Frémont Steals California

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In June 1842, Army topographer Lt. John Charles Frémont and 22 men left Chouteau’s Trading Post near present-day Kansas City to survey a wagon trail that would lead through the northern Rockies to Oregon. By August a small splinter group led by Frémont and his most famous scout, Kit Carson, snaked their way through the Wind River Mountains, determined to plant a flag on what was believed to be the continent’s highest peak.

After altitude-induced headaches and vomiting frustrated their first summit attempt, Frémont and the five he had selected for the final climb again launched the perilous trek through rocky gorges and defiles to a meadow above three glacier lakes, where they turned their mules loose to graze and began the last slow trudge toward the snow-capped summit, which would be named Fremont Peak.

He replaced his thick parfleche moccasins with a light pair “as now the use of our toes became necessary to a further advance.” An overhanging buttress blocked their way, forcing them to ascend a granite precipice. He leaped onto the narrow crest, nearly plunging 500 feet off the other side. As he caught his breath in that absolute stillness, a bumblebee appeared—or so the legend goes. “It was a strange place, the icy rock and the highest peak of the Rocky Mountains, for a lover of warm sunshine and flowers,” wrote Frémont. “We pleased ourselves with the idea that he was the first of his species to cross the mountain barrier—a solitary pioneer to foretell the advance of civilization.” They mounted their barometer on the summit and measured the altitude at 13,500 feet (which would turn out not to be the highest peak in the Rockies).

Fremont plants a flag in the Rocky Mountains, later named Fremont Peak.They fired their guns, broke open a bottle of brandy, and, thrusting a ramrod in a fissure, Frémont unfurled an unusual flag he had commissioned in New York City “to wave in the breeze where never flag waved before.” Emblazoned with 26 stars representing the number of American states and an eagle whose talons held an Indian peace pipe along with arrows, the banner claimed the farthest reaches of the continent for the United States.

“The Pathfinder,” as the press would soon dub him, would parlay the achievement into national celebrity. He presented his new wife, Jessie, with the unfortunate bee pressed into a book and the curious new flag that he had made himself, both symbols and manifestation of American expansion. Collaborating with his dynamic young wife, he turned his 215-page report to the War Department into an international best seller blending scientific details with salty frontier anecdotes. The characters—Kit Carson, Indians, mountain men, fur traders—came alive, crowding with human drama the landscape that Frémont had mapped and charted, turning the unshaven, rough-hewn explorers into heroes on a visionary quest. For the first time in American history, an explorer’s report offered a gripping narrative and the literary polish of the world’s classic adventure stories, with the leader’s exploits elevated to a par with such world-class figures as Captain Cook and Coronado.

While this first expedition fueled Frémont’s meteoric rise, it also signaled the beginning of a decades-long pattern in his life that was marked by moments of glory but punctuated by sustained defeats. This colorful and sometimes impulsive explorer is best known today as the first presidential candidate of the Republican Party and the first Union general to issue an emancipation proclamation during the Civil War. But ironically, his most significant nation-shaping role would be relegated to a mere footnote: his conquest of California—the plum of manifest destiny—would yield neither fame nor fortune. Instead it would earn him ignominious charges of mutiny and insubordination.

 

On March 1, 1845, upon returning from another exploratory trip to California, Frémont reported to the War Department that the continent could be traversed and then settled from sea to sea. His timing was auspicious. That day Congress voted to annex Texas, and rumors filled Washington of the likelihood of war with Mexico.

The future of Texas (even larger than it is today) and Oregon (then embracing the entire U.S. Pacific Northwest and a substantial part of Canada, all conjointly owned with Great Britain) had been at the forefront of political discussion for several years, straining relations with Mexico and the United Kingdom. A significant British naval force was patrolling the Pacific Coast, poised for what many thought would be an invasion of California, then under Mexico’s weak and over-stretched authority. The expansionists feared that the British would either seize California or join with Mexico in a war against the United States.

James Knox Polk, who took office as president three days after the Texas resolution, had won the election partly on the national fears of such a British invasion, and he made national expansion the cornerstone of his foreign policy. A storm of aggressive threats was loosed, setting the stage for Polk to take action, with Frémont a crucial player in his game. Within weeks of his inauguration, Polk summoned one of his closest advisers, the powerful Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, and Frémont, Benton’s protégé and son-in-law, to discuss the “Western problem”: they found Polk set on winning California. Frémont subsequently met several times with two of Polk’s cabinet—Secretary of State James Buchanan and Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft—who would ultimately dispatch him to California.