Pathfinder: John Charles Frémont and the Course of American Empire

Pathfinder: John Charles Frémont and the Course of American Empire

by Tom Chaffin

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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806146072
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 04/07/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 612
Sales rank: 1,147,938
File size: 13 MB
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About 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.

Read an Excerpt


John Charles Frémont and the Course of American Empire

By Tom Chaffin


Copyright © 2014 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4607-2



JOHN CHARLES FRÉMONT 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 Frémont 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 Frémont 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 Frémont more than earned the Pathfinder title.

* * *

As a leader of scientific expeditions, Frémont 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.

Frémont'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. Frémont, not even Lewis and Clark. They, after all, made but one transcontinental expedition. Frémont 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 Frémont 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, Frémont 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. Frémont was, after all, the son-in-law and protégé of Thomas Hart Benton, the U.S. Senate's chief advocate and architect of U.S. expansion into the Trans-Missouri West, and history had linked Benton to Thomas Jefferson, the Louisiana Purchase, and Lewis and Clark.

* * *

A thoroughly Byronic figure, Frémont 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 Frémont's expedition reports in hand—to move west.

Frémont'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. Frémont [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 Frémont collected advanced the West's fortification, settlement, agriculture, and mining—as well as the federal government's 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 Frémont'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—Frémont, 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 Frémont'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 Frémont had concluded his major explorations, Americans understood that their empire would be different. To understand Frémont'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 Frémont.

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.

But even as the eighteenth-century English celebrated their oceanic empire, their North American colonists, scattered along the Eastern Seaboard, were turning their gaze increasingly westward, toward the rich valleys of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. From their infancy, there had been in the colonies a tendency toward territorial expansion. As the colonies prospered in wealth and population, colonial governments, landowners, fur trappers, and speculators became increasingly covetous of the French-held frontier that lay to the north and west. By 1750, a string of French settlements, which had grown from fur-trade posts, stretched from the mouth of the St. Lawrence River up to the Great Lakes. From there, they reached south of Lake Champlain and down the Mississippi valley to St. Louis and New Orleans. As early as 1613, when a Jamestown, Virginia, ship captain attacked the French settlement of Port Royal on the Bay of Fundy, individual colonists, colonial companies, and even colonial governments had clashed militarily with the French. In response, the French erected a series of forts, garrisoned with professional soldiers, across their North American empire. To provide still more security, they strengthened ties with their Indian allies.

As early as 1609, the colonists had asked for British military assistance to quell threats from Indians and the French. By the mid-eighteenth century—observing what they perceived as a new surge of French militarization of the frontier—the American colonists began asking for a heretofore unprecedented level of assistance from the British military. In making their case for military aid, the colonists increasingly presented their cause as one with the British empire. Indeed, in 1751, Benjamin Franklin imagined North America as the future center of Britain's empire:

There are supp'd to be now upwards of One Million English souls in North-America.... This Million doubling, suppose but once in 25 Years, will in another Century be more than the People of England, and the greatest Number of Englishmen will be on this Side [of] the Water. What an Accession of Power to the British Empire by Sea as well as Land! What Increase of Trade and Navigation! What numbers of Ships and Seamen!

During the first half of the eighteenth century, such rhetorical flourishes, along with the colonists' appeals for British military assistance, fell on deaf ears. Britain's decision in 1754, however, for its own European geopolitical reasons, to challenge the French empire in North America eventually led English leaders to accept, as a political convenience, the American concept of empire. In 1758, Prime Minister William Pitt, upon taking office in the wake of a series of British defeats, concluded that any final victory would require assistance from the American colonials. To entice them into providing volunteers for the war effort, he offered the colonies more autonomy, economic subsidies, and arms—all incentives designed to make the Americans feel less like colonials, more like full-fledged citizens of the British Empire. Most colonists were eager to comply—here, at least, was an opportunity to open new lands for speculation and settlement. Moreover, New Englanders, swayed by their anti-French and antipapist heritages, were further motivated by fresh memories of support lent by French Catholics to Indian raids against frontier Anglo settlements.

