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John Charles Frémont

John C. Frémont, 1852 portrait, by William S. Jewett

In office
January 1847 – March 1, 1847[1]
Preceded by Robert F. Stockton
Succeeded by Stephen W. Kearny

In office
September 9, 1850 – March 3, 1851
Succeeded by John B. Weller

In office
Preceded by John Philo Hoyt
Succeeded by Frederick Augustus Tritle

Born January 21, 1813(1813-01-21)
Savannah, Georgia, U.S.
Died July 13, 1890 (aged 77)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Political party Democrat, Republican
Spouse(s) Jessie Benton Frémont
Alma mater College of Charleston
Profession Politician
Religion Episcopalian
Military service
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service 1838–1848
Rank Major General

John Charles Frémont (January 21, 1813 – July 13, 1890), was an American military officer, explorer, the first candidate of the Republican Party for the office of president of the U.S., and the first presidential candidate of a major party to run on a platform opposing slavery. During the 1840s, that era's penny press accorded Frémont the sobriquet The Pathfinder. It remains in use, and he is sometimes called The Great Pathfinder.[2][3]



Frémont's mother, Anne Beverley Whiting, was the youngest daughter of socially-prominent Virginia planter Col. Thomas Whiting and his wife. The colonel died when Anne was less than a year old. Her mother married Samuel Cary, who soon exhausted most of the Whiting estate. To enable Anne to escape the family’s financial problems, her mother placed Anne with an older married sister. In 1796 the sister arranged for the 17-year-old Anne to marry local Revolutionary War veteran Maj. John Pryor, a wealthy Richmond resident in his early 60s. (The difference in age was not so unusual when widowers often married younger women.) In 1810 Pryor hired Charles Fremon, a French immigrant who had fought with the Royalists during the French Revolution, to tutor his wife. In July 1811 Pryor learned that Whiting and Fremon were having an affair. Confronted by Pryor, the couple left Richmond together on July 10, 1811, creating a scandal that shook city society.[4]

Pryor published a divorce petition in the Virginia Patriot, in which he charged that his wife had “for some time past indulged in criminal intercourse.” Whiting and Fremon moved first to Norfolk and later settled in Savannah, Georgia. Having recently inherited slaves valued at $1,900, Whiting financed the trip and purchase of a house in Savannah by their sale. When the Virginia House of Delegates refused Pryor’s divorce petition, it was impossible for the couple to marry. In Savannah Whiting took in boarders while Fremon taught French and dancing. On January 21, 1813, their first child, John Charles Fremon, was born.[5] Their son was illegitimate, a social handicap which he overcame later with his marriage to the daughter of a powerful U.S. senator.[citation needed]

While H. W. Brands, in Andrew Jackson, His Life and Times, claims Frémont added the accented "e" and the "t" to his name later in life,[6] Andre Rolle, in John Charles Frémont: Character as Destiny, states that John's father, originally named Louis-René Frémont, had changed his name to Charles Fremon or Frémon upon emigrating to Virginia. Thus, John was reclaiming his father's (and family's) true French name.[7]


In 1841 John C. Frémont married Jessie Benton, daughter of Sen. Thomas Hart Benton from Missouri.[8] Benton, Democratic Party leader for more than 30 years in the Senate, championed the expansionist movement, a political cause that became known as Manifest Destiny. The expansionists believed that the North American continent, from one end to the other, north and south, east and west, should belong to the citizens of the U.S. They believed it was the nation's destiny to control the continent. This movement became a crusade for politicians such as Benton and his new son-in-law. Benton pushed appropriations through Congress for national surveys of the Oregon Trail (1842), the Oregon Territory (1844), the Great Basin, and Sierra Mountains to California (1845). Through his power and influence, Benton obtained for Frémont the position of leading each expedition.

Early expeditions

Col. Frémont

After attending the College of Charleston from 1829 to 1831,[9] Frémont was appointed a teacher of mathematics aboard the sloop USS Natchez. In July 1838 he was appointed a second lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers and assisted and led multiple surveying expeditions through the western territory of the United States and beyond. In 1838 and 1839 he assisted Joseph Nicollet in exploring the lands between the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. In 1841 with training from Nicollet, Frémont mapped portions of the Des Moines River.

