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John C. Fremont exhibit (and cannon) marching into Las Vegas

Take heart, UNLV fans: The Fremont cannon is back in Las Vegas.

Only it’s the real one this time, not that navy-blue knockoff currently being held hostage by a certain Reno-based university.

The original mountain howitzer that accompanied explorer John C. Fremont on his 1840s expedition across the Great Basin highlights a new traveling exhibit set to open Saturday at the Nevada State Museum at the Springs Preserve.

“Finding Fremont: Pathfinder of the West” focuses on one of the 19th century’s most colorful and accomplished figures and the namesake of downtown Las Vegas’ best known street.

Fremont was an illegitimate child born from a scandalous affair, whose ambition and wit carried him across the frontier and up through the highest levels of American politics and the military.

He led three well-documented expeditions through the West, served as the territorial governor of Arizona and one of the first U.S. senators from the new state of California, led troops in battle as a Union general and twice ran for president.

On the map

The yearlong exhibit largely focuses on his second major expedition to map and describe the Oregon Trail. The journey in 1843 and 1844 carried Fremont across Northern Nevada and back again through the southern part of the what is now the Silver State. Along the way, he coined the term “The Great Basin,” named (or renamed) such prominent features as Pyramid Lake and the Carson, Humboldt and Walker rivers, and earned a nickname that lives on today: “The Great Pathfinder.”

“He created such a good scientific record, he literally opened the path to the West,” said Tom Dyer, exhibits manager for the state museum in Las Vegas. “Nevada reaped the benefits of that whole westward expansion.”

Fremont also put Las Vegas on the map, quite literally.

Dyer said some 20,000 copies of the explorer’s map from his 1843-44 expedition were printed and carried West by settlers, some of whom followed his directions to the watery oasis where the Springs Preserve now stands.

Fremont described it this way in a diary entry from May 3, 1844: “After a day’s journey of 18 miles, in a northeasterly direction, we encamped in the midst of another very large basin, at a camping ground called Las Vegas. … Two narrow streams of clear water, four or five feet deep, gush suddenly with a quick current, from two singularly large springs; these, and other waters of the basin, pass out in a gap to the eastward. The taste of the water is good, but rather too warm to be agreeable; the temperature being 71 in the one and 73 in the other. They, however, afford a delightful bathing place.”

“Right where we are right now is where he was talking about,” Dyer said.

In the display

The exhibit on Fremont’s life debuted at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City in January 2014 and later traveled to three museums in Oregon. This marks its first visit to Southern Nevada.

The display was produced by the state museum in Carson City and the Des Chutes Historical Museum in Bend, Oregon, in partnership with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management offices in Nevada and Oregon and the U.S. Forest Service.

After a reception for museum members and guests at 6 p.m. Friday, the exhibit will open to the public at 9 a.m. Saturday.

The collection includes Fremont’s presentation sword and Colt pistol, a flag from one of his presidential campaigns, expedition maps, artifacts from the trail, and modern photographs of Fremont campsites that still resemble those 19th century settings.

And at the center of it all is the famous cannon.

It took Dyer and three other museum staff members to lift the mountain howitzer’s 223-pound bronze tube onto its replica, two-wheeled carriage, which is painted a nice, neutral green.

In a display case nearby are metal wheel rims and other pieces thought to be from the original carriage. They were recovered in 1997 and 2001 in the eastern Sierra Nevada, where Fremont and his party are said to have abandoned their howitzer in the snow.

“There are some historians who dispute that this is the same cannon,” Dyer said. “I like to think this is the one.”

Contact Henry Brean at hbrean @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Follow @RefriedBrean on Twitter.

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