John Charles Frémont

views updated May 21 2018

John Charles Frémont

Born January 21, 1813 Savannah, Georgia

Died July 13, 1890 New York, New York

American explorer and politician

Nicknamed "the Pathfinder," John Charles Frémont gained fame several years before the Mexican American War through his vividly written reports of his exploring and surveying expeditions through the American West. An officer in the army's Topographical Corps (the division of the army that had been assigned the job of surveying the unmapped areas of the United States), he happened to be in California just as tensions between its Mexican rulers and the U.S. settlers who had moved there were coming to a head. In a series of controversial actions, Frémont played a key role in the Bear Flag Rebellion, an uprising of these settlers, and in the subsequent U.S. takeover of California.

Discovering his life's work

Born in Savannah, Georgia, John Charles Frémont was the illegitimate child of Anne Pryor, who had caused a scandal in her hometown of Richmond, Virginia, by running away from her elderly husband to live with her lover. Frémont's father, who went by the name Charles Frémont but whose actual name was Louis-René Frémon, was a French-Canadian who earned a meager living by teaching dancing and French. Besides John Charles, Charles Frémont and Anne Pryor had two more children, another boy and a girl. After the elder Frémont died when John Charles was five, Anne Pryor took her children to live in Charleston, South Carolina, where she rented out rooms to support them.

John Charles Frémont grew to be a smart, charming, and handsome young man with dark hair and blue eyes. A Charleston lawyer for whom Frémont had worked as a clerk paid his tuition at the College of Charleston, where he excelled in math and science. But in 1831, due to a love affair that distracted him from his studies, Frémont was expelled from the college. He was just three months short of graduation. (Five years later, he did earn his bachelor's degree.) He taught mathematics in a private secondary school until 1833, when he was lucky enough to attract the attention of a powerful man.

Joel Poinsett was a South Carolina politician who had recently returned from a five-year post as the U.S. government's representative in Mexico. Poinsett got Frémont a job teaching mathematics to U.S. Navy sailors on the U.S.S. Natchez, and he spent the next two years traveling around South America on the ship. In 1835, Poinsett found another good job for Frémont; he was to help survey land to be used for the planned Charleston, Louisville, and Cincinnati Railroad. The next year, Frémont worked on surveying land in Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina that would become a Cherokee Indian reservation. These assignments awakened Frémont's deep interest in nature and exploration.

A good assignment and a fateful meeting

Perhaps the best opportunity of Frémont's career came in 1838. Now secretary of war, Poinsett arranged for Frémont to be commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers. As a result, Frémont was soon assigned to accompany the great French scientist Joseph Nicolas Nicollet in an expedition to the region between the upper Mississippi and Missouri rivers (in what is now Minnesota and North and South Dakotas). While serving as Nicollet's assistant, Frémont gained a wealth of information and an education in geology, astronomy, botany, and map-making, as well as such practical skills as how to use scientific instruments and how to plan an expedition.

Returning to Washington, Frémont met Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858), one of the nation's strongest advocates of expansionism (the movement of U.S. citizens past the nation's current borders and into the continent's western reaches). Benton was extremely interested in Frémont's travels to the West. During the course of his visits with Benton, Frémont fell in love with the senator's fifteen-year-old daughter, Jessie. Benton was dismayed at this turn of events and tried to remedy the situation by sending Frémont on a surveying expedition to the Des Moines River in what is now Iowa.

Conducted during the spring and summer of 1841, the expedition did not end the romance. In October, Frémont eloped with Jessie. Benton was furious at first but came to accept the marriage, eventually growing very close to his new son-in-law. In fact, Benton was to become Frémont's most loyal and powerful supporter and sponsor in the years to come.

The first major expedition

In early 1842, Frémont set out on an especially challenging assignment. He was to travel west from the Mississippi River up to South Pass, Wyoming, the same route that U.S. settlers were beginning to use as they moved along the Oregon Trail to the Pacific Northwest. Frémont was to explore the Wind River mountain chain in Wyoming. Traveling with a crew of twenty-one that included the renowned mountain man and scout Christopher "Kit" Carson (1809-1868), Frémont made a careful scientific survey of the region, and also climbed what he thought (wrongly, as it turned out) was the highest mountain in the Rockies, and which he named Frémont Peak.

Returning to Washington in October, Frémont worked closely with his wife, a skilled writer, to produce a lively report relating the explorer's many adventures. Vivid with descriptions of the West's awesome beauty, it also contained an excellent map. The report was very well-received by a U.S. public that was hungry to hear any and all details about the West.

