John C. Frémont

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John C. Frémont

Born January 21, 1813
Savannah, Georgia
Died July 13, 1890
New York, New York

American West explorer
known as the "Pathfinder"

Removed from his command as a Union general
for issuing his own "emancipation proclamation"
in Missouri

Writer Edward D. Harris

John C. Frémont was one of the best-known explorers of the American West in the first half of the nineteenth century. "His scientific and surveying work was crucial in opening America beyond the Mississippi, and his heroic image and legend helped imbue [fill] the West with the romance with which it is still colored," according to Edward D. Harris in John Charles Frémont and the Great Western Reconnaissance. "He remains a symbol of a younger, untamed, and adventurous America."

In 1856, Frémont became the antislavery Republican political party's first presidential candidate. When the Civil War began a few years later, he took command of Union forces in Missouri—one of the four "border states" that allowed slavery but remained part of the United States. Instead of using diplomacy to gain the support of those residents who had wanted to join the Confederacy, Frémont used harsh, controversial measures to maintain order. In fact, Frémont declared that he would take away property and free slaves belonging to anyone who supported the Southern cause. He took this step a full year before President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; see entry) issued his Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves in the South. Because Frémont had exceeded his authority, the president removed him from command a short time later.

Born out of wedlock

John Charles Frémont was born on January 21, 1813, in Savannah, Georgia. His last name was originally Frémon, but he added the t in 1836 to make it sound more American. His father, a dashing Frenchman named Jean Charles Frémon, made a living teaching French. His mother, Anne Whiting Pryor, was actually married to a man other than his father at the time of his birth. She had married a wealthy Virginia landowner, much older than herself, at the age of seventeen in order to help her family out of financial problems. But she fell in love with Frémon and ran off to Georgia with him when their affair became public. They were married after her first husband died. Sadly, Jean Frémon died a short time later, when John was five years old.

After the death of her husband, Anne Frémon took her four children to Charleston, South Carolina. She supported the family by taking boarders into their home. John managed to overcome his family's poverty and the circumstances of his birth with his intelligence, charm, and good looks. Several local businessmen took an interest in him as a boy. They helped him attend a local private school and then enter Charleston College. Although Frémont had the potential to be a good student, he did not pay much attention to his schoolwork and left college after a few months. He took a teaching position at a private school and continued his education on his own. He particularly enjoyed studying navigation, and learned how to calculate a geographical position in latitude and longitude using scientific instruments.

Becomes an explorer

In 1834, Frémont got a chance to put his navigational knowledge to work. A prominent Charleston resident, Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779–1851), invited him to serve as a mathematics teacher aboard the American warship Natchez during a two-year tour of South America. The trip convinced Frémont that he was destined to lead a life of adventure. Shortly after he returned, he helped survey a railroad route from Charleston to Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1836, he joined a government survey team that mapped the Cherokee Indian territory in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia. The U.S. government wanted a detailed map of the region because they were preparing to force the Cherokee off of their ancestral lands. Frémont did not question the government's policies. In general, he liked and respected the Indians he met on his travels. But he was not overly concerned that his mission—charting areas for future white settlement—would destroy the native cultures.

In 1837, Frémont joined the U.S. Army Bureau of Topographical Engineers. This section of the army produced detailed maps of the natural and man-made features of various regions for the government. For his first assignment, he accompanied the famous explorer and scientist Joseph Nicolas Nicollet (1790–1843) on an expedition to survey the area of the West that had been acquired from France in 1803. Known as the Louisiana Purchase, this territory had not been fully explored until that time. In 1839, Frémont traveled with Nicollet to Washington, D.C., to present their findings to the U.S. Congress.

During his time in Washington, Frémont met Thomas Hart Benton (1782–1858), a powerful U.S. senator from Missouri. Benton was known for his stand against slavery and for his strong support of westward expansion. The senator liked Frémont and encouraged Congress to let him lead his own survey expeditions. But Benton was not pleased when Frémont fell in love with his daughter Jessie. He wanted her to marry someone more stable, wealthy, and politically connected. But the young couple ignored his objections and were married in 1841.