Frémont first met American frontiersman Kit Carson on a Missouri River steamboat in St. Louis during the summer of 1842. Frémont was preparing to lead his first expedition and was looking for a guide to take him to South Pass. Carson offered his services, as he had spent much time in the area. The five-month journey, made with 25 men, was a success. The U.S. Congress published Frémont's report, touching off "a wave of wagon caravans filled with hopeful emigrants" heading west.[citation needed]

From 1842 to 1846 Frémont and his guide Carson led expedition parties on the Oregon Trail and into the Sierra Nevada. During his expeditions in the Sierra Nevada, Frémont became the first European American to see Lake Tahoe. He is also credited with determining the Great Basin as endorheic, that is, having no outlet to the sea or a river. One of Frémont's reports from an expedition inspired the Mormons to consider Utah for settlement.[8] He also mapped volcanoes such as Mount St. Helens.

Third expedition

On June 1, 1845, John Frémont and 55 men left St. Louis, with Carson as guide, on the third expedition. The stated goal was to "map the source of the Arkansas River," on the east side of the Rocky Mountains. But upon reaching the Arkansas, Frémont suddenly made a hasty trail straight to California, without explanation. Arriving in the Sacramento Valley in early 1846, he promptly sought to stir up patriotic enthusiasm among the American settlers there. He promised that if war with Mexico started, his military force would "be there to protect them."[10] Frémont nearly provoked a battle with Gen. José Castro near Monterey, camped at the summit of what is now named Fremont Peak. A conflict would likely have resulted in the annihilation of Frémont's group, due to the superior numbers of the Mexican troops. Frémont then fled Mexican-controlled California, and went north to Oregon, making camp at Klamath Lake.

After a May 9, 1846, Modoc Indian attack on his expedition party, Frémont retaliated by attacking a Klamath Indian fishing village named Dokdokwas the following day, although the people were not involved in the first action. The village was at the junction of the Williamson River and Klamath Lake. On May 10, 1846, the Frémont group completely destroyed it, massacring women and children in the action. Afterward, Carson was nearly killed by a Klamath warrior. As Carson's gun misfired, the warrior drew to fire a poison arrow; but Frémont, seeing Carson's predicament, trampled the warrior with his horse. Carson felt he owed Frémont his life.

California executions

A young John Frémont

During the Bear Flag Revolt, Frémont imprisoned José de los Santos Berreyesa, the alcalde, or mayor, of Sonoma; two Berreyesa brothers; and others he believed were against him. On June 28, 1846, Berreyesas' father, prominent landowner José de los Reyes Berreyesa, crossed the San Francisco Bay and landed near San Quentin with two cousins, twin sons of Francisco de Haro, the first alcalde of the Presidio of San Francisco. Berreyesa intended to visit his sons in jail. Frémont ordered Carson and two others to shoot and kill the three Californios, as there was no room for more prisoners.[11] Later, Carson told Jasper O'Farrell that he regretted killing the men, but that the act was only one such that Frémont ordered him to commit.[12]

There are several accounts of these deaths. Another version is:

Frémont ordered Carson to execute the three men in revenge for the deaths of two Americans. Carson supposedly questioned the orders. At first he asked Frémont if he should take the men prisoner. Frémont directed him otherwise: "I have no use for prisoners, do your duty." When Carson hesitated, Frémont yelled, "Mr. Carson, your duty," to which Carson then complied by executing Jose R. Berreyesa and his nephews, Ramon and Fransciso De Haro, the 19-year-old twin sons of Francisco de Haro, the first Alcalde of San Francisco, near present-day San Rafael.

