Saturday, August 17, 2013

Pathfinder: John Charles Frémont and the Course of American Empire

The rise and fall of John Fremont is a fascinating, epic, and very American story.

Born out of wedlock in the early years of the United States (Madison was president), he achieved fame as an explorer of the west, grew wealthy thanks to the discovery of gold on his land in California, was the first Republican presidential candidate, and subsequently went on to lose most of the money he had acquired.  He was far from a perfect person, but what a life he lead, in very interesting times!

While his mother was part of "high society", the circumstances of his birth were considered "scandalous" and he does not seem to have grown up wealthy, although he did manage to go to college (without finishing it) and educate himself.

His explorations of the west were what really made his name, though, and make for fascinating reading

  • On his first expedition, he went as far as the continental divide in Wyoming, and climbed a high peak - it's uncertain exactly which one - which is an achievement in and of itself, considering the rudimentary gear available at the time.  Interestingly enough, one of the things they hauled out west was an early version of a rubber raft, that they used to float down a river heading east.  Unfortunately, it turns out that the river was a rather wild one, and between one set of rapids and the next, they lost the boat and were lucky to get away with their lives.  To me, the mental image of "old west guys" doing river rafting is a funny one.
  • Fremont's second expedition led him to Oregon, where, at The Dalles, in December, he headed south.  To anyone who knows anything about winter weather in Oregon, this doesn't sound like a pleasant idea even now.  Then, it must have been quite an ordeal.  A number of geographical features in eastern Oregon that he visited still bear the names he gave them.  Eventually, after gradually making his way south, his party decided to cross the Sierra Nevada in the heart of winter.  Apparently, despite their already very lengthly expedition, they had the men and means to do it.  They arrived in Sutter's Fort (near modern day Sacramento) bedraggled, but alive.  After all the cold, snow and mountains, spring time in California's central valley must have seemed like heaven.
  • A third expedition found him once again in California, in the midst of a quickly shifting political situation in which American settlers sought to seize the territory with the idea of joining the United States.  There seems to be some confusion and controversy over his role in subsequent events, which the book covers extensively.  In any event, Fremont was in the thick of things during very interesting times, going on to be - briefly - one of the military governors of California, and later, very briefly, one of the first Senators from the new state.
Skipping ahead, he was the first Republican candidate for president, with the slogan "Free speech, free press, free soil, free men, Frémont and victory!" - meaning that the Republicans were against the spread of slavery into new states, and against the institution in general.  As an aside, it's interesting to note that over the years the Republican party has done... if not quite a 180 degree turn, because they're not in favor of bringing back slavery... a 180 degree turn in terms of their demographics: it is now very much a "southern-fried conservative" party, to quote The Economist, rather than a party with its base in the north as can be seen in the 1856 election results:,_1856

He lost the election, which probably marked the high water mark of his career in some ways.  The election of Abraham Lincoln followed, then the civil war, in which Fremont had a brief and not particularly successful career as a general.

His later years were spent trying, and mostly failing, to accumulate wealth, and, if accounts are correct, carrying on various affairs.  Indeed, he died relatively poor and unknown.

All in all, a story that ranges from the early years of the republic to the death of Fremont's wife Jessie Benton in 1902, and provides a very personal viewpoint on the rapidly expanding country where Fremont lived and died.

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