Gains reputation across the country as the "Pathfinder"

The following year, Frémont got an opportunity to lead his own expedition. He took a survey team to the Rocky Mountains. When he returned in 1843, he produced a colorful report for Congress with the help of his wife, who was an accomplished writer. The report included detailed maps, a catalog of plants and rocks, latitude and longitude readings of key spots, and advice for settlers, along with exciting stories about Frémont's adventures. It was soon published as a book and became very popular. People across the eastern part of the country hailed Frémont as a hero. Newspapers even gave him a nickname, the "Pathfinder."

In 1844, Frémont led an even bigger expedition to Oregon Country, along the Pacific coast. His team surveyed along the Columbia River and returned by way of the Great Basin region of the Southwest. His 1845 report to Congress about this trip was the most extensive survey of the West yet completed. Once again, copies of his report were snapped up by adventure-loving readers. They did not seem to care whether all of his stories were strictly true. They simply enjoyed his vivid accounts of his travels in the wilderness. "In later years critics and even some of Frémont's companions of the trail would charge that he artfully embellished [improved by adding imaginary details] his accounts to create himself a hero," Harris noted, "but there is no doubt that Frémont's vision of the West captured the imagination of countless Americans."

Trouble in California

In 1845, Frémont led a group of explorers on an expedition to California. At that time, California was a territory that belonged to Mexico. But many Americans had settled in the region, and some of them wanted the United States to claim it. Mexican officials knew that the U.S. government was interested in taking California away from them. So when Frémont and his heavily armed men arrived, the Mexicans viewed them as a threat and ordered them to leave. Instead, Frémont added to the Mexican fears by building a log fort and raising the American flag over it. Frémont finally backed down after a tense standoff with the Mexican army.

By this time, however, many of his men were looking for a fight. As they moved north into the Sacramento Valley, they met American settlers who told them that the Klamath Indians who lived in the region were hostile (unfriendly). Frémont and his men soon confronted the Klamath. Nearly two hundred Indians died in the fight that followed. A short time later, a Klamath leader took revenge for the massacre by killing one of Frémont's men as he slept. Frémont's group responded with more violence, slaughtering many members of peaceful Indian tribes who lived nearby.

In 1846, with the approval of Frémont, a group of American settlers organized a rebellion against the Mexican authorities in California. In what became known as the Bear Flag Rebellion, the Americans ended up gaining control of the region without much difficulty. Then Frémont and several other military leaders in California became engaged in a heated dispute about who was in charge. Without the proper authority to do so, Navy commodore Robert Stockton (1795–1866) named Frémont governor of California. Then word arrived from Washington, D.C., that Army general Winfield Scott (1786–1866; see entry) had named another soldier, Stephen Kearney, as governor. Finally, Frémont received orders to return to Washington in June 1847.

When Frémont reached the Missouri River, however, he was arrested for mutiny (refusing to follow the orders of a higher-ranking military officer). As he was transported to Washington to face a court-martial (military trial), thousands of people turned out to show their support for the flamboyant explorer who had helped California gain its independence. His trial became front-page news across the country. Although the court found him guilty, he did not receive any punishment. Nevertheless, Frémont felt insulted by the verdict and resigned from the army.

Winter expedition fails

In 1848, Frémont decided to move his family to California, where he had purchased a forty thousand–acre ranch near Yosemite Valley. His wife and children traveled by boat around the southern coast of the United States. But he decided to make a privately financed winter expedition to the West. He convinced a group of twenty-two men to accompany him across the San Juan Mountains, along the present-day border of Colorado and New Mexico. By crossing the mountain range in winter, he hoped to prove that it was possible to create a transcontinental railroad linking East and West.

But the trip ended up being a disaster. Frémont and his men encountered blizzard conditions, with ten feet of snow and temperatures reaching twenty degrees below zero. They suffered from altitude sickness, snow blindness, and frostbite. To make matters worse, they ran out of food and ended up eating their pack mules. Finally, the party separated and Frémont's group went for help. But upon reaching safety, Frémont remained behind while one of his men led a rescue party to collect the survivors. In the end, ten of his men had lost their lives. But Frémont still considered the trip a success, and even attempted another winter crossing of the mountains several years later.

