John Charles Frémont (1813-1890) was American military officer, politician, explorer, and one of the first people of European descent to visit the Yuba-Sutter area. (The very first was Gabriel Moraga.) Frémont was one of the first two U.S. senators representing California, a governor of the Arizona territory, the first presidential candidate for the Republican Party, and the first major party presidential candidate to run on a platform opposing slavery. The penny press in the 1840s nicknamed Frémont "The Pathfinder," and he is sometimes called "The Great Pathfinder" today. Places in the Yuba-Sutter area that are named for him include Fremont Weir State Wildlife Area southeast of Cunard, Fremont Way in Yuba City, and Fremont Medical Center in Yuba City and Marysville. (Fremont Medical Center is named for Fremont Street in Las Vegas, Nevada, which in turn is named for John C. Frémont.)
Frémont was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1813. He was the illegitimate firstborn child of Anne Beverley Whiting (the youngest daughter of a socially prominent Virginia farmer) and Charles Fremon (a French immigrant, originally named Louis-René Frémont, who had fought with the Royalists during the French Revolution and been hired by Whiting's husband to tutor her). The couple had run away together in 1811, after Anne's husband, John Pryor, had discovered their affair. Pryor was about 45 years older than his wife. Their marriage had been arranged when Whiting was 17; she was 32 when she ran away with Fremon. Whiting financed the trip and the purchase of a house in Savannah by selling slaves she had recently inherited. However, she could not marry Fremon, because the Virginia House of Delegates refused Pryor's divorce petition. Fremon taught French and dance classes to help support the family, and Whiting rented out rooms of the house.
Although his father had anglicized his name when he immigrated to the United States, Frémont reclaimed the original spelling as an adult. He attended the College of Charleston from 1829 to 1831 and was appointed a teacher of mathematics aboard the USS Natchez. In 1838, he was appointed a second lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers and assisted and led several surveying expeditions through the western territory of the United States and beyond, training under Joseph Nicollet.
In 1841, 28-year-old John C. Frémont eloped with 17-year-old Jessie Benton, the second child of Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, who was the Democratic Party leader for more than 30 years in the U.S. Senate. Although her father initially disapproved of the marriage, believing his daughter was too young to marry, he later used his political position to assign Frémont to lead numerous expeditions to the western frontier. Jessie, who had received an unusually good education for a woman of her era, supplemented her husband's income during times of financial difficulty by writing books and popular magazine stories inspired by her husband's adventures on the frontier. The couple would have five children together: Lily, Benton, John Jr., Anne, and Francis. Benton and Anne died in infancy, but the other three—born in 1842, 1851, and 1855—survived to adulthood.
In 1842, while Jessie was pregnant with their first child, Frémont left her in the care of her parents in Washington, D.C., while he went to St. Louis, Missouri, to prepare for an expedition with 25 men to South Pass in the Rocky Mountains. In St. Louis he met Kit Carson and chose him as his guide. The expedition was a success, and Frémont returned to Washington, D.C., in time for the birth of his firstborn child, Lily—though he left soon afterward on another expedition. Throughout the next several years, Frémont and Carson led expedition parties on the Oregon Trail and into the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range.
In 1845, Frémont, Carson, and 55 men left St. Louis on an expedition to map the source of the Arkansas River, on the east side of the Rocky Mountains. However, when the group reached the Arkansas river, Frémont directed them to go to California instead. He did not ofer an explanation for this dramatic change in destination. When the group arrived in the Sacramento Valley in early 1846, Frémont deliberately provoked the American settlers there to nationalistic hopes that the United States might conquer California and wrest it away from Mexico. He promised that if war with Mexico started, his military force would be there to protect them. Frémont's talk nearly provoked a battle with General José Castro at what is now named Fremont Peak in Monterey. Due to the superior numbersof the Mexican troops, Castro could easily have annihilated Frémont's group in such a battle.
