John Charles Frémont

JOHN CHARLES FRÉMONT(1813–1890)

Neither born in Missouri nor residing in the state for a prolonged period, John Charles Frémont nonetheless played a significant role in the foundation of modern Missouri. A formidable western hero, Frémont emerged as a prominent antislavery Republican in the 1850s. During the ensuing CivilWar he assumed command of the Union’s Western Department based in St. Louis. In that capacity he issued a famous order suppressing rebel elements and attempting to free the slaves of disloyal Missourians. This effort intensified the internecine warfare already disrupting the state, but it also paved the way for the eventual abolition of slavery in the state.

Frémont’s parents, Charles Frémont and Ann Beverly Whiting Pryor, apparently never married. In 1811 Ann fled her elderly husband, John Pryor, in Virginia to join Frémont, a young French dancing instructor. On January 21, 1813, John Charles was born in Savannah, Georgia. After his father died John grew to maturity in Charleston, South Carolina, where he attended the College of Charleston. However, a lack of diligence prompted his dismissal in 1831, just three months short of his graduation.

Frémont’s relationship to Missouri grew primarily from family connections: he became the son-in-law of Missouri’s legendary Democratic senator Thomas Hart Benton. At first the powerful senator did not sanction the union between his young daughter Jessie and the unproved Frémont. Following his aborted college career Frémont had served briefly as a mathematics instructor on naval vessels and as an assistant on two surveying missions in the South. In 1838 the support of secretary of war Joel Poinsett brought an appointment as a second lieutenant in the army’s Bureau of Topographical Engineers. Frémont gained valuable experience in scientific exploration by assisting a respected French scientist, Joseph Nicollet, in mapping the region between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.

In 1841 Frémont received his first independent assignment to survey the Des Moines River region; October 19, 1841. The senator gradually accepted the marriage and became an important patron of John’s exploring career. St. Louis thereupon became the family’s base of operations; along withWestport, Missouri, St. Louis would serve as the staging point for Frémont’s western expeditions.

Following Nicollet’s death the task of completing the scientist’s systematic exploration of the western domain fell to his protégé, Frémont. Although the topographical engineers had devised plans to survey the western trails, Senator Benton’s involvement transformed the primarily scientific objectives of the expeditions into political ones as well. In June 1842, after organizing his first major expedition (and securing Kit Carson as a guide) in Missouri, Frémont followed the Kansas River to the Platte and finally the Sweetwater River in today’s Wyoming. He and Benton had interpreted his orders to allow him to visit the strategic South Pass in theWind River Mountains. Frémont reported that this opening in the Rocky Mountains was easily passed by settlers in wagons, thus helping to encourage further American emigration to the Oregon country. A second expedition in 1843–1844 completed the explorer’s path along the Oregon Trail and culminated in a risky but successful winter crossing of the Sierra Nevada into Mexican California.

Prepared with Jessie Benton Frémont’s valuable help, John Frémont’s reports of his first two expeditions did more than just provide prospective travelers with useful information about the overland trail. Beyond clarifying the nature of the Continental Divide, Frémont’s journals challenged the notion that the Plains were a barren wasteland, revealed the existence of the Great Basin, and downplayed the risks of the overland journey to the fertile valleys of Oregon and California. Not the least important, the report elevated Frémont to the level of national hero. During Frémont’s third expedition of 1845–1846 the brevet captain assumed command of the “Bear Flag” revolt of American settlers against Mexican authority in California. Joining American naval forces, Frémont formed the “California Battalion” to help secure the province. After a brief revolt by Californians of Spanish descent, Frémont accepted their final surrender at Cahuenga and was appointed in January 1847 as the temporary military governor of California.

The appointment brought the inexperienced army officer into conflict with Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny. Believing his appointment by Commodore Robert Stockton to be legitimate, Frémont refused Kearny’s contrary orders and was arrested. In a celebrated court-martial in Washington, Frémont won much public sympathy (and the support of Senator Benton), but in January 1848 was found guilty of disobedience. Rejecting President James K. Polk’s offer of clemency, the miffed  explorer instead resigned his commission.

With Senator Benton’s backing, Frémont subsequently led two privately financed expeditions designed to prove the feasibility of an all-weather “central route” for a railroad to the Pacific. While such a route would have benefited Benton’s Missouri backers, Frémont’s journeys in 1848–1849 and 1853–1854 proved unsuccessful; other transcontinental routes would later be selected.

California now became the adopted home of John Frémont and Jessie Frémont. A large area known as the Mariposa proved to hold immense wealth in gold. In December 1849 Frémont had been selected as one of California’s first U.S. senators. He served a short term from 1850 to 1851 as an antislavery Democrat. Failing to win reelection, Frémont returned to private life until growing controversy over slavery in the western territories opened a new phase in his public career.

Both parties sought the heroic and celebrated figure, but Frémont’s antislavery predilections prevented him from responding to Democratic overtures. Instead, in 1856 he accepted the first presidential nomination of the Republican Party, and pledged to prevent the spread of slavery to western territories such as Kansas. Although he did not win the support of Missouri (or the endorsement of his Democratic father-in-law), he did manage to carry most of the free states. However, organizational problems in key states such as Pennsylvania prevented an electoral triumph. Frémont’s image had appealed to new young voters and helped to establish the new party, which went on to elect Abraham Lincoln as president four years later.

