Fremont, John C.

Born: 1813-01-21 Savannah, Georgia

Died: 1890-07-13 New York, New York

John C. Fremont’s father died in 1818 and left the family to a life of relative poverty in Charleston, South Carolina. Fremont enrolled in the College of Charleston in 1829 but was expelled just before graduation, although he received his degree five years later. He served as a mathematics instructor on the USS Natchez during a two-year voyage to South America and worked as a railroad surveyor upon his return. Fremont’s mentor, Secretary of War Joel R. Poinsett, tasked Fremont with surveying the region between the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, which secured him a commission in the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant. He engaged in two more expeditions in 1838 and 1839 and eloped with Thomas Hart Benton’s daughter, Jessie Benton, in 1841. Together, they had five children.

In 1842, Benton sent Fremont on a lengthy expedition along the Oregon Trail. The events of that trip, led by Kit Carson, caught the public imagination and made Fremont a celebrity - not the least because of his 1843 published account of the expedition. That year, Fremont engaged in a second expedition through Nevada into Mexican-held California, which he recorded in a published account that proved even more successful than his previous book. James K. Polk sponsored a third expedition into California from 1845 to 1847. Mexican authorities forced Fremont to leave California, but he returned after the Mexican War broke out and participated in the Bear Flag Revolt. After American forces occupied California, Fremont defied General Stephen W. Kearny’s command over the new territory and was dismissed from the army. Fremont embarked on a fourth expedition in 1848 to find a rail route from St. Louis but became lost. Fortunately for Fremont, gold was soon discovered on property he had purchased in California, and he became rich.

Fremont’s political career began in earnest in 1849, when he won California’s first U.S. Senate seat. In the Senate, Fremont began to display anti-slavery tendencies, which resulted in his replacement by a Democrat in 1851 but also made him a hero among abolitionists. After another near-disastrous expedition in 1853, Fremont returned to politics by gaining the Republican Party’s first presidential nomination in 1856. He lost to James Buchanan but garnered a majority of northern votes - paving the way for Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860.

Following the secession crisis, Lincoln commissioned Fremont as a major general and placed him in charge of the Department of the West. In response to the exceedingly complicated and violent situation in Missouri, Fremont abolished slavery in that state. Lincoln rescinded the order and removed Fremont from command in November 1861. Due to Fremont’s popularity with many Republicans, Lincoln restored him to the service in 1862 and placed him in command of troops in western Virginia where he soon suffered defeat during Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s Shenandoah Campaign and eventually resigned. Fremont briefly emerged as a possible contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 1864 but withdrew from the race.

Pamela Herr, “Frémont, John Charles,” American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 8:459-62; Tom Chaffin, Pathfinder: John Charles Frémont and the Course of American Empire (New York: Hill and Wang, 2002).