Frémont's group then fled Mexican-controlled California and camped at Klamath Lake in Oregon. After some men from the Modoc nation attacked his expedition party there, Frémont retaliated by attacking completely innocent people, massacreing the men, women, and children of a Klamath Indian fishing village named Dokdok the following day. During the massacre, Frémont trampled a Klamath man with his horse just in time to prevent the man from firing an arrow at Kit Carson. Carson felt that Frémont had saved his life.
After a few months in Oregon, Frémont's group returned to California. The Mexican-American War was beginning. During the Bear Flag Revolt, Frémont imprisoned José de los Santos Berreyesa, the alcalde (a Mexican post similar to mayor) of Sonoma, along with two of his brothers and others he believed were against him. As a result, the Berreyesas' father, prominent landowner José de los Reyes Berreyesa, crossed the San Francisco Bay and landed near San Quentin with two 19-year-old cousins (Ramón and Francisco Jr., twin sons of Francisco de Haro, the first alcalde of the Presidio of San Francisco), seeking to visit his sons in jail. Frémont ordered Carson and two others to shoot and kill the three visitors, apparently partly because there was no room for more prisoners, and partly in revenge because two American settlers had been killed by Mexicans (but not by Berreyesa or his twin cousins). Later, Carson is said to have told Jasper O'Farrell that he regretted killing the men, but that this was only one of various times he had killed innocent men on orders from Frémont.
In 1846, Frémont was appointed lieutenant colonel of the California Battalion, which he had helped form. In late 1846, acting under orders from Commodore Robert F. Stockton, Frémont led a successful military expedition of 300 men to capture Santa Barbara, ending the Mexican-American War in Alta California. As a result, Commodore Stockton appointed Frémont military governor of California in early 1847. However, U.S. Army Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny, who outranked Frémont, said he had orders from the President James K. Polk to serve as governor. Frémont refused to give up his claim to the governorship, although Kearny gave him several opportunities to do so.
It was during this period, while maintaining his disputed claim to governorship, that Frémont visited the Yuba-Sutter area. He made the following notes in his journals during his visit here in June 1847:1
|At sunrise of the 25th, the temperature was 36 deg., with an easterly wind and clear sky. In about thirty miles travel to the north, we reached the rancho of Mr. Keyser, on Bear river; an affluent to the Feather river, the largest tributary of the Sacramento. The route lay over an undulating country—more so as our course brought us nearer the mountains—wooded with oaks and shrubbery in blossom, with small prairies intervening. Many plants were in flower, and among them the California poppy, unusually magnificent. It is the characteristic bloom of California at this season, and the Bear river bottoms, near the hills, were covered with it. We crossed several small streams, and found the ground miry from the recent rains. The temperature at 4 in the afternoon was 70 deg., and at sunset 58 deg., with an easterly wind, and the night bright and clear.|
|The morning of the 26th was clear, and warmer than usual; the wind was south-easterly, and the temperature 40 deg. We travelled across the valley plain, and in about sixteen miles reached Feather River, at twenty-six miles from its junction with the Sacramento, near the mouth of the Yuva, so-called from a village of Indians who live on it. The river has high banks,—twenty or thirty feet, and was here one hundred and fifty yards wide, a deep, navigable stream. The Indians aided us across the river, with canoes and small rafts. Extending along the bank in front of the village was a range of wicker cribs, about twelve feet high, partly filled with what is there the Indians' staff of life—acorns. A collection of huts, shaped like bee-hives, with naked Indians sunning themselves on the tops, and these acorn cribs, are the prominent objects in an Indian village.|
|There is a fine farm, or rancho, on the Yuva, stocked with about 3,000 head of cattle, and cultivated principally in wheat, with some other grains and vegetables, which are carried, by means of the river, to a market at San Francisco. Mr. Cordua, a native of Germany, who is proprietor of the place, informed me that his average harvest of wheat was about twenty-five bushels to the acre, which he supposed would be about the product of the wheat lands in the Sacramento Valley. The labour on this and other farms in the valley is performed by Indians.|
Frémont's careful notes about the plants he saw during his travels caused many American native plants to be named for him. Seven plants native to Yuba and Sutter Counties take their Latin names from him: Frémont's cottonwood (Populus fremontii), Frémont's bush mallow (Malacothamnus fremontii), Frémont's silk tassel (Garrya fremontii), death camas (Zigadenus fremontii), Frémont's tidytips (Layia fremontii), vernal pool goldfields (Lasthenia fremontii), and Klamath Western rosinweed (Calycadenia fremontii).
