F is for Frémont, John Charles (1813-1890): Irresponsible Filibuster or Great Explorer?


“From the ashes of his campfires have sprung cities.”

~ Jessie Benton Frémont

The city of Fremont is located south of San Francisco and isn’t a tourist attraction per se were it not for the international renown of Khaled Hosseini who mentioned the town in his bestseller The Kite Runner. Fremont has the largest population of Afghanis in the US (about 60,000 people, last time I checked) and therefore bears the nickname  Little Kabul .

But maybe what’s most interesting about Fremont is that the city was named after explorer John Charles Frémont. Frémont’s mother was the wife of a planter in Virginia but when she had sex with her French-Canadian teacher and was found out, she had to flee Richmond due to the scandal that she had caused. John Charles was born, but the scandal haunted them, leading to an existence of wandering, and even seeking refuge with Indians in the wilderness. This restless existence, together with the fact that the French Canadian simply took off when John Charles was only five years old, were, according to Frémont’s most recent biographer (Andrew Rolle), the reason for the  Sturm und Drang behavior that typified Frémont’s life.

Already in college, it became clear that Frémont didn’t deal well with authority. He was expelled because he never showed up for class and didn’t pass exams. It didn’t bother him one bit, or as he would reflect later, it gave him a sense of complete and utter freedom. Many historians have claimed he was a narcissist while others have described him as a romantic rebel who resembled figures like Napoleon and Lord Byron.

In 1841, he married Jessie Benton, daughter of Thomas Hart Benton, a Democratic Senator from Missouri. Benton was a powerful man and the architect of Manifest Destiny, the belief that Americans are the elected people to govern the North American continent. Due to Benton, Frémont was sent on an exploration out West. With Kit Carson he discovered the Oregon Trail, mapped the volcano Mount Helens, and he was the first American who would discover Lake Tahoe (this sounds ridiculously grandiose of course, as many Indians had seen and used the lake before Frémont ever set eyes on it, but history in those days was written by white males, so when a white male saw a new lake for the first time, he took all the credit, boohoo).

Frémont’s reports had such a great impact back East (partly due to the influence of his father-in-law) that it inspired the Mormons to seek their Holy Land out West. Soon, Frémont developed a reputation as the discoverer of California which earned him the title The Great Pathfinder. What was left out of this claim to fame, was that he often exposed his men to unnecessary and extreme risks, as well as the fact that he embellished his adventures.

When the Mexican War broke out, Frémont headed the army out West, and on January 13th, 1847, he would sign the Treaty of Cahunega which ended that war in Northern California. Thereupon navy commander Stockton (also a town in California now) appointed Frémont military governor of California. When General Kearny (just a street in San Fran, lol) objected to this as he outranked Frémont, Frémont refused to give up his position and was dragged in front of a court-martial in DC and dishonorably discharged.

After this, Frémont moved back to California to a ranch he had just bought and there he found… gold. He could essentially retire at that point but ran for office and became a Senator of California. Always drawn to the next power struggle, which, according to biographer Andrew Rolle, is rooted in the absence of the father during childhood, meaning that one always has to prove oneself in one Oedipal struggle or another, Frémont ran for President for the Republican Party. He never became President, clearly, but he opposed slavery vehemently and some dissenting Republicans felt he ought to have been President as they felt Lincoln was dragging his feet on abolishing slavery.

But Frémont also became active in the army again and when he entered Missouri with this army, he immediately abolished slavery there, even before Lincoln had the chance to officially announce it. Some see this as the typical impulsive and dangerous Napoleonic behavior which Frémont was famous for, while others have lauded him as a hero who did the right thing even though it caused bad blood with his “boss” Abe Lincoln.

After the American Civil War, the Great Pathfinder couldn’t quite find the appropriate path again: he used up all his money due to the wrong investments and when he became governor of the Arizona Territory in 1878, he was so broke that he had to live off his wife’s income (she was an author, so that couldn’t have been much). His work as governor is described by historian Bancroft as a tremendous negligence of his duties, which mirrored his record as a college student.

In 1890, Frémont would die in a hospital in Manhattan. At that moment, no one knew who he was or what he had accomplished (there’s a movie in this: man dying alone in a hospital, thinking back of his former glory– FADE IN, GO!). Nonetheless, his name was used geographically in many Western states and, because he collected plants on his expeditions, many plants carry the name Fremont in their Latin name.

Was he a misunderstood statesman and explorer or did he make so many enemies in his life that an objective biography is nearly impossible? What can be established for sure is that his personality exemplified the persona that migrated West (explorer, gold seeker, adventurer, pioneer etc): people like Frémont seemed to be seeking out danger and the wilderness to prove themselves and push personal boundaries.

Frémont’s riches to rags fable is also a typical Californian story (see also Brannan and Sutter) and the opposite of the rags to riches fable of the American Dream. It symbolizes the (Wild) West where stories become myths over night because the promise of extreme riches can dissolve into thin air if you don’t play your cards well. And that is still the case, if one thinks of the many successes and failures of a place like Silicon Valley. As such Frémont pushed the frontier out West but also pushed his own personal boundaries and thus became the blueprint for California’s attitude to living dangerously and on the edge…

This entry was posted in Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Rolle, Arizona Territory, Civil War, Fremont, General Kearny, Great Pathfinder, Jessie Benton Fremont, John Charles Fremont, Khaled Hosseini, Kit Carson, Lake Tahoe, Little Kabul, Mexican War, Oregon Trail, slavery, Stockton, The Kite Runner. Bookmark the permalink.