Monday, July 13, 2020

This Day in Western History (Death of John C. Fremont, ‘Pathfinder’ Who Lost His Way)

July 13, 1890—Across the continent from the territory he explored and earned him lifelong celebrity, John C. Fremont died at age 77 of appendicitis, without the glory he craved or even the wealth that compensated for a while.

Five expeditions west of the Missouri River, all recounted in vivid prose, earned Fremont the nickname “The Pathfinder of the West.”  For a nation experiencing phenomenal expansion of its territories and a citizenry seeking opportunity, this young army officer:

* proposed the best routes through California and Oregon; 

*described the attraction of the Great Salt Lake so vividly that it convinced Brigham Young to lead his new, controversial sect, the Mormons, out there; 

*christened the narrow strait between the Pacific and San Francisco Bay "the Golden Gate";

* fired the imaginations of readers of all ages with tales of his adventures with sidekick-scout Kit Carson; and 

*suggested the best preparations for journeying through vast stretches west of the Mississippi.

The adjective often attached to Fremont was “Byronic.” That suggestion of romanticism sprang from the well-known origins of his relationship with his wife, the much-loved child of Thomas Hart Benton, the influential U.S. Senator from Missouri.

The pretty 16-year-old eloped in 1841 with Fremont, then a dashing 28-year-old surveyor with the United States Topographical Corps (later, the Army Corps of Engineers). Eventually, she was so effective in bringing her initially furious father to her husband’s cause that Senator Benton was instrumental in gaining support for a couple of Benton’s early expeditions.

Jessie Benton Fremont was not only absolutely devoted to her husband, but also vivacious and intelligent. She pushed her husband’s cause relentlessly, not only with politicians who crossed his path, but also through reports, magazine articles and books published under his name that she actually ghostwrote. They pioneered modern marital partnerships of celebrity and power, with Jessie taking an unprecedented role in his subsequent political career. A century and a half before Billary, John and Jessie could have been known as Jossie.

But other associations with the word “Byronic”—melancholy, moodiness, restlessness, alienation—explain Fremont’s ultimate disappointment. Seldom has an American grasped for so much and ended up with so little.

It must have been galling for Fremont to realize that two other figures, Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln, had achieved successes that eluded him: military victory at the head of vast armies and/or the Presidency.

Nobody ever talked about the Party of Fremont, even though it was the Pathfinder rather than Lincoln who had been the first Republican candidate for President, in 1856. Too inclined to go his own way, he could never comfortably accept the essential notion of chain of command that enabled Grant to win his string of victories in the Civil War.

What led to Fremont’s solitary, sorry end?

*Illegitimacy. The circumstances surrounding Fremont’s birth out of wedlock in 1813 in Charleston, SC, foreshadowed in certain ways his own early adulthood. His mother, married to a man twice her age, ran off with her French tutor and had a child by him. Likewise, Fremont chafed against the norms of courting in wooing Jessie Benton. But the odor of scandal clinging to his mother’s affair fueled his own ambition.

*Impetuosity. In June 1846, Fremont helped spearhead the “Bear Flag” rebellion that sundered California from Mexico, paving the way for its eventual absorption into the United States. Once again, he was pushing against the bounds of convention, transforming “from a military adventurer, a freebooter, a filibusterer, into a hero,” wrote historian Bernard de Voto in The Year of Decision 1846.
But his refusal to accept General Stephen Kearney’s authority to organize a new territorial government precipitated Fremont’s arrest and conviction on charges of mutiny, disobedience and improper conduct. President James Knox Polk’s commutation of the sentence and a public perception that he had been unfairly targeted increased his popularity, leading to his election as one of the new state’s first two U.S. Senators. But that only confirmed his wayward inclinations.

*Arrogance and extravagance. In the early days of the Civil War, supporters of the Union looked to two potential military saviors: George McClellan in the East and John C. Fremont in the West. Both ran afoul of Abraham Lincoln, resulting in their being relieved of command. As head of the Western Department in Missouri, Fremont caused a firestorm by proclaiming the emancipation of slaves owned by rebels. The general not only had not cleared it with superiors beforehand, but publicly refused to rescind the order until he had dispatched Jessie to make his case for him with Lincoln. Her mission was unsuccessful, and soon Fremont was defending himself for alleged extravagant contracts and expenses. Exoneration on these charges led to a new appointment heading up the Mountain District comprising parts of Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia, but no path to glory, as he was roughed up in Stonewall Jackson's "Valley Campaign" and asked to be relieved when placed under an old rival, Gen. John Pope.

*Risk-taking. When gold was discovered in lands he had purchased in the Sierra foothills, Fremont became a millionaire. But after the Civil War, his penchant for land speculation and dubious investments in railroads led to the loss of his fortune in 1873. He took risks in his personal life, too, sparking rumors of affairs that the ever-devoted Jessie dismissed. A general’s pension arrived weeks before his death in 1890.

I never expected that the much-traveled Fremont would be buried comparatively close to where I live: not in the native South that he scorned for its slaveholding ways, not in the California he brought into being, not in the Missouri of his in-laws and days as a Civil War general, but outside New York City, in the suburban Rockland County hamlet Sparkill. (See James Kaplan's interesting "New York Almanac" post from five years ago.) 

It is the quietest of resting places for an apostle of Manifest Destiny spurred by ambition, propelled by propaganda, and fatally engulfed in controversy.

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