Less than two months after Frémont's visit here, Kearny arrested Frémont for refusing to dive up his claim to the governorship. Kearny brought Frémont to Washington, D.C., for court martial, and Frémont was convicted of mutiny, disobedience of a superior officer, and military misconduct. He was sentenced to dishonorable discharge from the U.S. Army. President Polk approved the conviction but quickly commuted the sentence, because Frémont's father-in-law, Senator Thomas Benton, was one of Polk's political allies. Not satisfied with having his sentence commuted, Frémont wrote to President Polk in early 1848 and said he would resign from the U.S. Army unless his conviction was overturned. After one month passed with no reply from President Polk, Frémont resigned his commission. He, Jessie, and 6-year-old Lily settled on the Rancho Las Mariposas land grant that Frémont had purchased in 1847, in the Sierra Nevada foothills near Yosemite. He continued to lead expeditions throughout the western frontier for projects that his father-in-law was interested in. When California became a state in 1850, Frémont served a two-year term as one of its first two U.S. senators.
By 1856, he, Jessie, 14-year-old Lily, 5-year-old John Jr., and 1-year-old Francis were living in Staten Island, New York. That year, Frémont became the first presidential candidate of the newly formed Republican Party. His father-in-law, a lifelong Democrat, refused to endorse him. Frémont lost the election to Democrat James Buchanan, but received more votes than the American Party candidate, future President Millard Fillmore.
Frémont returned to the military to serve as a major general in the American Civil War. In 1861, he served as commander of the Union Army's Department of the West for six months, replacing William S. Harney, who had negotiated the Harney-Price Truce that had allowed Missouri to remain neutral in the war. Frémont ordered General Nathaniel Lyon to formally bring Missouri into the war on the Union side. Through a series of battles, Lyon evicted Governor Claiborne Jackson and installed a pro-Union government. After Lyon was killed in the Battle of Wilson's Creek, Frémont imposed martial law in Missouri, confiscating secessionists' property and issuing an edict emancipating all the slaves in Missouri, about a year before Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.
President Abraham Lincoln was afraid that emancipating the slaves in Missouri would push Missouri and other slave states on the Union side into seceding, so he told Frémont to revoke the edict. Frémont refused to do so, and Jessie went to Washington, D.C., to plead her husband's case before Lincoln. She did not succeed in changing Lincoln's mind. Lincoln relieved Frémont of command and revoked his edict.
In the 1864, Frémont challenged incumbent President Lincoln in the Republican primary. Frémont's candidacy was supported by the radical abolitionist faction of the Republican Party, who felt Lincoln was moving too slowly to end slavery and was tolerating too much from the southern states in the postwar reconciliation process. However, Frémont dropped out of the race after brokering a deal in which Lincoln removed conservative Republican Postmaster General Montgomery Blair from office.
Frémont served as governor of the Arizona Territory from 1878 to 1881. He died in New York City in 1890 of peritonitis. Jessie died in 1902.
1. Notes of Travel in California; Comprising the Prominent Geographical, Agricultural, Geological, and Mineralogical Features of the Country; Also, the Route to San Diego, in California; Including Parts of the Arkansas, Del Norte, and Gila Rivers, from the Official Reports of Col. Fremont and Maj. Emory. Dublin: James M'Glashan, 1849