This second version is the statement of Jasper O'Farrell, given 10 years after the incident, to a newspaper reporter for the Los Angeles Star when Frémont was running for president.[13] In an article on the genealogy of leading figures in San Francisco history, O'Farrell's account is included along with one by José de los Santos Berreyesa.[14]

Writing about the executions a half-century later, the historian Robert A. Thompsen noted, "Californians cannot speak of it down to this day without intense feeling."[15] Harlow says at this late date, it is impossible to know whether O'Farrell was telling the truth or even if he made the reported statement.[16]

Mexican-American War

In 1846 Frémont was appointed lieutenant colonel of the California Battalion, also called U.S. Mounted Rifles and other names, which he had helped form with his survey crew and volunteers from the Bear Flag Republic. In late 1846 Frémont, acting under orders from Commodore Robert F. Stockton, led a military expedition of 300 men to capture Santa Barbara, California, during the Mexican-American War. Frémont led his unit over the Santa Ynez Mountains at San Marcos Pass in a rainstorm on the night of December 24, 1846. In spite of losing many of his horses, mules and cannon, which slid down the muddy slopes during the rainy night, his men regrouped in the foothills the next morning, and captured the presidio without bloodshed, thereby capturing the town. A few days later Frémont led his men southeast toward Los Angeles, accepting the surrender of the leader Andres Pico and signing the Treaty of Cahuenga on January 13, 1847, which terminated the war in upper California.[17]

On January 16, 1847, Commodore Stockton appointed Frémont military governor of California following the Treaty of Cahuenga. But U.S. Army Brig. Gen.l Stephen Watts Kearny, who outranked Frémont (and who arguably had the same rank as Stockton, one star), said he had orders from the U.S. president and secretary of war to serve as governor. He asked Frémont to give up the governorship, which the latter stubbornly refused to do for a time. Kearny gave Frémont several opportunities to change his position. When they arrived at Fort Leavenworth in August 1847, Kearny arrested Frémont and brought him to Washington, D.C., for court martial. Fremont was convicted of mutiny, disobedience of a superior officer and military misconduct.

While approving the court's decision, Pres. James K. Polk quickly commuted his sentence of dishonorable discharge due to his marriage to Jessie Benton, daughter of Senator Thomas Benton who was one of Polk's political allies. Frémont wrote to Polk in February 1848 that he would resign from the Army unless the president overturned his conviction. One month later, having received no reply from Polk, Frémont resigned his commission and settled in California.[18] In 1847 he purchased the Rancho Las Mariposas land grant in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains near Yosemite.

Fourth expedition

John C. Frémont

In 1848 Frémont and his father-in-law Sen. Benton developed a plan to advance their vision of Manifest Destiny, as well as restore Frémont's honor after his court martial. With a keen interest in the potential of railroads, Sen. Benton had sought support from the Senate for a railroad connecting St. Louis to San Francisco along the 38th parallel, the latitude which both cities approximately share. After Benton failed to secure federal funding, Frémont secured private funding. In October 1848 he embarked with 35 men up the Missouri, Kansas and Arkansas rivers to explore the terrain.

On his party's reaching Bent's Fort, he was strongly advised by most of the trappers against continuing the journey. Already a foot of snow was on the ground at Bent's Fort, and the winter in the mountains promised to be especially snowy. Part of Frémont's purpose was to demonstrate that a 38th parallel railroad would be practical year-round. At Bent's Fort he secured "Uncle Dick" Wootton as guide, and at what is now Pueblo, Colorado, he hired the eccentric "Old Bill" Williams and moved on.

Had Frémont continued up the Arkansas, he might have succeeded. On November 25 at what is now Florence, Colorado, he turned sharply south. By the time his party crossed the Sangre De Cristo range via Mocha Pass, they had already experienced days of bitter cold, blinding snow and difficult travel. Some of the party, including the guide Wootton, had already turned back, concluding further travel would be impossible. Although the passes through the Sangre de Cristo had proven too steep for a railroad, Frémont pressed on. From this point the party might still have succeeded had they gone up the Rio Grande to its source, or gone by a more northerly route, but the route they took brought them to the very top of Mesa Mountain.[19] It was not until December 22 that Frémont acknowledged the party needed to regroup and be resupplied. They began to make their way to Taos, New Mexico. By the time the last surviving member of the expedition made it to Taos on February 12, 1849, 10 of the party were dead. But for the efforts of member Alexis Godey, another 15 would have been lost.[20] After recuperating in Taos, Frémont and only a few of the men left for California via an established southern trade route.

U.S. Senator and presidential candidate

This caricature tries to link Frémont to other "strange" movements like temperance, feminists, socialism, free love, Catholicism and abolitionism.

