If you type “John C. Frémont” into a search engine you will turn up places named after him in over a dozen states in the U.S. So who was this guy and why were so many things named after him? To find out, I visited the Des Chutes Historical Museum in Bend, Oregon to see their current exhibit about Frémont. The Museum was lucky to get the exhibit and it will be on display there until the end of December 2015. This exhibit focuses on Frémont’s Second Exploring Expedition that occurred in 1843-1844. Many consider it to be the apex of his career. The purpose of this trip was to explore the Oregon country. Frémont and 27 handpicked men, including the explorer Kit Carson, set out to map the second half of the Oregon Trail.
One of the first things you see as you enter the gallery is a life-sized model of Frémont dressed in uniform with a presentation sword in his hands. The actual sword is displayed nearby. Frémont’s presentation sword and scabbard are described on one of the display boards. Photos show close ups of the hilt with a snake twisting around its length and a small map of Oregon on top of a rounded section. A gold wash coats most of the scabbard and hilt. Another case displays his presentation revolver. It is a .44 caliber 6-shot Colt Dragoon.
The exhibit displays some of the tools of the trade of early American explorers. A compass, sextant, and artificial horizon tool were essential for surveyors. A brass telescope sits at the ready to view
distant landscapes. A compact case holds a drawing set used in making maps of previously unexplored areas. In Frémont’s travels he looked for rivers, lakes, and trails that could be used by future explorers and settlers.
There is a large three-dimensional map in part of the exhibit that shows some of the locations he passed through during the Second Exploring Expedition. There are
photos of the various locations that note the date he was there. He named several geographic features in Oregon including the Great Basin, Summer Lake, Winter Ridge, and Lake Abert. Though more people have moved into the areas he explored in eastern Oregon, many locations look much as they did during his explorations.
In the 1840’s there were few plant collections with specimens collected in western North America. Though many specimens were lost en route, Frémont’s expeditions collected 32 plants new to science. He studied botany in college and documented vegetation and land features on the trips. At least 23 of the new species discovered on the trip contain “Frémont” as part of their name. Frémont cottonwood, Populus deltoids Fremont, is one example. The exhibit shows examples of some of the preserved plants in part of the display.
The expedition transported a cannon with them and a cannon carriage was attached to a horse or mule’s harness. There is some confusion as to why he wanted to carry a cannon with him into an area known to be relatively safe. He said it was to defend himself against “hostile Indians” but some conjectured that he wanted it to support a revolt against Mexico and protect California’s annexation into the U.S. He fired the cannon at the Klamath Tribe members camped near Klamath Marsh. Due to that action, he was unable to get any of them to work as a scout for the expedition but they did provide useful geographic information. The cannon was abandoned on January 29, 1844 along the route. Parts of the mountain howitzer cannon were discovered in 1997 and 2001 along the Nevada-California border by a team of searchers who called themselves the Fremont Howitzer Recovery Team. A re-creation of the howitzer is displayed in the exhibit.
The exhibit also features the work of photographer Loren Irving. He followed the route of Frémont and documented his journey with photos and diary entries. There are large framed prints of some of the locations hung on the walls of the exhibit area. Loren compiled his work into a book entitled Finding Fremont.
The exhibit at Des Chutes Historical Museum will teach you about one of Frémont’s five expeditions and give you a glimpse into his many other accomplishments. A copy of his book, Memoirs of My Life, is shown in a small case in the exhibit. It is easy to see how his life as an explorer, military officer, politician, and family man would be difficult to summarize in one book.
John C. Frémont was born in 1813 in Savannah, Georgia. He had a tough life right from the very start. His mother, Mrs. Anne Beverley Whiting Pryor, left her husband since she had fallen in love with her tutor, Louis-Rene ‘Charles’ Frémon. John was the product of that affair. Anne and Charles tried to marry but were denied a license by the state. The couple had two more children but John’s father died when he was five years old.
The family moved to Charleston, South Carolina. John was a bright student and he won scholarships that helped him advance in his education. He entered the College of Charleston and continued to do well academically. He took a leave to help care for his mother and siblings and due to that decision, was expelled for “incorrigible negligence”. He worked as a mathematics teacher and went on to become a mathematics instructor for the military. He was the protégé of United States diplomat Joel Poinsett, who helped him get the position.
