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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 847

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This is the grave of John C. Fremont.

Born in 1813 in Savannah, Fremont grew up in scandal. His father was a teacher from Canada, hired by a Georgia planter to teach his kids. Fremont’s mother was a rich woman from Virginia who had married into the Georgia slaver elite. They had an affair and she got pregnant. She was committed to her new lover though and they fled to Virginia. Her husband filed for divorce after Fremont was born out of wedlock. The Virginia state legislature would not grant the divorce petition (it was common at this time for divorce decisions to be made by the state legislature; not sure when this stopped but I’ve seen it in the 1850s so it went on for quite awhile anyway). So they lived together without marrying. Although scandalized, his mother still had slaves, though his father had to teach to make a living. When young John was 5, his father died. There were younger siblings by this time. So the family moved to Charleston and lived on his mother’s inherited wealth, which wasn’t really that much.

The young Fremont was a smart kid, though undisciplined and wild. Despite the scandal surrounding his birth, which was well-known, he had a lot of patrons in the Charleston community who saw his talent. One paid for him to attended Charleston College. Another was the powerful Jacksonian Joel Poinsett, who got Fremont into the Navy as a mathematics teacher on the USS Natchez as it sailed around South America. Fremont didn’t stay in the Navy long though, resigning to become a second lieutenant in the United States Topographical Corps. This allowed a young, stircrazy kid to explore the interior of the United States and figuring out just what the heck was in the lands that the U.S. had acquired as part of its westward expansion. He surveyed for railroads and helped prepare for Cherokee Removal through his work. Then Van Buren named Poinsett Secretary of War. With patronage the order of the day in the newly formed Democratic Party, he assigned Fremont to assist Joseph Nicollet’s expedition to explore the lands between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. He was good at all of this–in fact, as it would turn out, being an explorer was just about the only thing he was good at, for all his ambition.

In his explorations, he came under the mentorship of another powerful Democrat–Missouri’s senator Thomas Hart Benton. The senator soon came to regret this, as the dashing young explorer and Benton’s daughter Jessie fell in love. Benton had every intention of Jessie marrying an elite, not the bastard son of a disgraced mother. But they eloped in 1841. He was 28 and she was 17. As it turned out, Jessie was by far the most intelligent of the two and quite ambitious on her own. She is buried here too, but is more than worth her own post in this series, which will come soon.

Anyway, Benton dealt with his anger and accepted Fremont over time. He also needed Fremont to push his ambitious westward expansion agenda, so he renewed his patronage of his now son-in-law. Benton wanted big government money to explore the West and make Manifest Destiny a thing. And he made sure that it would be Fremont who led these expeditions. By this time, Nicollet’s health was bad and Fremont was experienced, so it wasn’t an unreasonable request. In 1842, Fremont led the expedition in what is today Wyoming to find South Pass, which would become the path of the Oregon Trail across the Rockies. He met Kit Carson on this trip, who helped them out, and they explored the Wind River Range of Wyoming as well. The next year, he and Carson headed out again, exploring Colorado and the Great Basin, hoping to find a better way to the Pacific. It didn’t exist. Much of this was still Mexican land. They went down the eastern slope of the Cascades from the Columbia River and then through what is today Nevada on the eastern slope of the Sierras. Carson found them a way across the Sierras and the party reached California in 1844. Fremont’s report was useful in that it demonstrated to Benton and other expansionists that Mexican rule over California was very weak and it was there for the taking of ambitious and land-hungry Americans. In 1845, Fremont went out again to the Great Basin after exploring the source of the Arkansas River in the Colorado Rockies. He again traveled to California, where he worked to get California settlers from the United States to start whipping up sentiment to leave Mexico for the U.S., claiming the military would help them.

Oh yeah, Fremont also loved killing Indians. In fact, on that trip, he and his men engaged in one of the very worst massacres of Native people in American history–the Sacramento River Massacre. Little known by the public today, this was really, really, really bad. There were rumors of potential Indian attacks on whites, which were almost certainly not true. But when you are inclined to genocide, you are looking for any excuse to kill. When Fremont’s troops stumbled upon the Wintu, camping on the Sacramento River, they decided to kill each and every one of the Indians–man, woman, and child. This wasn’t just a massacre. It was a murderous slaughter of pure, unadulterated genocide. The number of dead varied in estimates from about 150 to upwards of 900. This should be a central part of American history education and yet I would guess that even very few of the educated readers of this website have even heard of it. Even Kit Carson was disgusted. Fremont of course was not punished in any way. Naturally, word got out about what these people were up to. So, when they moved north, a few Klamath killed a couple of Fremont’s men after they had shot some Klamath. By this point, they were shooting Indians like deer, just whoever they saw. That led them to engage in another massacre, the Klamath Lake Massacre. They snuck up on a village at night and opened fire, killing at least 14 Klamath. They then headed back down to California, killing more people. This then led to the Sutter Buttes Massacre. Here, Fremont wanted to take Sutter’s Fort and raise the American flag. But before that, they got distracted by the chance to kill some more people, probably the Patwin, which were part of the larger Wintu people.

