Biography of John C. Frémont, Soldier, Explorer, Senator

Engraved portrait of John C. Frémont
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John C. Frémont (January 21, 1813–July 13, 1890) held a controversial and unusual place in mid-19th century America. Called "The Pathfinder," he was hailed as a great explorer of the West. While Frémont did little original exploring as he mostly followed trails that had already been established, he did publish narratives and maps based on his expeditions. Many "emigrants" heading westward carried guidebooks based on Frémont's government-sponsored publications.

Frémont was the son-in-law of a prominent politician, Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, the nation's most prominent advocate of Manifest Destiny. In the mid-1800s, Frémont was famed as the living embodiment of westward expansion. His reputation suffered somewhat due to controversies during the Civil War, when he seemed to defy the Lincoln administration. But upon his death, he was fondly remembered for his accounts of the West.

Fast Facts: John Charles Frémont

  • Known For: Senator from California; first Republican candidate for president; known for expeditions to open up the West to settlers
  • Also Known As: The Pathfinder
  • Born: January 21, 1813 in Savannah, Georgia
  • Parents: Charles Frémon, Anne Beverley Whiting
  • Died: July 13, 1890 in New York, New York
  • Education: Charleston College
  • Published WorksReport of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains, Memoirs of My Life and Times, Geographical Memoir upon Upper California, an Illustration of His Map of Oregon and California
  • Awards and Honors: Namesake for schools, libraries, roads, etc.
  • Spouse: Jessie Benton
  • Children: Elizabeth Benton "Lily" Frémont, Benton Frémont, John Charles Frémont Jr., Anne Beverly Fremont, Francis Preston Fremont

Early Life

John Charles Frémont was born on January 21, 1813 in Savannah, Georgia. His parents were embroiled in scandal. His father, a French immigrant named Charles Fremon, had been hired to tutor the young wife of an elderly Revolutionary War veteran in Richmond, Virginia. The tutor and student began a relationship and ran away together.

Leaving behind a scandal in Richmond’s social circles, the couple traveled along the southern frontier for a time before eventually settling in Charleston, South Carolina. Frémont’s parents (Frémont later added the “t” to his last name) never married.

His father died when Frémont was a child, and at the age of 13, Frémont found work as a clerk for a lawyer. Impressed by the boy’s intelligence, the lawyer helped Frémont get an education.

The young Frémont had an affinity for mathematics and astronomy, skills that would later be very useful for plotting his position in the wilderness.

Early Career and Marriage

Frémont's professional life began with a job teaching mathematics to cadets in the U.S. Navy, and then working on a government surveying expedition. While visiting Washington, D.C., he met the powerful Missouri Sen. Thomas H. Benton and his family.

Frémont fell in love with Benton’s daughter Jessie and eloped with her. Sen. Benton was at first outraged, but he came to accept and actively promote his son-in-law.

The role that Benton's influence played in Frémont's career cannot be overstated. In the decades before the Civil War, Benton exerted great influence on Capitol Hill. He was obsessed with expanding the United States to the West. He was perceived as the nation's greatest proponent of Manifest Destiny, and he was often considered as powerful as the senators in the Great Triumvirate: Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun.

First Expedition to the West

With Sen. Benton’s help, Frémont was given the assignment to lead an 1842 expedition to explore beyond the Mississippi River to the vicinity of the Rocky Mountains. With the guide Kit Carson and a group of men recruited from a community of French trappers, Frémont reached the mountains. Climbing a high peak, he placed an American flag on top.

Frémont returned to Washington and wrote a report of his expedition. While much of the document consisted of tables of geographical data that Frémont had calculated based on astronomical readings, Frémont also wrote a narrative of considerable literary quality (most likely with considerable help from his wife). The U.S. Senate published the report in March 1843, and it found a readership in the general public.

Many Americans took special pride in Frémont placing an American flag atop a high mountain in the West. Foreign powers—Spain to the south and Britain to the north—had their own claims on much of the West. And Frémont, acting purely on his own impulse, had seemed to claim the distant West for the United States.

Second Expedition to the West

Frémont led a second expedition to the West in 1843 and 1844. His assignment was to find a route across the Rocky Mountains to Oregon.

After essentially accomplishing his assignment, Frémont and his party were located in Oregon in January 1844. Rather than returning to Missouri, the expedition’s starting point, Frémont led his men southward and then west, crossing the Sierra Nevada mountain range into California.

The trip over the Sierras was extremely difficult and dangerous, and there has been speculation that Frémont was operating under some secret orders to infiltrate California, which was then Spanish territory.

After visiting Sutter’s Fort, the outpost of John Sutter, in early 1844, Frémont traveled southward in California before heading eastward. He eventually arrived back in St. Louis in August 1844. He then traveled to Washington, D.C., where he wrote a report of his second expedition.

The Importance of Frémont's Reports

A book of his two expedition reports was published and became extremely popular. Many Americans who made the decision to move westward did so after reading Frémont’s stirring reports of his travels in the great spaces of the West.

Noted Americans, including Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman, also read Frémont’s reports and took inspiration from them. Sen. Benton, as a proponent of Manifest Destiny, promoted the reports. And Frémont's writings helped create great national interest in opening the West.

Controversial Return to California

In 1845 Frémont, who had accepted a commission in the U.S. Army, returned to California and became active in rebelling against Spanish rule and starting the Bear Flag Republic in northern California.

For disobeying orders in California, Frémont was arrested and found guilty at a court-martial hearing. President James K. Polk overturned the proceedings, but Frémont resigned from the Army.

Later Career

Frémont led a troubled expedition in 1848 to find a route for a transcontinental railroad. Settling in California, which by then had become a state, he briefly served as one of its senators. He became active in the new Republican Party and was its first presidential candidate, in 1856.

During the Civil War, Frémont received a commission as a Union general and commanded the U.S. Army in the West for a time. His tenure in the Army came to an end early in the war when he issued an order freeing slaves in his territory. President Abraham Lincoln relieved him of command.

Death

Frémont later served as territorial governor of Arizona from 1878 to 1883. He died at his home in New York City on July 13, 1890. The next day, a New York Times front-page headline proclaimed, "The Old Pathfinder Dead."

Legacy

While Frémont was often caught up in controversy, he did provide Americans in the 1840s with reliable accounts of what was to be found in the distant West. During much of his lifetime, he was considered by many to be a heroic figure, and he played a major role in opening the West to settlement.

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