It’s about time to wish Kern County a happy 150th birthday. It was on April 21, 1866, the state Legislature created the county of Kern with Havilah as the county seat.
The Californian plans to celebrate this milestone all year through stories, photos and graphics. You’ll also learn about a big birthday bash being planned for the spring.
One of the things we plan to do is serialize stories we’ve published over the years that chronicle our rich history. Today we start with excerpts from a piece the newspaper ran in 1966 — upon the county’s centennial — answering one basic but still intriguing question: How did Kern get its name?
Edward Kern gave name to river and county
The county that was formed from portions of Los Angeles, Tulare and San Bernardino counties 150 years ago took its name from one of the great rivers of the west, the Kern.
At times the river had been known as the Rio Bravo, “the strong river,” Rio Porciuncula and El Rio de San Felipe. Father Garces, one of the great travelers of the region, had named it the San Felipe when he came upon it in 1778 on his way north to gain converts to Christianity among the Indian rancherias of the San Joaquin Valley.
But the name that endured was the one given by John C. Fremont, who led several expeditions of the west, in honor of his topographer, Edward M. Kern, who had camped on its banks in the winter of 1845-1846.
Kern, with Richard Owen, Theodore Talbot and the great mountain man Joseph Walker had moved south from Walker’s Lake under orders to rejoin Fremont in the San Joaquin Valley, crossed the Sierra Nevada through the pass discovered by Walker in 1834, and camped at the junction of the main course of the river and its south fork, a site now beneath the waters of Lake Isabella.
Kern and his party remained here from Dec. 28, 1845, until Jan. 18, 1846, then crossed the southern spur of Greenhorn Mountain and dropped down to the San Joaquin Valley, where they moved northward to the Kings River and learning that Fremont and his group were near San Jose, they proceeded to rendezvous there. To the river described by Kern in his report to Fremont, the pathmaker gave the name of his topographer. The name has endured.
THE KERN FAMILY
Edward Kern was born in Philadelphia Oct. 23, 1823, the youngest of nine children, three of whom played prominent roles in the exploration of the West: Edward, Richard and Benjamin, all artists and adventurers. Benjamin was killed by Indians in the ill-fated fourth expedition of Fremont, which concluded in northern New Mexico; Richard died in an ambush with Captain James Gunnison and other members of his party on the river that now bears Gunnison’s name in western Colorado.
Edward, after a career that led him across the continent and to Japan, died of natural causes at age 40.
Catching the spirit of western adventure, Kern was appointed as botanist and artist to Fremont’s third expedition in 1845. He joined Fremont in St. Louis that spring and the party proceeded to Bent’s Fort, Colo., where it was joined by three notable mountain men, Richard Owens, Kit Carson and Alexis Godey. Exploring, mapping and conducting scientific research, the expedition moved westward, joined in the meantime by the famous Walker, whom Fremont had tapped as a guide.
Fremont divided the party, taking a small group with him directly over the Sierra Nevada mountains to Sutter’s Fort and instructing Talbot to lead the main force southward “around the point of the California mountains into the head of the San Joaquin Valley.” Kern, Owens and Walker were in this unit.
The group entered Walker’s Pass, camped for several days at the junction of the main and south forks of the Kern River and rejoined Fremont at San Jose after missing the original rendezvous on the Kings River.
Because his topographer described to him a river running through the lower edge of the Sierra Nevada, Fremont, forgetting or ignoring the earlier names of this lively stream, named it for Edward Kern.
KERN’S LATER LIFE
Kern later served as commander at Sutter’s Fort and mounted relief efforts to aid American emigrants trapped in the snows of the Sierra, including the famous Donner family. Kern also led several successful expeditions against the Indians from Fort Sutter, both militarily and diplomatically.
He returned to Philadelphia in 1848 after his work in California had added new territory to the United States, but just couldn’t resume the humdrum existence of teaching drawing to young Philadelphians. Fremont was getting ready for a new expedition to the West, abetted by his father-in-law, Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, this one to establish a railroad route westward between the 37th and 38th parallels. Congress declined to pay for this one and Fremont went ahead with private financing.
Kern signed on and convinced his two brothers to join him. The fourth expedition moved out Oct. 20, 1848, but proved difficult almost from the start. Diaries of Benjamin and Richard Kern and others reveal incredibly harsh conditions the group encountered through the mountains along the Rio Grande Del Norte in New Mexico.
After great suffering and the death of several members, the scattered units of the expedition made their way to Taos, N.M., where most of the survivors became bitter toward Fremont, whom they accused of misleading and deserting them. None was more vocal in his hatred of Fremont than Edward Kern, who felt responsible for the misery of his brothers. The hatred grew when they learned Fremont had gone to California and made a fortune from his Mariposa estate while the Kerns were penniless and without prospects.
Benjamin was killed by Ute Indians while attempting to recover drawings and other papers lost in the San Juan mountains. Edward and Richard Kern, unemployed and desttute, remained in Taos for several months. When Lt. James Simpson was ordered to conduct a survey of the route between Jemez, N.M., and Conyon de Chelly, Ariz., he engaged the Kern brothers. Edward had the topography job and Richard made drawings of the landscape. The brothers returned to Philadelphia after the expedition ended.
But neither brother would settle down. Richard got his brother interested in an expedition into the western Pacific, which improved knowledge of whaling regions and the routes of trading vessels between the United States and China. The expedition resulted in opening of Japan for western commerce.
In addition to his cartographic duties, he served as a naturalist, taxidermist, artist and photographer. He was also a powerful force in keeping up the morale of his shipmates.
Kern returned to his home in Philadelphia and apparently overcame his differences with Fremont because there are records of his appointment by Fremont to the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers in 1861 in Missouri. An obituary notice appeared in the Philadelphia Public Ledger indicates Kern died Nov. 25, 1863, a month past his 40th birthday.