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A Record Filled With Sunlight

April 2024
16min read

John Charles Frémont never succeeded in living up to his fame, yet he was one of America’s great explorers

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.

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.

Nicollet was the first explorer to make careful use of the barometer in calculating interior altitudes in America. A user of the barometer, he said, must know every part of the instrument and be ready to repair it, however inadequate his facilities, if necessary. (Frémont’s ingenious repair of a broken barometer by scraping thin a buffalo horn and bending it in tubular form to replace the glass exemplifies Nicollet’s point.) He must, Nicollet said, be familiar with all the meteorological laws relating to these instruments, so that when variations occur he will know which are periodic, which accidental. He must exercise sleepless care of his treasures.

But compared with some other tasks, barometrical observations were easy. The scientific explorer had to make exact observations on geology, botany, ornithology, and zoology. He had to note the weather, with precise temperatures. He had to collect specimens—the right specimens. He had to make contributions to ethnology by notes on Indian life. If he were worth his literary salt (and few were), he had to record scenes and incidents that would commend his narrative to the general reader. In short, he had to be alert to everything all the time.

On all this Nicollet, supplementing others, gave quickly absorbed lessons to the ardent young Frémont. Never did scientist have a more eager learner. The best mode of ascertaining the true time, Nicollet writes, “is to measure the absolute altitudes of the sun, or of some principal stars, taken both east and west of the meridian of the spot where the observation is made.” Two or three series of observations are requisite, the stars being selected “to fulfill the theoretical conditions required lor good hour-angles.” Of course for two or three series, the sentries must awaken the tired observer, and precise detailed calculations must follow. But to determine time in this way, the azimuth must be known. And so must the latitude, for without it the hour-angle of the spherical triangle could not be ascertained.

Out of the partnership of Nicollet and Frémont grew the map that the former bound with his Report; “one of the greatest contributions ever made to American gcography,” writes Lieutenant G. K. Warren in his history of western exploration before 1855.

It was a marvelous training for a scientific explorer, at once precise and broad: far better than that which West Point at this time gave young officers of the Topographical Corps. Frémont was as well equipped as any predecessor and better than most, and should in some respects have improved upon their work. What comparisons can we draw between his achievements and those of others?

Lewis and Clark are in a sense hors concours, defying rivalry. They had the advantage of being the first comers in most of the great area they traversed. They were men not merely of exceptional gifts but of complementary talents—Clark the administrator, engineer, and practiced woodsman; Lewis the scientist, artist, and writer.

As scientific explorers they set a mark which Frémont might well envy. They made careful observations of temperature and weather, records of the miles traveled, and notes on flora and fauna. Lewis, in particular, wrote descriptions of the natural scenery—for example, the Great Falls of the Missouri—possessing vividness and charm. They drew outline maps, plans, and miscellaneous sketches of high value. They were keenly observant of Indian customs, dress, and economy; Lewis’ description of how an Indian tepee was made, erected, and used is almost a model piece of exposition. They took skins of some animals not before known—a badger, for example and described others so closely that identification became easy. They collected botanical and geological specimens.

Lewis and dark stand at the head of our explorers; But—and it is no derogation of their merits to say so—they suffered from some unescapable limitations. Their scientific instruments—only a sextant, a chronometer, and a spirit level—and their mathematical and astronomical knowledge were alike inadequate for the accurate fixing of positions. Of necessity their measurements of distance were rough. Their smattering of geology being slight, their interest in it was restricted. They passed over areas rich in gold and silver, the region of the Montana gold rush, without noting the gold flecks in the sands and the nuggets on the bars. After all, they were pathbreakers; specialized work had to come later.

Zebulon M. Pike, too, was a pathbreaker, one whose much greater deficiencies were partly beyond his control. His bold southwestern expedition of 1805–7 had in view an apparent object, the rcconnoitering of Spanish borderlands for the benefit of a possible future American expeditionary force, which was not scientific and which he could not avow in the book he later published. But Pike’s narrative (1810), compared with Frémont’s, is scientifically thin and literarily dull. He had no instruments to reckon latitude or longitude, no talent for map-making, no real interest in wild lifeᰬ--little beyond a narrow military outlook. His descriptions of natural scenes are flatter than the Llano Estacado of the Texas Panhandle.


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.

