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John Charles Fremont

Dr. David Miller
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Dr. David Miller
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John Charles Frémont (January 21, 1813 - July 13, 1890), the “Great Pathfinder,” was an explorer, soldier, politician, and businessman. Between 1838 and 1853 he participated in eight surveying expeditions of the American West. He served as one of the first two Senators from California and was the 5th Territorial Governor of Arizona. In 1856 he became the first presidential candidate of the Republican Party. He served briefly as a Major General in the American Civil War and died in New York City in 1890.

Early Life and Career

John Frémont was born in Savannah, Georgia January 21, 1813, moved to Norfolk, Virginia and then to Charleston, South Carolina. He attended the College of Charleston and although he did not complete a degree and the College expelled him, Frémont had gained the credentials and political connections while at Charleston to begin teaching. He set sail aboard the USS Natchez as an instructor and after the brief deployment took the necessary exams to become a Professor of Mathematics with the United States Navy in 1835. Frémont declined a position aboard the USS Independence, instead signing on as an assistant engineer with the United States Army’s Bureau of Topographical Engineers survey for a projected railroad connecting Charleston with Cincinnati. An acquaintance from political circles in Charleston, Secretary of War Joel Poinsett also oversaw the Topographical Corp and had encouraged Frémont to join Captain W.G. Williams’ survey. In 1838 Frémont was commissioned as a second lieutenant of topographical engineers.

In 1839 Frémont managed to secure an assignment with the renowned surveyor Joseph Nicollet to map portions of the Missouri River. After the successful tour, Frémont headed to Washington to assemble the materials for his report. While there he met Jessie Benton, the sixteen-year-old daughter of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton. The age difference, (Frémont was twenty-seven), troubled the Senator and he forbade their courtship. It may have been partly by Benton’s influence that the young explorer suddenly received orders from the War Department to prepare a survey of the Des Moines River in the western territory. Frémont was as efficient as he was persistent. He quickly completed the survey and returned to Washington where he married Jessie on October 19, 1841.

Independent Explorations

Frémont’s explorations in 1842 and 1843, and the subsequent reports, provided to the American public for the first time a reliable map to Oregon. Prior to the publication of his reports, despite the long history of Native, American, and French activity in the frontier west, any knowledge of the region existed in the heads and lore of locals and western trappers. Frémont’s reports changed all that.

Frémont left St. Louis in 1842 (with his newly acquired guide Kit Carson) and spent the next five months exploring and mapping the route to the South Pass in present day Wyoming. Upon his return, he and Jessie wrote A Report on an Exploration of the Country Lying between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains on the Line of the Kansas and Great Platte Rivers. Congress published the report and it circulated among a large audience.

Following the success of his first expedition, Frémont quickly undertook a second in 1843. This time his orders were to connect his survey of 1842 with that of Commander Charles Wilkes on the Pacific Coast, “so as to give a connected survey of the interior of the American continent.” In short, he was to provide a reliable map of the Oregon Trail. Upon his return a year later, Frémont worked closely with Jessie to release his Narrative of the Exploring Expedition in March 1845.


California

In 1845 Congress authorized $500,000 for a third expedition. Newly promoted Brevet Captain John Frémont arrived in St. Louis in June to organize the expedition, gather provisions, and hire a crew. Later that month he and over fifty well-armed men headed west, arriving in Mexican California in the winter of 1845. Mexican officials in Monterey were alarmed at the presence of so large a body of armed men acting under the official capacity of the United States at a time of renewed hostility between Mexico and the United States. The threat of armed conflict encouraged American settlers to declare their independence from Mexico in the Bear Flag Revolt June 14, 1846 in Sonoma. Frémont watched events unfold in the Sacramento Valley and claimed that the hostile climate put American lives at risk of Mexican reprisals. He decided on July 5th to lead the 160 men assembled at his camp to assist the Bear Flaggers in Sonoma, thereby linking that rebellion to the broader Mexican American War. The newly combined force proceeded to drive out the Mexican soldiers in the area and after the arrival of additional American forces, Frémont accepted the Mexican surrender at the Treaty of Cahuenga January 13, 1847.