Frémont was one of the first two senators from California, serving from 1850 to 1851.

Frémont was also the first presidential candidate of the new Republican Party in 1856. At the time of his campaign he lived in Staten Island, New York. The campaign was headquartered near his home in St. George.[21] He placed second to James Buchanan in a three-way election; he did not carry the state of California.

Civil War

Frémont later served as a major general in the American Civil War, including a controversial term as commander of the Army's Department of the West from May to November 1861. Frémont replaced William S. Harney, who had negotiated the Harney-Price Truce, which permitted Missouri to remain neutral in the conflict as long as it did not send men or supplies to either side.

Frémont ordered his Gen. Nathaniel Lyon to formally bring Missouri into the Union cause. Lyon had been named the temporary commander of the Department of the West, before Frémont ultimately replaced Lyon. Lyon, in a series of battles, evicted Gov. Claiborne Jackson and installed a pro-Union government. After Lyon was killed in the Battle of Wilson's Creek in August, Frémont imposed martial law in the state, confiscating secessionists' private property and emancipating slaves.

John C. Frémont

Pres. Abraham Lincoln, fearing the order would tip Missouri (and other slave states in Union control) to the southern cause, asked Frémont to revise the order. Frémont refused to do so, and sent his wife to plead the case. Lincoln responded by publicly revoking the proclamation and relieving Frémont of command on November 2, 1861, simultaneous to a War Department report detailing Frémont's iniquities as a major general. In March 1862 he was placed in command of the Mountain Department of Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky.

Early in June 1862 Frémont pursued the Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson for eight days, finally engaging him at Battle of Cross Keys on June 8. Jackson slipped away after the battle, saving his army.

When the Army of Virginia was created June 26, to include Gen. Frémont's corps, with John Pope in command, Frémont declined to serve on the grounds that he was senior to Pope and for personal reasons. He then went to New York where he remained throughout the war, expecting a command, but none was given to him.[22]

Radical Republican presidential candidacy

In 1860 the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln for president, who won the presidency and then ran for reelection in 1864. The Radical Republicans, a group of hard-line abolitionists, were upset with Lincoln's positions on the issues of slavery and post-war reconciliation with the southern states. On May 31, 1864, they nominated Frémont for president. This frisson in the Republican Party divided the party into two factions: the anti-Lincoln Radical Republicans, who nominated Frémont, and the pro-Lincoln Republicans. Frémont abandoned his political campaign in September 1864, after he brokered a political deal in which Lincoln removed Postmaster General Montgomery Blair from office.

Later life

John C. Frémont Grave Site

The state of Missouri took possession of the Pacific Railroad in February 1866, when the company defaulted in its interest payment. In June 1866 the state, at private sale, sold the road to Frémont. Frémont reorganized the assets of the Pacific Railroad as the Southwest Pacific Railroad in August 1866. In less than a year (June 1867), the railroad was repossessed by the state of Missouri after Frémont was unable to pay the second installment on his purchase.[23]

From 1878 to 1881 Frémont was governor of the Arizona Territory. Destitute, the family depended on the publication earnings of his wife Jessie.

Frémont lived on Staten Island in retirement. He died in New York City in 1890 of peritonitis, a forgotten man. He was buried in Rockland Cemetery, Sparkill, New York.[24][25]




Frémont collected a number of plants on his expeditions, including the first recorded discovery of the Single-leaf Pinyon by a European American. The genus of the California Flannelbush (Fremontodendron californicum) is named for him, as are the species names of many other plants, including Frémont's chaff bush (Amphipappus fremontii), Western rosinweed (Calycadenia fremontii), pincushion flower (Chaenactis fremontii), goosefoot (Chenopodium fremontii), silk tassel (Garrya fremontii), moss gentian (Gentiana fremontii), vernal pool goldfields (Lasthenia fremontii), tidytips (Layia fremontii), desert pepperweed (Lepidium fremontii), desert boxthorn (Lycium fremontii), barberry (Mahonia fremontii), bush mallow (Malacothamnus fremontii), monkeyflower (Mimulus fremontii), phacelia (Phacelia fremontii), desert combleaf (Polyctenium fremontii), cottonwood tree (Populus fremontii), desert apricot (Prunus fremontii), indigo bush (Psorothamnus fremontii), mountain ragwort (Senecio fremontii), yellowray gold (Syntrichopappus fremontii), and chaparral death camas (Toxicoscordion fremontii).


