Frémont, John Charles
FRéMONT, JOHN CHARLES
John Charles Frémont (1895–1983) not only explored the American West, he played an important role in popularizing it. The tales of his exploits made the very idea of settling the West an exciting and popular idea, and those tales made him a national hero. Frémont made scientific contributions that were recognized nationally and internationally, and won him gold medals from the Royal Geographical Society of London and the Prussian government.
Frémont was born in Savannah, Georgia, on January 21, 1813. He was the illegitimate son of Charles Fremon, a Frenchman, and Anne Beverley Whiting Pryor, who had left her elderly husband to run away with Fremon. The union of Fremon and Pryor produced another son and daughter, and the family was a scandal in Richmond, Virginia. The Fremons were poor and moved frequently. When Charles Fremon died in 1818, Pryor took the family to Charleston, South Carolina. No one knows when John Frémont added the acute accent to the "e" and the "t" to his name.
The lawyer for whom Frémont had been a clerk sent him to private school at age fourteen. Afterwards, Frémont enrolled in the Scientific Department at the College of Charleston, but in 1831 was dismissed for "habitual irregularity and incorrigible negligence," just three months from graduating. Five years later, Frémont petitioned the college for his degree, and it was granted. The family was still poor, however, and despite frequent moving and determined efforts, John Frémont was unable to break out of poverty until he got his first big break. Joel Poinsett, an influential South Carolina politician, helped Fremont obtain an appointment as a teacher of mathematics to the midshipmen on the U.S.S. Natchez. Poinsett then helped Frémont gain employment, surveying land for the Charleston, Louisville, and Cincinnati Railroad, and for the Cherokee Indian lands in Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. The survey work concerned mountainous country and forests, and Frémont was to later write he had "found the path which I was 'destined to walk."'
Again due to the influence of Poinsett, Frémont was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers in 1838. His first assignment was to accompany French scientist Joseph Nicolas Nicollet on a reconnaissance of the region between the upper Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Frémont learned sophisticated methods of geodetic surveying, the use of the barometer in measuring altitude, and how to take astronomical observations from the French scientist. He also learned how to manage an expedition and to construct a map.
Back in Washington, D.C., Frémont met Jessie Benton and the two eloped on October 19, 1841. Jessie was the daughter of Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, and only 17 years of age when the couple eloped. Senator Benton's support was important to Frémont's career, and his wife became his collaborator in chronicling his journeys. Frémont took command of an expedition to survey the Platte River in 1842. In 1843, he again led a survey mission into the West, linking up with the Pacific Coast survey headed by Charles Wilkes (1798–1877). Christopher (Kit) Carson was Frémont's guide for these trips, and he was accompanied by German cartographer Charles Preuss.
Reunited with his wife in St. Louis, the couple wrote captivating accounts of his adventures—accounts that had much to do with glamorizing the exploration of the West and encouraging settlement of the area. Frémont laced his accounts with an enthusiasm for nature, as well as the pure adventure of shooting river rapids, traversing the Great Salt Lake in a rubber boat, and fighting snow to cross the Sierra Nevada mountains in mid-January. His stories were detailed and fun, but they also provided very useful information concerning terrain, campsites, water, vegetation, wildlife, and weather. Countless settlers used this information after Congress ordered Frémont's maps and reports published. As a result, Frémont became a national hero.
While on his third expedition to the West and California, Frémont was commissioned a lieutenant colonel in the Mounted Rifles. During that third expedition, American settlers in California mounted the Bear Flag Rebellion against Mexico, and Frémont became involved with a battalion of volunteers. Frémont and his California Battalion served under Robert F. Stockton during the Mexican War (1848), and Stockton rewarded Frémont with the governorship of California. Caught in a power struggle between Stockton and Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny, however, Frémont came out on the wrong side and was court-martialed and convicted on charges of mutiny, disobedience, and conduct prejudiced to military discipline. President James K. Polk (1845–1849) remitted the penalty and ordered Frémont to duty, but unable to deal with the original decision, Frémont resigned from the army.
Frémont's major life accomplishments occurred prior to the age of forty, with his explorations and writings on the West. He mined gold on his 44,000–acre estate in California. Though he reportedly made millions, he lost control of the property in 1864, along with his money. In the interim, he did serve a brief term in the United State Senate, representing California from 1853 to 1854. In 1856, he was the first nominee of the Republican Party for president and did nearly well enough to win the election. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), he served a brief term as a major general in command of the Western Department, headquartered in St. Louis. President Abraham Lincoln (1861–1865) fired him for a declaration Frémont made on August 31, 1861, freeing the slaves of Missouri rebels. Frémont also served as commander of the Mountain Division at Wheeling, West Virginia, during the Civil War, but Frémont again chose wrongly in his political affiliations and resigned.
