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General John C. Fremont
In these days of rapid transit between New York and San Francisco, of luxurious travel across desert and mountain, the story of John Charles Fremont, the Pathfinder of the great West, is of peculiar interest, a striking illustration that the history of the world is in the biography of its leaders, in the pathfinders of the unexplored.
The stormy tide of the French Revolution sent the father of John Charles Fremont to the New World about the time, presumably, when Napoleon Bonaparte was in the height of power. This M. Fremont came of a good family living near Lyons, France. A British man-of-war made prize of the ship in which he sailed for San Domingo, and he was carried prisoner to one of the British West India islands, his captivity lasting several years. Upon gaining his liberty he stopped at Norfolk, Va., to refill an empty purse as a teacher of French, and there met Anne Beverly Whiting, a leading belle of an old Virginia family, who became his wife. One of the illustrious connections of the Whitings was that with the family of George Washington. M. Fremont's marked fondness for travel and adventure was shared by his wife. They took long journeys through the wild southern country, stopping at Indian villages, often sleeping by camp-fires. On one of these expeditions, when making a halt at Savannah, Ga., John Charles, their first child, was born, January 21, 1813. M. Fremont died a few years after.
The boyhood of John Charles was spent in Charleston. It is well to remember, in a study of his life, his French blood and early southern environment. His first choice of a profession was the law. At the age of fourteen he became a student in the office of John W. Mitchell, who placed him under a private tutor, Dr. Roberton, who understood the lad thoroughly and developed his character in the right direction. Dr. Roberton seems to have first discovered what was made plain in Fremont's after-life--the makings of a poet, and the foresight of a prophet. Translating the story of the battle of Marathon in the Greek class, young Fremont catches the spirit with which it was told by Herodotus, and writes verses in protest of tyranny which are published in one of the Charleston papers. "In one year," wrote his tutor, "he had read four books of Caesar; Cornelius Nepos; Sallust; six books of Virgil; nearly all of Horace, and two books of Livy. In Greek--all of Graeca Minora, about half of the first volume of Graeca Majora, and four books of the Iliad." At fifteen he enters the junior class of Charleston College. At sixteen he is confirmed in the Episcopal Church, entertaining at that time thoughts of entering the ministry. His steady progress is interrupted by his first love affair; his absorbing passion so gets the better of his common sense, that he neglects his books and classes and is expelled from college. We next find him teaching higher mathematics, acting as private tutor, and devoting his evenings to the charge of the Apprentice's Library, a school in Charleston. At twenty years of age he received the appointment of teacher of mathematics, and his long connection with the United States Army had its beginning; his post the sloop of war Natchez. He was to go on a cruise of two years and more along the coast of South America. Here was a chance for him to unfit himself for further advancement, but he improved his time upon the cruise to the utmost, and his diligent scholarship won for him the double degree of bachelor and master of arts from the college from which he had been expelled. His application for a mathematical professorship in the Navy resulted in his passing the severe examination, and in an appointment to the frigate Independence. He declined the office, however, having decided to become an engineer, to join Captain Williams's survey of the mountain passes between South Carolina and Tennessee. There was talk of a railroad between Charleston and Cincinnati in those days.
That was Fremont's first experience in exploring expeditions. The corps lived chiefly in camp. The survey was in wild mountainous regions of the unexplored South, among Indians sullen against the Government. Fremont liked this kind of a life. He enlisted under Captain Williams the second time in 1837, as assistant engineer, going with him upon a military reconnoissance of the Cherokee country in Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. A war cloud was rising; the peril of the expedition was its charm to Fremont. "St. Louis was then on the border of an immense and almost unexplored Indian country. The caravans of merchandise going through it to Santa Fe, ran all the risks you can read of among Bedouins in the desert; the hunters and trappers, as well as the merchants, started off into the unknown with only one certainty, that danger was there; and when they came back--if they ever did--it was as from underworld."
