Of all the individuals who helped open the American
West to U.S. settlement and territorial expansion, none today receives
less acclaim relative to his impact than John Charles Frémont.
Western explorer, Union general and the Republican party’s
first presidential candidate, Frémont was one of the most
famous Americans of his day, but his place in history is overshadowed
by those whose achievements in similar fields eclipsed his own,
such as Lewis & Clark, Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln.
In his new biography, Pathfinder: John Charles Frémont
and the Course of American Empire (Hill and Wang, 2002), Tom Chaffin
plots the course of Frémont’s life and attempts to
provide answers for why a man whose star of fortune, at times appearing
destined to take its permanent place in the constellation of 19th
century American heroes, lost its brilliance but never quite fell.
Over some 500 pages, Chaffin tracks Frémont from his birth
in Savannah in 1813, through the Western expeditions that brought
him fame in the 1840s, to the 1856 presidential candidacy and subsequent
military service in the Civil War, and finally through the failed
political career and botched business dealings that led up to Frémont’s
death in 1890.
Though just published in December, Pathfinder already has gone into
a second printing and has been picked up by the Book of the Month
and the History Book clubs. Publisher’s Weekly called it “a
superb biography [that] creates a deeply nuanced portrait of a man
of many parts,” and the San Francisco Chronicle praised Chaffin
as a “very thorough and uncommonly graceful historian.”
Appropriately, Pathfinder focuses on the facet of Frémont’s
life that will endure: his three federally sponsored Western expeditions,
undertaken between 1842 and 1849, that through their published accounts
captivated a nation and helped ensure America’s “empire”—a
word whose meaning, Chaffin points out, has evolved through history—would
encompass both shores of the continent.
“Frémont’s the one who puts mapmaking of the
West on a scientific foundation,” said Chaffin, lecturer in
journalism and history. “Beyond popularizing the West and
revealing it to be more ecologically variegated than previously
believed—and more amenable to permanent human settlement and
agriculture—he also compelled Americans to reimagine the West;
and, in the process of reimagining the West, to reimagine America
Before Frémont’s travels, much of the West was a mystery
to all save a small population of trappers and the most courageous
of settlers. Lewis & Clark’s journals were not published
until a decade after their 1804–06 expedition, and even then
the book sold slowly. Nearly all the country believed the land between
the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains to be a vast wasteland,
unsuitable for settlement.
Frémont, blazing few trails himself (the “Pathfinder,”
as he came to be called, followed mostly established Indian and
trappers’ routes) but the first to document his travels with
any degree of geographical precision, returned East with tales of
a land of spectacular beauty, imposing mountain peaks—and
Earning a reputation equal to the fictional frontiersman creations
of Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, Frémont became
a dashing, romantic figure for a nation eager to project its dreams
Unfortunately for Frémont, his success in cartography did
not translate to the business, military or political arenas. He
already had been court martialed when the nascent Republican party,
hoping to capitalize upon Frémont’s reputation and
his anti-slavery views, tapped him as its first presidential candidate
in 1856. His defeat by Democrat James Buchanan foreshadowed a long,
steady descent for Frémont that, though punctuated by moments
of political and financial success, ended ignominiously for the
once-celebrated explorer who died hoping his memoirs would erase
lingering stains of political and entrepreneurial corruption.
“Frémont the man has dropped from memory, but his name
persists all over the landscape, in rivers, towns, counties, mountains,
shopping malls, branches of public libraries,” Chaffin said.
“People who live on, say, ‘Frémont Street’
often don’t know who he is. But among those who do, Frémont’s
name still prompts strong reactions, both positive and negative.
He’s still a controversial figure after all these years.
“Above all else,” Chaffin continued, “Frémont
possessed a jeweler’s eye for assaying landscapes and comprehending
how mountains, rivers, deserts, lakes and valleys cohere into a
continental whole. And his vision of the United States as a continental
nation gave American writers and thinkers a new template for writing
and thinking about America. In this regard, Frémont was an
enormous influence on Whitman, Longfellow and other writers of that
age who were self-consciously working to shape a new sort of American
nationalism and American self-image.”