Fourth and Fifth Expeditions

Frémont undertook a fourth expedition, this time privately funded, from 1848 to 1849 in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado. He planned to survey the route for a southern railroad. Frémont returned to California in 1849 to manage his newly acquired property in Mariposa, CA when he was elected as a Free Soil Democrat along with Democrat William Gwin to serve as one of California’s first two senators. After a short term ending in March, 1851 John and Jessie toured England while a diorama celebrating his expeditions was on display in London. Frémont then set out on his fifth, and final, expedition in 1853 again searching for a southern railroad route.

Presidential Candidate

In 1856 the newly formed Republican Party nominated Frémont as their first candidate for President. Formed out of the Free Soil Party, the Republican’s main position was their opposition to the expansion of slavery into western territories. Frémont’s political significance lay in his image, not his political activity. He was not an early leader of the free soil Republican Party on par with men such as Charles Sumner, William Seward, or Salmon Chase. Rather, as a candidate Frémont was an important symbol for the proper administration and future of the territories he helped acquire. In many ways the 1856 campaign was a dress rehearsal for 1860 – the issues of non-extension were framed very clearly and did not differ much from how Lincoln articulated the points both in the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates and the 1860 Presidential campaign. While Frémont did not develop much of this rhetoric, as the symbolic leader one might rightfully label him the “Pathfinder of the Republican Party.”

In addition to the political controversy attached to Frémont’s name were a host of scandals surrounding his candidacy. Some objected that his wife Jessie played too prominent a role in the campaign, violating gender norms and undermining the exclusivity of male suffrage. Political opponents also accused Frémont of being illegitimate, Catholic, and possibly of foreign birth. Others attacked Frémont by questioning his legacy as explorer and “conqueror,” painting an image very much in contrast to the more heroic ideal of earlier periods. Frémont eventually lost to Democrat James Buchanan.

Civil War

When the Civil War broke out in 1861 President Lincoln appointed Frémont Major General and gave him command of an army in Missouri. Frémont’s Civil War career ended prematurely when Lincoln rescinded his command after his controversial emancipation order and charges of military incompetence.

Frémont’s abolition credentials later earned him talk of a possible nomination by radical Republicans to run for president in 1864. Frémont became a leading symbol for a growing abolitionist movement that linked slavery and emancipation to the war. Fearful of a Republican split in what appeared to be a tight contest, Frémont and his supporters withdrew from the race.

Later Life and Death

After the Civil War Frémont entered into business partnerships looking to attract foreign investment. In 1869 his railroad business plans began to falter and investors became increasingly irritated. A longtime admirer of Frémont, President Rutherford B. Hayes, appointed him Governor of Arizona Territory in 1878. By 1881 calls for his resignation mounted in the face of Frémont’s very public neglect of gubernatorial duties. He resigned and moved back to New York City. Frémont spent the next three years traveling between Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C. Desperate for money he looked for investments and pleaded with Congress for a military pension, something he finally received in 1888. He died in New York City in 1890 and is buried in Rockland Cemetery in Sparkill, New York.

Sources

  1. Chaffin, Tom, Pathfinder: John Charles Frémont and the Course of American Empire, New York: Hill and Wang, 2002.
  2. Frémont . John C., Memoirs of My Life: Including in the Narrative Five Journeys of Western Explorations During the Years 1842, 1843–4, 1845–6–7, 1848–9, 1853–4, Belford, Clarke & Company, 1886.
  3. Miller, David, "Heroes' of American Empire: John C. Frémont, Kit Carson, and the Culture of Imperialism, 1842–1898," Dissertation Abstracts International, 2008, Vol. 68 Issue 10, p4447.
  4. Roberts, David, A Newer World: Kit Carson, John C. Fremont and the Claiming of the American West, New York: Touchstone, 2001.

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