After the war, Frémont bought a home on the Hudson River and became involved in railroad promotion. He lost everything in a failed attempt to finance and build a railroad from Norfolk, Virginia, to San Diego, California. In 1878, friend and President Rutherford B. Hayes (1877–1881) appointed him territorial governor of Arizona. Extended absences from the territory, along with conflicts of interest, prompted President Chester A. Arthur (1881–1885) to ask for his resignation, which Frémont submitted on October 11, 1881. Frémont wrote an autobiographical account, Memoirs, but the book did not address the more recent events in his life, and did not sell well.
In 1887, John and Jessie Frémont moved to Los Angeles, hoping to profit from a real estate boom. Their spinster daughter, Elizabeth, accompanied them, while sons John Charles, Jr., and Frank Preston, served in the Navy and the Army respectively. Frémont died July 13, 1890, in a New York boarding house while on a business trip. He and his wife are buried in a Rockland Cemetery overlooking the Hudson River.
See also: Westward Expansion
Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, Inc. 1998, s.v. "Frémont, John."
Goetzmann, William H. The World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia. Chicago: World Book, Inc. 1998, s.v. "Frémont, John."
Jackson, Donald, and Spence, Mary Lee. The Expeditions of John Charles Frémont. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970–84.
Nevins, Allan. Frémont: Pathmarker of the West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.
Spence, Mary Lee, and Anne Commire, editors. Historic World Leaders. Detroit: Gale Research, Inc., 1994, s.v. "Frémont, John."
Frémont, John Charles
Frémont, John Charles
Born January 21, 1813
Died July 13, 1890
Explorer, military leader, politician
"Frémont was required to work long hours in difficult wilderness conditions, yet he found his labors exhilarating and described the job as 'a kind of picnic with work enough to give it zest.'"
Edward D. Harris, in John Charles Frémont and the Great Western Reconnaissance
John Charles Frémont, known popularly as "The Pathfinder," was responsible for leading some of the greatest mapping expeditions of the nineteenth century. Covering more ground than the famous Lewis and Clark expedition (see Lewis and Clark entry), and reporting on his discoveries in far greater detail, Frémont's various expeditions west of the Mississippi River offered the American public a detailed view of lands that were then largely unknown. His reports helped fuel the national fever known as "manifest destiny" (the belief that the United States was destined to stretch all the way to the Pacific Ocean) and encouraged many to settle in the West. Frémont himself was a charismatic and controversial figure who wrote of his explorations with great flair, though he was often criticized—and once nearly sentenced to prison—for some of his questionable decisions.
Frémont was born on January 21, 1813, in Savannah, Georgia, to Anne Pryor and her lover Charles Frémon. Young Charley—as Frémont was called—grew up poor. Even as a child Frémont had a quick wit and a love of adventure. In his teens, Frémont (who added the t to his name at age twenty-three to sound more American) was employed by a Charleston lawyer who provided the boy with a good education. Frémont excelled at his studies and entered Charleston College when he was just sixteen. He was expelled from school after being distracted from his studies by a love affair. Frémont taught for a time and then jumped at the chance to have his first real adventure sailing aboard the warship Natchez on a tour of the coast of South America.
Birth of a surveyor
Frémont returned from his sailing trip in 1835 and went to work with a team that surveyed a proposed railway route between Charleston, South Carolina, and Cincinnati, Ohio. According to Edward D. Harris, author of John Charles Frémont and the Great Western Reconnaissance, "Frémont was required to work long hours in difficult wilderness conditions, yet he found his labors exhilarating and described the job as 'a kind of picnic with work enough to give it zest.'" He had found his career. Frémont joined the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers as a second lieutenant in 1838 and was assigned to a team reporting to famed scientist and explorer Joseph Nicolas Nicollet. The team was directed to map the region between the upper Mississippi and Missouri Rivers (most of present-day Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, and North Dakota).
Frémont's enthusiasm for exploring soon brought him to the attention of Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. An influential antislavery senator, Benton believed that the United States had the divine right to expand its influence throughout North America. In Frémont he saw someone who might venture into the wilderness beyond the Great Plains and bring back the maps and the detailed descriptions of the landscape that would make settlement possible. Frémont warmed to Benton's plans—and to Benton's young, beautiful daughter, Jessie. Though Jessie's parents hoped that their daughter would marry an influential politician, Jessie and Frémont fell deeply in love and eloped (ran away to get married without her parents' consent) in 1841. The family soon welcomed their new son-in-law. Benton became one of Frémont's biggest supporters in the years to come and gave Frémont political advantage. But Jessie was by far Frémont's biggest supporter; without her Frémont could not have written his required reports. Jessie took Frémont's disorganized notes and thoughts and shaped them into a coherent story.