About this time a distinguished French geographer, M. Nicollet, was sent to this country by France to explore the sources of the Mississippi, "in the interests of geography." The United States were also interested in the geography of the almost unknown Northwest. M. Nicollet was appointed to make explorations for the United States, and Fremont was honored with the position of principal assistant. It was high time that something should be done in the interests of a geography made up largely from travellers' tales. That there was a great river, the Buena Ventura, running from the base of the Rocky Mountains to the Bay of San Francisco, nobody doubted, for there it was upon the map. The exploration of M. Nicollet, assisted by Fremont, awakened great interest. They were absent two years; their field, the territory between the Missouri and the upper rivers, as far north as the British line. Their report was awaited with impatience. Fremont came home to find that he had been appointed second lieutenant of the United States Topographical Engineers. As a scientific explorer his fame was established. The year following his return he spent in Washington with M. Nicollet, preparing his report for publication. Among those most deeply interested was Senator Benton, of Missouri, "Tom Benton," as he was popularly called, and "Old Bullion." Benton's hobby was the opening of a road for immigrants to the Pacific coast, as a necessary step to the acquisition of the territory held by Mexico--the California of to-day. Senator Benton's interest in the report of the young engineer, then about twenty-seven years of age, was surpassed by the young engineer's interest in the senator's daughter, Jessie, then only fifteen, an interest which ended in a betrothal contrary to the wishes of older heads, owing to Miss Benton's youth and young Fremont's connection with the army. The young engineer received an unexpected and unwelcome order, sending him to the wild frontier of Iowa at once, where the Sacs and Foxes, it was thought by Senator Benton (who had a hand in his exile), might be made to help postpone the marriage, at least. But banishment and red-skins were of no avail in breaking the engagement.
Fremont performed his duty to the letter, returned to Washington, and married Miss Benton, October 19, 1841--a "runaway match" which happily brought life-long happiness to both parties--Mrs. Fremont becoming the connecting link, to use her own words, between her father's "fixed idea of the importance of the speedy acquisition of the Pacific coast, and its actualization through the man best fitted to be the pioneer of the undertaking."
Less than a year after his marriage, in the summer of 1842, Fremont was sent by the War Department on the first of the five expeditions which gave him the name of Pathfinder.
The Mexican War was ripening fast. England had at that time financial claims upon Mexico, and Mexico was bankrupt.
How to get California was a serious question, reminding United States diplomatists of the old Quaker's advice to his son--"Get money, Joseph, get money. Get it honestly if you can--but get it." Acquisition of California by settlement was vigorously encouraged. The best routes across the mountains must be discovered and surveyed. Partial explorations of routes to Oregon and California had been made. Emigrants had crossed the Rockies and were settled in the Sacramento Valley. But the geography of the Great Basin was inaccessible to science; the best and safest routes were only guessed at. Emigration was checked by rumors of perils, alas! too true. Fremont's order to go to the frontier beyond the Mississippi, was changed at his request for something more definite--the exploration of the South Pass of the Rocky Mountains.
August 8, 1842, he reached the South Pass, and then the unexplored was before him--untrodden ground. Kit Carson was his guide; twenty-eight men made up his party--Canadian voyageurs, picked men, well mounted and armed--only eight of the expedition driving wagons. Randolph Benton, a lad of twelve, Fremont's brother-in-law, was one of the number. The great event of this expedition, so full of thrilling adventure, was the first ascent of that highest peak of the Wind River Mountains, now called Fremont's Peak, 13,570 feet in height. "We mounted the barometer in the snow of the summit," Fremont wrote, "and fixing a ramrod in the crevice, unfurled the national flag where never flag waved before.... While we were sitting on the rock a solitary bumble-bee came winging its flight from the eastern valley, and lit on the knee of one of the men." They run a canon in the Platte, singing a Canadian boat-song for all the peril.... Their boat is whirled over, food, ammunition, and valuable records lost. Climbing up and out of the canon, they admire the scenery in spite of their forlornity ... cacti and bare feet, hunger and thirst ... but astronomical and barometrical observations and drawings are made, botanical specimens collected, and a mass of information, making the report of this expedition what has been called the most enduring monument of Fremont's fame. The report was hailed in England as well as the United States, and was followed by an increase of the wagon-trains across the mountains via the South Pass.
The first expedition was absent some six months. Fremont's Peak marks the western point of that journey.
