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  Name:  John Charles Fremont
  Born:  January 21, 1813
  Died:  July 13, 1890

  Complete HarpWeek Biography:

Fremont, John Charles (January 21, 1813 – July 13, 1890)

John C. Fremont was an explorer of the American West, a U.S. senator (1850–1851), the first Republican presidential nominee (1856), a Union general, and the Radical Democracy presidential nominee (1864).  In August 1861, he declared free all slaves in the Border State of Missouri whose owners who did not swear loyalty to the Union.  President Abraham Lincoln rescinded the emancipation order a few days later. 

Fremont was born in Savannah, Georgia, January 21, 1813, to Anne Whiting Pryor, a member of an upper–crust Virginia family, and Jean Charles Fremon, an instructor of French and dance.  In 1811, Anne Pryor had deserted her much older husband to elope with Fremon, a French immigrant.  Moving repeatedly, the couple evidently never wed but had several children. After Anne Fremon was widowed in 1818, she raised her family in genteel poverty in Charleston, South Carolina.  At some point after his father’s death, John Charles added a “t” and accent to his family name. Young Fremont worked in a law office, and then studied at the College of Charleston from 1829 until his expulsion in 1831, shortly before graduation, for “incorrigible negligence.”  The school, however, bestowed on him a Bachelors of Arts degree five years later.  

Joel Poinsett, a South Carolina politician and botanist, became Fremont’s patron. In 1833, he secured Fremont a position aboard the USS Natchez as the crew’s civilian math teacher. After the ship returned from a two–year voyage to South America, Poinsett got Fremont placed in a topographical survey of a proposed railroad route in the Smokey Mountains, then in a survey of Cherokee lands centering in Georgia. As President Martin Van Buren’s secretary of war, Poinsett arranged for Fremont to accompany Joseph Nicollet, a French–born scientist and explorer, on two surveys (1838, 1839) of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. The U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers commissioned Fremont as a second lieutenant. In 1841, the 28–year–old Fremont eloped with the Jessie Benton, the 17–year–old daughter of U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. The couple later had five children; three who attained adulthood. 

In 1842, Senator Benton secured congressional authorization for an expedition, headed by his new son–in–law, to explore, survey, and map the Oregon Trail. John and Jessie Fremont’s published report of the expedition (1843) captivated American readers with romantic images, such as Fremont planting Old Glory atop the Rocky Mountains and guide Christopher “Kit” Carson galloping bareback across the plains. Ignoring the governmental directive to return via the same path, Fremont and his party traveled into Nevada, over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and into the Mexican territory of California. In all, the expedition covered almost 6500 miles. The Frémonts’ second published report (1845)— part science text, part adventure story, and part travel guide, illustrated with detailed maps—was also a bestseller. 

Fremont’s third expedition (1845–1847) took him across the Rockies again and to the Pacific Coast. President James Polk wanted the explorer’s presence there in case of war with Mexico. When Mexican officials ordered Fremont out of California, he hoisted the American flag and remained defiant until the American consul convinced him to retreat. Fremont and his sixty men traveled to Oregon, but upon receiving a message from President Polk, they returned to California and participated in the Bear Flag Revolt against Mexican rule. In California, Fremont became embroiled in a dispute between Admiral Robert Stockton and General Stephen Kearny. He sided with Stockton, so Kearny had the explorer court–martialed. After a guilty verdict, Polk reinstated him, but the indignant Fremont resigned. 

In 1847, Fremont bought a tract of land in California on which gold was soon discovered, making him a rich man. The next year, his fourth expedition ended with the death of ten of his men in the harsh Rocky Mountain winter, but the party continued to California. Fremont was elected as one of California’s first two U.S. senators, serving the short term (1850–1851). In the Senate, he voted against the new Fugitive Slave Act and for the ban on the slave trade in Washington D.C., both of which were part of the Compromise of 1850.  The state legislature denied him a second term, choosing a proslavery Democrat, instead. Fremont undertook his final expedition in the winter of 1853–1854. Like the previous expedition, it was privately funded and was plagued by severe weather. 

In 1856, backed by U.S. Speaker of the House Nathaniel Banks and newspaper editor Francis Blair Sr., Fremont became the new Republican Party’s first presidential nominee. His heroic public persona as “the Pathfinder” generated an enthusiastic following in the North, but in the South he was tainted as a “Frenchman’s bastard” and (incorrectly) as a Roman Catholic. In a three–way race, Democratic nominee James Buchanan defeated Fremont and former President Millard Fillmore of the American Party by a comfortable margin. Fremont, however, finished second with 33% of the popular vote and 114 electoral votes (to Buchanan’s 45% and 174 votes), thereby establishing the Republican Party as a real political force and the main rival to the Democratic Party. 

Fremont returned to management of his gold mines, which were having financial problems. At the onset of the Civil War, he took the assignment of commanding the Department of the West, headquartered in St. Louis, at the rank of major general. Missouri was bitterly divided by the war, and Confederates quickly gained control of the southwestern region. On August 30, 1861, Fremont established martial law and issued a decree freeing the slaves of Missouri’s Confederate sympathizers.  On September 11, President Lincoln rescinded the general’s emancipation proclamation, fearing it might push other Border States (slave states still in the Union) into the Confederate camp. Staff corruption, opposition from Missouri’s Blair family, and military defeats caused Lincoln to relieve Fremont of his command on November 2, 1861. 

On March 29, 1862, pressured by radical Republicans who looked favorably upon Fremont’s antislavery views and policies, Lincoln placed the general in charge of the Mountain Department in western Virginia. In late June, his department was subsumed within Union General John Pope’s Army of Virginia.  Fremont, however, refused to recognize Pope’s authority and was therefore removed from his position. On May 31, 1864, an unusual political alliance of abolitionists, Missouri radicals, anti–Lincoln German–Americans, and New York War Democrats met at a national convention in Cincinnati under the party label of the Radical Democracy.  They endorsed the Thirteenth Amendment and nominated Fremont for president. His campaign, though, never took off and, fearing his candidacy might help elect a Democratic president, he withdrew from the race in late September. 

Thereafter, Fremont focused on his railroad and other investments. In 1873, he was convicted of defrauding the French government concerning his Memphis, El Paso, and Pacific Railroad. Associated fines and other financial woes during the contemporaneous economic depression brought Fremont to poverty’s doorstep.  In 1878, President Rutherford Hayes appointed him as governor of the Arizona Territory.  Fremont tried to use the new political power to regain his wealth through mining and land investments, but such entanglements led to his forced resignation in 1881. In retirement, he published a two–volume memoir.  Congress awarded him an annual military pension of $6000 in early 1890.  A few months later, on July 13, 1890, John C. Fremont died in New York City. 

Source consulted:  Pamela Herr,  “Frémont, John Charles,” American National Biography (online).


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