John C. Frémont (1813-1890)

John Charles Frémont (January 21, 1813­July 13, 1890), birth name John Charles Fremon, was an American military officer, explorer, the first candidate of the United States Republican Party for the office of President of the United States, and the first Presidential candidate of a major party to run on a platform of opposition to slavery.

He was born in Savannah, Georgia, on the January 21, 1813. His father, a native of France, died when the boy was in his sixth year, and his mother Ann Beverly Whiting, a member of an aristocratic Virginia family, then removed to Charleston, South Carolina. In 1828, after a year's special preparation, young Frémont entered the junior class of the Scientific Department of the College of Charleston, and here displayed marked ability, especially in mathematics; but his irregular attendance and disregard of college discipline led to his expulsion from the institution in 1831, three months short of graduation. (The College did, however, conferr upon him a degree in 1836). In 1833 he was appointed teacher of mathematics on board the sloop of war "Natchez", and was so engaged during a cruise along the South American coast which was continued for about two and a half years. Soon after returning to Charleston he was appointed professor of mathematics in the United States Navy, but he chose instead to serve as assistant engineer of a survey undertaken chiefly for the purpose of finding a pass through the mountains for a proposed railway from Charleston to Cincinnati (1836-37).

Frémont assisted and led multiple surveying expeditions through the western territory of the United States. In July 1838 he was commissioned a second lieutenant of United States Corps of Topographical Engineers in the United States Army, and for the next three years he was assistant to the French explorer, Jean Nicholas Nicollet (1786-1843), employed by the war department to survey and map a large part of the country lying between the upper waters of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers (the Minnesota country). Under Nicollet's tutelage, Frémont quickly absorbed a great deal of information about science and sophisticated methods of geodetic surveying as well as about how to organize and manage an expedition. When the two returned to Washington to work on the report and map of the survey, he met Jessie, the talented daughter of Senator Thomas Hart Benton, with whom he eloped in October 1841. His growing taste for wilderness exploration was whetted by the expansionist enthusiasm of Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton, who became his adviser, sponsor. It was in no small measure through Benton's influence with the government that Frémont was enabled to accomplish within the next few years the exploration of much of the territory between the Mississippi Valley and the Pacific Ocean. In 1841, with training from Nicollet, he mapped portions of the Des Moines River, and from 1841 to 1846 he led exploration parties on the Oregon Trail and into the Sierra Nevada. During his expeditions in the Sierra Nevada, it is generally acknowledged that Frémont became the first European American to view Lake Tahoe. He is also credited with determining that the Great Basin had no outlet to the sea.

During the next twelve years, Frémont led five expeditions into the West. When the claim of the United States to the Oregon territory was being strengthened by occupation, Frémont was sent, at his urgent request, to explore the frontier beyond the Missouri river, and especially the Rocky Mountains in the vicinity of the South Pass, through which the American immigrants travelled. Within four months (1842) he surveyed the Pass and ascended to the summit of the highest of the Wind River Mountains, since known as Frémont's Peak, and the interest aroused by his descriptions was such that in the next year he was sent on a second expedition, lasting fourteen months, to complete the survey across the continent along the line of travel from Missouri to the mouth of the Columbia river. In 1843, accompanied by the colourful guide Kit Carson and mountain man Thomas Fitzpatrick, he completed a survey to the mouth of the Columbia River. He made a circuit of the entire West, launching his India-rubber boat on the Great Salt Lake on the outbound trip and examining Utah Lake on the return. This time he not only carried out his instructions but, by further explorations together with interesting descriptions, dispelled general ignorance with respect to the main features of the country west of the Rocky Mountains: the Great Salt Lake, the Great Basin, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and the fertile river basins of the Mexican province of California.

His report of this expedition upon his return to Washington, D.C., in 1844, aroused much solicitude for California, which, it was feared, might, in the event of war then threatening between the United States and Mexico, be seized by Great Britain. In the spring of 1845 Frémont was despatched on a third expedition for the professed purposes of further exploring the Great Basin and the Pacific Coast, and of discovering the easiest lines of communication between them, as well as for the secret purpose of assisting the United States, in case of war with Mexico, to gain possession of California. He and his party of sixty-two arrived there in January 1846. Owing to the number of American immigrants who had settled in California, the Mexican authorities there became suspicious and hostile, and ordered Frémont out of the province. Instead of obeying he pitched his camp near the summit of a mountain overlooking Monterey, fortified his position, and raised the United States flag. A few days later he was proceeding toward the Oregon border when new instructions from Washington caused him to retrace his steps and, perhaps, to consider plans for provoking war. The extent of his responsibility for the events that ensued is not wholly clear, and has been the subject of much controversy; his defenders have asserted that he was not responsible for the seizure of Sonoma or for the so-called "Bear-Flag War"; and that he played a creditable part throughout. Commodore John D. Sloat, after seizing Monterey, transferred his command to Commodore Robert Field Stockton (1795-1866), who made Frémont major of a battalion; and by January 1847 Stockton and Frémont completed the conquest of California. In the meantime General Stephen Watts Kearny (1794-1848) had been sent by the Government to conquer it and to establish a government. This created a conflict of authority between Stockton and Kearny, both of whom were Frémont's superior officers. Stockton, ignoring Kearny, commissioned Frémont military commandant and governor. But Kearny's authority being confirmed about the 1st of April, Frémont, for repeated acts of disobedience, was sent under arrest to Washington, where he was tried by court-martial, found guilty (January 1847) of mutiny, disobedience and conduct prejudicial to military discipline, and sentenced to dismissal from the service. Although his penalty was set aside by President James K. Polk, Frémont resigned. Through it all, he retained the high regard of the general public.

