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Frémont Steals California
A junior Army officer, acting on secret orders from the president, bluffed a far stronger Mexican force into conceding North America's westernmost province to the United States
Winter 2011 | Volume 60, Issue 4
Buchanan, an enthusiastic proponent of annexing California, enlisted Frémont’s Spanish-speaking wife Jessie to translate diplomatic correspondence and Mexican press accounts. Equally focused on the Golden State, Bancroft urged Frémont to seize California when the opportunity arose, as the Pathfinder recalled it, but did not commit the orders to writing because of the delicacy of the political situation. Frémont knew that if he proved unsuccessful, the administration would unhesitatingly repudiate him. Meanwhile, as secret translator for both Buchanan and Polk, Jessie was aware both of Mexico’s California strategy and of the Far West foreign policy the president was formulating; the situation poised her as a unique go-between the administration and her husband.
Everyone seemed to want war: Mexico, enraged by the annexation of Texas; Great Britain, desirous of claiming a large part of Oregon; the United States, hungry for California. Polk and his cabinet were hoping to extract a favorable settlement from Mexico over the Texas boundary, while also maneuvering to acquire New Mexico and California. Polk had sent a confidential emissary to Mexico City prepared to offer as much as $40 million for the lands in question. But that agent, and a second one as well, would fail.
Working secretly, Polk, Benton, Buchanan, and Bancroft mapped out the course of a Frémont-led expedition that would ostensibly survey a trail west for American immigrants. If he received word that war had begun, Frémont was to continue into California and impede any British designs on San Francisco Bay. “California stood out as the chief subject in the impending war,” Frémont wrote much later, “. . . and with Mr. Benton and other governing men at Washington it became a firm resolve to hold it for the United States.”
The ultimate origin and actual details of Frémont’s orders, the covert nature of his mission, and the chain of command he was expected to follow remain murky and contradictory to this day. The official orders issued that spring made no mention of California and contained no direction of a military nature. A private conversation about the expedition between Benton and Polk would be recorded with frustrating vagueness in both men’s diaries and recollections, spawning conspiracy theories that endured into the next century.
On May 15, 1845, Frémont left Washington for St. Louis, where he found a strong contingent of troops and sailors assigned to his “survey.” Hundreds of volunteers soon came forward, clamoring to serve in the obviously far-destined column under so famous a commander. He chose 62 men—a diverse, tough outfit of frontiersmen, scientists, soldiers, sharpshooters, and hunters. He held a marksmanship contest, rewarding the winners with the finest weapons of the day. Each volunteer received a Hawken rifle, two pistols, a knife, a saddle, a bridle, two blankets, and a horse or mule. In late August the heavily armed party headed west with 200 horses and a dozen beef cattle. Unbeknownst to him, the president had received an alarming dispatch from the U.S. consul at Monterey, California, warning that Mexican troops, financed by Great Britain, were on their way north.
In response Polk secretly dispatched Lt. Archibald H. Gillespie, USMC, overland through Mexico and then by a naval warship to California with orders to Frémont, along with a sealed envelope from Jessie to John, which conveyed instructions from Bancroft in a family code known only to Frémont, Jessie, and her father. “As we had a squadron in the North Pacific, but no army, the measures for carrying out this design fell to the Navy Department,” wrote Bancroft 40 years later. “Frémont having been sent originally on a peaceful mission to the west by way of the Rocky Mountains, it had become necessary to give him warning of the new state of affairs and the designs of the President. . . . Being absolved from any duty as an explorer, Captain Frémont was left to his duty as an officer in the service of the United States, with the further authoritative knowledge that the government intended to take possession of California.”
Disguised as an ailing businessman seeking health in moderate climes, Gillespie memorized and destroyed the official documents. He also carried instructions from Buchanan to the consul urging that the Californians be encouraged to secede peacefully from Mexico and join the United States. The contents of this letter were so sensitive that it remained classified for the next four decades.
Jessie’s letter informed Frémont of the latest intelligence regarding the imminent war and of the president’s decision to overthrow Mexican authority in California. Benton also wrote a letter in the same code: “The time has come. England must not get a foothold. We must be first. Act; discreetly, but positively,” as Frémont later summarized it.
Bancroft ordered the commander of the Pacific squadron to seize Mexico once it had declared war on the United States. At the same time, Gen. Zachary Taylor, in command of the Army of the Southwest, was proceeding toward Mexican territory. In October, after Polk’s emissary to Mexico reported excitedly that Great Britain intended to transport immigrants from famine-ravished Ireland to establish a colony in California, Bancroft sent new orders to the naval commander indicating that he need not wait for an official declaration of war. Camped by the Great Salt Lake, Frémont, wholly ignorant of these latest developments, focused on driving his men as quickly as possible over the Sierra Nevada to avoid its legendary deep snows.