John Charles Frémont – Encyclopedia of U.S. History

John Charles Frémont was known as “the Pathfinder” because he charted
the best route to Oregon in the frontier days of the American West. A
man of adventure, he helped to explore, survey, and map vast areas of the
frontier. His widely publicized reports fired the imagination of
Americans eager to move westward. Frémont was also involved in the
takeover of California from Mexico, and he became a controversial figure in American history.
Born on January 21, 1813, Frémont was the illegitimate (born out
of wedlock) son of a married aristocratic Virginian named Anne Pryor
and her lover, a poor French emigrant. When Pryor’s husband learned of
the affair, Pryor and her lover fled to Savannah, Georgia, where John was
born. Frémont’s father died when the boy was five, and he was raised by
his mother in Charleston, South Carolina.
Career as a surveyor
In 1829, Frémont entered the College of Charleston, where he showed
an aptitude for mathematics. In the summer of 1836, he worked with a
team that surveyed (measured land to determine its size, location and
physical description) a proposed railway route between Charleston and
Cincinnati, Ohio. Frémont liked this work so much he decided upon
mapmaking (or cartography) and surveying as a career. Commissioned in 1838 as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army’s
Topographical Corps, Frémont took part in the agency’s massive task of
surveying all the unmapped regions of the United States. One of his early
adventures was an assignment to assist in surveying the region between
the upper Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Frémont was in his element;
he loved the hardship and rugged beauty of the wilderness.
Frémont was a frequent guest at the home of U.S. senator Thomas
Hart Benton (1782–1858) of Missouri. Benton was a powerful politician and one of the nation’s most ardent supporters of Manifest
Destiny, the belief that it was the God-given mission of the United
States to expand its borders across the entire continent. Frémont married
Benton’s daughter, Jessie, in 1841. The Benton family was initially opposed to the marriage, but the senator soon became Frémont’s most important supporter.
Leader of expeditions to the West
In 1842, Frémont led his first frontier expedition, surveying a route extending from the Mississippi River to South Pass, Wyoming. Frémont used the famous mountain man Christopher “Kit” Carson (1809–1868)
as a guide. (See also Fur Traders and Mountain Men )
Afterwards, Frémont and his wife, Jessie, who was a talented writer,
wrote captivating accounts of his adventures that glamorized the exploration of the West and encouraged settlement of the area. The Frémonts
laced these accounts with adventure stories about shooting river rapids,
traversing the Great Salt Lake in a rubber boat, and fighting snow to
cross the Sierra Nevada mountains in mid-January. The stories were detailed and fun, but they also provided very useful information about the
countryside for settlers. As a result of these reports, Frémont became a
national hero, though historians today credit Jessie Frémont with the
colorful writing that changed her husband’s dull reports into exciting
and useful frontier literature.
Frémont’s next expedition in 1843 set out to push beyond South
Pass, Wyoming, to Oregon. During this trip, he surveyed the northern
shores of the Great Salt Lake. His report on the survey encouraged the
mass migration of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
(Mormons), a sect of Christians who had been persecuted in Ohio,
Missouri, and Illinois, and were forced to migrate to Utah from 1846 to
1857. On this expedition, Frémont also traveled north to the Snake
River and then to the Columbia River, which he followed to its mouth
on the Pacific at Fort Vancouver. From there, Frémont could not resist
the lure of a Mexican province called California.
Although he was told it could not be done, Frémont made the
treacherous trip across the Sierra Nevada Mountains and into California
in winter. Suffering from cold and starvation, his party finally arrived in
California in March 1844. Frémont was a sensation when he returned to
St. Louis, Missouri. His reports fueled the ambitions of many powerful
groups that were pushing for the United States to take over California
from Mexico by force, if necessary.
Role in the “Bear Flag Revolt”
In 1845, Frémont led another expedition to California. When his party
arrived, the Mexican government grew suspicious and ordered them to
leave. Frémont retreated to Oregon.
In 1846, the Mexican-American War (1846–48) erupted, mainly
over territorial claims in Texas. Word of the war had not yet reached California, where U.S. agents were successfully negotiating with Mexico
for a peaceful handover of California. Frémont, knowing nothing about
the war or the negotiations, returned from Oregon with a battalion of
armed volunteers, ready for battle. His army joined a group of U.S.
settlers called the Bear Flaggers who wanted to overthrow the Mexican
government there. Although Frémont later claimed he had received
secret orders from Washington to support the Bear Flag Revolt, many
historians believe he acted on his own and that the revolt was unnecessary and rash.
The Bear Flag Revolt succeeded easily because Mexico did not
bother to defend its remote outpost. On July 4, 1846, Frémont declared
a free California republic and raised the republic’s flag, which featured a
large star and a grizzly bear. The California Republic lasted less than a
month. When the Bear Flaggers learned of the war with Mexico, they
raised the U.S. flag over the republic.
Frémont served a brief term as governor of California, but later, as
more U.S. authorities arrived, he was court-martialed and convicted on
charges of mutiny and disobedience for his part in the revolt. President
James K. Polk (1795–1849; served 1845–49) pardoned him, but
Frémont resigned from the army in disgust.
Loss of fame and fortune
After the Bear Flag Revolt, Frémont’s fortune was won and lost several
times, in gold mining and railroad ventures. During the American Civil
War (1861–65), he served a brief term as a major general headquartered
in St. Louis. In 1861, he made a passionate statement in which he freed
the slaves of Missouri rebels. He had no authority to make such a proclamation and President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65)
fired him for it.
Frémont also pursued a political career. He served a brief term in the
U.S. Senate from 1853 to 1854. In 1856, he was the Republican nominee for president but lost to Democrat James Buchanan (1791–1868;
served 1857–61). After the Civil War, Frémont was appointed territorial
governor of Arizona but was later asked to resign for apparently corrupt
In his later years, Jessie provided the family income with her writing.
Frémont died in 1890.