John C. Fremont and Exploration of the American West

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John C. Fremont and Exploration of the American West


John C. Fremont's explorations of the West in the 1840s were undertaken with the sponsorship of the United States government to expand the boundaries of the country, to make maps for Americans who wanted to settle in the area, and to notify Great Britain and Mexico that the U.S intended to expand its borders all the way to the Pacific Ocean.


Fifty years after the United States was created, its citizens and leaders began to look westward in earnest. Twenty-six states made up the United States in 1840, but only three were west of the Mississippi River. The land from the river to the Pacific Ocean covered more square miles than the existing United States, but few people knew anything about it and the only confirmed knowledge on the area had been brought to Washington, D.C., by famed explores Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) and William Clark (1770-1838) 40 years before. The government knew that England could take over the Oregon territory, which included all of the present day states of Oregon, Washington, and some of Idaho, whenever it wished. In addition, Mexico had long claimed the territory from Oregon to the Mexican border and from the Pacific Coast to Colorado and New Mexico. If Mexico gained enough strength, it might gain control of the region.

The United States long considered that all lands to the west belonged to individual states that wished to claim them. Few paid any attention to the rights of indigenous native tribes who lived there. England was the most powerful nation in the world and owned all of Canada. If England took Oregon, too, it would be represent a further threat to the sovereignty of the United States. It would also make England even more powerful and expand Canada to an uncomfortable size. Mexico, traditional owner of the land south of Oregon, was weak but threatened armed conflict if the United States tried to move in.

Land was power in European society, and early American settlers brought that idea with them to North America. For 20 years mountain men, adventurers, and fur traders had traversed the land beyond the Mississippi River, bringing to the East tales of towering mountains, fierce native peoples, raging rivers, and endless plains. But they had no proof of any of it as they made neither maps nor scientific observations. Americans were eager to move into this unknown land, and the government wanted to encourage them. But doing so without knowing what lay beyond the frontier was not wise.

Thus, there were three motives for westward expansion that all grew critical at once; 1) the need for the United States to gain control of Oregon and remove the threat of British power on its doorstep; 2) the desire to obtain the land south of Oregon from a very weak Mexico, by peaceful means, if possible (there were, however, already signs and rumors that a war would be necessary); and 3) a desire to facilitate American settlers who wished to move west by providing them with maps. Their presence in many areas of the West would help the government secure the land by justifying its presence and dominance.


With his training, talent, and interests, John C. Fremont (1813-1890) was the perfect man to help fulfill the ambitions of the government in the West. In 1837, when he was 25 years old, he applied for a commission in the United States Army Corps of Topographical Engineers. He was approved as a Second Lieutenant because he had good training and a strong background in mathematics, exploration, surveying, and geographical field work. He also had a reputation as a careful observer and mapmaker.

His first task with the army engineers was to travel west with a respected scientist and surveyor named Joseph Nicollet (1786-1843) to survey the territory between the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. From Nicollet, Fremont learned to make astronomical observations, record the lay of the land accurately, and sketch accurate maps. He also learned to observe and identify plants and animals, soil, geographical formations, and minerals. Along the way, he became proficient in techniques of surviving in the wilderness. This training, and his later actions, would lead to a great deal of notoriety and make him stand out in a field in which amateurs outnumbered professionals.

Back in Washington after his first expedition, he set about writing up his travels and making accurate maps. At this time he met a United States Senator from Missouri, Thomas Hart Benton. He was the man who chose Fremont to lead several important expeditions and was the father of Jessie, who would soon became Fremont's wife. Benton was powerful in the government. He was a strong supporter of exploration of the West and an advocate of westward expansion. Fremont spent a great deal of time at the Benton house and became friends not only with Benton but also with the rest of the family—especially Jessie's brother, whom he took on his next expedition west.