So yeah, fuck John C. Fremont.

The irony of this of course is that Fremont became a staunch abolitionist. But even before we get to this, there’s Fremont’s actions in the Mexican War. He and his men gladly joined the cause they helped precipitate. Stephen Kearney initially found Fremont useful. But Fremont also refused to give up power, hoping to be named military governor of California by his friends in Washington. The orders were to give up his troops to Kearney. When Kearney sent a guy to order Fremont to do so, Fremont challenged him to a duel. Kearney was furious. He diffused the deal, but refused Fremont’s request to be sent to fight in Mexico. Instead, they went back east and when they got to Fort Leavenworth, Kearney had Fremont arrested and courtmartialed for insubordination, mutiny, and other charges. He was convicted of several offenses, but not mutiny, and relieved of duty. That is until James Polk pardoned him and reinstated him, thinking his value in killing and inspiring anti-Mexican violence was more important. Plus Benton was pissed about all of this and wanted Fremont exonerated. However, the pardon was only partial and Fremont resigned in disgust, moving to California. A disastrous exploration for railroad routes followed where his party was almost killed in a series of snowstorms in southern Colorado.

Fremont also acquired a bunch of land in California, as well as mining claims. He spent more time fighting squatters than anything else and there were all sorts of legal disputes. But he also lived the life of the grandee, funding his Monterey ranch with other property holdings in San Francisco. Fremont very briefly was sent to the Senate as one of the first senators from California. In fact, he only served 21 working days in Washington, but while there, sought to ensure his own land holdings through a bill that would have recognized the Spanish land grants (which was the origin of his ranch). Despite having grown up in the South, he had almost moved against slavery and supported the end of the slave trade in California, though not the Indian slave trade of course, which would continue well after the Civil War. When pro-slavery Democrats took control of the statehouse, Fremont was not given a full term as senator.

There were more expeditions in the 1850s. By 1856, Fremont was living in New York. He then became the first presidential candidate for the new Republican Party. This was mostly managed by Jessie, who again, was far smarter and more savvy than he was, a real Washington insider who understood politics. No one really believed Fremont was a great political leader, but for the Republicans he was a well-known hero. As for the Indian killing, almost no one, Republican or Democrat, free state or slave state, cared. You know who else was anti-slavery and pro-genocide? William Tecumseh Sherman. Phil Sheridan. John Chivington. Of course, Fremont did not win in 1856.

By 1860, Fremont was in Europe trying to raise funds to develop his California landholdings. When the Civil War broke out, he rushed back home. Lincoln wanted to name Fremont ambassador to France, but William Seward strongly objected due to his strong anti-slavery radicalism. So instead, Lincoln appointed him major general in the Army and sent him to Missouri. The Pathfinder may have been a hero, but he was hot-tempered and had no interest in authority, except for his own. He soon got caught up in all sorts of conflicts in Missouri, which to be fair had lots of secessionists. So he just placed Missouri under martial law without even informing Lincoln and that the slaves of all rebels were to be immediately emancipated. Lincoln flipped out. This edict threatened his entire border state strategy at a very sensitive time. Fremont was no Benjamin Butler, who was far less committed to the anti-slavery cause but also far smarter and who came up with the contraband argument. This was pure abolitionism before the nation was ready for it. So despite Lincoln’s personal respect for Fremont, he fired him. In March 1862, Fremont returned to the Army but in a more minor role, under more important and competent generals. Among his tasks was protecting the Shenandoah Valley and thus Washington. At the Battle of Port Republic, Fremont was slow in attack and allowed Stonewall Jackson’s troops to escape. He then resigned after being told to be subordinate to John Pope, who he considered inferior. He thought he was important enough that Lincoln would come begging. He was not. No further commission was forthcoming.

Fremont moved to New York and bought a big house in Sleepy Hollow. He tried to buy the Pacific Railroad from the state of Missouri in 1866 but defaulted on it in 1867 when he couldn’t make the payments. The Panic of 1873 wrung Fremont dry and they had to sell most of their properties. President Hayes named him Territorial Governor of Arizona in 1878. He was happy to have the position, so long as he didn’t have to do anything. Finally, being forced to choose between going to Arizona and govern or stay in New York, he chose the latter and resigned. By this time, he was basically living on Jessie’s publishing payments. At the very end of his life, completely destitute and living on Staten Island, he was readmitted to the Army so he could get a pension. But he died three months later, in 1890, at the age of 77.

In conclusion, the one thing Fremont was good at was based entirely on mass slaughter. Being an abolitionist most definitely does not make up for this.

John C. Fremont is buried in Rockland Cemetery, Sparkill, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other western explorers and hear other stories about their true badness, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Kit Carson is in Taos, New Mexico and Jim Bridger is in Independence, Missouri. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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