In the spring of 1842 Frémont prepared to lead his first expedition for the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers. His goal was to map the first leg of the Oregon Trail (one of the main routes used to travel west, leaving from various points in Missouri). Frémont's party was to map the route from Westport, Missouri (present-day Kansas City), to South Pass in present-day Wyoming. The best-known and most helpful member of this exploring party was Kit Carson (1809–1868; see entry), a renowned guide and mountain man. Carson was so highly valued as a guide that he was paid an extravagant salary of one hundred dollars a month. Despite his enthusiasm, Frémont was not known as an especially skilled mountain man. He hired experienced and talented trail guides to help ensure the success (and survival) of his expeditions.
The party reached South Pass on August 8, 1842, but Frémont—longing for more adventure—was determined to scale the highest peak in the Wind River Range. In a death-defying ascent, Frémont and several of his party reached the 13,300-foot summit. With the help of his wife Jessie, Frémont recorded this and his other adventures and discoveries in his Report of an Exploration of the Country Lying Between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains on the Line of the Kansas and Great Platte Rivers. The report was widely read by those eager to learn about the West and helped make Frémont something of a national hero.
Frémont's next expedition—his most famous—called for him to map the country along the Oregon Trail all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The trip would take him beyond the boundaries of the United States and into Oregon Country, which was partially occupied by the British. Frémont's goal was to pave the way for this great territory to become part of the United States. Frémont's forty-man party left Westport, Missouri, in early June 1843, with Thomas "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick (c. 1799–1854; see entry) acting as the guide. On their long and wandering journey the party found time to survey the northern shores of the Great Salt Lake (in present-day Utah); the report on the survey encouraged Brigham Young (1801–1877; see entry) to lead the Mormons to settle there four years later. Frémont's party traveled north to the Snake River and then to the Columbia River, reaching the British outpost of Fort Vancouver in early November 1843. Though Fort Vancouver was Frémont's official destination, following orders was not in his nature, so he decided to continue on.
Remembering Kit Carson's stories about the beauty of California, Frémont prepared to lead his expedition south along the east side of the coastal mountain range (in the north the range is called the Cascades, but in the south it is called the Sierra Nevadas) in late November. Despite the warnings from many Native Americans that the mountains were impassable in the winter, Frémont pushed his men up and over the Sierra Nevada Mountains and they reached the Sacramento River in California on March 4, 1844. Frémont's party stopped for a short while at John Sutter's fort (see John Sutter entry) in the Sacramento Valley, which would become famous a few years later as the home of the California gold rush. Frémont then led his men into southern California, east across the Mojave Desert, over the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. Continuing eastward, the party reached St. Louis on August 6, 1844.
By the 1840s, very few Americans questioned whether the United States should be expanding into the lands west of the Mississippi River; they only asked how that expansion would occur. As Mexico and the United States argued over the borders of the Republic of Texas, formerly part of the nation of Mexico, indignant Americans proclaimed their nation's natural right to control the breadth of the continent. Most Americans assumed without question that their nation would eventually extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, while some even imagined that the United States would control all of North and South America. In 1845, as war with Mexico loomed, John L. O'Sullivan, editor of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, defined this faith in American expansion as the nation's "manifest destiny." The idea of manifest destiny implied that Americans had the God-given right to acquire and populate the territories stretching west to the Pacific Ocean. This idea has since been criticized as an excuse for the bold land grabs and the slaughter of Indians that characterized expansion. However, those who believed in it thought they were demonstrating the virtues of a nation founded on political liberty, individual economic opportunity, and Christian civilization. Senator Thomas Hart Benton was among many who believed that John Charles Frémont's mapping expeditions into the American West would pave the way for Americans to claim the continent as their own.
Frémont's report of his expedition caused quite a stir when it was presented to Congress on March 1, 1845. Filled with scientific information, maps, drawings, and advice to settlers, the report was most notable for Frémont's enthusiastic narrative of the adventures the party had encountered. The report sold thousands of copies and made Frémont and his wife real celebrities. Everywhere he went crowds gathered to see him. In St. Louis in the spring of 1845, writes Harris, "his fame was now so great that each time he ventured out in public he was mobbed by men seeking a place on his new expedition."
The Bear Flag Revolt
Frémont's charge for his 1845 expedition was to survey the lands along the Arkansas and Red Rivers in present-day Oklahoma and Texas. But Frémont once again had his own ideas. After quickly surveying those rivers, he and his party of sixty men headed due west, across the Rocky Mountains, south of the Great Salt Lake, and into California, which was still a Mexican territory. Frémont later claimed that he was authorized by the U.S. government to travel to California, though no records of this authorization exist. The presence of this large party of well-armed Americans alarmed the Mexican governor of California, and he ordered Frémont to leave. Frémont led his party north to Oregon Territory but returned to California in June 1846. Historians have debated whether Frémont was authorized by the U.S. government or acting on his own when he returned to California; most believe he was acting on his own. Frémont then led a group of American settlers in the Mexican territory in what became known as the Bear Flag Revolt against Mexican rule.
