John Charles Fremont (1813 – 1890) was an army officer, politician and surveyor whose pioneering land surveys helped to map the American West and earned him the nickname, The Pathfinder. With his colourful reports of expeditions into the unknown, Fremont helped people to see the West as a land of opportunity rather than danger.
Fremont’s Early Land Surveys
In 1838, Fremont was appointed second lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers and led a series of surveying expeditions into the western territories. He accompanied French explorer Nicholas Nicollet on a mission to map a wild region between the upper Missouri and Mississippi rivers. During the survey, Fremont quickly developed his knowledge of topographical engineering and surveying, and met the powerful senator Thomas Hart Benton, whose daughter he fell in love with and married.
In 1842, Fremont explored the Kansas and Platte Rivers, charted the South Pass in Wyoming and scaled Fremont Peak, in the Wind River Mountains. The five-month journey was made by 25 men and was a great success. Fremont produced a detailed report, including impressive maps and stories of adventure. He became known as The Pathfinder, and the public embraced his vision of the west as an area to be settled rather than feared.
After reading Fremont’s report, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said: “Fremont became an instant celebrity, a champion of expansion, a conqueror wielding not a sword but a compass and a transit. Fremont has touched my imagination. What a wild life, and what a fresh kind of existence! But ah, the discomforts!”
The Rockies, Great Basin & Utah Lake
A year later, Fremont carried out a detailed survey of the Medicine Bow Mountains, in southern Wyoming, where he failed in his search for an alternate east-to-west route through the Rockies. He went on to explore the Great Salt Lake and the Eastern Cascades, to Pyramid Lake, Nevada. Well into 1844, he travelled through Utah, the Great Basin, the mountain ranges of Wasatch and Uinta, and the Utah Lake. Thousands of copies of Fremont’s report on these expeditions were published, helping to develop his reputation as a heroic adventurer.
In 1845, he crossed the Great Basin to Walker Lake and the Sierra Nevada, into northern California. Following his survey of Klamath Lake, he returned to California for the Mexican-American War and commanded the American settlers’ Bear Flag revolt. His forcers won, and California was surrendered. Fremont declared himself military governor of California, but was convicted of mutiny and insubordination.
Wealth, Politics & Railroad Surveying
When the war ended and President Polk commuted his sentence, Fremont set off on another expedition to establish a new route through Sangre de Cristo and the San Juan Mountains of northern New Mexico to the upper Rio Grande.
Fremont bought land in the Sierra foothills and made a considerable amount of money from mining. He bought real estate in San Francisco and was elected as senator for California. He set off on another surveying expedition in 1853, travelling to the Wasatch Mountains and the Sierra Nevada Mountains in search of the perfect site for a proposed railroad through northern Utah.
Fremont was the presidential candidate of the newly formed Republican Party during the election of 1856, but was defeated by Democrat James Buchanan. In 1864, he ran again, but withdrew, in favour of President Abraham Lincoln. He was involved in the promotion of the railroads of Kansas and Pacific, and Memphis and Little Rock, but both went bankrupt, leaving him broke. He spent the rest of his life trying to recoup his fortune, and died penniless in New York, in 1890, shortly after securing a $6,000-a-year major general’s pension.