Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

FRÉMONT, JOHN C. (1813-1890)

Portrait of John Charles Fremont by William Smith Jewett

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John Charles Frémont explored large sections of the Central Great Plains in the 1840s and subsequently was military commander of much of the region for the Union during the Civil War. As the first presidential candidate of the Republican Party, he also sought to prevent slavery's spread to Kansas and Nebraska territories in 1856.

Frémont grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, where he attended the College of Charleston. He gained western experience by assisting Joseph Nicollet in mapping the region between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers in the late 1830s. Appointment as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers in 1838, and a famous elopement in 1841 with Jessie Benton, the daughter of Missouri's powerful Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, set the stage for Frémont's emergence as a celebrated western explorer.

In 1842 Frémont inherited Nicollet's command of an army expedition to report on the emigrant trail to Oregon as far as Wyoming's South Pass. Frémont's expedition traveled along the Kansas and Platte Rivers, then followed the Sweetwater River to the famous pass in the Rocky Mountains. On a second expedition in 1843–44, Frémont crossed the Kansas plains to Colorado, then traced the Oregon Trail to its conclusion at Fort Vancouver. Frémont then embarked on an exploration of the Great Basin and a risky winter crossing of the Sierra Nevada into Mexican California.

With the help of his wife, Jessie, Frémont prepared engaging official reports of his expeditions. Along with Frémont's maps of the emigrant trail (completed with the assistance of Charles Preuss), his popular reports provided overland travelers practical information as well as a new vision of the western Plains. Unlike earlier dire images promoted by explorers Zebulon Pike and Stephen Long, Frémont stressed the attractive features and potential of the Plains environment. His travels along the region's rivers led him to remark on the relatively well-timbered valleys; his wife's romantic inclinations probably account for the vivid descriptions of the oceans of green grass speckled with beautiful prairie flowers. Landmarks of the region, including Chimney Rock and Courthouse Rock, entered the national imagination through the Frémonts' captivating account.

Frémont's third expedition, in 1845–46, culminated in his leadership of the Bear Flag Revolt, which helped secure California from Mexico. After a brief term as California's first U.S. senator, two unsuccessful private expeditions to map a central railroad route across the Plains and Rockies, and a fortunate gold claim in California, Frémont accepted the Republican Party's first nomination to the presidency in 1856. His pledge to resist slavery's expansion to the territories of Kansas and Nebraska earned him majority support in the free states, but he failed to overcome Democrat James Buchanan. Nonetheless, Frémont's impressive showing guaranteed him a prominent appointment in the pending national crisis.

In July 1861 Major General Frémont assumed command of the Union's newly created Western Department, headquartered at St. Louis and with responsibility over the vast expanse from the Mississippi to the Rockies. Complications in war-torn Missouri, as well as crippling shortages of men, money, and material, kept Frémont from giving much attention to the Plains. Political intrigues and Frémont's ill-timed effort to dismantle slavery in Missouri precipitated his removal from command in November 1861.

Thereafter, Frémont retired to private (and largely unsuccessful) business pursuits, although he did serve as governor of Arizona Territory from 1878 to 1883. Frémont died in New York in July 1890 from an attack of peritonitis. His exploits were not forgotten, however. Cities, counties, lakes, and streams from Nebraska to California still bear his name.

Vernon L. Volpe University of Nebraska at Kearney

Jackson, Donald, and Mary Lee Spence, eds. The Expeditions of John Charles Frémont. 4 vols. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970–1984.

Nevins, Allan. Frémont: Pathmarker of the West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

Volpe, Vernon L. "The Frémonts and Emancipation in Missouri." The Historian 56 (1994): 339–54.

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