Pathfinder: John Charles Frémont and the Course of American Empire
by Tom Chaffin
Hill and Wang, 559 pp., $35.00
The farther we get from the times of the explorer and presidential candidate John Charles Frémont the less important he seems, and yet a long shelf of tolerant, even protective biographies—seven in my own bookshop—attest to the fact that he once seemed very important indeed. He was, as a result of expeditions to the West, a superstar long before the word came into use; he may have been the first American celebrity to be destroyed by celebrity itself. Much of his behavior was dubious, and some of it clearly disgraceful; his biographers, including Tom Chaffin, are often forced to scold him, and yet most of them continue to forgive him, as mothers forgive their adored but unreformable sons. Establishing exactly why Frémont, whose glory was brief and embarrassments many, became so very famous is a problem his battery of biographers have not entirely explained.
Fame is sometimes—but not always—the result of great deeds. It can flare high even though the deeds that inspire it are only so-so. This Side of Paradise is not a great novel, but it made F. Scott Fitzgerald famous. Frémont led only two successful expeditions: to South Pass (in Wyoming) in 1842 and to Oregon and California in 1843–1845, considerable but not towering achievements, and achievements, moreover, largely of a promotional nature. Far from being a Pathfinder—a tag editors lifted from James Fenimore Cooper and inaccurately pinned on him—Frémont had been preceded in the far West by a whole generation of mountain men. Kit Carson had been to California fifteen years before he guided Frémont there; Jim Bridger had paddled on a boat on the Great Salt Lake eighteen years before Frémont did the same, and Jedediah Smith crossed the Sierra Nevada about seventeen years before Frémont made his famous crossing.
But Frémont, late or not, had one big advantage: he could write and the mountain men couldn’t. The Reports he wrote up of his adventures on the trail proved to be exactly what the American reading public hungered for at that moment. Here is the poet Joaquin Miller’s memory of hearing his father read aloud from the Reports in the evenings at their Ohio farm:
I was never so fascinated…. Every scene and circumstance in the narrative was painted on my mind to last and last forever…. I fancied I could see Frémont’s men, hauling the cannon up the savage battlements of the Rocky Mountains, flags in the air, Frémont at the head, waving his sword, his horse neighing wildly in the mountain wind, with unknown and unnamed empires on every hand…. I began to be inflamed with a love for action, adventure, glory, and great deeds away out yonder under the path of the setting sun.
There is more to be said about that cannon and that flag, both of which played rather a lowering role in Frémont’s subsequent career. Joaquin Miller makes Frémont sound like a hero from G.A. Henty, the …