Within only a few months, Frémont was off on another expedition. This one moved beyond South Pass to the Great Salt Lake, in present-day Utah, and the adjacent Great Basin. From there, Frémont traveled up the Snake River, then followed the Columbia River to its mouth on the Pacific Ocean, at Vancouver. On his return trip, he headed south into the Mexican territory of California, stopping at Sutter's Fort, a prosperous settlement founded by Swiss settler John Sutter (1803-1880). Frémont then continued south to Los Angeles and turned east to pass through Santa Fe and parts of what are now Nevada and Utah.

Frémont arrived home in August 1844, and he and Jessie immediately started working on a report of this second major expedition. This one was as good, and as popular, as the first, with lots of helpful information on the terrain, plants, animals, weather, and Native Americans that settlers could expect to encounter in this region. The report was required reading for members of Congress, and demand was such that ten thousand copies were printed. As a result, Frémont became even more famous than he was previously.

Heading west again

Soon Frémont was ready to embark on yet another expedition. Leaving in June 1845 from St. Louis, Missouri, Frémont headed west with seventy-four men, including Kit Carson. Their journey would take them along the southern end of the Great Salt Lake and across the Great Basin and the Sierra Nevada range to California. All of the men carried weapons, and in view of what happened later, historians have wondered about the real purpose of Frémont's expedition. Some have speculated whether he really intended to make a scientific study of the terrain, or instead, had secret government orders to take on a military role in California.

A few months before Frémont's departure, mounting tensions between the United States and Mexico came to a head when the United States annexed Texas, which the Mexicans considered their territory. The Mexicans had vowed to go to war if the annexation occurred, and during the summer of 1845 General Zachary Taylor (1784-1850) had taken four thousand U.S. Army troops to Corpus Christi, on the edge of the disputed territory. Eager expansionists, including President James K. Polk, were hoping to wrest from Mexico not only Texas but the more western lands of California and New Mexico, especially since they knew that Great Britain also was interested in doing so. There were already about seven hundred U.S. citizens living in California, and they were unhappy with the way the Mexican government treated them.

Frémont's group reached Sutter's Fort in December, after a challenging winter crossing of the Sierra Nevadas. There they would rest before turning east again. In early March, Frémont took his men to the town of Monterey to purchase supplies. He also met with the U.S. consul (representative) there, Thomas Larkin (1802-1858). At this point, the Mexican government became suspicious of Frémont. Thus, Monterey's military commander, General José Castro (1810-1860), ordered him to leave the country. Frémont responded with defiance, moving his men into a log cabin on a nearby mountain peak and raising the U.S. flag as a challenge to the Mexican authorities. Frémont soon headed north into Oregon Territory, even though his original orders said that he was to have returned to Washington by the end of 1845, and began to explore the Klamath Lake area.

The Bear Flag Rebellion

On May 9, Lieutenant Archibald Gillespie (1812-1873) arrived at Frémont's camp. Gillespie had ridden north to find Frémont after meeting with Larkin in Monterey in which he had delivered a message to Larkin from Secretary of State James Buchanan (1791-1868). Buchanan had advised Larkin to try to bring about a peaceful takeover of California. The question remains, however, what Gillespie told Frémont when he arrived at Frémont's camp. Over the years, it has been part of Frémont's legend that he received secret orders to lead a military uprising against Mexico, and Frémont himself later implied that this was true. Yet no one knows for sure. What is known is that Frémont hurried back to Sutter's Fort after his meeting with Gillespie.

Only four days after Gillespie's arrival at Frémont's camp, the United States declared war against Mexico. But this news would not reach California for some time. In the meantime, a group of settlers who were determined to shake off Mexican rule had appealed to Frémont to help them. On June 14, under his direction, they converged on Sonoma, a sleepy town about 40 miles north of San Francisco, and arrested its Mexican commander, General Mariano Vallejo (1807-1890). Then they raised a flag patched together from scraps of old clothes that featured a red star and a bear standing on its hind legs. Thus the Republic of California was born, though it would last for only twenty-five days.

The conquest of California begins

Having taken charge of this group that would become known as the Bear Flaggers, Frémont began adding the title "Military Commander of the U.S. Forces in California" to his name. Toward the end of June, Polk promoted him to the rank of lieutenant colonel. On July 7, the U.S. Navy arrived in Monterey with the news that the war had begun. Commodore John Sloat (1781-1867) took over the town. He soon met with Frémont and was shocked to learn that Frémont had acted without official orders.

Due to illness, Sloat left California a few weeks later and was replaced by Commander Robert Stockton (1795-1866), who was much more sympathetic to Frémont. He gave Frémont permission to organize the Bear Flaggers, who now numbered more than four hundred, into a military unit called the California Battalion. Along with Stockton's sailors, who were now serving more as infantry (foot soldiers), Frémont's battalion marched south and took control of town after town with no resistance or bloodshed. They also easily took the larger towns of San Diego and Los Angeles, for by now California's Mexican governor Pío Pico (1801-1894) had fled.

