Some have fine books thrust upon them, and I am one of those fortunates. Frémont:Explorer for a Restless Nation isn’t new. Ferol Egan originally published it in 1977, but it deserves more play than it’s received. It also, from my own perspective, makes a nice pairing with the Kit Carson biography by Hampton Sides, Blood and Thunder I read earlier in the year (See the Writer Working January 29 entry.). Carson was a key player in Frémont’s explorations, and the two got along famously.
I admit I wasn’t much interested in reading a biography of John Charles Frémont. I figured I knew enough and it wasn’t all that good so why bother. Despite the fact that within short compass from my keyboard lie a city, a major boulevard, and a high school named after him–not to mention that he named the Golden Gate the Golden Gate, though I guess he did it in Greek (Chrysē Pylē)–I considered him more of a glory seeker than a true pioneer. I thought he derived fame and advantage more from his favored position as the son-in-law of a powerful eminent-domain-obsessed senator (Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri) and from the brilliance and beauty of his wife, Jessie, than from his own abilities or initiative. My prejudice was based on some facts.
One of his five expeditions of exploration took place near the start of the Mexican-American war. He was officially an army officer (Lt. Colonel), but was trained and engaged for surveying and science, not for combat. Yet he inserted himself and his “army” of mountain men and irregulars into California affairs at a time when the golden state was part of a foreign country with whom the U.S. was not at war. He made a bit of a mess of things here for a while. Then there was a foolhardy midwinter expedition into the San Juan Mountains in which ten men died and one or two were perhaps at least partially eaten (not by or with the sanction of or in the presence of John Charles). Later on, as a real army officer during the early days of the civil war, he issued an emancipation proclamation for Missouri without consulting Lincoln or gaining his approval, a move which might have driven border states like KY and Maryland into the confederacy. Jessie went straight to an irritated and president to plead his case on that one. He bought 40, 000 acres around Mariposa, just outside of Yosemite, and took a fortune in gold out of it, but managed to squander most of the proceeds. And, I confess as well, that my prejudice was reinforced by a tawdry TV miniseries (of which I watched only a portion) starring the soap opera actor Richard Chamberlain.
But you can know a lot and still be ignorant, and after reading Egan’s book and now declare that Frémont deserves every honor he received and more. Every street, school, and city that bears his name should wear its label proudly. Not that he wasn’t every bit as arrogant and ambitious and reckless as I always thought. He certainly was. But he was also a passionate and meticulous scientist, a public servant with big ideas and huge visions who dared big and risked hugely to pursue them. He was also something of a writer. How many authors can claim that their congressional reports turned into best sellers? The reports of Frémont’s first two expeditions into the west became just that, and they functioned as guide books for thousands of wagon trains over the years as well as adding mountains to the knowledge of western flora, fauna, and geography. He didn’t blaze the trails he described in the reports (never claimed he did), but he codified and focused the knowledge of them, provided precision of direction, altitude (despite primitive, broken, lost instruments), soil, and weather beyond the world of legend and tall tales that had been all the existing information. You’d think that would have been enough of a career, but not for J.C.
He was court-martialed and convicted for some of his actions in the California turmoil. However, though his egotistical overreaching played a major role in his difficulties, the true fountainhead of his problems was his naiveté as he tried to steer a safe course in the power struggle between General Kearny and Commodore Stockton during the U.S. conquest of California. He’d found his way over raging rivers and through freezing blizzards, but the politics of this situation was too much for him to navigate. His trial and conviction was, it seems to me, as much a political procedure and verdict as a legal or military one. The jury found him guilt of mutiny (possible death penalty) and a number of lesser charges, but recommended that the president pardon him. In other words, they couldn’t officially countenance his refusal to obey an official order, even though he was caught between contradictory, mutually exclusive, orders from feuding commanders. However, they apparently didn’t think he should be punished.
President Polk issued the pardon, and Frémont went on with his life. He served a short term as one of California’s first senators, garnering plenty of resentment for his anti-slavery views and legislation, and these ideals kept him from being elected for a full term. I’d always thought his 1856 run for the presidency was a gimmicky thrust for glory, but he was a sincere abolitionist (though born and raised in the south) and dared to join the Republicans even though his powerful father-in-law (also an abolitionist) could not bring himself to break his democratic ties to support his son-in-law. Frémont probably lost to Buchanan because of a third party’s drawing votes away from him, but he helped pave the way for Lincoln’s candidacy in 1860. It was a bitter and dirty campaign, and he was swift-boated to a degree John Kerry never dreamed of:
He’d been born out of wedlock (true, though there were extenuating circumstances aplenty.); he was a Catholic (untrue, and it mattered then, but how do you stop the rumors? He and Jessie had eloped and been married by a priest, after all); he’d been brutal to the California Indians (True enough, and Egan pulls no punches about the cruel treatment he–and especially Carson–sometimes dished out, but by the standards of the day, they were not exceptionally harsh, and who cared at the time except for political purposes? Sound familiar?) And so on.
Then there was yet another expedition, a fifth–the guy just couldn’t stop–designed to prove that a railroad could be built across the Rockies. He did prove those mountains could be crossed in midwinter and nearly died doing it. Somehow, he remained a millionaire through all this, owned some of the most beautiful land in San Francisco (Now named Fort Mason, ironically, after one of the officers who was instrumental in his court martial conviction.), which was seized during the war and for which he was never compensated. Then there was some time spent abroad (thrown in jail in England for a time by English investors who had never repaid by the government for vouchers that Military Governor Frémont had signed in California years past.) Then there was a mansion in New York. Then there was investment in a railroad. In between there were the deaths of two infant daughters. Then there was poverty. Then there was a small pension. Then there was peritonitis and death at 77 in 1902. Jessie lived with daughter Lily in Los Angeles for seventeen more years.
Two significant and worthy lives, lived largely in celebrity and position, true, lived large for personal gain, yes, but lived also for the good of society and for posterity. And we–posterity–are better off for their work.