Pathfinder: John Charles Frémont and the Course of American Empire


“The most eloquent, understanding, and yet very candid biography of Frémont that has appeared to date”—Howard R. Lamar, Yale University

The career of John Charles Frémont (1813–90) ties together the full breadth of American expansionism from its eighteenth-century origins through its culmination in the Gilded Age. Tom Chaffin's biography demonstrates Frémont's vital importance to the history of American empire, and illuminates his role in ...

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Pathfinder: John Charles Frémont and the Course of American Empire

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“The most eloquent, understanding, and yet very candid biography of Frémont that has appeared to date”—Howard R. Lamar, Yale University

The career of John Charles Frémont (1813–90) ties together the full breadth of American expansionism from its eighteenth-century origins through its culmination in the Gilded Age. Tom Chaffin's biography demonstrates Frémont's vital importance to the history of American empire, and illuminates his role in shattering long-held myths about the ecology and habitability of the American West.

As the most celebrated American explorer and mapper of his time, Frémont stood at the center of the vast federal project of western exploration and conquest. His expeditions between 1838 and 1854 captured the public's imagination, inspired Americans to accept their nation's destiny as a vast continental empire, and earned him his enduring sobriquet, the Pathfinder.

But Frémont was more than an explorer. Chaffin's dramatic narrative includes Frémont's varied experiences as an entrepreneur, abolitionist, Civil War general, husband to the remarkable Jessie Benton Frémont, two-time Republican presidential candidate, and Gilded Age aristocrat.

This new paperback edition of Pathfinder features a new, additional, updated introduction by the author.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“More than any other American John C. Fremont the pathfinder for a vast inland empire stretching from the Mississippi Valley to the Pacific Ocean. In a biography that, like its subject, never knows a dull moment, Tom Chaffin captures the spectacular successes as well as failures of this complex and colorful character.”—James McPherson, Princeton University

Pathfinder is the most eloquent, understanding, and yet very candid biography of Frémont that has appeared to date. A major contribution to American historical writing.”—Howard R. Lamar, Yale University

“Throughout the nineteenth century, the most celebrated explorer in America was not Lewis or Clark or Pike or Powell. It was the extraordinary ‘Pathfinder,’ John Charles Frémont. In his mesmerizing biography, Tom Chaffin brings to life not only Frémont but the amazing personalities who populated his world, including William Clark, Kit Carson, Robert E. Lee, and Abraham Lincoln.”—Landon Jones, former managing editor, People magazine

“John Charles Frémont was a man—some would say the man—who epitomized mid-nineteenth century America’s driven, supremely confident spirit. Tom Chaffin has brought his remarkable character back into our midst, and by doing so he has shown us something of the heroism and blindness of that pivotal time in the nation’s history.”—Elliott West, University of Arkansas

“A masterful storyteller, Tom Chaffin vividly narrates the personal as well as private lives of Frémont and the other colorful figures of his generation who pushed America to the Pacific.”—David J. Weber, Southern Methodist University

“In clear and vivid language, Tom Chaffin’s Pathfinder re-creates the life of John C. Frémont, allowing us to see this extraordinary man, warts and all.”—Elliott J. Gorn, Purdue University

