John C. Frémont: The Pathfinder

Major John C. Frémont (1813-90), popularly admired for his mapmaking expeditions to the West, was court-martialed on grounds of mutiny and disobeying orders on January 31, 1848. General Stephen Kearny brought charges against Frémont when a dispute arose over who held governing authority in California—a region that had been recently ceded to the United States by Mexico in accordance with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

General John C. Frémont, Illustration. In Eldorado; or, California As Seen By a Pioneer, 1850-1900, by D.A. Shaw. Los Angeles, Cal.: B.R. Baumgardt & Co., 1900. Chapter IV, p48. California As I Saw It: First-Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849 to 1900. General Collections

In recognition of his role in the occupation of California, Commodore Robert F. Stockton appointed Frémont military governor of California in 1847. Meanwhile, federal authorities sent General Kearny to California to establish a government. Tension developed between Kearny and Stockton, with Frémont siding with Stockton. In August 1847, Kearny ordered Frémont arrested and charged with insubordination. Frémont was found guilty by a court martial and subjected to penalties, including removal from the army. Although this decision was reversed by President James K. Polk, Frémont chose to resign his commission.

In spite of this episode, Frémont retained his popularity and esteem with the American public. He and his wife Jesse Benton Frémont, daughter of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, remained in California at their Mariposa County estate. During the Gold Rush, Frémont became a multimillionaire. His well-publicized explorations of the West and his exploits in California’s rebellion against Mexico contributed to his election as one of California’s first senators in 1850.

In 1855, the Frémonts settled in New York. Frémont had established a reputation as an outspoken abolitionist. On June 17, 1856, the Republican Party nominated Frémont as their first presidential candidate. Frémont campaigned as the “Pathfinder” who would lead the country out of the shame of slavery.

Col. John C. Frémont, Republican Candidate for the President of the United States. New York: Baker & Godwin, c1856. Cartoon Prints, American. Prints & Photographs Division
Jno[sic] C. Frémont and Wm L. Dayton. The Champions of Freedom!… Marcus A. Root, photographer; C.E. Lewis(Firm), lithographer. [Buffalo: C.E. Lewis], c1856. Cartoon Prints, American. Prints & Photographs Division
Col. Frémont Planting the American Standard on the Rocky Mountains. [New York: Baker & Godwin], c1856. Cartoon Prints, American. Prints & Photographs Division

Lyrics such as these typified the presidential campaign songs of the first Republican Party ticket:

Journeyer in the distant mountains,
O‘er the land has spread thy fame;
Hope is opening FREEDOM’S fountains,
Neath the influence of thy name.

Come and rescue Fair Columbia

From her shame.
Raise on high fair Freedom’s banner.
Ensign of the brave and true,
Midst the din of party clamour
Onward “LEAD” the battle through,
Never weary,
Till we’ve routed slavery’s crew.

“Freedom’s Songs! For the Campaign of 1856! John C. Frémont. An Acrostic”. Boston: Higgins & Bradley, c1856. America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets. Rare Book & Special Collections Division

Although Frémont lost to Democrat James Buchanan, he continued his efforts on behalf of emancipation. When the Civil War broke out, he was again commissioned as Major-General of the Union Army, stationed in St. Louis, Missouri. When secessionist rebellion flared, Frémont proclaimed martial law, assumed governance of the state, and announced the emancipation of all slaves of those Missourians who had taken arms against the United States.

President Lincoln approved of Frémont’s other measures against the rebellion, but he considered emancipation premature and asked Frémont to withdraw his proclamation. When Frémont refused, Lincoln issued a Public Order annulling the act.

Carte d’visite: Fremont, John Charles. Carte d’visite, with Frémont’s signature on verso. Civil War Photograph Album, ca. 1861-65.(James Wadsworth Family Papers) Manuscript Division

After accusations of misadministration in Missouri, Frémont came under severe attack and was again relieved of his command. His supporters maintained the attack was unjust, the result of political intrigue.

In 1864, he was again considered for the Republican presidential nomination. Popular but controversial, Frémont decided that his bid for the office would cause division within the party. He retired from public life and returned to the West.

From 1878 to 1883, Frémont held public office again as appointed governor of the territory of Arizona. Just months before his death on July 13, 1890, Congress granted him a pension, acknowledging the importance of Frémont’s early explorations of the West.

Sunset (California Scenery). Albert Bierstadt, artist; Chromolithograph published by L. Prang & Co., 1864. Popular Graphic Arts. Prints & Photographs Division
[Cathedral Rock Yosemite Valley, Calif.] Carleton E. Watkins, photographer, ca. [1865]. The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850 to 1920. Prints & Photographs Division

Learn More

  • Search the collection America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets on Fremont to find other songs used in Frémont’s presidential campaign, such as the “Freedom’s Songs! For the Campaign of 1856!” quoted above. The collection also includes an insulting and derisive song, “John C. Fremont, My Jo”, aimed at General John C. Frémont and reportedly sung by General McLellan’s Union soldiers to the tune of a popular air of the time, “John Anderson, My Jo.” The offensively racist and inflammatory lyrics of the song indicate that the intensity of the attack on Frémont was at least partially motivated by opposition to his strong anti-slavery views.
  • Nineteenth century-emancipated African Americans held Frémont in high regard for his anti-slavery efforts, as evidenced by primary sources of the time such as the song “Old Abe Has Gone and Did It, Boys”, (lyrics by S. Fillmore Bennett, music by J. P. Webster), found in the collection The Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana.
  • A daguerreotype of a Native American camp thought to be taken on Frémont’s 1853 expedition may be viewed in the collection, Daguerreotypes. The identification of the daguerreotype by Solomon Carvalho is based on the fact that it was acquired by the Library with other daguerreotypes from the Brady studio, and that Brady was hired by Frémont to copy Carvalho’s daguerreotypes. The image has been alternately identified as a daguerreotype taken by Carvalho of a Plains Indian village in Kansas Territory.
  • After Frémont went bankrupt in 1873, his wife wrote several books in an effort to recover family prosperity. Two of Jessie Benton Frémont’s books about the family’s travels are available online in the collection California As I Saw It: First-Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849 to 1900. In A Year of American Travel (1878), she discusses her journey to California and life there during the late 1840s and 1850s. A later work, Far-West Sketches (1890) was inspired by Mrs. Frémont’s 1887 railroad trip to California, a journey that prompted her to reminiscence about her earlier stay in the state in the 1850s.
  • View photographs and drawings of the Frémont’s California residences. Search on Fremont in Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey.
  • Read additional accounts of Frémont’s role in California history. Search California As I Saw It: First-Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849 to 1900 on John Frémont.
  • Search across the collections on Frémont to locate a few of the many places named for the American explorer. View images of the places Frémont explored. Search the pictorial collections on place names such as Mississippi River, Missouri River, Rocky Mountains, Columbia River, Sierra Nevada, California, or Wyoming.
  • Search on the term John Fremont in A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates 1774-1875 to read a number of passages concerning him. Read, for example, an April 7, 1848, message sent by President James Polk to the U.S. Senate concerning Frémont’s court martial.
  • Today in History features focusing on California history include: the first European sighting of California in 1542; the conclusion of the Mexican American War in 1848; and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Search Today in History on California for these stories and many more related to the Golden State.