John C. Frémont

Called "The Pathfinder," His Expeditions and Writings Inspired Americans

Engraved portrait of John C. Frémont
John C. Frémont. Stock Montage/Getty Images

John C. Frémont held a controversial and unusual place in mid-19th century America. Called "The Pathfinder," he was hailed as a great explorer of the West.

Yet Frémont did little original exploring as he mostly followed trails which had already been established. His real skill lay in documenting what he had seen, publishing narratives and maps based on his expeditions.

He did essentially become "The Pathfinder" for many Americans as Frémont had made the West seem accessible. Many "emigrants" heading westward carried guidebooks based on Frémont's government sponsored publications.

Frémont was the son-in-law of a prominent politician, Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, the nation's most prominent advocate of Manifest Destiny. And Benton's daughter played an important role in Frémont's career, helping to edit (and perhaps partly write) his accounts of the West.

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.

Early Life of John C. Frémont

John Charles Frémont was born in 1813 in Savannah, Georgia. His parents were embroiled in scandal. His father, a French immigrant named Charles Fremon, had been hired as 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, and eventually settled 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 which would later be very useful for plotting his position in the wilderness.

Frémont's 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 senator Thomas H. Benton and his family.

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

The role that Benton's influence played in Frémont's career can not 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.

Frémont's First Expedition to the West

With Senator 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 the 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 which 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 of 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.

Frémont's 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 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.

Frémont's father-in-law, Senator Benton, as a proponent of Manifest Destiny, promoted the reports. And Frémont's writings helped create great national interest in opening the West.

Frémont's 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. President Polk overturned the proceedings, but Frémont resigned from the Army.

Frémont's Later Career

Frémont led a troubled expedition in 1848 to find a route for a transcontinental railroad. Settling in California, which 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.

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 of John C. Frémont

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 a heroic figure, and he played a major role in opening the West to settlement.