Enters politics

Frémont eventually made it to California and settled down with his family. Within a short time, prospectors discovered gold on his property, and he became a wealthy man. In 1849, Frémont was elected to represent California in the U.S. Senate when it became a state. Due to the timing of California's statehood, he ended up serving only three weeks in office. But he introduced eighteen separate pieces of legislation during this brief time. He also emerged as an outspoken opponent of the expansion of slavery.

After leaving office, Frémont spent some time traveling in Europe with his family. He also provided financial backing for the transcontinental railroad. In 1856, he ran for president of the United States as the candidate of the newly formed Republican political party. This party was founded by people who opposed slavery. "For the first time, a purely northern major political party had positioned itself squarely against the supporters of slavery," Kenneth C. Davis explained in Don't Know Much about the Civil War. "The distinctly regional division that the country had been moving toward was now firmly established."

At forty-three, Frémont became the youngest presidential candidate in American history. He used the campaign slogan "Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Men, and Frémont." His Democratic opponents launched fierce attacks on his background and his career. People who supported slavery desperately wanted him to be defeated. In fact, some Southern states threatened to secede (withdraw) from the United States if he were elected. Frémont ended up gaining a great deal of support in the North, but losing the overall election to James Buchanan (1791–1868).

Issues premature "Emancipation Proclamation" during the Civil War

In the next election, however, an antislavery candidate did become president. Shortly after Abraham Lincoln was elected, the Southern states made good on their threat to secede from the Union and form their own country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. But Northern leaders would not allow the Southern states to leave without a fight. In early 1861, the two sides went to war.

President Lincoln asked Frémont to rejoin the Union Army when the Civil War began. Frémont received the rank of major general and took command of the Department of the West. He was stationed in Missouri, a so-called "border state" that allowed slavery but decided to remain in the Union. Many people in Missouri still supported the South. Lincoln wanted Frémont to use diplomacy to gain the support of the state's residents.

Instead, Frémont immediately began instituting harsh measures to control Missourians who favored secession. In August 1861, he declared martial law (law enforced by military rather than civilian authorities) in Missouri and suspended many of the people's rights. He also announced his intention to confiscate (take away) the property of secessionists and free their slaves. At this point, however, the North's stated purpose in fighting the Civil War was to restore the Union. Lincoln worried that any talk about freeing slaves would drive Missouri and the other three border states into the Confederacy. In addition, Frémont did not have the authority to issue and enforce this order. As a result, Lincoln removed Frémont from his command in September.

Frémont received another chance to contribute to the Union war effort in 1862. He took command of the Department of West Virginia, but lost several battles against Confederate general Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (1824–1863; see entry) in the Shenandoah Valley. After being replaced once again, Frémont sat out the rest of the war in New York City.

Loses his fortune and fades from view

After the war ended in a Union victory in 1865, Frémont began to fade from public view. He lost his fortune when one of the railroad companies he had financed went bankrupt. He ended up losing his California property and going into debt. In the 1880s, he spent a great deal of time writing his life story. He hoped that it would be as popular as his earlier books and help him to regain his wealth. But his autobiography, Memoirs of My Life, generated little interest when it was published in 1887.

In 1890, the U.S. government recognized Frémont's early contributions as an army officer and granted him a military pension. But he became ill and died a short time later, on July 13, 1890. Frémont was pleased to see that many of the areas he had explored became states before his death, including Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming. He brought the West to the attention of the American people and led the way for future settlers. As his wife once proclaimed, "Cities have arisen on the ashes of his lonely campfires."

Where to Learn More

Egan, Ferol. Frémont: Explorer for a Restless Nation. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1977. Reprint, Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1985.

Frémont, John C. Memoirs of My Life. Chicago: Belford, Clarke, 1887.

Harris, Edward D. John Charles Frémont and the Great Western Reconnaissance. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.

Viola, Herman J. Exploring the West. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 1987.

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John C. Frémont

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