Known as the French and Indian War in its North American theater (1754–63) and the Seven Years' War in its European theater (1756–63), the conflict transfigured political life in British North America. After the British victory, the colonists took pride in being "members" of the newly enlarged British empire. Subsequent polices from London, however, soon chastened that pride. In order to protect his new Indian subjects west of the Appalachians—and manifesting the usual mercantilist wariness about the development of colonial hinterlands—King George III issued the Proclamation of 1763, banning white settlement beyond the crest of that range. And, to defray the war debt, the mother country levied increasingly harsh taxes on the colonies. As the colonists' resistance to British policies gathered, many of their protests—right up to 1776—took the form of appeals for their rights as members of the British empire.

Early resistance sought not to remove the American colonies from the British empire, but to create a firm foundation for a stronger, more stable British empire. Protests sought to extinguish the assumed role of Parliament in governing the colonies. But they also sought to enhance the status of the king as the chief protector of the rights of North American residents of the British empire. In 1774, no less a patriot than Thomas Jefferson argued that King George III should

no longer persevere in sacrificing the rights of one part of the empire to the inordinate desires of another: but deal out to all equal and impartial right. Let no act be passed by any one legislature which may infringe on the rights and liberties of another. This is the important post in which fortune has placed you, holding the balance of a great, if a well poised empire.

In their arguments, colonists adopted an increasingly idealized view of the British empire. Not surprisingly, then, after the Americans won their independence in 1783, they inherited, but continued to modify, the British thrust toward empire. Jefferson and the other Founders hoped that America's successor empire would prove republican in its governance and, compared to its British predecessor, more benign in spirit. In the years before and after the adoption of the Articles of Confederation, Thomas Jefferson developed the most comprehensive and influential vision of American empire. This new empire, Jefferson believed, would be continental rather than maritime in scope, and be built around North America's rivers instead of its oceans and seaports. True to this new empire's republican credo, membership would be entirely voluntary. America's empire would be built on "federal" relationships among independent governments. Toward that end, Congress, in 1787, passed the Northwest Ordinance, which established an orderly means by which Americans moving ever westward might create self-government and petition for status as territories and, in time, as states. In a territory's initial phase, a governor selected by Congress directed governmental affairs. Once the territory's population included 5,000 free male adults, it would choose an assembly, from which Congress, in turn, would select a governing council for the territory. Congress and the appointed governor retained a veto over the council's action, but once the territory's population reached 60,000, it could petition Congress for statehood and all the attendant rights of self-government that status conferred.


Excerpted from Pathfinder by Tom Chaffin. Copyright © 2014 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Preface to the Paperback Edition,
Preface: How the West Was Lost,
1. The Rising Empire,
2. Charles Fremon Fils,
3. Boundaries Where None Are Marked,
4. There's Geography for You!,
5. Washington and the Bentons,
PART II: THE FIRST EXPEDITION, Spring 1842–Fall 1842,
6. To South Pass,
7. Fremont Peak and Back,
8. The First Report and Oregon Fever,
PART III: THE SECOND EXPEDITION, Spring 1843–Winter 1845,
9. Return to the Rockies and Exploration of Great Salt Lake,
10. Oregon,
11. To the Banks of the Buenaventura,
12. Winter Sierra,
13. California Idyll, and Back,
14. The Pathfinder,
PART IV: THE THIRD EXPEDITION, Summer 1845–Winter 1846,
15. Great Salt Lake, Great Basin, and Humboldt River,
16. The Opening Clear Before Me,
17. To Promote This Object of the President,
18. Neutral Conquest,
19. Bear Flag,
20. A Pawn for Empire,
21. Commandant of the Territory,
22. Governor Frémont,
23. Measuring the Empire,
24. The Wages of Empire, and the Final Expedition,
25. Free Soil, Free Men, Frémont,
26. General Frémont,
27. Moses Unredeemed,
28. The Legacies of Empire,
Epilogue, 1887–90,
On Textual Sources and Place-Names,

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