John Charles Frémont was born in Savannah, Georgia, the son of a spirited Virginia woman and a nearly destitute French tutor. The family moved to Charleston, South Carolina, after his father’s death. Frémont was expelled from college because of his inattention to studies, but his proficiency at mathematics enabled him to find a job with the navy in which he instructed midshipmen.
Through the influence of his friend and mentor, Joel R. Poinsett, Frémont secured an appointment to the Corps of Topographical Engineers, a group that assisted the U.S. Army with mapping and surveying activities. In 1838-39, John C. Frémont accompanied the French explorer, Joseph N. Nicollet, to the Missouri River area.
In 1840, while in Washington, he met Jessie Benton, the 15-year-old daughter of Missouri’s senator, Thomas Hart Benton. The two fell in love and hoped to be married, but her parents resisted because of her age. The couple eloped in 1841. Senator Benton later became an ardent supporter of his son-in-law’s exploits due in a large part to their shared commitment to the Manifest Destiny belief.
In 1842, John C. Frémont began the first of a series of Western explorations. With funding secured by Sen. Benton and under the guidance of Kit Carson, émont undertook mapping the Oregon Trail. The object of special attention on this journey was the thorough exploration of South Pass.
A second expedition was launched in 1843 and 1844, guided by Thomas Fitzpatrick and Carson, in which the mapping of the Oregon Trail was completed to the Pacific. Also noteworthy were winter hardships when the party lived off the flesh of horses and mules, and the extensive exploration of the Great Salt Lake area. Mormon leaders in the East read Frémont’s report and began entertaining ideas of settling in Utah.
In 1846, American settlers in the Mexican province of California revolted against the government and established the independent Bear Flag Republic. Frémont, on a third expedition, entered California and became embroiled in a dispute between two American military leaders, Stephen W. Kearny and Commodore Robert F. Stockton.
Frémont backed the latter and was later court-martialed on charges of mutiny and insubordination. He was found guilty, but President James K. Polk refused to accept the mutiny conviction. Nevertheless,John C. Frémont resigned from the service.
In 1848-49 John C. Frémont, at his own expense, conducted an extremely hazardous survey in the southwest, intent on finding a route for a transcontinental railroad line. Attack from Native Americans was a constant threat. Later in the Sierras, the party’s guide became lost and starvation became a possibility. Some members of the group were reported to have resorted to cannibalism.
Frémont’s fortunes appeared to be improving in 1849 and 1850. He had purchased a large estate in California and large gold deposits were discovered there. Unfortunately his fortune slipped away because of poor business decisions and the dishonesty of others. Frémont was also bogged down in an ongoing title fight over his land; he eventually prevailed at the Supreme Court level in 1855.
For seven months, beginning in the fall of 1850, John C. Frémont served in the U.S. Senate as one of the first two such office-holders from the newly admitted state of California. His anti-slavery party temporarily dropped out of power in the state and he was not reelected in 1852. Frémont and his family toured Europe, where he was warmly received for his many exploits and writings.
A fifth expedition was undertaken in 1853, again through the Sierras to California; again its members experienced near-starvation.
Having broken with the Democratic positions of his father-in-law, John C. Frémont received the Republican nomination in 1856, but lost to James Buchanan.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, John C. Frémont was given Union command of the western department where he declared martial law in his area, arrested suspected secessionists and announced the emancipation of slaves owned by those actively opposing the Union.
President Lincoln approved of the first two strong actions, but asked Frémont to rescind the emancipation action, fearing that such a move might drive the Border States into secession. Frémont refused to obey the president’s order and was relieved of his command. He later was given another appointment, but withdrew on account of personal problems with the commanding officer.
In June 1864 John C. Frémont accepted the presidential nomination from a splinter group of the Republican Party, which was critical of Lincoln’s leadership. In September, Frémont acquiesced to a group of Republican leaders who urged him to withdraw. His decision was rooted in the fear of the election of a Democrat, not out of admiration for Lincoln.
In 1870, Frémont faced extreme financial hardship resulting from a failed transcontinental railroad scheme. The family survived on the successful writing activities of Frémont’s wife. From 1878 to 1883, he served as the governor of the Arizona Territory. Financial difficulties persisted, but Frémont did not receive a government pension until 1890, a few months before his death.
Historians disagree sharply over the nature of John C. Frémont’s contribution to the history of the American West. Some have viewed him as simply a loudmouthed self-promoter, but others have emphasized his courage and dedication to helping the country achieve it “manifest destiny.” His writings about the West did much to popularize the area and encourage settlement.
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