The next order from the Government sent Fremont, in the spring of 1843, to begin exploring where he had left off in 1842; to connect his survey with that of Commodore Wilkes on the Pacific coast. Kit Carson was again his guide; many of the previous expedition enlisted, 32 men in all. Across the forks of the Kansas the route lay west of Fort Laramie, through the Medicine Butte Pass and the South Pass to the northern end of Great Salt Lake. Fremont's report of this region led the Mormons to settle at Salt Lake afterward, believing they would be in Mexican territory. The record of this expedition, like the preceding one, is a story of fearful suffering and heroic endurance. It is given in detail in Fremont's "Memoirs," and Benton's "Thirty Years in the Senate." Deep snows on the mountains, no sign of the Buena Ventura River, Indians refusing to guide such a foolhardy venture; "skeleton men leading skeleton horses;" the descent into the Sacramento Valley at last, and the arrival at Fort Vancouver, November 1843, gives but a glimpse of the heroism of this second expedition. The suffering endured in reaching the coast was as nothing to that of the return through the great valley between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada, looking for the river they were the first to prove did not exist at all. From San Francisco back to Salt Lake, three thousand five hundred miles in eight months, not once out of the sight of snow. Geography had gained an important fact--the Colorado was the only river flowing from the Rocky Mountains on that part of the continent. For eight months not a word had been heard from the party, at the East, and then Fremont came home "thin as a shadow," and Mrs. Fremont could tell him that she might have prevented his going at all had she chosen, for an order from Washington, countermanding the expedition, had been received by her addressed to her husband, soon after his departure from St. Louis. The expedition was not too far away when the despatch came for her to get it to him, but she decided to withhold it. Because he had taken a mountain howitzer in his outfit he was ordered to stay at home. What a scientific expedition could want of a howitzer was not plain to the authorities, who seemed to think that hostile Indians knew at sight the difference between a military and a scientific party and would respect it. Mrs. Fremont tells the story in The Century for March, 1891, how she not only did not send on the despatch, but a messenger instead, bidding Fremont "Go on at once without asking why," so fearful was she a duplicate order might defeat his going at all.
General Scott was Commander in Chief of our Army in 1845. At his instance Lieutenant Fremont was made captain in the United States Army, and in the fall of that year was sent by the Government on another expedition ... this time to find the best road to the Pacific coast. Trouble with Mexico was growing fast. Our southwestern territory needed looking after; the northwestern of Mexico as well. Fremont was to follow the Arkansas River to its source in the Rocky Mountains, explore the Great Basin, the Cascades, and the Sierra Nevada, and define a route in a southern latitude for emigrants. Kit Carson was among the sixty men of this party, and several veterans of the two former expeditions. They struck out for the Sierra by the way of the Humboldt River. The war with Mexico broke out soon after their departure.
It was another story of fearful hardship--the Sacramento Valley was reached at last, and Fremont hastened to Monterey to get permission from the Mexican authorities to make a scientific exploration of the region. His request was granted, and permission given to replenish his exhausted supplies. Why the Government revoked this permission almost as soon as granted, ordering him and his men to quit the country at once or they would be sent as prisoners to Mexico, is a source of much controversy between historians of that day and this. Fremont could not retreat into the desert with his scanty outfit. A rude fort was built at once on Hawk's Peak, some thirty miles from Monterey, and the Stars and Stripes flung out, Fremont and his men ready to take the consequences of such defiance. When they withdrew, as they did in a few days, overtures from the Mexicans followed them, even a proposition from the Spanish officer that Fremont should join with him and declare the country independent of Mexico. Fremont moved northward. He had reached Tlamath Lake when overtaken by a special messenger from Washington, the bearer of a despatch which had been memorized by the messenger to prevent its falling into the hands of the Mexicans, and which Fremont interpreted to mean that it was the wish of the Cabinet that he should aid in taking and holding California, in the event of any occurrence which he thought justification for so doing. The English must not strengthen their foothold on the coast. Someone must look after the interest of the United States; he was on the ground. If a crisis came he must act without written authority, promptly and discreetly--"Get it honestly if you can--but get it." He returned at once to California, and found it in a revolutionary state. The American settlers had hoisted what was called the Bear Flag, and were eager to fight for the overthrow of the Mexican authority in California.
