WHY DO YOU CARE ABOUT JOHN CHARLES FREMONT?
You don’t, if you’re not into the west. Or care about how Kit Carson guided the way [he was born in Kentucky]. Before Brigham Young founded Salt Lake City [what a great place to name a city]. And he used Fremont’s notes to get there!
Before Mexico had been forced to give up California. President James K. Polk made that happen. Here is what he said at his 1845 inauguration:
Nor will it become in a less degree my duty to assert and maintain, by all constitutional means, the right of that portion of our territory which lies beyond the Rocky Mountains.
He was referring to Oregon, but really meant California. He fought a war with Mexico to get it, and John Charles Fremont would be court-martialed for his part in California’s upheaval.
This was just about the time of Richard Henry Dana’s flights at sea. California was the exotic land then to be reached. Here is some of his prose from Two Years Before the Mast:
From the time her keel was laid, she had never been so driven; and had it been life or death with every one of us, she could not have borne another stitch of canvas.
America was reaching out. Moving fast. “Manifest Destiny” was its political motto. And politics was now its religion.
We are all driven to freedom. And we are still fighting to reach and receive it. That’s what Fremont sought then, climbing over those western mountains in winter!
Have you ever heard of the Sheepeater People, despairingly called the “Root Diggers” of the Wind River Mountains? Go to the famous South Pass and cross the Continental Divide [never been there? it’s almost flat there!], up the Green River and into the Wind River Mountains. To Island Lake and Indian Basin. Fremont was there, too. One of the first Europeans. They called him the Pathfinder, but that’s not really true. It was the mountain men before him that showed him the way. The mountain men plying the beaver trade for European fashion.
Look up, today, at Fremont Peak. He was the first to climb it. Unless they got there first. Not the trappers. The Root Diggers. Those peaceful people, living as one, with what the mountains provided, carrying smoldering fire in sage-smudge sticks as they traveled, living freely with what the mountains gave them to value. There were already people out west when the Europeans arrived. And those people were better at sharing than we would become. They would watch Fremont force the mountain, in 1842, in his second expedition.
The Root Diggers, as a separate people, are gone now. Few survived the European scourge of smallpox and encroachment on their living spaces. But I wonder how long they once lived in those beautiful mountains. Places at peace, at least between humans. But was that really true? Are humans ever truly at ease?
That is the lure of the West to us. Our Manifest Destiny of peace and trust. We seek a place to be left alone. And we are still hoping to find it somewhere someday. Is that why we are currently looking to Mars?
Fremont would return, for four more journeys, to the West, to its mountains, and to California. He would encounter John Sutter, and later buy the ranch he called, “The Mariposa.” That was two years before the gold rush. It made him a millionaire, but he died penniless. In squalor.
How did that happen? Was it his personality? Poor judgment? Great charisma can be lacking in other important characteristics. Great men can have serious distractions. Is it hard to be great without them? And what about our great women? Them too? Or are they a different story?
But first, Fremont would wrest California from Mexico, forming the Bear Flag Rebellion, and raising the California Battalion. He governed along with Admiral Stockton. Not good enough for President Polk then. Fremont would run afoul of U.S. General Stephen W. Kearny, and get court-martialed for it. But Fremont and Stockton have cities named after them. Kearny, just a street in San Francisco.
Fremont would find support in the powerful Missouri Senator, Thomas Hart Benton. He married Benton’s daughter, Jessie, 11 years his junior. And she turned out to be just as courageous as Fremont, even though neither were a West Pointer [that was Kearny]. And Jessie was a far better writer. A significant talent. It was her writing up her husband’s journals that would make him famous for what he had done without her. But when they were broke at the end of his life of triumphs and failures, it was from her writing that they made a living.
We just don’t hear enough of her contributions. Fremont did nothing alone. But, other than Carson, you know nothing of the others. Or even the names of the ten that died being led by him near the end of his explorations.
Here is an example of Jessie’s style of engaging writing, speaking as Fremont in ascending the peak named for him.
Here, on the summit, where the stillness was absolute, unbroken by any sound, and solitude complete, we thought ourselves beyond the region of animated life; but while we were sitting on the rock, a solitary bee (Bromus, the humble-bee) came winging his flight from the eastern valley, and lit on the knee of one of the men. It was a strange place, the icy rock and the highest peak of the Rocky Mountains [Fremont was wrong here], for a lover of warm sunshine and flowers; and we pleased ourselves with the idea that he was the first of his species to cross the mountain barrier [Fremont was wrong again], a solitary pioneer to foretell the advance of civilization. I believe that a moment’s thought would have made us let him continue his way unharmed; but we carried out the law of this country, where all animated nature seems at war; and, seizing him immediately, put him in at least a fit place–in the leaves of a large book, among the flowers we had collected on our way [yikes!].
Fremont was, for a time, famous enough to obtain funding for those other expeditions, including the fourth one, which, in 1848, resulted in the death of ten men in the mountain snows of Colorado. Kit Carson was unavailable to guide them then, and some survived by eating their dead. Heroes are found in unusual places [but cannibalism? why was Fremont traveling in winter? no competition?].
Fremont then became the first Senator from California and, in 1856, ran for President of the United States as the first Republican candidate to do so. He lost to Democrat James Buchanan [John C. Breckenridge, of Kentucky, was his Vice President. He then went on to become the Secretary of War for the Confederate States of America].
Fremont’s illegitimate birth was held against him [like another genius in Alexander Hamilton], and the dead-eating business was true political conversation. But Fremont came close enough to winning the election, carrying eleven states in doing so. Would the Civil War have been avoided if President Fremont had preceded President Lincoln? Or the consequences even more dire?
Fremont was made a General by President Lincoln in the Civil War. And it was Fremont who found and promoted Ulysses S. Grant. Here is what he had to say about Grant in his memoirs:
… a man of great activity and of promptness in obeying orders without question or hesitation … for General Grant was of unassuming character, not given to self-elation, of dogged persistence and of iron will.
But he was soon fired, by Lincoln, from his Western Command, not for the least of reasons being his freeing of slaves before it was Lincoln’s time to do so. He lasted about 125 days in that position, and then was fired again by losing to Stonewall Jackson in the Virginia campaign [was he also a threat to Lincoln in the next Presidential election?].
Why should you care about John Charles Fremont? His adventures crossed the lives of frontiersman Kit Carson, Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, Commodore Robert F. Stockton, mountain man “Old” Bill Williams, Presidents James K. Polk, James Buchanan, and Abraham Lincoln, Generals Stephen Kearny, Ulysses S. Grant, and Stonewall Jackson. And most fortunate of all, he met and married his Boswell, Jessie Benton. Although he was not faithful, she was, and cared for him until his death in 1890.
Why should you care about John Charles Fremont? Maybe because there are others, just like him, still out there.
Or maybe there are still places that you still want to reach first!