The City of Elizabeth, South Australia (now a part of the City of Playford) named a local park and high school Fremont in recognition of the sister city relationship it had with Fremont, California. The high school has since merged with Elizabeth High School, so the Pathfinder's legacy is carried by Fremont-Elizabeth City High School.

The "largest and most expensive 'trophy'" in college football is a replica of a cannon "that accompanied Captain John C. Frémont on his expedition through Oregon, Nevada and California in 1843-44". The annual game between the University of Nevada, Reno and the University of Nevada - Las Vegas is for possession of the Fremont Cannon.[27][28]

A barbershop chorus in Fremont, Nebraska, is named The Fremont Pathfinders.[29] The Fremont Pathfinders Artillery Battery[30] is an American Civil War reenactment group from the same community.

Fremont Street in Las Vegas, Nevada, is named in his honor, as are streets in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Kiel, Wisconsin, Manhattan, Kansas, Portland, Oregon and Tucson, Arizona; the California cities of Fremont, Monterey, Seaside, Stockton, San Mateo, and San Francisco, as is the Grant City section of Staten Island, New York. Portland also has several other locations named after Frémont, such as Fremont Bridge. Other places named for him include John C. Fremont Senior High School in Los Angeles and Oakland, California, the John C. Fremont Branch Library located on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles and the John C. Fremont Branch Library in Tucson, Arizona. John C. Fremont Elementary School in Glendale, California, and a John C. Fremont Junior High School in Mesa, Arizona, Pomona, California, Roseburg, Oregon and one in Oxnard, California bear his name. Fremont High School in Sunnyvale, California, is named for the explorer and its annual yearbook is called The Pathfinder. In addition, the Fremont Hospital in Yuba City, California,and the John C. Fremont Hospital, in Mariposa, California , (where Frémont and his wife lived and prospered during the Gold Rush) is named for him.

  • The U.S. Army's (now inactive) 8th Infantry Division (Mechanized) is called the Pathfinder Division, after John Frémont. The gold arrow on the 8th ID crest is called the "Arrow of General Frémont."
  • The 1983 historical novel Dream West by western writer David Nevin covers the life, loves and times of Frémont.


Frémont's great-grandfather, Henry Whiting, was a half-brother of Catherine Whiting. She married John Washington, uncle of George Washington.[31][32][33]