Any comparison of his reports with others brings his comprehensive scientific findings into clear distinction. Take his observations for four days, September 12, 13, 14, and 15, 1843, just after leaving Great Salt Lake. He gives two calculations of longitude and latitude, with a record of the means used in making them. He furnishes the altitude of a peak, the altitude of the pass between it and Bear River and the width and altitude of the Bannock River Valley. He identifies, with both English and Latin names, six varieties of trees found along Clear Creek, and one in the pass. He gives the temperature of some hot springs. He records thermometer readings at various hours, chiefly sunrise and sunset, but once at midnight. At eight points he inserts comments on the quality of the soil. Indeed, these four days include an emphatic statement on the fertility of the river and creek system in the Great Salt Lake area that swayed Brigham Young and the Mormons in their emigration of 1846–47.

It was Frémont who did most to dispel the impression, created by Long and others, that the trans-Missouri plains were barren. He writes repeatedly that the land is generally excellent, that water alone is needed, and that adequate moisture is often available. “The soil of all this country,” he writes July 11, 1843—meaning the wide region between the Mississippi and the Rockies—“is excellent, admirably adapted to agricultural purposes, and would support a large agricultural and pastoral population.” The first scientifically trained man to reach the shores of the Great Salt Lake, he supplied the earliest adequate account of it. He was first to reach Pilot Peak on a short cut across the Nevada Desert upon the general line later defined as the Hastings Cutoff. He did some very real pathfinding in southern Oregon, northern California, and the Sierras. He was the first man, as Alexander von Humboldt noted, to describe the volcanic character of certain Rocky Mountain areas, and to dilate on the volcanicity of the Cascades.

His greatest geographical contribution, however, lay in his identification and description of the Great Basin, the huge region whose special peculiarity had escaped B. L. E. de Bonneville and others. Frémont invented the term still used for the basin, or collection of small basins, between the Wasatch Range on the east and the Sierra on the west—a mountain-rimmed region with no outlet for its streams. Even yet, a better description of its major characteristics than that given by Frémont’s reports would be difficult to find. The image of the Great Basin haunted Frémont from the moment he first seized and broadly sketched it. He had explored much of its high periphery on the Utah, the northern, and the California sides. “It cannot be less than 400 or 500 miles each way,” he writes, “and must lie principally in the Alta California [then including Nevada-Utah]. … Of its interior but little is known. It is called a desert, and from what I have seen of it, sterility may be its principal character; but where there is so much water, there must be some oasis.”

Frémont’s estimate of distances was fairly correct. The Sierra and the Wasatch, their steep faces fronting each other, lie 400 to 500 miles apart. The mountain and plateau country between is much eroded, but since the stream cannot run to the sea, the eroded materials fill the space between the barren peaks to a great depth. An artesian well driller near Huxley, Nevada, has brought up well-preserved redwood from a depth of 1,900 feet. During the glacial period, when rains were heavy, two great bodies of water filled the basin; one, covering much of present-day Nevada, now termed by geologists Lahontan Lake, the other in Utah (with Great Salt Lake its vestige) called Lake Bonneville. Frémont’s reference to an oasis is echoed by modern writers who have called the settled fertile parts of Utah “an oasis at the foot of the Wasatch.” When Humboldt in his final volume adopted the explorer’s term, he remarked: “Our knowledge of this configuration is one of the chief points of Frémont’s great hypsometrical investigations in 1843–44.”

While we cannot call Frémont a great man, we can maintain that as an explorer—the first distinctively scientific explorer produced by the United States—he had qualities of greatness. Alas that his career was warped into inferior channels, while he was yet in his early prime, by the Mexican War. The sun that rose so auspiciously on the well-equipped young man marching purposefully and joyously into the West of 1838 sank into the dust and commotion of California in 1846. The smoke of battle hid complications and frustrations that Frémont, turning back from Oregon on what he deemed an imperative summons, could never have guessed; and before it cleared away the quarrel with General S. W. Kearny had forced him from the Army and deprived him of government support in further exploration. His scientific labors were virtually ended, for the two privately equipped expeditions which he later led failed of significant results.

A new America emerged from the Mexican War, enlarged by one third in extent, and faced by an exigent problem in tying East and Far West together by road, telegraph, and railway. It needed scientific explorers and map-makers; it needed just such dedicated skill and rich experience as Frémont could have supplied. Had fate been kinder, he might have done much to examine the new resources, assist emigrants, and find the best paths of transcontinental commerce. All the glitter and adventure of his later career—the California senatorship, the Mariposa fortune quickly vanished, the presidential nomination of 1856, the majorgeneralship in the Civil War, the railroad presidency--were a poor compensation for what he and the country lost. But the high achievement of the eight years, in which he not only kept the field of western investigation but led it, remained a permanent possession, and his record of these years may be counted one of our proud American stories.


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