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John Charles Frémont

John Charles Frémont

John Charles Frémont (1813-1890) was an American explorer, politician, and soldier. Through his explorations in the West he stimulated the American desire to own that region. He was the first presidential candidate of the Republican party.

Born on Jan. 31, 1813, in Savannah, Ga., John C. Frémont was the illegitimate son of a French émigré, John Charles Frémon (sic), and Mrs. Anne Whiting Pryor. He was raised in Charleston, S. C. Frémont proved precocious, especially in mathematics and the natural sciences, as well as handsome. He attended Charleston College (1829-1831) but was expelled for irregular attendance.

Through the influence of Joel R. Poinsett, Frémont obtained a post as teacher of mathematics on the sloop Natchez and visited South American waters in 1833. In 1836 he helped survey a railroad route between Charleston and Cincinnati, and in 1836-1837 he worked on a survey of Cherokee lands in Georgia.

His Explorations

In 1838, through the influence of Poinsett, Frémont obtained a commission as second lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers of the U.S. Army. Assigned to the expedition of J. N. Nicollet which explored in Minnesota and the Dakotas, he gained knowledge of natural science and topographical engineering, as well as experience on the frontier. Also through Nicollet, he met the powerful senator from Missouri Thomas Hart Benton—and fell in love with Benton's daughter Jessie.

Benton secured an appointment for Frémont to explore the Des Moines River, which was accomplished in 1841. That fall he married Jessie Benton, gaining her father as protector. In 1842 Frémont was sent to explore the Wind River chain of the Rockies and to make a scientific exploration of the Oregon Trail. Employing Kit Carson as guide, he followed the trail through South Pass. His report was filled with tales of adventure and contained an excellent map. Frémont was on his way to becoming a popular hero with a reputation as the "Great Pathfinder," but, in reality, he had been following the trails of mountain men.

In 1843 Frémont headed an expedition that explored South Pass, the Columbia River, and the Oregon country, returning by way of Sutter's Fort in Mexican California. His report was printed just as James K. Polk became president, a time when expansionist feeling was high; the 10,000 copies of this report increased Frémont's heroic stature.

Mexican War

In 1845 Polk sent Frémont and soldiers (with Kit Carson as guide) to California. Expelled from California by its governor, Frémont wintered in Oregon. Polk's orders arrived in May. Frémont then marched to Sutter's Fort and there on June 14, 1846, assumed command of the American settlers' Bear Flag Revolt. Aided by commodores J. D. Sloat and Robert F. Stockton, his forces were victorious, and he received the surrender of California at Cahuenga on Jan. 13, 1847.

Immediately Frémont became embroiled in a fight for the governorship of California with Gen. Stephen W. Kearny, who had marched overland from Missouri. Frémont was arrested, taken to Washington, D.C., and tried for mutiny, insubordination, and conduct prejudicial to good order. Found guilty, he was ordered dismissed from the Army. Polk remitted the penalty, but Frémont, in anger, resigned.

Political Career

Frémont moved to California, on the way conducting a private survey for a railroad route. In California he acquired land in the Sierra foothills, the Mariposa estate, and grew wealthy from mining. He bought real estate in San Francisco and lived lavishly, winning election as U.S. senator from California. He drew the short term and served only from Sept. 9, 1850, to March 4, 1851. Afterward he visited Paris and London, where he raised funds for ambitious schemes on the Mariposa. In 1853-1854 he conducted another private expedition surveying a railroad route, along the 37th-38th parallels.

In 1856 the newly formed Republican party named Frémont its first presidential candidate because of his strong stand on free soil in Kansas and his attitude against enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law. His campaign suffered from a shortage of funds, and he lost, but he was at the peak of his career.

Subsequent Career

Frémont's overspeculation at the Mariposa led to his loss of this property. Then in 1861, at the outbreak of the Civil War, he performed disastrously as a major general at St. Louis and in western Virginia. In 1864 Radical Republicans approached Frémont about running for president in opposition to Abraham Lincoln; Frémont first accepted, then declined ungraciously.

