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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
Gifted as Frémont was with this dynamic, exuberant temper, it was the more creditable to him that in fields of knowledge connected with this calling he was a model of application. He felt from childhood, as he writes, a love of mathematics. He was a close students of botany. He did enough general reading and enough work in Greek and Latin to form a sound literary style —in later years he even wrote verse. Only a well-read man, on reaching San Francisco Bay, would have given the Golden Gate its name, with the Greek equivalent; or would have spoken of a narrow Rocky Mountain pass with hot springs as “this Thermopylae of the West”; or would have written of an old woman of the Snake tribe as “desirous, like Naomi of old, to return to her people.”
It was also creditable to Frémont that with his zest in exploration he united the qualities of a sound disciplinarian. While this fact must be read between the lines of his narrative, it is perfectly plain. His expeditions moved by fixed hours and rules. To be up at day-break, the animals grazing (if possible) while the men snatched a quick breakfast; to march all day; to camp an hour before sunset, giving the animals that much more time to pasture: to put the packs under rubber cloths or other shelter; to stack the rifles, muzzles tied together, a knife laid on the rope to cut it if an alarm occurred; to place a three-man guard, relieved every two hours—these were the primary regulations.
Meticulous carefulness and industry were part of his discipline, for he himself bore the heaviest responsibilities. As chief scientific observer he was often awake at midnight making astronomical calculations, his feet freezing in slush and snow, his face cut by a parching wind, and awake again while the morning stars still shone brilliantly. He had to write the journal no matter how cold, tired, or hungry he might be. He was the chief medical officer. He was responsible for every piece of government equipment, every animal, every human life.
His attitude toward Indians was exceptionally considerate. He showed always a peaceable mien, and on one occasion forbade any reprisal even upon irresponsible young braves who had talked of killing white emigrants. Kit Carson was always quick enough to kill, and we repeatedly read of white trappers who slew Indians as a form of sport. Frémont, however, was struck with pity by the wretched lot of some tribes.
Another trait of character which partly accounts for the gusto he brought to exploration was intellectual curiosity. His wide range of interests gives his reports no small part of their value. Sometimes he deals with amusing trivia, like the shades of meaning attached to the words “butte,” “knob,” and “cerro.” Sometimes his disquisitions have a political interest, as in the paragraph for May 23, 1844, on the importance of keeping the Columbia River under the American flag.
Finally, and in some wavs most importantly, Frémont developed an imaginative hugeness of outlook which lifted him quite above the level of a plodding though efficient army officer like Zebulon M. Pike. Possessing an eye for grand geographical features, he never let the trees obscure the forest. Without this trait, he would not have been the first to name and describe the Great Basin. It was developed rather than bred in him, however, and to understand it we must turn to a fuller view of his training.
From the strictly-managed College of Charleston, which he left in 1831 without quite completing his work, but where he was well grounded in mathematics and the classics, he went on a naval cruise to South America, teaching midshipmen. Then he helped survey a railroad route in the Carolina and Tennessee mountains; immediately thereafter he accompanied his superior in the United States Topographical Corps (to which the influential Joel R. Poinsett got him appointed) in a military reconnaissance of the Cherokee country in Georgia.This was good practice. He learned much of surveying, mapping, and woodcraft. But his tuition really began when in 1838 he was made assistant to a distinguished scientist. J. X. Nicollet, who had been chosen by the War Department to execute a scientific examination of the wide plateau between the upper Mississippi and the upper Missouri.
This brought Frémont under the influence of the vital French tradition in topographical studies. Europe had no man who knew more than Nicollet about making mathematics, astronomy, and meteorology useful to mariner, explorer, and civil engineer. When Nicollet suddenly determined to emigrate to the United States in 1832, he was received by scientific circles as well as French families as a man of high distinction. In 1836 the officers at Fort Snelling were delighted to assist him in traveling to the upper Mississippi and in studying the Chippewa; and the next year Poinsett, now se
cretary of war, invited him to Washington. Frémont was fortunate to be his chief assistant.