Frémont, John Charles, 1813–90, American explorer, soldier, and political leader, b. Savannah, Ga. He taught mathematics to U.S. naval cadets, then became an assistant on a surveying expedition (1838–39) between the upper Mississippi River and the Missouri. He eloped (1841) with Jessie, daughter of Senator Thomas H. Benton, who, after he became reconciled to the match, helped his son-in-law secure command of an expedition to explore the Des Moines River.
The next year (1842) Frémont headed an expedition to the Rocky Mts. with Kit Carson as guide, and in 1843–44, with first Thomas Fitzpatrick and then Carson as guide, he went to Oregon. He explored the Nevada country, crossed the Sierra Nevada to California, and returned home by a more southerly route. His enthusiastic reports created wide interest in Western scenery and Western concerns.
In 1845 he again went to California. Under his influence American settlers there raised the standard of revolt against the Mexican authorities and set up (1846) the Bear Flag republic at Sonoma. The arrival of Stephen W. Kearny and Commodore Robert Stockton resulted in a quarrel, as both had orders placing them in command. Frémont sided with Stockton and accepted from him an appointment as civil governor. When Kearny received orders indicating that Stockton was not his superior, Frémont was arrested, court-martialed, and found guilty. The penalty was remitted by President Polk, but Frémont, proud and injured, resigned from government service.
In 1848 he led an ill-judged and disastrous effort to locate passes for a transcontinental railroad. His fortunes climbed after gold was discovered on his California estate, although he was deprived of some of his wealth by the sharp practice of others. He served briefly (1850–51) as one of the first U.S. senators from California, and the Republicans chose him as their presidential candidate in 1856. In the Civil War he was given command of the Western Dept., but his radical policy toward slavery and slaveholders, both of which he abhorred, led to his removal. He was given a new command, but, when placed under the orders of John Pope, he resigned. Unsuccessful attempts (1870) to build a railroad to the Pacific—accompanied by actions of his agents that roused sharp criticism—cost him his fortune.
Beggared, he struggled on, supported by his wife's earnings from writing and by his appointment as governor of Arizona Territory (1878–1883). In 1890 he was belatedly given a pension but did not live long to enjoy it. The Pathfinder, as he is sometimes called, is one of the most controversial figures of Western history. His critics call him braggart and charlatan; his supporters point to his courage, his handling of men, and his determination to open the West.
Frémont's early reports were combined as Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842, and to Oregon and North California in the Years 1843–44 (1845). His memoirs (1887) are disappointing and incomplete.
See also biography by A. Nevins (rev. ed. 1955); R. J. Bartlett, John C. Frémont and the Republican Party (1930, repr. 1970); W. Brandon, The Men and the Mountain (1955); L. and A. W. Hafen, ed., Frémont's Fourth Expedition (1960); D. Roberts, Kit Carson, John C. Frémont and the Claiming of the American West (2000); S. Denton, Passion and Principle: John and Jessie Frémont (2007).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.