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John C. Fremont
January 14, 2013, 05:00 AM By Darold Fredricks

Photo courtesy of the San Mateo County History Museum John C. Fremont.

Fremont, Calif.; Fremont Streets in San Francisco and Las Vegas, Nev.; Fremont Bridge, Portland, Ore.; John C. Fremont Hospital, Mariposa, Calif.; Fremont Senior High School as well as numerous other schools, streets in other states; etc. can be found attributed to John C. Fremont.

Born out of wedlock in Savannah, Ga. in 1813, into a society that shunned bastards socially, Fremont nevertheless was able to rise above these social barriers and carve a name for himself in the pursuit of explorations that rose above this social disaster. In fact, being a bastard may have influenced his development more than he would acknowledge and created the drive for self-attainment that few other explorers achieved. The 1840s were a time of crisis in America. The president and Congress wanted California for Americans but the Mexicans still controlled it. Much animosity and anger was generated between the two countries and Fremont was in the center of many diplomatic situations and many times he added tension for wrong reasons. His actions were controversial, contradictory and impetuous.  

Many said he was too ambitious in his drive for success, he had too much self-justification in many decisions he made, and that he had a passive-aggressive behavior. Many of his superiors either loved him or hated him due to his actions.

In 1849, Fremont married Jessie Benton, daughter of Sen. Hart Benton from Missouri. Sen. Benton favored and preached the concept of "Manifest Destiny.” The United States should rule and own all of the land between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It is our destiny, he said. With Sen. Benton's help, money was appropriated for a national survey of the Oregon Trail (1842), the Oregon Territory (1944), the Great Basin and Sierra Mountains (1845). Fremont was to lead these expeditions. His first expedition into the West was where he mapped the Wind River Range of the Rocky Mountains. In May 1843, Fremont set out with 40 men on a second topographic expedition, this time to California.

Fremont had engaged a well-known scout, Christopher "Kit” Carson. Carson's genius as a leader saved the expeditions many times.

When he reached the Sierra Mountains, he ignored advice to wait until the snow melted before he continued. The trip over the Sierras almost cost lives of his men. After four weeks of extremely bad weather, the expedition arrived in the Sacramento Valley and hiked to a well-known place, Sutter's Fort. Fremont was anxious to find out how the Mexicans and Americans in California felt about being annexed to the United States. Many were eager to have the area brought into the realm of America. But not all felt this way, especially some high-ranking Mexicans. After spending two weeks recuperating at the Fort Fremont, his men traveled south, crossed the Sierra Nevada range at Walker Gap and returned to Washington, D.C. Upon returning, he became an instant hero. He wrote a book that was to open his exploration to many millions of people on the East Coast that hungered for news and information of the West. Immigrants to the West used the maps and information about the West in the travels to California. Fremont had become a hero and gained a nickname "The Great Pathfinder.”

The new president of the United States, James K. Polk, was interested in acquiring California and immediately decided that more had to be known about the lands to the west. He set up another expedition for Fremont and 60 riflemen to accompany him. Many saw this as an attempt to be ready if California became available to come into the Union and be under American rule. Fremont saw an opportunity to achieve more fame and fortune if he was in California when this happened.

Sutter's Fort occupants were even more enthusiastic about statehood when Fremont arrived in January 1846. Going against the Mexican authority's advice, when he left, he traveled to Mission San Jose and set up camp. The Mexican governor was not pleased as he was not supposed to mingle near Mexican settlements nor talk the way he was about securing California from the Mexicans. He moved to the area of Mission Jose de Guadalupe and immediately moved to a peak nearby Hawk's Peak (now named Fremont Peak) and built a fort. He had had a run-in with a Mexican citizen from San Jose that charged Fremont had one of his horses and Fremont made a mountain out of a mole hill by ordering the Mexicans out of camp and told him he was wrong.

General Jose Castro, the military commander of Alta California, sent a letter to Fremont and Fremont began raising hell about how he was being treated and that he did not have the man's horse. Tensions were high in both camps and the threat of a massacre was rumored as the Mexicans had thousands of soldiers available in case a fight began. 

After spending three days, in February 1846, on the peak, Fremont and his men retreated from the peak and headed north to Oregon. After reaching Klamath Lake, a mysterious messenger arrived from Washington, D.C. and, after the meeting at which oral report was given to Fremont, Fremont turned around and headed south with no explanation to his men.

At Sutter's Fort, Fremont appointed Ezekiel Merritt a "field lieutenant.” Immediately, Merritt and 33 armed volunteers marched to General Vallejo's town of Sonoma and demanded Vallejo surrender California to America. The "Bear Flag War” or "Bear Flag Rebellion” on the week of June 14, 1846 was bloodless thanks to the cool heads of everyone at this point.

Fremont then went to San Rafael where a battle ensued and Mexicans were killed and put to rout. An event occurred on June 1846 that blemished Fremont's character enough to have an adverse affect on his run for the presidency later. Fremont had sent Kit Carson to check on three people disembarking from a boat nearby. Carson asked Fremont if he should capture them and Fremont answered that he "had no room for prisoners.” Carson killed the men; two were the nephews of Jose Antonio Sanchez (grantee of Rancho Buri Buri). This act haunted Fremont the rest of his life. After this event, Fremont boated across the Golden Gate to San Francisco and spiked the Spanish cannons at Fort Point.

Fremont was riding high at this point but his ego was too big for many of the military officers. Eventually he was tried for mutiny, insubordination (refusal to follow orders of a superior officer) and conduct contrary to military discipline and order. General Stephen W. Kearny got his revenge when Fremont was found guilty, but President Polk immediately dismissed Fremont's sentence and allowed him to remain in the Army. Fremont, however, resigned his commission and went back into a private life.

In January 1849, Fremont returned to California and purchased a 44,386-acre ranch on which he discovered gold. At least for a while, he was wealthy. However, he eventually lost it all on bad investments.

John E. Fremont was either a hero or a scoundrel, depending on each circumstance in his life.


Rediscovering the Peninsula by Darold Fredricks appears in the Monday edition of the Daily Journal.


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