The trans-Mississippi West had been explored by Zebulon Pike (1779-1813), Stephen Harriman Long (1784-1864), and Benjamin-Louis Bonneville (1796-1878), but they had not produced usable maps. There was a great clamor for information, and the expansionists in Washington were pushing for a two-ocean nation. Some were opposed to it because they did not want to antagonize either Britain or Mexico. One of the latter was President John Tyler. So in the 1840s Fremont led three major expeditions to the West. They were officially not for the purpose of securing the land but were to gather scientific information only. The underlying purpose to expand west, however, was understood by Fremont. He was to map mountains, rivers, and trails and observe conditions, wild life, and natives as far west as the Missouri River, but he pushed all the way to South Pass—the only viable way to cross the Rocky Mountains.

By the time Fremont left on another expedition in May of 1842, he had met Charles Preuss, a German cartographer who would become Fremont's mapmaker, and Kit Carson (1809-1868), who guided all of his journeys. Fremont wrote the first of many reports on this expedition. It was well received and had a good circulation when it was published. Soon, a more ambitious expedition was proposed by Benton and other expansionists. This time Fremont was to map the Oregon Trail all the way to the Pacific Ocean and coordinate his findings with Navy Captain Charles Wilkes (1798-1877), who had already explored and mapped the western coast.

The expedition arrived at the Dalles in Oregon in October of 1843, completed its ordered tasks, and was supposed to start back eastward. Fremont decided that instead of going over land already surveyed, he would investigate the Great Basin. This was a huge depression that covers the modern states of Nevada and Utah and lies between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada. His stated object was to map and gather data on plants, trees, and natives and to look for legendary rivers and lakes in the area. In reality, he wanted to go to California, because things were happening there and he wanted to be at the center of the action. He was too far from the seat of power to ask permission or to be deterred, so he took it upon himself to take his expedition west.

Fremont mapped and took observations all over the Great Basin heading west toward California. He discovered Pyramid Lake in Nevada, the American River in California, which he named the Salmon Trout, and Lake Tahoe, which he called Lake Bonpland, a name no one ever used. He and his hardy band of explorers crossed the Sierra Nevada in the dead of winter without losing a man. In California he subsequently took part in the Bear Flag Revolt to free California from Mexico, and he inspired Americans in the area to work for California's independence. When war broke out between the United States and Mexico in 1846, he served in the army and later as military governor of California. At the end of the war in 1848, when California was transferred to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Fremont took part in the convention that wrote the first state constitution. When California became a state in 1850, he was elected one of its first senators. In 1856 he became the first candidate for President of the United States selected by the brand new Republican Party. He lost to James Buchanan.

Fremont was an explorer, a scientist, a politician, an army man, and sometimes a controversial hothead. He was also a catalyst. Always in the right place at the right time, his exploration of the West was the first to examine, observe, and record the vast reaches of the West with scientific accuracy. The United States eventually claimed all of the land he explored. He gained great notoriety for his actions and accomplishments and was called the "pathfinder." His controversial behavior and subsequent court martial for refusing to follow orders given by General Stephen Watts Kearney following the war with Mexico did nothing to dim his reputation. His support of California independence from Mexico and then statehood was in line with expansionist motives. Fremont had fulfilled the expansionists' goals. After the 1842-1843 expedition and later the Mexican War, there was never any doubt that the United States would conquer and claim all land from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.


Further Reading

Benton, Thomas Hart. A History of the American Government for Thirty Years from 1820 to 1850. New York: D. Appleton, 1854-56.

Billington, Ray Allen. Westward Expansion. New York: MacMillan, 1949.

Egan, Ferol. Fremont: Explorer for a Restless Nation. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1977.

Fremont, John Charles. The Expeditions of John CharlesFremont. 2 vols. Edited by Donald Jackson and Mary Lee Spence. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970.

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. The Legacy of Conquest. New York: W.W. Norton, 1987.

Nevins, Allan. Fremont, Pathmarker of the West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1939. Reprinted by Bison Books, 1992.

Unruh, John D. The Plains Across. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.

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John C. Fremont and Exploration of the American West

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