Publishers Weekly
John Charles Fremont (1813-1890), nicknamed "the Pathfinder" in recognition of his groundbreaking expeditions to map the American West, is not as well known as Lewis and Clark, but with this superb biography, the reader is soon convinced that Fremont's life is well worth examining, not only for its dizzying ups and downs but also for its intersection with so many hugely important themes in the nation's history: Manifest Destiny, the settlement of the West and displacement of Native Americans; the building of the railroads; and the corrosive debate over slavery. Chaffin's masterful grasp of storytelling creates a deeply nuanced portrait of a man of many parts-dashing explorer, businessman and politician-and the tumultuous times he lived through and helped shape. There's something here for every history buff: gripping accounts of Fremont's expeditions to map the rugged terrain of the West; insightful portrayals of Fremont's allies and adversaries that reveal the author's deep understanding of how power is wielded in both political and nonpolitical settings; and superb analysis of the philosophical underpinnings of American empire. Chaffin (director of Emory University's Oral History Project) even delivers a memorable love story-the relationship between Fr mont and his wife, Jessie, daughter of powerful Missouri Sen. Thomas Hart Benton-that could easily stand on its own. 21 b&w illus., 4 maps not seen by PW. (Nov.) Forecast: Given a recent revival of interest in American history and biography-and the attention that will be showered on the 200th anniversary of Lewis and Clark's expedition-this excellent volume about another explorer of the West may rise with the tide if it receives enough review coverage. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Chaffin (Narcisco Lopez and the First Clandestine U.S. War Against Cuba) here examines the life of John Charles Fremont, one of the great figures in the American expansion throughout the West during the second third of the 19th century. With good storytelling sense, the author weaves together Fremont's work surveying the vast unmapped expanses of the trans-Mississippi region. Chaffin also reveals his subject's involvement with some of the major political issues of his time-e.g., relations with Indian tribes and with Mexico. We also see fascinating people: colorful and controversial fellow soldiers like Kit Carson and powerful politicians, such as his patron and father-in-law, the Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton. But unlike Andrew Rolle's psychological portrait in Character as Destiny: John Charles Fremont, Chaffin focuses on the empire of the West, which Fremont helped create and into which he thrust himself. Ultimately, the author sees his subject as tragic, used and ultimately pushed aside by a nation that had become larger than this larger-than-life man. This book will be essential reading for historians of the West, and its accessible style will make it enjoyable for many general readers as well. For large public libraries.-Charles K. Piehl, Minnesota State Univ., Mankato Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A comprehensive, lively study of one of America's greatest-and most controversial-explorers. John Frémont scaled mountains, coined the geographical term "Great Basin," and battled renegades and rebels while traversing and mapping the American West. For his troubles, he was accused at various points of lying about the places he'd been, of inventing adventures in the interest of self-promotion, and of committing various crimes, from fomenting revolt to dining on his dead companions. His political rivals, who were legion, also never failed to mention that he was the illegitimate son of a French homewrecker. Frémont himself didn't help matters much, writes Chaffin (History/Emory Univ.): he was arrogant, to be sure, and so loose with the accounting in his role as a would-be mining and railroad magnate as to verge on fraud. He also had a profound talent for picking "formidable enemies, including General Stephen Watts Kearny, the philosopher Josiah Royce, and Frank Blair of Washington's powerful Blair family"-to say nothing of Abraham Lincoln, who removed Frémont from Civil War command and effectively ruined his postwar career. (He also had a good eye for choosing allies, however, among them the powerful politicians Thomas Hart Benton and Joel Poinsett.) Chaffin takes pains to show what in Frémont's record was of his own making, and what was laid at his door by enemies. He recognizes Frémont's many accomplishments as an explorer and geographer whose work advanced the cause of American empire-not only by helping thwart the ambitions of Mexico in California and of Britain in the Northwest, but, more simply, by providing accurate charts for those who followed ("Frémont's 1843 map [of the interiorWest]-eschewing anecdotes, legends, and other half-truths repeated from past maps-included only areas that he had personally seen and surveyed. Areas uncrossed by the expedition remained blank"). Little remains blank in this thorough life, of great interest to students of Western history.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780806144740
  • Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
  • Publication date: 3/29/2014
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 612
  • Sales rank: 764,804
  • Product dimensions: 8.90 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Tom Chaffin is Research Professor of History at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where he also directs and edits the series Correspondence of James K. Polk. Among his numerous publications, he has written articles for the New York Times, Harper's, and Time, and his books include Sea of Gray: The Around-the-World Odyssey of the Confederate Raider Shenandoah and Giant's Causeway: Frederick Douglass's Irish Odyssey and the Making of an American Visionary.
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Read an Excerpt

The Rising Empire

John Charles Fremont lived a life whose epic breadth, romantic aura, and dramatic bends and curves resembled that of a character invented by, say, Theodore Dreiser, Joseph Conrad — or, better yet, James Fenimore Cooper. It was Cooper, after all, who conjured the original "Pathfinder." In his 1840 novel of that title, Cooper hung the sobriquet on his plucky frontier protagonist, Natty Bumppo.

Two years later, when Fremont caught the eye of the American public, the editors of that era's penny press simply transferred the title to the dashingly handsome twenty-nine-year-old explorer. But Fremont was seldom a true pathfinder in that word's literal sense, and — except during his 1856 presidential campaign, in which his political handlers incessantly invoked the term — he never called himself one. He tended to survey already-established paths. Even so, in the explorer's widely read tales of his Western adventures, the public found enough Natty Bumppo to make the title seem apt. By compelling U.S. citizens to reimagine the geographic breadth and diversity of their nation, John Fremont more than earned the Pathfinder title.