He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers in 1838. He was mentored by Joseph Nicollet who referred to him as “Frémont” instead of Frémon so he adopted that name in 1840. He led five expeditions over a 12 year period beginning in 1842.
United States Senator Thomas Hart Benton was a proponent of Westward expansion and he sought out Frémont and Nicollet to talk about their expeditions. After frequent trips to the Benton home, Frémont began courting the senator’s daughter, Jessie Ann Benton. The senator did not approve of the relationship so the couple ended up eloping.
On the Second Exploring Expedition, Frémont had been instructed to return by the same route but he chose a different way instead. There was a legend that a river known as Rio Buenaventura flowed from the Rocky Mountains to San Francisco Bay. He intended to prove or disprove its existence. Due to harsh weather conditions and low supplies of food, he only made it half way. He made his way to Fort Sutter in New Helvetica, now known as Sacramento.
He left in March of 1845 and travelled south. One of the places he camped at and named was Las Vegas or “The Meadow”. He travelled along the Wasatch Range and mapped the Great Basin’s periphery. Again Frémont disobeyed orders from his superiors and took a different route – this time to the west.
Topographer Charles Preuss traveled with Frémont and compiled data from the first two expeditions into the Frémont – Preuss map that was created in 1845. Many emigrants traversing the Oregon Trail relied upon Frémont’s maps in their travels west. He earned the nickname of “The Pathfinder”.
In 1846, Frémont participated in the Mexican-American War in California as a U.S. military commander at the Bear Flag Revolt. His service while in the military was controversial but his actions caused General Pico to surrender thus ending the War in California. He refused to relinquish his appointment as Military Governor of California to General Kearny and ended up being court martialed. He was pardoned by President James Polk but resigned from the military in 1848.
He served as a Senator for the Democratic Party in the newly-formed state of California from 1850 to 1851. In 1856 he became the first Republican candidate for the office of President of the United States. Frémont was warned that his election may lead to civil war. Democrat James Buchanan won the race.
In July of 1861 President Abraham Lincoln appointed Frémont to be the major general in command of the Army’s Department of the West. A month later, Frémont issued an emancipation proclamation – more than a year ahead of Lincoln’s. He oversaw troops in Missouri and Kansas – states that had problems with sympathizers, guerilla warfare, and Confederate units. After a major defeat in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, he imposed martial law in St. Louis. This included seizing slaves from citizens who aided the guerillas or Confederates. Lincoln ordered him to rescind the order since he had hoped for a political end to the war that included having a balance of free and slave holding states. He did not want to offend the Union states. Frémont refused and his wife ended up pleading his case with Lincoln. Frémont was relieved of duty in November of 1861. He was criticized for the way he prepared defenses. However, his decision to choose Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant over more senior officers was considered to be his greatest contribution to the Civil War.
Frémont was then given command of the Mountain Department in 1862. The Department only lasted from April to June of 1862. It was one of three unsuccessful armies that engaged with Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Frémont was offered another position working under Major General John Pope (who used to work under him) but he refused. He moved to New York City and waited for another call to duty but none ever came.
He was nominated to be president again in 1864 by the Radical Democracy Party (a party formed by a group of dissident Republicans) but withdrew and threw his support to Lincoln who was elected to a second term.
For the remaining years of his life, Frémont was troubled with controversy and financial problems. He was unsuccessful with his investments in railroad and real estate. He served as Governor of Arizona between 1878 and 1881. His wife, Jessie, wrote books and articles that were popular with the public and the couple eventually relied upon the income garnered from them for income. Jessie is thought to have helped with editing her husband’s writings. In 1887 John C. Frémont published the first of two proposed volumes entitled Memoirs of My Life. There was little profit made from the first volume so the second was never published. He was finally recognized for his service and given a $6,000 annual pension in the spring of 1890 while working in New York City but died three months later on July 13. His wife, who was at their home in Los Angeles, was not able to attend the funeral due to their dire financial status.
The Frémont legacy lives on in several ways. Many places and plants bear his name. A commemorative stamp was issued in honor of him in 1898. The U.S. Army 8th Infantry Division (now inactive) was called the Pathfinder Division. The Fremont Cannon trophy, awarded in college football, is a replica of the cannon that was taken on the Second Exploring Expedition. Frémont has been recognized for his many achievements in several books, movies, and television shows.
Source for map of Second Exploring Expedition route:
“John C. Fremont,” http://factcards.califa.org/exp/fremont.html (accessed October 10, 2105).