After the war he was involved in promoting the Kansas and Pacific and the Memphis and Little Rock railroads. Both lines went bankrupt in 1870, leaving Frémont almost penniless. In 1878 his claim that the Republican party owed him a debt netted him appointment as governor of Arizona. He held the position until 1881, when angry protests from that territory led to his removal.

Frémont's old age was filled with frustrating schemes to recoup his fortune—while he was supported by his wife's authorship. In 1890 he was pensioned at $6,000 per year as a major general; he died 3 months later (July 13, 1890) in New York.

Further Reading

Only one volume of Frémont's autobiographical Memoirs of My Life (1887) was published. Jesse Benton Frémont wrote several works that give information about her husband's career, the best of which are Souvenirs of My Time (1887) and Far-West Sketches (1890). Good biographies include Frederick S. Dellenbaugh, Frémont and '49 (1914), which has excellent sketches of his expeditions; Cardinal Goodwin's critical John Charles Frémont: An Explanation of His Career (1930); and Allan Nevins's laudatory Frémont: The West's Greatest Adventurer (2 vols., 1928) and his more balanced, one volume edition, Frémont: Pathmaker of the West (1939). □

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Frémont, John Charles

John Charles Frémont, 1813–90, American explorer, soldier, and political leader, b. Savannah, Ga. He taught mathematics to U.S. naval cadets, then became an assistant on a surveying expedition (1838–39) between the upper Mississippi River and the Missouri. He eloped (1841) with Jessie, daughter of Senator Thomas H. Benton, who, after he became reconciled to the match, helped his son-in-law secure command of an expedition to explore the Des Moines River.

The next year (1842) Frémont headed an expedition to the Rocky Mts. with Kit Carson as guide, and in 1843–44, with first Thomas Fitzpatrick and then Carson as guide, he went to Oregon. He explored the Nevada country, crossed the Sierra Nevada to California, and returned home by a more southerly route. His enthusiastic reports created wide interest in Western scenery and Western concerns.

In 1845 he again went to California. Under his influence American settlers there raised the standard of revolt against the Mexican authorities and set up (1846) the Bear Flag republic at Sonoma. The arrival of Stephen W. Kearny and Commodore Robert Stockton resulted in a quarrel, as both had orders placing them in command. Frémont sided with Stockton and accepted from him an appointment as civil governor. When Kearny received orders indicating that Stockton was not his superior, Frémont was arrested, court-martialed, and found guilty. The penalty was remitted by President Polk, but Frémont, proud and injured, resigned from government service.

In 1848 he led an ill-judged and disastrous effort to locate passes for a transcontinental railroad. His fortunes climbed after gold was discovered on his California estate, although he was deprived of some of his wealth by the sharp practice of others. He served briefly (1850–51) as one of the first U.S. senators from California, and the Republicans chose him as their presidential candidate in 1856. In the Civil War he was given command of the Western Dept., but his radical policy toward slavery and slaveholders, both of which he abhorred, led to his removal. He was given a new command, but, when placed under the orders of John Pope, he resigned. Unsuccessful attempts (1870) to build a railroad to the Pacific—accompanied by actions of his agents that roused sharp criticism—cost him his fortune.

Beggared, he struggled on, supported by his wife's earnings from writing and by his appointment as governor of Arizona Territory (1878–1883). In 1890 he was belatedly given a pension but did not live long to enjoy it. The Pathfinder, as he is sometimes called, is one of the most controversial figures of Western history. His critics call him braggart and charlatan; his supporters point to his courage, his handling of men, and his determination to open the West.


Frémont's early reports were combined as Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842, and to Oregon and North California in the Years 1843–44 (1845). His memoirs (1887) are disappointing and incomplete.

See also biography by A. Nevins (rev. ed. 1955); R. J. Bartlett, John C. Frémont and the Republican Party (1930, repr. 1970); W. Brandon, The Men and the Mountain (1955); L. and A. W. Hafen, ed., Frémont's Fourth Expedition (1960); D. Roberts, Kit Carson, John C. Frémont and the Claiming of the American West (2000); S. Denton, Passion and Principle: John and Jessie Frémont (2007).

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"Frémont, John Charles." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

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"Frémont, John Charles." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved January 18, 2018 from