When Civil War erupted in 1861 Frémont supported the Union without hesitation, despite his southern origins. His reputation and personal connections (although Senator Benton had died, the powerful Blair family supported Frémont at this point) made him the logical choice to head theWestern Department, whose primary responsibility was the divided state of Missouri. Assuming command in July 1861 Frémont found himself instantly overwhelmed by the disorder in the state, and by the lack of men and materials. He received little direction from authorities in Washington. Although Gen. Nathaniel Lyon had done much to secure the Union position in Missouri, he also stirred up rebel resentments. While Lyon’s troops pursued rebel forces in the southwestern corner of the state near Springfield, Frémont allowed the irascible General Lyon the discretion to attack superior rebel forces at Wilson’s Creek on August 10, 1861. Lyon’s defeat and death shocked the North and brought scrutiny to Frémont’s command.

Reacting to the setback with characteristic impetuosity, Frémont first placed St. Louis and then the entire state under martial law. (This directive would remain effective for the virtual remainder of the war.) Then on August 30 he issued a sudden order stating that captured rebel guerrillas could be shot. Most significantly, he directed that the slaves of rebel masters be freed. While antislavery elements cheered Frémont’s emancipation edict (and a few Missouri slaves won their freedom), it worried President Lincoln who sought to retain the loyalty of border-state slaveholders. Although the directive had won the support of the St. Louis press, it antagonized other elements within Missouri who resisted any interference with slavery. Associates of Gov. Hamilton Rowan Gamble marked Frémont for removal. When President Lincoln directed him to modify the order, Frémont instead dispatched his wife to Washington to plead for support. Confronting the president on this issue proved counterproductive, and she returned to Missouri defeated. The president publicly directed Frémont to reverse the  order.  

In the meantime charges of corruption and incompetence, motivated by Frémont’s political enemies (which now included the Blair family), beset the general’s command. Investigations failed to demonstrate serious wrongdoing but tarnished Frémont’s reputation enough to allow Lincoln to remove what had become a political liability. Another defeat at Lexington was not offset by a minor victory by Frémont’s cavalry guard at Springfield. While seeking battle with the enemy in southern Missouri, Frémont was removed from command in November 1861. The Frémont emancipation edict opened a new chapter in the war that originally sought only to restore the Union to its original form. Especially in Missouri, the man known as the “Pathfinder” had staked out a position that heretofore had been politically unacceptable. His removal from command could have been predicted. Nonetheless, fierce strife continued to plague the state; federal authorities would later adopt even more severe measures than Frémont had contemplated. Yet, Frémont’s order had inspired “radical” elements in the state and elsewhere that desired more forceful steps against slavery. Congress passed a new confiscation act (like Frémont’s decree, it sought to free the slaves of rebel masters), Lincoln issued his own emancipation decree in September 1862, and in Missouri radicals were successful in eliminating slavery (in January 1865) before the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865.

Frémont’s career never recovered from the political attacks he sustained after his emancipation decree. In March 1862 Lincoln appointed him to command the Mountain Department, but he found defeat in the Battle of Cross Keys in Virginia on June 8, 1862. Following another dispute over command Frémont asked to be relieved. His military service was at an end, but during the 1864 presidential campaign antislavery elements considered him as a replacement for Lincoln. Frémont eventually withdrew from the race, helping to ensure Lincoln’s reelection. Union victory in the war led by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Gen. William T. Sherman, along with Lincoln’s assassination, left General Frémont’s efforts largely forgotten. Poor business decisions resulted in the loss of his beloved Mariposa and financial distress for the rest of his life. Hopes to revive his dreams of a Pacific railroad originating in Missouri proved illusory. From 1878 to 1883 Frémont served as governor of Arizona Territory. Jessie Frémont helped him to pen his memoirs, published in 1887. Not completely forgotten by the continental nation he had helped to create, he was restored to the rank of major general and placed on the retired list with pay in April 1890. A sudden attack of peritonitis claimed the elderly hero in New York on July 13, 1890.  

The legendary Frémont name dots the American landscape from Ohio to California, though no county or city in Missouri bears it. Yet, Frémont fought to keep Missouri part of the American Union and sought to free the state of the shackles of slavery. He led exploring parties to the west from Missouri’s river towns and hoped to build a transcontinental railroad westward from its borders. His exploits helped point the state toward the growth and promise of modern statehood.

Vernon L. Volpe

Herr, Pamela. Jessie Benton Frémont: A Biography. New York: Franklin Watts, 1987. 
Nevins, Allan. Frémont, Pathmaker of the West. 2 vols. New York: Longman, Green, 1955.
Parrish,William E. Turbulent Partnership: Missouri and the Union, 1861–1865. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1963. 
Volpe, Vernon L. “The Frémonts and Emancipation in Missouri.” Historian 56 (winter 1994): 339–54.

Excerpted from Dictionary of Missouri Biography edited by Lawrence O. Christensen, William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn, published by the University of Missouri Press. To order this book, please call (800) 621-2736 or online at http://press.umsystem.edu/Catalog/ProductSearch.aspx?search=Dictionary+of+Missouri+Biography.