At this point it seemed to Stockton and Frémont that the conquest of California was complete. They wrote messages to Polk announcing their success and sent Carson east to deliver them to Washington. Meanwhile, Stockton had put Gillespie in charge of Los Angeles. The lieutenant's arrogance and extremely strict rules made the city's residents angry and resentful, so it was not difficult for Castro, who was still in the area with a number of troops, to organize an uprising. Greatly outnumbered, Gillespie surrendered on September 23, and Los Angeles was again under Mexican control.

Kearny arrives on the scene

Meanwhile, General Stephen Watts Kearny (1794-1848) was on the march, in command of the Army of the West. Having taken control of Santa Fe, Kearny was headed to California with 300 troops. Along the way he met Carson, who—unaware of what had happened in Los Angeles—told him that California was already in U.S. hands. Thus, Kearny sent all but 110 of his soldiers back to Santa Fe, an action he would soon regret.

Reaching California, Kearny learned of the Los Angeles uprising. Disregarding his troops' fatigue after their long journey, he marched them into battle almost immediately. In the San Pascual Valley, northeast of San Diego, they fought troops under General Andrés Pico (1810-1876), the governor's brother. After being reinforced by Stockton's men, the U.S. forces were able to beat back the Mexicans in a two-day battle. In the process, however, they suffered considerably more casualties than their foes; twenty-one U.S. soldiers were killed, as opposed to only one Mexican.

Kearny and Stockton now led their combined troops toward Los Angeles, which they easily conquered. Frémont, meanwhile, had been moving his force south and had stopped at a ranch just north of Los Angeles. There he heard that the last Mexican army was now ready to surrender. Frémont met with General Pico and, even though he had not been ordered to do so, worked out a peace agreement that offered the Mexicans very lenient terms. Kearny was angry, but had to accept the agreement since it had already been signed. On January 14, Frémont rode triumphantly into Los Angeles.

Tension leads to a court-martial

Kearny was even more incensed when Stockton named Frémont governor of California. Frémont moved into a Los Angeles mansion and repeatedly ignored Kearny's orders to report to him at Monterey. When he finally did, Kearny showed him official papers from Washington that named Kearny as governor of California. In June, Kearny ordered Frémont to travel east with him. When they reached Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Frémont was arrested and charged with "mutiny, insubordination, and conduct prejudicial to discipline." In other words, he had disregarded his superior officer and acted on his own authority.

At his court-martial (military) trial in Washington, D.C., that winter, Kearny made himself look even worse by verbally attacking Frémont. On January 31, 1848, Frémont was found guilty and sentenced to dismissal from the army. Polk cancelled the sentence, but three weeks later an outraged Frémont resigned from the army anyway. He still considered himself the conqueror of California and could not believe that the U.S. government had turned against him.

An up-and-down life

The next year, Frémont undertook another expedition through the West, this one with the purpose of investigating a location for a possible railroad to the Pacific coast. This trip turned out disastrously, since Frémont unwisely chose to try to cross southern Colorado's Sangre de Cristo mountains in mid-winter. Eleven of his men died from cold and starvation. When Frémont finally reached California, he heard that gold had been discovered there. He had earlier purchased 70 square miles of land in the Sierra foothills, called Mariposa, and soon made a fortune in gold mining.

In 1850, Frémont was elected as one of California's first two senators but served only a six-month term. In 1853, he undertook another expedition to scout out a southern railway route. Three years later, the brand new Republican Party nominated Frémont as its first presidential candidate, mostly due to his opposition to the extension of slavery to the new territories. After losing the election, Frémont returned to California, but he came east again when the American Civil War (1861-65) began. President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) made him a major-general in charge of the army's western division, and later of its Mountain Department based in West Virginia. Frémont did not perform well in either assignment and was soon forced out.

In 1864, Frémont was briefly a candidate for president a second time but pulled out before the election. The same year, he lost control of his Mariposa estate. Frémont moved to New York and invested in a number of railroad schemes, but these all ended badly. For a while, Jessie Frémont supported the family with her writing. In 1879, Frémont was named territorial governor of Arizona, an office he held until 1883. Four years later, the Frémonts returned to California to live. In 1890, Frémont was on a visit to New York when he died in a boarding house.

Although he was often faulted for what many saw as his efforts to grab glory for himself, Frémont also was admired for his bold, adventurous spirit and determination. His reports detailing his expeditions not only provided a wealth of useful information but inspired many U.S. settlers with the same sense of adventure. In some ways Frémont was a personification of expansionism, for he acted on the belief that the rich expanses of the North American continent were there for white U.S. citizens to take. His role in the Mexican American War was undoubtedly shaped by that belief.

For More Information


Egan, Ferol. Frémont: Explorer for a Restless Nation. New York: 1977.

Nardo, Don. The Mexican-American War. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books,1991.

