- Historic Sites
A Record Filled With Sunlight
John Charles Frémont never succeeded in living up to his fame, yet he was one of America’s great explorers
June 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 4
Rolling plains covered with dry bunch grass stretch for miles on every side. Far on the northern horizon lifts an enormous square-topped butte, giving individuality to that quarter of the landscape. Westward, faint in the distance but brought into hard relief as the sun sets, are penciled the snowy peaks of an isolated mountain chain; and close inspection shows that near their base the country dips into a narrow valley, with cottonwoods indicating a stream whose waters are fed by these distant summits. It is an uninhabited, untraversed country, bare of track or meaning—a page on which the first hieroglyphs of history are still to be inscribed.
In this solitude suddenly appears a party of thirty men, moving slowly on foot and leading a larger number of animals; some horses with saddlebags, more of them pack mules and pack ponies laden with all kinds of gear from tent to frying pans. At their van walks a lithe, well-proportioned man, clad in deerskin shirt, blue army trousers, and thick-soled moccasins, with a cotton handkerchief bound around his head. His remarkable feature is not his curling black beard, aquiline nose, or high forehead, and not even his piercing eyes, but his air of intense energy.
What was the true character, and what the precise training, of John Charles Frémont as he thus appeared on the western stage? He described himself as an officer of topographical engineers. What was the history of this special corps, and what were its functions? He obviously had various duties in relation to such a landscape as we have described. Was he simply to wander through it, take some random notes on hills and watercourses, jot down the state of the weather, and camp and cook buffalo meat whenever he felt tired? If that were so, we might wonder at the fact that his name has been given to so remarkable a list of places—rivers, peaks, counties, towns, streets—in the United States. What relation did he bear to exploring expeditions before him and after him?
The character of John Charles Frémont has been much misapprehended. He has usually been described as of a romantic temperament. But although the romance of his career, with its unending adventure and wild vicissitudes of golden and leaden fortune, can hardly be exaggerated, and although the quality of common-sense, tough-minded judgment sometimes deserted him, he was essentially steady, patient, and industrious.
Particularly as an explorer he was painstaking and persistent. Few men were better inured to drudgery and hardship. He had dash and brilliance, to be sure, but he made his way upward in his profession primarily by close application and sheer toil.
Professional assiduity, unusual self-control, readiness to endure any amount of monotonous hard work, deprivation, and exhaustion—these were traits of Frémont that we should not allow his many adventures, and the picturesqueness of the scenes in which he moved, to obscure. Other qualities, however, some of them virtues and some grave faults, come nearer the core of his personality.
He was a lover of action, a man of intensely kinetic temperament, craving outdoor pursuits as much as did William Clark or Kit Carson: as restless, in fact, as any frontiersman. In boyhood he had snatched pleasure from risks in the waters around Charleston from which most lads would have recoiled. He had ardently turned from professional opportunities—the pulpit, the bar—to the joys of surveying in the forested valleys and mountains of the southern Appalachians.
It is significant that Carson, like that other expert frontiersman Alexis Godey, regarded him with deferential respect. To both he was as efficient a man of action as they could desire—and in addition a scientist. Godey speaks of “his daring energy, his indomitable perseverance, and his goodness of heart." Carson writes that he shared indescribable hardships with Frémont from 1842 to 1847, “and the credit which he deserves I am incapable to do him justice in writing.”
Of all our American explorers, no other had anything like his zest for the work he was doing: a zest compound of delight in wild scenes, excited hope of new discoveries, and the thrill of peril. He makes us share his pride in his instruments; a specially fine thermometer, for example, raises bright anticipations of experiments in determining altitudes.
His feeling for landscape, for trees and flowers, and for wild life sometimes blended in one rapturous whole. Thus he describes one unexplored glade in the Rockies with a rich undergrowth of plants and numerous flowers in brilliant bloom, “a place to delight the heart of botanist”: beavers and mallard ducks in the stream; small brown squirrels leaping about in the branches; and air fragnant with pine. “I realize this delightful morning the pleasure of breathing that mountain air which makes a constant theme of the hunter’s praise, and which now made us feel as if we had been drinking some exhilarating gas.” His record is filled with sunlight. The toil, the discomfort, the danger, never dull his quick, sentient pleasure in the wild, the new, and the beautiful.