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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
More could be said for the expedition of Lewis Cass (then territorial governor of Michigan) in 1820 along the shores of Lake Superior and to the headwaters of the Mississippi, for object partly political (he wished to treat with Indian tribes) and partly geographical. He suggested to the War Department that it give him an officer of engineers to make a correct chart, and “some person acquainted with zoology, botany, and mineralogy,” the result being that Henry R. Schoolcraft and David B. Douglas accompanied him to care for these interests. Douglas made a handsome collection of plants for Dr. John Torrey to classify and describe; Schoolcraft penned an enthusiatic report on the resources of the country, calling special attention to the evidence of large iron and copper deposits. Though limited in extent, this was a highly succesful piece of exploration which failed, however, to discover the true source of the Mississippi.
Meanwhile the Corps of Topographical Engineers had come into existence. It worked at first in conjunction with the older Corps of Engineers (established in 1802) in special charge of the fortifications of the country. In 1831 the Topographical Bureau was made a distinct unit, to report directly to the secretary of war and receive orders from him. Complaint soon arose that its functions and authority were vague. A new law of 1838 therefore gave the Topographical Corps clearer rank and form, and the War Department at once issued explicit regulations dividing civil; engineering from military engineering. By 1843 the Corps of Engineers boasted of one colonel, one lieutenant colonel, four majors, 32 lesser officers.
One Dartmouth-educated officer of this corps. Stephen H. Long, seemed for a time about to established a reputation like that later made by Frémont. He had helped chart some upper Mississippi Valley waters. Then, in 1819, the War Department assigned him to lead an expedition to the Rockies. He ascended the Platte and the South Platte the next year, discovered the peak that bears his name, and did valuable work in the upper valley of the Arkansas River. With him, as botanist, geologist, and surgeon, went Edwin James, a graduate of Middlebury College and a former student of John Torrey’s. It was James who, with two companions, was the first white man to ascend Pikes Peak; and using notes furnished by Long, who made no report, James furnished a vigorous two-volume Account of the journey with an atlas. Though this contained some useful data on fauna and Indians, it failed to hit the mark at which it was aimed.
It did so for a reason which was probably not lost on Frémont, who undoubtedly read the volume with care. Long and James gave an unfavorable description of the trans-Missouri country, which chilled readers and furnished ammunition to Daniel Webster and other foes of rapid western growth. The expansive American people demanded optimism, not pessimism. Long turned to railroad construction, which he made his real career. When Frémont first joined Nicollet in 1838, Long was chief engineer of the Atlantic & Great Western.
These were the principal scientific explorations of the West under government auspices—Lewis and Clark’s, Pike’s, Lewis Cass’s, Long’s, Nicollet’s—thrown upon the record when Frémont, like a trained and eager athlete, strode forward to begin his independent work. Eager to surpass them all, he had some reason to believe he could do it. He was but 28 in the year of his trial flight, the Des Moines survey, and but 29 in that of his first expedition, 1842. He was brilliant of mind, ardent of heart, fearless of temper. With the westward migration mounting like a torrent, and national expansion into California and Oregon a general hope, he could be sure of keen public interest in whatever he accomplished. His father-in-law Thomas Hart Benton and other men of power were ready to support him.
Other government explorers were still to come forward: W. H. Emory with his military reconnaissance of 1846–47; Howard Stansbury with his exploration of the Great Salt Lake region in 1849–50; R. B. Marcy with his work on the Red River in 1852; the men, including J. W. Gunnison and John Pope, who conducted the Pacific Railroad surveys of 1853–55. They were not destined to equal their predecessors. Of all those who came after Lewis and Clark, Frémont made much the greatest mark. How and why is it the greatest?
Taking account merely of his first three expeditions, he covered much more ground than any other man. He dealt with a wider range of scientific subjects and treated them, in general, more expertly. He united practical with scientific objects, striving to give useful information to emigrants, traders, and travelers. He imparted to his reports a higher literary quality (to which his wife Jessie contributed) than any other man we have mentioned. No other explorer after Lewis and Clark was half, nay, one-tenth as widely read or eagerly quoted; none exerted half as much influence on the westward exodus. In short, Frémont’s exploratory work combined numerous types of excellence.