With the mountain-traversed region he had been exploring acquired by the United States, Frémont was eager for a railway from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and in October 1848 he set out at his own and Senator Benton's expense to find passes for such a railway along a line westward frcm the headwaters of the Rio Grande. But he had not gone far when he was led astray by a guide, and after the loss of his entire outfit and several of his men, and intense suffering of the survivors from cold and hunger, he turned southward through the valley of the Rio Grande and then westward through the valley of the Gila into southern California. Late in the year 1853, however, he returned to the place where the guide had led him astray, found passes through the mountains to the westward between latitudes 37 and 38 degrees N., and arrived in San Francisco early in May 1854. From the conclusion of his fourth expedition until March 1855, when he removed to New York city, he lived in California. Frémont became a multimillionaire in the 1848 California gold bonanza, and in December 1849 was elected one of the first two United States senators from the new state. But as he drew the short term, he served only from the 10th of September 1850 to the 3rd of March 1851. Although a candidate for re-election, he was defeated by the pro-slavery party.

His opposition to slavery, together with his popularity—won by the successes, hardships and dangers of his exploring expeditions, and by his part in the conquest of California—led to his nomination, largely on the ground of "availability", for the presidency in 1856 by the Republicans (this being their first presidential campaign), and by the National Americans or "Know-Nothings." In the ensuing election he was defeated by James Buchanan by 174 to 114 electoral votes.

In Europe at the outbreak of the Civil War, he purchased a cache of arms in England for the North on his own initiative and returned to America. Abraham Lincoln, mostly for political reasons, appointed him major general in May 1861 and placed in command of the precarious Department of the West with headquarters at St. Louis. His lack of judgment and of administrative ability soon became apparent, the affairs of his department fell into disorder, and Frémont seems to have been easily duped by dishonest contractors whom he trusted. Frémont spent more energy fortifying the city and developing flashy guard units than equipping the troops in the field. His forces suffered several losses, particularly a major defeat at Wilson's Creek that August. Attempting to gain a political advantage in the absence of a military one, he issued a proclamation on August 30, 1861, in which he declared the property of Missourians in rebellion confiscated and their slaves emancipated. For this he was applauded by the radical Republicans, but his action was contrary to an act of congress of the 6th of August and to the policy of the Administration. Lincoln, concerned that linking abolition to the war effort would destroy Union support throughout the slave-holding border states, asked Frémont at the very least to modify the order. The Pathfinder refused, sending his wife, the politically influential daughter of former Senate leader Thomas Hart Benton, to Washington to talk to the president. On September 11 President Abraham Lincoln, who regarded the action as premature and who saw that it might alienate Kentucky and other border states, whose adherence he was trying to secure, annulled these Frémont's proclmation. Impelled by serious charges against Frémont, the president sent Montgomery Blair, the postmaster-general, and Montgomery C. Meigs, the quartermaster-general, to investigate the department; they reported that Frémont's management was extravagant and inefficient; and in November he was removed.

Out of consideration for the "Radicals", however, Frémont was placed in command of the Mountain Department of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. In the spring and summer of 1862 he co-operated with General N. P. Banks against "Stonewall" Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley, but showed little ability as a commander, and was defeated by General Ewell at Cross Keys. When his troops were united with those of Generals Banks and McDowell to form the Army of Virginia, of which General John Pope was placed in command, Frémont declined to serve under John Pope, whom he outranked, and resigned his post, never to receive a new Civil War appointment.

On the 31st of May 1864 he was nominated for the presidency by a radical faction of the Republican party, opposed to President Lincoln, but his following was so small that on the 21st of September he withdrew from the contest.

When he lost most of his fortune by the end of the war, Frémont tried the railroad industry. His reputation damaged by an 1873 conviction for his role in a swindle. Nevertheless, he resumed his political career and, from 1878 to 1881, was governor of the territory of Arizona But most of his post-Civil War career was consumed by speculative activities in western mines, land, and railroads and he depended on his wife's income from writing during most of his later years. In the last year of his life he was appointed by act of Congress a major-general and placed on the retired list. He died of peritonitis in a hotel in New York City on July 13, 1890.

Frémont's grandest achievement was in exploring the West and making it known through his lively, readable reports (prepared with the help of his wife) and his maps (drawn with the assistance of Charles Preuss). They seem to have been influential in the Mormons' decision to settle in the Salt Lake Valley. He also discovered and named the Great Basin as a geologic and geographic entity and established the correct elevation of the Great Salt Lake at 4,200 feet. Four U.S. states named counties in his honor: Colorado, Idaho, Iowa and Wyoming. Several cities are also named after him, such as Frémont, California and Frémont, Nebraska. Frémont Peak in the Wind River Mountains is also named for the explorer.

He collected a number of plants on his expeditions, including the first discovery of the Single-leaf Pinyon. The standard botanical author abbreviation Frém. is applied to plants he described.