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John C. Frémont

explorer of the West and leader of the "Bear Flag Revolt"

John Charles Fremont

John Charles Frémont was born in Savannah, Georgia, on January 21, 1813. He studied civil engineering at Charleston (South Carolina) College, but was expelled before graduation. From 1833 to 1835 he served as a math instructor aboard a U.S. Navy ship, after which Charleston College granted him his degree.


In 1836, Frémont helped survey a railroad route between Charleston, South Carolina, and Cincinatti, Ohio, and over the winter of 1836-1837, he surveyed Cherokee lands in Georgia. His work on these surveys got him a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers in 1838, and he subsequently traveled with the expedition of J.N. Nicollet through Minnesota and the Dakotas.

Frémont's work on the Nicollet expedition earned the respect of Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, who secured for Frémont an appointment to explore the Des Moines River, a mission which was accomplished in 1841. Soon after completing this assignment he married Jessie Benton, one of the Senator's daughters. Jessie became a regular member of her husband's expeditionary parties, as well as the author of many books and articles detailing his travels and adventures.

Jessie Benton Fremont
Jessie Benton Fremont

In 1842, Frémont was commissioned to head a survey party of 28 men to the Rocky Mountains. The expedition made it as far as the Wind River chain in western Wyoming, and ascended the highest peak in that chain, which is now known as Frémont's Peak.

Frémont's next expedition, composed of 39 men, left Missouri in June of 1843 with a mission to map the Oregon Trail. After crossing the Rocky Mountains, the expedition explored the Great Salt Lake area, and it was Frémont's report on that region that later inspired the Mormons to settle there. From there the expedition made its way to the tributaries of the Columbia River, which it followed to Fort Vancouver. By this time winter was setting in and attempting to retrace the party's route back to Missouri would have been dangerous, so Frémont chose to lead his men south and east through the Sierra Nevada into Nevada, then back west to Sutter's Fort in California. From Sutter's Fort he was able to return by a more southerly route, and the party returned to St. Louis in August of 1844.

Frémont's report on his western expeditions, Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842 and to Oregon and Northern California in the Years 1843-1844 , became a very popular "travel book." Many of the maps created by expedition cartographer Charles Preuss were of areas never before mapped, and their inclusion in Frémont's report made it that much more popular.

California Activities

In the spring of 1845, President James K. Polk dispatched Frémont to California, just in case his services were needed in order for the United States to acquire the territory from Mexico. The Mexican authorities were suspicious of Frémont and ordered him to leave the territory, so he spent the winter in Oregon. In May of 1846 he was ordered to help protect Americans at Sutter's Fort, whom he subsequently led during the "Bear Flag Revolt" of June 14, 1846.

After the United States acquired California as a result of the Mexican War, Frémont was appointed commandant and governor of the territory by Commodore Robert Stockton, then the highest ranking U.S. military officer in California. Frémont was dismissed from this position, however, following a disagreement with General Stephen W. Kearny, who succeeded Stockton. When Frémont refused to leave his office, Stockton had him arrested and sent to Washington, D.C., where he was tried for mutiny, insubordination, and conduct prejudicial to good order. He was found guilty and dismissed from the Army, but President Polk overruled the guilty plea and returned Frémont's commission. Angry over the affair, Frémont refused the commission and resigned from the Army.

In 1848, Frémont headed a private survey for a railroad route to California, after which he and his wife settled on a huge estate in the Sierra foothills. He was able to live a very comfortable lifestyle there, thanks to the gold mines on his property, and to real estate ventures in San Francisco. After California was admitted to the Union, Frémont was elected as one of the state's first two Senators, and served from September 9, 1850, until March 4, 1851. In 1853-1854, he headed another private railroad survey, this time along the 37th and 38th parallels.

Presidential Candidate

Frémont's strong views against slavery and in favor of Kansas being admitted as a free state led the newly-formed Republican Party to nominate him as its first presidential candidate; his running mate was William L. Dayton. He ran a strong campaign and garnered a lot of popular support, and ultimately won all but five Northern states, but still lost the electoral vote to James Buchanan, by a margin of 174 to 114. He initially ran for the party's nomination in 1860, but withdrew in favor of Abraham Lincoln.

campaign poster for John C. Fremont and William L. Dayton
campaign poster for John C. Fremont and William L. Dayton

campaign propaganda extolling Fremont as a great explorer
campaign propaganda extolling Fremont as a great explorer

Civil War Service

Upon outbreak of the Civil War, Frémont was commissioned Major General (right) and given command of the Union Army's Western Department, headquarted at St. Louis. His time in this position was controversial, however, due to his issuing of a proclamation taking over the property of rebelling Missouri slaveowners and freeing their slaves. His actions aroused the public and angered President Lincoln, who overruled Frémont's proclamation and then transferred him to a less public command in West Virginia. Frémont's Civil War career ended soon after he let the Confederate Army escape at Cross Keys and he was relieved of his command. Although he regained his commission in 1863, his military career was effectively over.

Major General John Charles Fremont
Major General John Charles Fremont

Later Life

Radical Republicans tried to persuade Frémont to run against President Lincoln in 1864, but he declined in order to preserve the party. Several bad investments, including two railroad ventures, took their toll on Frémont's finances, and by 1870 he was virtually penniless. Aside from the salary he collected as Territorial Governor of Arizona from 1878 to 1881, the only real income he and his wife received was money she made from her books and articles.

John C. Frémont died in New York City, on July 13, 1890.


Civil War St. Louis
John Charles Frémont
Son of the South

See Also

Savannah, Georgia
Charleston, South Carolina
Thomas Hart Benton
Oregon Trail
Great Salt Lake
President James K. Polk
Mexican War
Stephen W. Kearny
James Buchanan
Abraham Lincoln
Civil War

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The Robinson Library >> United States >> 1845-1861 >> Biography, A-Z

This page was last updated on January 16, 2019.