It is a long story, that of the conquest of California. Fremont's right to be called the Conqueror or the Emancipator is bitterly disputed by some, who claim that he attacked the Californians by irregular warfare, and so thwarted the conciliatory designs of the Government. Be that as it may, by July 5, 1846, the Bear Flag insurgents under Fremont had declared their independence of Mexico, and Fremont had been appointed Governor of California, and had hauled down the Bear Flag and raised the Stars and Stripes. A constitution had been drawn up and the territory declared to be in the possession of the United States. January, 1847, "the enemy" capitulated to Fremont. "The celerity and boldness of his movements in the conduct of the affair were only surpassed," says a contemporary, "by the moderation and clemency of his policy." "The decisive point," wrote George Bancroft, "in the establishment of the Union on a firm basis had been gained."
The seizure of California in 1846 has been called, from another outlook, "one of the least creditable affairs in the highly discreditable Mexican War," and Fremont nothing more than a filibuster seeking private ends. California had been made ours, nevertheless, and Fremont had secured the prize.
In the meantime the Mexican War had begun, and Commodore Stockton, of the U. S. Navy, was hastening to California by sea under orders to subjugate the country. General Kearney was marching westward by land under like orders. Of course there was a dispute about precedence when both were upon the ground, each asserting his right to command the other, both issuing orders and insisting upon the right to precedence. The difficulty of serving under two masters was experienced by Fremont. General Vallejo testified that he received in one day, letters from Commodore Stockton, General Kearney, and Colonel Fremont, each signing himself "Commander-in-Chief." Fremont believed he had sufficient reason for choosing to serve under Stockton, which he did. Upon Stockton's return to his squadron and Kearney's assignment to full command, Kearney brought charges against Fremont for mutiny and fraud, defeating his re-appointment as governor of the State besides. Fremont was ordered home, and it was said "that, like Columbus, he returned from the discovery and conquest of a new world, a prisoner and in disgrace." He went back to Washington under arrest. Great honors awaited him, nevertheless, his troubles only adding to his laurels. The citizens of Charleston gave him a sword, the ladies the gold-mounted belt of the same. He demanded immediate trial, which was granted, the court-martial lasting three months, his defence filling three sessions. He was pronounced guilty of mutiny, disobedience of the lawful command of a superior officer, and conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline--a conviction based, some said, upon technical grounds. President Polk remitted the penalty--dismissal from the army--but Fremont resigned at once, the President reluctantly accepting his resignation.
Fremont was then thirty-four years old. As the leader of three great exploring expeditions he had become not only famous, but a popular hero. He had done much for science. He had made the most accurate map of the region between the one hundred and fourth meridian and the Pacific. He had added a large collection of botanical, geological, and other specimens to the national museums. He was eager to resume explorations of routes to the Pacific, having decided to settle his family in California--upon the Mariposa estate, in the Sacramento Valley, which he had bought in 1847, before the discovery of gold, seventy square miles, for $3,000, "the only Mexican grant that covered any part of the gold regions."
Fremont's claims against the Government for expenses incurred in the conquest and defence of California, amounted to some $700,000, which was paid to him. Among those advocating the payment were Senators Benton, and Dix of New York. Twenty thousand copies of Fremont's map of Oregon and California were ordered by the Senate.
It was by no means in the role of a defeated man that he started out upon his fourth expedition, in the fall of 1848--when the gold fever was at its height--a venture of his own and Colonel Benton's; its object, a route to the Pacific by way of the Rio Grande. Thirty-two men were enlisted, picked men as before. It was a superb and costly outfit, no less than one hundred and twenty mules. Lacking Kit Carson for a guide, they were lost in crossing the Rocky Mountains, every mule and horse and one-third of the men perishing from cold or starvation. At last, as he wrote home, "the mules, huddled together in the deep snow, froze stiff as they stood and fell over like blocks." The freezing men recrossed the summit in retreat, some of them driven to cannibalism. Wading through the snow to the waist, the remnant reached the home of Kit Carson at Taos, N. M., where Fremont reorganized the expedition, reaching the Sacramento in the spring of 1849.