Nevin, Allan. Frémont: Pathmaker of the West. Lincoln, NE: 1992.

Roberts, David. A Newer World: Kit Carson, John C. Frémont, and the Claiming of the American West. New York: Touchstone, 2000.

Rolle, Andrew. John Charles Frémont: Character as Destiny. Normal, OK:1991.

Web Sites

John Frémont. [Online] Available (accessed on January 27, 2003).

Spence, Mary Lee. "John Charles Frémont." Utah History Encyclopedia. Utah History To Go. [Online] Available (accessed on January 27, 2003).

Christopher "Kit" Carson

The subject of many a tall tale and frontier legend, Christopher "Kit" Carson was also an authentic western hero. He earned his living, and much of his fame, as a mountain man and expert frontier scout, but he also served as an officer during the Mexican American War. A member of the California Battalion, led by Colonel John C. Frémont, Carson helped capture California from the Mexicans.

Carson's ancestors had originally settled in the mountains of North Carolina and Virginia, but by the time he was born his family had migrated to Madison County, Kentucky. They soon moved even farther west, to the Missouri frontier. Carson received little education and in fact, could not read for most of his life. At the age of fifteen he was apprenticed to a saddlemaker. Less than two years later, the teenaged Carson ran away to join a group of traders who were heading for the thriving town of Santa Fe in what was then still Mexican territory.

For the next few years, Carson worked at a number of odd jobs around the Southwest. In 1829, he joined forces with trapper Ewing Young, who taught him the difficult art of hunting and harvesting beaver (at this time there was a great demand for beaver pelts, which were made into a special kind of man's hat) as they worked along the streams of what would become the U.S. states of Arizona and California.

Like many other frontier trappers, Carson married a Native American woman of the Arapaho tribe, who died after giving birth to a daughter. Carson took the girl, named Alice, to Missouri to be raised by his relatives. In 1843, after another short-lived marriage to a Cheyenne woman, Carson married fifteen-year-old Josefina Jaramillo in Taos, New Mexico.

During the summer of 1842, Carson was on his way back to Missouri when he happened to meet Frémont on a steamboat. A member of the U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers, Frémont had been assigned to explore and map an area of the West that included the Wind River mountain range in what is now Wyoming. He hired Carson as a guide, and the two began a mutually respectful partnership that would last through several future expeditions.

Frémont's detailed and colorful report of this first expedition brought fame to both him and Carson. The next year, Carson again accompanied Frémont to a journey that took their party across what is now Utah and over the Sierra Nevada mountains to California, then back by way of Colorado. In 1846, Frémont and Carson were on their third expedition together when they became involved in an uprising of U.S. settlers living in California. With Frémont's help, which may have been but probably was not authorized by the U.S. government, these settlers declared themselves independent from Mexico and established the short-lived Bear Flag Republic.

Soon the Mexican American War was underway in northeastern Mexico, and navy officer Robert Stockton arrived to take charge of the conquest of California. He organized the Bear Flaggers into an army unit called the California Battalion, with Frémont as its commander. Carson was given the rank of second lieutenant. Having taken control of town after town along the California coast, Stockton and Frémont sent Carson east toward Washington, D.C., with a message informing President James K. Polk that California was now in U.S. hands.

When he reached New Mexico, Carson encountered General Stephen W. Kearny, who had just led the U.S. Army of the West in capturing Santa Fe and who was now on his way to California. Unaware that the Mexicans had recaptured Los Angeles, Carson told Kearny that the United States was firmly in control of California. Upon hearing this news, Kearny sent most of his force back to Santa Fe, and ordered Carson to guide him to California.

Nearing Los Angeles, Kearny heard that the Mexicans had regained the city. Although worn out by their travels, Kearny insisted on leading his small force into a disastrous battle at San Pascual. That night, with the U.S. troops surrounded by the Mexicans, Carson and another officer made a daring and difficult escape. They managed to reach San Diego and request that Stockton send Kearny some more troops. With these reinforcements, the U.S. force was able to retake Los Angeles. This time, California really was in the hands of the United States.

After the war, Frémont was court-martialed for disobeying superior officers. Frémont's disgrace led to Carson's removal from the army. He went on to become an agent for the Office of Indian Affairs, working as a liaison between the federal government and Native Americans, who were being forced out off their traditional lands and, in many cases, resisting violently. In this position Carson, despite his reputation as someone who had fought with and killed many Indians, often criticized his superiors for their lack of knowledge of Indian concerns.

Carson took part in the American Civil War (1861-65), organizing the New Mexico Volunteer Infantry Regiment and fighting at the Battle of Val Verde. In 1867, Carson settled in southern Colorado with his family. His beloved wife died the next year and Carson, who had been in ill health for some time, soon followed her in death.

John Charles Frémont

views updated May 29 2018

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). □

About this article

John Charles Fremont

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic