John Charles Frémont

John Charles Frémont (1813-1890) was an American explorer, politician, and soldier. Through his explorations in the West he stimulated the American desire to own that region. He was the first presidential candidate of the Republican party.

Born on Jan. 31, 1813, in Savannah, Ga., John C. Frémont was the illegitimate son of a French émigré, John Charles Frémon (sic), and Mrs. Anne Whiting Pryor. He was raised in Charleston, S. C. Frémont proved precocious, especially in mathematics and the natural sciences, as well as handsome. He attended Charleston College (1829-1831) but was expelled for irregular attendance.

Through the influence of Joel R. Poinsett, Frémont obtained a post as teacher of mathematics on the sloop Natchez and visited South American waters in 1833. In 1836 he helped survey a railroad route between Charleston and Cincinnati, and in 1836-1837 he worked on a survey of Cherokee lands in Georgia.

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His Explorations

In 1838, through the influence of Poinsett, Frémont obtained a commission as second lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers of the U.S. Army. Assigned to the expedition of J. N. Nicollet which explored in Minnesota and the Dakotas, he gained knowledge of natural science and topographical engineering, as well as experience on the frontier. Also through Nicollet, he met the powerful senator from Missouri Thomas Hart Benton—and fell in love with Benton's daughter Jessie.

Benton secured an appointment for Frémont to explore the Des Moines River, which was accomplished in 1841. That fall he married Jessie Benton, gaining her father as protector. In 1842 Frémont was sent to explore the Wind River chain of the Rockies and to make a scientific exploration of the Oregon Trail. Employing Kit Carson as guide, he followed the trail through South Pass. His report was filled with tales of adventure and contained an excellent map. Frémont was on his way to becoming a popular hero with a reputation as the "Great Pathfinder," but, in reality, he had been following the trails of mountain men.

In 1843 Frémont headed an expedition that explored South Pass, the Columbia River, and the Oregon country, returning by way of Sutter's Fort in Mexican California. His report was printed just as James K. Polk became president, a time when expansionist feeling was high; the 10,000 copies of this report increased Frémont's heroic stature.

Mexican War

In 1845 Polk sent Frémont and soldiers (with Kit Carson as guide) to California. Expelled from California by its governor, Frémont wintered in Oregon. Polk's orders arrived in May. Frémont then marched to Sutter's Fort and there on June 14, 1846, assumed command of the American settlers' Bear Flag Revolt. Aided by commodores J. D. Sloat and Robert F. Stockton, his forces were victorious, and he received the surrender of California at Cahuenga on Jan. 13, 1847.

Immediately Frémont became embroiled in a fight for the governorship of California with Gen. Stephen W. Kearny, who had marched overland from Missouri. Frémont was arrested, taken to Washington, D.C., and tried for mutiny, insubordination, and conduct prejudicial to good order. Found guilty, he was ordered dismissed from the Army. Polk remitted the penalty, but Frémont, in anger, resigned.

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Political Career

Frémont moved to California, on the way conducting a private survey for a railroad route. In California he acquired land in the Sierra foothills, the Mariposa estate, and grew wealthy from mining. He bought real estate in San Francisco and lived lavishly, winning election as U.S. senator from California. He drew the short term and served only from Sept. 9, 1850, to March 4, 1851. Afterward he visited Paris and London, where he raised funds for ambitious schemes on the Mariposa. In 1853-1854 he conducted another private expedition surveying a railroad route, along the 37th-38th parallels.

In 1856 the newly formed Republican party named Frémont its first presidential candidate because of his strong stand on free soil in Kansas and his attitude against enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law. His campaign suffered from a shortage of funds, and he lost, but he was at the peak of his career.

Subsequent Career

Frémont's overspeculation at the Mariposa led to his loss of this property. Then in 1861, at the outbreak of the Civil War, he performed disastrously as a major general at St. Louis and in western Virginia. In 1864 Radical Republicans approached Frémont about running for president in opposition to Abraham Lincoln; Frémont first accepted, then declined ungraciously.

After the war he was involved in promoting the Kansas and Pacific and the Memphis and Little Rock railroads. Both lines went bankrupt in 1870, leaving Frémont almost penniless. In 1878 his claim that the Republican party owed him a debt netted him appointment as governor of Arizona. He held the position until 1881, when angry protests from that territory led to his removal.

Frémont's old age was filled with frustrating schemes to recoup his fortune—while he was supported by his wife's authorship. In 1890 he was pensioned at $6,000 per year as a major general; he died 3 months later (July 13, 1890) in New York.

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Further Reading on John Charles Frémont

Only one volume of Frémont's autobiographical Memoirs of My Life (1887) was published. Jesse Benton Frémont wrote several works that give information about her husband's career, the best of which are Souvenirs of My Time (1887) and Far-West Sketches (1890). Good biographies include Frederick S. Dellenbaugh, Frémont and '49 (1914), which has excellent sketches of his expeditions; Cardinal Goodwin's critical John Charles Frémont: An Explanation of His Career (1930); and Allan Nevins's laudatory Frémont: The West's Greatest Adventurer (2 vols., 1928) and his more balanced, one volume edition, Frémont: Pathmaker of the West (1939).