with “the great west,” his writings are a snapshot into history, describing what many might have witnessed along their travels through the Klamath River Basin in the years before California and Oregon became states and the widespread intervention of American settlers.
Fremont’s travels to the region occurred during the 1840s and his writings provide a captivating window into the history of Upper Klamath River Basin’s people, flora, and fauna in the years immediately preceding the California Gold Rush. His memoirs describe a world that had experienced limited intervention from outsiders and recounts the subsequent rapid and expansive colonization following the economic boom.
Fremont’s memoirs describe his journey, in 1846, from the eastern fork of the Sacramento River to the area around what is commonly called Upper Klamath Lake in south-central Oregon. His description of the region mentions that the “Tlamath,” people who lived along the lake’s shores enjoyed an abundance of salmon that “crowd[ed] in great numbers to the lake,” up the Klamath River. The explorer and his group traded “with the Indians for dried fish and salmon,” and noted that the Klamath people had “fixed habitations around the shores of the lake, particularly at the outlet and inlet.” There were clearly enough salmon making their way upriver from the mouth of the Klamath River to the lake for Klamath communities to depend on them as a source of food and means of exchange.
Salmon were much loved by Fremont as a source of food and seemed to represent the potential wealth contained in the territories he explored. They are mentioned repeatedly in his records. During his many explorative trips along the Pacific Coast and the interiors of California and Oregon, he noted that “salmon crowd in immense numbers up the Umpqua, Tlamath, and Trinity Rivers.” He noted with enthusiasm the presence of large amounts of salmon in the Upper Klamath River Basin and in what is commonly referred to as Upper Klamath Lake. He saw and interacted with indigenous people in the region who relied on salmon as a staple food supply and whose communities were established in areas with excellent access to what Fremont described as “salmon waters.” His memoirs contain this passage that communicates the admiration he held for the fish, witnessing their resolve: “Entering all the rivers of the coast far to the north, and finding their way into the smaller branches which penetrate the forest of the interior country, climbing up cataracts and lesser falls, this fish had a large share in supporting the Indians…”
With the hard work of local communities throughout the Basin, salmon will find their way home to the Upper Klamath Basin again soon.