Litigation concerning his title to the Mariposa estate did not prevent Fremont from developing its mineral and agricultural resources. He engaged some twenty-eight Spaniards to work its gold mines upon shares. His prospects of boundless wealth were most flattering. The Pathfinder was now a millionaire, and in 1855 his title to Mariposa was established by the Supreme Court. Following his appointment in 1849 to run the boundary line between the United States and Mexico, the political party of the Territory seeking its admission as a free State, elected him to the United States Senate. Many honors were bestowed upon him at this time--the medal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, the Founders medal from the King of Prussia, an honorary membership of the Geographical Society of Berlin, etc.
In the California State election of 1851, Fremont stood with the Anti-Slavery party, opposed to the extension of slavery in free territories. He was defeated, and went to Europe with his family in 1852, where he was feted by royalty generally. Mrs. Fremont, in her "Souvenirs of My Time," has given charming glimpses of this part of their life. Hearing that Congress had made appropriation for further surveys of great Western routes, Fremont hastened home in 1853, to explore by a fifth expedition, what he believed to be the most central and practicable route. This was his second private venture. He would follow the path he had lost when the guide led him astray on his fourth expedition. He would cross the Rockies at Cochetopa Pass, and that in winter.
He made the passage, but it was at the cost of frightful suffering; fifty days on frozen horse-flesh, days without even that; forty-eight hours without a morsel of food; the entire party barefooted in the snow; Fremont, in the hour of extreme peril on the storm-swept mountain-side, making his men take oath that, come what might, nothing should tempt them to cannibalism. Benton tells us how Fremont went straight to the spot where the guide had gone astray in 1848, and found safe and easy passes all the way to California, upon the straight line of 38* and 39*. Great railroads of to-day follow the line it took those starving and half-frozen men fifty days to pass in that winter of 1854. For three months nothing was heard from the party. Fremont's arrival in San Francisco was an ovation. "Europe lies between Asia and America," we read in his report; "build the road, and America lies between Europe and Asia.... The iron track to San Francisco will be the thoroughfare of the world."
The issues at stake in the presidential campaign of 1856 make that campaign the most important of any in the history of our country. "The question now to be decided," said Seward, "is whether a slave-holding class shall govern America or not." The nomination of John Charles Fremont as the candidate of the Republican party was hailed with enthusiasm at the North. The Civil War was impending. The lines between the defenders of slavery and its opponents were sharply defined. Fremont was the first nominee of the Republican party. The romance and adventure of his career, his upright life, the hero-worship of the Pacific coast, the antagonism of the South, gave the canvass a vitalizing force that his defeat by James Buchanan did not lessen, but simply changed into a new phase of strength. Fremont's popular vote was 1,341,000 against 1,838,000 for Buchanan and 874,000 for Fillmore (Know-Nothing). Fremont received 114 electoral votes, and Buchanan 174.
When the Civil War broke out, in 1861, Fremont was in Europe. He offered his services to the Government at once, and was appointed one of the four major-generals of the regular army, and given his choice of a command at the East or the West. He chose the West. "Who holds the Mississippi will hold the country by the heart," he said. His head-quarters were at St. Louis, where secession was rampant. "You must use your own judgment," wrote President Lincoln, "and do the best you can. I doubt if the States will ever come back." Fremont's policy differed from Lincoln's essentially; it lacked that patient, conciliatory spirit with the South which made it hard for many at the North to approve of the compromising policy of the Chief Executive, seeking to hold the neutral States from seceding. Fremont's hatred of the rebellion led him to deal with it just as he would have done with a mutiny on a perilous expedition. He proclaimed martial law. Rebels were to pay some penalty for rebellion--rebel newspapers were silenced--and what was the notable feature of Fremont's administration--the slaves of those in arms against the Government were declared emancipated; his emancipation proclamation antedating Lincoln's of September 22, 1862, by a little more than a year. But Fremont's policy was censured rather than approved by the country at large. Petty intrigues of officers in close relation with the Cabinet did much to defeat his plans. His fleet of gunboats was called a useless extravagance--his staff "the California Gang." His emancipation proclamation was pronounced premature and unwise by Lincoln, and revoked. Fremont again was the cause of an intense public partisanship, "Fremont's career at the West was brief," says "Patton's Concise History of the United States," "only one hundred days; but, being a man of military instincts and training, he showed in that time a sagacity which was not allowed fair practical development. In that brief time he was the first to suggest and inaugurate the following practices, then widely decried, but without which the war would not have been successfully concluded: the free use of cavalry (strongly opposed by General Scott and others); exchange of prisoners with the enemy; fortification of large cities, to allow armies to take the field; building of river gunboats for the interior operations at the West; and the emancipation of the slaves. In short, he contributed more than is generally credited to him." "To get rid of Fremont," says Major-General Sigel, "the good prospects and honor of the army were sacrificed to the jealousy of successful rivals." Fremont was relieved of his command in 1861, and shortly after appointed commander of the Mountain District of Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, where he did most honorable service, Stonewall Jackson retreating before him after eight days' sharp skirmishing, ending in the battle of Cross Keys.