When Mexico and the United States officially went to war on July 19, 1846 (mainly over their clash of interests in Texas), U.S. Navy commodore Robert Stockton placed Frémont in charge of American forces in California, and Frémont aided the American victory over the Mexicans there. Later, Stockton even appointed Frémont governor of California, and Frémont held this post for more than a month. But Frémont's leadership was soon questioned when army general Stephen Kearny, an old enemy of Frémont, arrived to take charge of the American forces in California. Kearny charged that Stockton had had no authority to empower Frémont and that Frémont had directly defied the orders of a superior officer (Frémont had been ordered to turn over control in the territory to Kearny, but he had refused). Frémont had received orders from Washington, D.C., to return with Kearny, and on the return journey Kearny announced that Frémont was under arrest for mutiny.
Frémont was later convicted of mutiny and disobedience at a courtmartial and dismissed from the army, though the military court asked the president, James K. Polk (1795–1849), to lessen the sentence, which he did. Outraged over the charges and his court-martial, Frémont resigned from the army in 1848. Though Frémont's reputation was tarnished, many felt that the charges had political overtones and continued to revere Frémont.
Though he no longer served as an army expedition leader, Frémont was not ready to stop exploring. In 1848 he led a private expedition in search of a railroad route across present-day southern Colorado. Determined to prove that the route could be crossed in the winter, Frémont led his party to disaster. Trapped in the snow-covered mountains, eleven members of the party died, and some may have resorted to cannibalism (eating human flesh) to survive.
Frémont survived the disastrous expedition and returned to California to find that gold discoveries on land he owned there had made him a wealthy man. When California attained statehood in 1850, Frémont served as one of its first senators, and he created quite a stir with his strong antislavery speeches. In fact, his support of abolition cost him the next election. In 1853 Frémont set off on his final expedition. Traveling across the San Juan Mountains in southern Utah during the winter without an experienced guide, Frémont's party struggled against near starvation and frostbite before they made their way out of the mountains.
In 1856 the newly formed Republican political party was looking for a strong antislavery candidate with a national reputation to run for president. Frémont accepted the party's nomination, though he lost the election to Democrat James Buchanan. When the Civil War (1861–65; a war fought between the Northern and Southern United States over the issue of slavery) broke out, President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) named Frémont commander of the Department of the West. Frémont declared martial law (military rule) and issued an order freeing the slaves in Missouri. These actions exceeded Frémont's authority and caused Lincoln to relieve Frémont of his command. Given command of forces in Kentucky, Frémont soon found himself outclassed by Confederate general Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson and was again relieved of command.
Frémont's postwar years were neither happy nor terribly successful. He attempted several failed business projects before being made governor of Arizona Territory in 1878. When it became clear that he was using government money for personal expenses, he was asked to resign this post. In his later years his wife Jessie supported the family with her writing. Just before Frémont died in New York on July 13, 1890, Congress awarded him a pension (a sum of money to be paid regularly).
Frémont's reputation has long been clouded. By his rivals he was seen as a reckless adventurer whose first priority was to build his reputation. To the mountain men whose skills allowed Frémont to build his reputation as an explorer Frémont was an Eastern dandy. Quoted in Harris's John Charles Frémont, mountain man Joseph Walker, who was with Frémont on his third expedition, said of him, "Frémont morally and physically was the most complete coward I ever knew, and if it were not casting an unmerited reproach on the sex I would say that he was more timid than a woman. An explorer! I knew more of the unexplored region 15 years before he set foot on it than he does today." Despite these criticisms, there is no doubt that Frémont's expeditions were key factors in the opening of the Far West in the late 1840s and 1850s. At the very least, Frémont's colorful reports stir enthusiasm for the West and encouraged emigrants to leave their homes for a new life in the West.
For More Information
Egan, Ferol. Frémont, Explorer for a Restless Nation. New York: Doubleday, 1977.
Goff, John S. John C. Frémont. Cave Creek, AZ: Black Mountain Press, 1993.
Harris, Edward D. John Charles Frémont and the Great Western Reconnaissance. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.
Nevins, Allen. Frémont, Pathmarker of the West. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1939. Reprint. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.
Rolle, Andrew. John Charles Frémont: Character as Destiny. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.
Sanford, William R., and Carl R. Green. John C. Frémont: Soldier and Pathfinder. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1996.