  1. ^ Guinn, J. M. (1902). "XXXIV. Some Political History.". History of the State of California and Biographical Record of Santa Cruz, San Benito, Monterey, and San Luis Obispo Counties. Chapman. pp. 234–235. Retrieved October 12, 2009. "The following is a list of the governors of California, Spanish, Mexican and American, with date of appointment or election:" 
  2. ^ Adams, Dennis. "The Man for Whom Fort Fremont was Named", Beaufort County (SC) Library, retrieved on February 1, 2007
  3. ^ "John Charles Fremont", Sierra Nevada Virtual Museum, Biographies, retrieved on February 19, 2007
  4. ^ Nevins pp. 3-7. Chaffin pp. 19-21
  5. ^ Chaffin, pp. 21-22
  6. ^ Brands, H. W. (2005). Andrew Jackson, His Life and Times. Garden City: Doubleday. p. 188–190. ISBN 0385507380. 
  7. ^ Rolle, Andrew (1991). John Charles Frémont: Character as Destiny. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. p. 2–5. ISBN 0585359547. 
  8. ^ a b Wikisource-logo.svg "Frémont, John Charles". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. 1900. 
  9. ^ John C. Fremont
  10. ^ Sides, Hampton (2006) Blood and thunder: an epic of the American West, p. 70. Random House. ISBN 0385507771
  11. ^ Harlow, Neal; California Conquered: the Annexation of a Mexican Province 1846–1850; p110, p 371; University of California Press; 1982; ISBN 0-520-06605-7
  12. ^ Eldredge, Zoeth Skinner. The Beginnings of San Francisco, 1912. "Appendix D: The Murder of Berreyesa and the De Haros." Hosted at SFGenealogy. Retrieved on August 17, 2009.
  13. ^ O'Farrell statement to "Los Angeles Star", September 27, 1856
  14. ^ San Francisco History: The Beginnings of San Francisco, Appendix D. San Francisco Genealogy. URL retrieved on January 24, 2007.
  15. ^ Thompsen, Robert A. (1905) History of California, Vol. 5. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 174–75.
  16. ^ Harlow; op. cit; p. 371
  17. ^ Tompkins, Walker A. Santa Barbara, Past and Present. Santa Barbara, CA: Tecolote Books, 1975, pp. 33-35.
  18. ^ Borneman, Walter R., Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America. New York, NY,: Random House Books, 2008, pp. 284-85.
  19. ^ Both Patricia Richmond in Trail to Disaster and David Roberts in A Newer World (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000) detail the exact route.
  20. ^ Roberts, David, A Newer World, page 241
  21. ^ Republican National Political Conventions 1856 - 2008
  22. ^ U.S. Civil War Generals - Union Generals -(Frémont); John Charles Fremont
  23. ^ "100 Years of Service". 1960. Retrieved 2006-04-20. 
  24. ^ "The Old Pathfinder Dead; Gen. John C. Fremont Expired at his Home Yesterday", New York Times, 14 July 1890
  25. ^ "John Charles Fremont". Find A Grave. January 1, 2001. Retrieved 2007-05-29. 
  26. ^ "Author Query". International Plant Names Index. 
  27. ^ [1]
  28. ^ "Nevada Wolf Pack History". College Football History. Retrieved 2007-09-19. 
  29. ^ The History of the Fremont Pathfinders. Barbershop Chorus. URL retrieved on February 19, 2007
  30. ^ History of the Pathfinders Fremont Pathfinders Artillery Battery. URL retrieved on February 19, 2007
  31. ^ Robert H. Wynn, "John Charles Fremont, Explorer!", 'Bob and Brenda Exploring' Newsletter, March 2006, Issue No. 16. URL retrieved on January 7, 2007.
  32. ^ "The Diaries of George Washington", Vol. 2, 1976. The George Washington Papers, The Library of Congress. URL retrieved on January 7, 2007.
  33. ^ Genealogical convolution, RootsWeb. URL retrieved on January 7, 2007.


Further reading

  • Harvey, Miles, The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime, Random House, 2000, ISBN 0375501517, ISBN 0767908260.
  • Brandon, William, The Men and the Mountain (1955) ISBN 0-8371-5873-7. An account of Frémont's failed fourth expedition.
  • David H. Miller and Mark J. Stegmaier, James F. Milligan: His Journal of Fremont's Fifth Expedition, 1853–1854; His Adventurous Life on Land and Sea, Arthur H. Clark Co., 1988. 300 pp.
  • NY Times, Harper's Weekly political cartoon, "That's What's the Trouble with John C."; Fremont's 1864 challenge to Lincoln's re-nomination. [2]
  • Chaffin, Tom, Pathfinder: John Charles Frémont and the Course of American Empire, New York: Hill and Wang, 2002 ISBN 0809075571 ISBN 978-0809075577
  • Nevins, Allan, Fremont: Pathmarker of the West, Volume 1: Fremont the Explorer; Volume 2: Fremont in the Civil War (1939, rev ed. 1955)
  • Roberts, David (2001), A newer world: Kit Carson, John C. Fremont and the claiming of the American west, New York: Touchstone ISBN 0-684-83482-0
  • Tompkins, Walker A. Santa Barbara, Past and Present. Tecolote Books, Santa Barbara, CA, 1975.

External links

Political offices
Preceded by
John Philo Hoyt
Governor of Arizona Territory
1878 – 1881
Succeeded by
Frederick Augustus Tritle
United States Senate
New title Senator from California (Class 1)
1850 – 1851
Served alongside: William M. Gwin
Succeeded by
John B. Weller
Party political offices
New political party Republican Party presidential candidate
Succeeded by
Abraham Lincoln


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