Upon the appointment of General Pope as Commander of the Army of Virginia, making him Fremont's superior officer, Fremont asked to be relieved; his request was granted.
A minority of the Republican party, the radical wing, opposed to the renomination of Lincoln in 1864, nominated Fremont as their candidate. He accepted, but finally withdrew. "Not to aid in the triumph of Lincoln," he said, "but to do my part toward preventing the election of the Democratic candidate." One of the Republican candidates would have to retire to save the party. Here is a subject for debating clubs: Was the interest of the country best served by Fremont's withdrawal from the canvass of 1864?
After 1864 Fremont took little part in public life. He became absorbed in his great trans-continental railroad scheme of a line from Norfolk to San Diego and San Francisco, in which he ultimately lost his large fortune. French agents, in disposing of his bonds in France, made false representations. He was prosecuted by the French Government in 1873, and sentenced by default to fine and imprisonment, although no judgment was given on the merits of the case.
The sale of his Mariposa grant brought him several millions, which he invested in railroads soon after the war, buying the properties that now constitute a large part of the Texas Pacific and other roads belonging to the Atchison and Santa Fe. In the great consolidation entailed by the foreign litigation, his confidence was abused, and he met with heavy and irreparable loss.
From 1878 to 1881 he was Governor of Arizona. His "Memoirs" appeared in 1886. The closing years of his life were spent in comparative retirement.
Not long before his sudden death in New York City July 14, 1890, at the age of seventy-seven years, he had been placed on the retired list of the United States Army with the rank of Major-General. When he passed away the Pathfinder of Africa was filling the public ear--the wedding of Stanley in Westminster Abbey was the theme of the hour.
He was buried in Kensico Cemetery, Piermont-on-the-Hudson, about thirty miles from New York City, near the country home of his prosperous days. His widow, Jessie Benton Fremont, is at this writing (1893), a resident of Los Angeles, Cal. Three children survive their father, an unmarried daughter, Elizabeth McDowell Benton, Lieutenant Frank Preston Fremont, U. S. A.; and Lieutenant John Charles Fremont, U. S. N. After his death Mrs. Fremont demanded compensation for, or restitution of the property appropriated by the United States Government for military purposes in San Francisco harbor, in 1863, and for which she has never received a dollar (1893). The settlement of this claim in her favor is anticipated by the bench generally, long as justice to her has been delayed. At present she has a pension from the Government.
Some profess to find it hard reading the character of John Charles Fremont, calling it enigmatical and baffling. Not so with those who knew him best. "His unwritten history," writes one of these, "gives the clew to his life."
That he was a man of indomitable courage none can deny; a man of lofty principle and unblemished character. An atmosphere of romance makes him the American Chevalier.
He did more than any other man to open the pathways to the Pacific coast. The bitter feeling engendered by the California conquest, and his policy in the Civil War, is not yet extinct. Partisanship has biassed the most of his biographers. The intense feeling underlying the presidential campaign of 1856 did not conduce to a fair estimate of the man, who has suffered hardly less from the intense admiration of his friends than from jealousies of rivals and foes. "I tried to do my duty," he would say in his old age, when asked to explain knotty points about the conquest.
"All that he ever did for the Government," says one who knew him well, "was uniformly repaid with injury." That is the verdict of one side of the controversy. The sifting and weighing of a mass of conflicting evidence, preceding the final verdict of permanent history, is not yet ended in Fremont's case. That the outcome will be illumination of his fame rather than obscuration, his unswerving defenders do not doubt.
"Though the Pathfinders die, the paths remain open."