As a leader of scientific expeditions, Fremont was often brilliant but also impulsive, vainglorious, and given to quixotic behavior. As a military leader, his actions were often even more inscrutable: he was impetuous and, throughout his life, displayed a career-crippling disdain for authority. Though rumors of libertinism and suggestions of financial improbity followed him through his life, he was otherwise rigorously self-disciplined, and austere in his personal habits. He avoided sharing a tent with anyone who smoked, he limited his drinking to the occasional splash of claret in a glass of water, and chess was his rowdiest indulgence.

The explorer's name endures in the names of over a hundred U.S. places — ranging from counties and towns to mountains and rivers. His legacy endures, too, in California's state flag, patterned after the Bear Flag Revolt to which he lent his name, and in the scores of Western places that he named — from the Great Basin to the Humboldt River to the Golden Gate.

Fremont's career transpired before Americans parsed travel distances with automobile odometers and frequent flier points. Though he lived long enough to take trains across the country, his glory years belonged to an era when travelers seldom moved faster than the speed of a galloping horse. And no one of that era saw more of the North American continent than John C. Fremont, not even Lewis and Clark. They, after all, made but one transcontinental expedition. Fremont participated in ten exploring expeditions — four of them transcontinental crossings.

Even a cursory survey of the nineteenth century's most significant writers — including Whittier, Greeley, Emerson, and Whitman — reveals that Fremont held a central position in U.S. public life. That, after all, is why the Republicans twice called him to run for the presidency. And why President Lincoln appointed him, to command the Union's forces in the Department of the West. This explorer, mapper, naturalist, Indian fighter, soldier, politician, and railroad speculator embodied U.S. expansionism. As the nominal leader of the U.S. conquest of California, Fremont stood at the end of the nation's long push to the Pacific coast. Equally important were his ties, direct and indirect, to earlier expansionists. Fremont was, after all, the son-in-law and protege of Thomas Hart Benton, the U.S. Senate's chief advocate and architect of U.S. expansion into the Trans-Missouiri West, and history had linked Benton to Thomas Jefferson, the Louisiana Purchase, and Lewis and Clark.

A thoroughly Byronic figure, Fremont was born in Savannah, Georgia, and grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, where he received his formal education at the College of Charleston. During the 1830s, he assisted government surveys of the Cherokee country of Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, and of the broad plateau between the Upper Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers. During the 1840s, he led three federally funded exploring expeditions of the West that captured the public's imagination and inspired thousands of Easterners — often with Fremont's expedition reports in hand — to move west.

Fremont's expedition writings, published initially by the U.S. Senate and widely reissued by private publishers, made him the mid-nineteenth century's chief popularizer of the American West. "Until the late explorations conducted by Col. Fremont [sic], very erroneous ideas have prevailed in regard to the character of the country to the westward of the Rocky Mountains," DeBow's Review noted in 1849. "It was customary to denounce it a hopeless, sterile waste, where the arts of civilized men could never prevail."

The scientific knowledge Fremont collected advanced the West's fortification, settlement, agriculture, and mining — as well as the federal governments ongoing subjugation of Indian peoples. Moreover, his explorations vanquished centuries of cartographic errors from the maps — everything from continent-shrinking distortions to mythical rivers and lakes. As Arctic explorer Adolphus Greely assessed the explorer's legacy in 1893, "In few instances did it fall to Fremont's lot to first explore any section of the country, but it was his good fortune, as it was his intent, to first contribute systematic, extended, and reliable data as to climate, elevation, physical conditions, and geographical positions." Equally important — perhaps more important — Fremont, though never a political philosopher — indeed, by all accounts, never much given to abstract thoughts — nevertheless compelled Americans to rethink the literal, political, and metaphysical contours of what citizens of that day were not embarrassed to call the American empire.

Writing to President James K. Polk in the summer of 1846, U.S. Navy commodore Robert Stockton concluded, praising the U.S. forces who had placed California under Old Glory's dominion, "They deserve it, they did the work; and have secured by their toil and daring this beautiful Empire." Evoking the same spirit, journalist Bayard Taylor entitled his collection of dispatches from mid-nineteenth-century California Eldorado, or Adventures in the Path of Empire. And Littell's Living Age, in 1850, noting John Fremont's role in pushing America's westward expansion, lauded "his controlling energy in the extension of our empire."

For Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, and other Founding Fathers, such approving talk of American empire would have occasioned no embarrassment. From the nation's infancy, they had envisioned nothing less for the independent nation-state. The means by and the form in which those aspirations eventually came to fruition, however, would have surprised them. At least initially, when the Founders and their generational peers thought about such matters, they took Great Britain as their model — that is, a nation-state of limited size, but possessed of a far-flung maritime empire, or, in the case of Jefferson, a dispersed collection of sister republics.

By the early 1850s, when Fremont had concluded his major explorations, Americans understood that their empire would be different. To understand Fremont's legacy, then, one must first understand how early Americans thought about their country — and how they embraced their vision of American empire.

In the year 2000, the American urban theorist Jane Jacobs, by way of explaining an earlier decision to move to Canada, told the New York Times, "I'm glad I was brought up an American, but I'm not cut out to be a citizen of an empire." By the end of the second millennium, the word empire had become, for most Americans, distasteful. Redolent of images of garish thrones, belligerent seafaring armies crashing on foreign shores, and pocket-lining colonial officials.

This was not always the case. Through much of the nation's history, the word empire enjoyed a positive connotation. Indeed, not until the 1870s did its less rosy derivative, imperialism, firmly entrench itself in the language. George Washington, for instance, referred optimistically to the United States as "a rising empire." Thomas Jefferson spoke of the nation as an expanding "empire for liberty." And in 1856, Abraham Lincoln, then an ambitious former congressman, speaking to a rally in Kalamazoo, Michigan, assured his audience, "We are a great empire," then linked that domain's continued prosperity to the election of the presidential candidate on whose behalf he was orating that day — John Fremont.

Empire — the word derives from the Roman word imperium and, in its original usage, referred to the power exercised by that city-state's emperors. But during the Middle Ages, the term was applied to the vast territories and their inhabitants ruled by any conquering power. By the early eighteenth century, as European nation-states established far-flung colonies, the term more commonly referred to the naval might and regulatory machinery by which they enforced trade monopolies with their dispersed colonies and enriched their national coffers.

Within such mercantilist empires, colonies functioned less as areas to be settled, more as opportunities for enriching the home country, the metropolis. Colonies existed mainly as suppliers of raw materials for manufacturing industries in the metropolis, and as a captive market for the goods produced by those industries. Among the British, to the extent the term empire referred to physical geography, it referred not to conquered lands but to the oceanic waters prowled by the British Navy. Britain's poet James Thomson captured the essence of the new concept when, in "Britannia, A Poem," he praised his nation's "well earned Empire of the deep" and exhorted his compatriots to "extend your reign from shore to shore." Mercantilists, after all, tended to limit their attention to ports; thriving settlements in the interior might encourage too much autonomy and industry.

*Endnotes were omitted.

Copyright © 2002 Tom Chaffin

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi
Chronology xv
Maps xvii
Preface: How the West Was Lost xxiii
Prologue 3
Part I Apprenticeships, 1813-41
1. The Rising Empire 7
2. Charles Fremon Fils 19
3. Boundaries Where None Are Marked 35
4. There's Geography for You! 59
5. Washington and the Bentons 75
Part II The First Expendition, Spring 1842-Fall 1842
6. To South Pass 95
7. Fremont Peak and Back 117
8. The First Report and Oregon Fever 136
Part III The Second Expedition, Spring 1843-Winter 1845
9. Return to the Rockies and Exploration of Great Salt Lake 153
10. Oregon 173
11. To the Banks of the Buenaventura 194
12. Winter Sierra 209
13. California Idyll, and Back 222
14. The Pathfinder 239
Part IV The Third Expedition, Summer 1845-Winter 1846
15. Great Salt Lake, Great Basin, and Humboldt River 257
16. The Opening Clear Before Me 267
17. To Promote This Object of the President 289
18. Neutral Conquest 309
19. Bear Flag 321
20. A Pawn for Empire 336
21. Commandant of the Territory 351
Part V Reckonings, 1847-54
22. Governor Fremont 367
23. Measuring the Empire 382
24. The Wages of Empire, and the Final Expedition 415
Part VI For Liberty, Union, and Commerce, 1854-64
25. Free Soil, Free Men, Fremont 433
26. General Fremont 455
Part VII The Light of Parting Day, 1865-87
27. Moses Unredeemed 479
28. The Legacies of Empire 488
Epilogue, 1887-90 495
On Textual Sources and Place-Names 503
Notes 507
Bibliography 529
Index 545
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