Mountain Man


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 Victorian boy’s book writer who drew his stirring tales from the annals of empire: With Clive in India, With Roberts to Pretoria. Why not With Frémont to Oregon?

Reading Joaquin Miller’s thrilled response I registered faint echoes of my own first reading of On the Road. Instead of Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise we have young Johnny Frémont and Kit Carson, galloping over the prairies and rushing down rivers in Frémont’s famous rubber boat. And yet Whitman, Thoreau, and Longfellow were all moved by Frémont’s narratives, and Brigham Young was so impressed by his description of the basin of the Great Salt Lake that he soon enough took his Mormons there.

Today, it’s hard to see what in Frémont’s Reports excited all these people. There are pleasing passages, such as this one from the first Report, when they are about to climb a mountain in the Wind River range:

Our table service was rather scant; and we held the meat in our hands, and clean rocks made good plates, on which we spread our maccaroni. Among all the strange places on which we had occasion to encamp during our long journey, none have left so vivid an impression on my mind as the camp of this evening. The disorder of the masses which surrounded us; the little hole through which we saw the stars overhead; the dark pines where we slept; and the rocks lit up with the glow of our fires, made a night picture of very wild beauty….

But there’s also plenty of Henty:

My holster pistols were a hair-trigger pair, and old companions which I liked for that and because they were true as a rifle….

Frémont did climb the mountain, though whether he climbed Frémont Peak, Gannet Peak, or Woodrow Wilson Peak is still debated. Being Frémont, once he got up it, he assumed that it must be the highest in all the Rockies, though, according to the writer David Roberts, there are 126 summits in Colorado alone that are higher. Still, it was a mountain, it was high, and he climbed it. The success of the narrative parts of his Reports may owe something to their brevity—less than eighty pages in the case of the first Report. For my money Washington Irving’s three books about the West, beginning with A Tour of the Prairies (1835), are better than Frémont’s—but they aren’t short.

There was also science in Frémont’s Reports: some of it important and most of it solid. By training Frémont was a topographical engineer, and a good one. As Tom Chaffin says, he had a jeweler’s eye for landscape. But it was the adventure writing, not the science, that made Frémont what he became and what he—however hollowly—remained: a hero. His dashing Reports dispelled the gloomy, inhibiting, Great-American-Desert view of the West expressed by the explorers Stephen Long and Zebulon Pike. Frémont’s action-packed narratives got people excited about the West again; it got them into their wagons and off along the Oregon Trail, something that greatly pleased Frémont’s powerful father-in-law, Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri (the great-uncle of the painter and muralist of the same name). Senator Benton was an early student of the Pacific Rim; he thought that nations got rich by trading with Asia and he kept pushing his son-in-law west, hoping that the young man would find the road to India. He didn’t find it but, according to Tom Chaffin, he did name it, being the first to refer to the entrance into San Francisco Bay as the Golden Gate.


I think it’s safe to say that John Charles Frémont enjoyed fame—for a time he seemed to seek or enjoy not much else. The two Reports were published in one volume in 1845 and the book became a best seller. Frémont quickly cobbled together another crew and set off west again. His orders, from Colonel John Abert, head of the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, instructed him merely to investigate rivers flowing east from the Rockies, but Frémont immediately delegated this paltry assignment and made like a streak for California. He got there readily enough, but it’s from this point on that historians and biographers have a harder and harder time keeping their hero heroic. The historian William H. Goetzmann, after praising Frémont in two books, bethinks himself at the last minute and remarks: “He perhaps disintegrates on close historical scrutiny.” Bernard DeVoto, contemplating Frémont as he advances into California, puts it this way:

In January [1846] greatness burgeoned in Frémont’s soul. He had reached his stage [California] and time was on the march. It might be that some great deed could be done. And from then on to the end of his life he was to go, always subtly, astray. Nothing came out quite the way it should have done. Lord Byron, who imagined him, could not make him rhyme.

It’s hard to agree with the “always subtly.” There was nothing subtle about Frémont’s catastrophic Fourth Expedition of 1848, when he lost ten men of thirty-three and would have lost five more but for the heroism of the frontiersman Alexander Godey, who went to the rescue of the starved and frozen stragglers while Frémont was writing his wife about how pleasant it was to be served hot chocolate in bed at Kit Carson’s house, meanwhile complaining that the men who accompanied him on this expedition just didn’t really have the right stuff.

It seems clear enough that when Frémont rushed to California in 1846 he was hoping to acquire even more glory. He seemed to think that if he hung around long enough the state might fall in his lap; if he could only be the one to rescue it from the Mexicans and usher it into the Union, think how famous he would be then! Instead, Frémont wandered rather pointlessly around California—now north, now south, now middle—offending absolutely everyone, including some of his own men.

In the north he ticked off the great trader John Sutter; and then some Mexican authorities; and then the Bear Flag rebels, whom he flirted with but didn’t really help. Dropping south a bit he offended some more Mexican authorities, this time in Monterey, as well as the US naval authorities, who were also in Monterey. Eventually tending further southward he offended yet more Mexican authorities, this time in Los Angeles; and, finally, he infuriated the no-nonsense General Stephen Watts Kearny, who eventually managed to prevail politically and bring California more or less under control. Kearny then dragged Frémont back to Washington and court-martialed him for insubordination, among other charges.

Tom Chaffin does an admirable job of leading us through this sticky bog; but Frémont in California in 1846 doesn’t really need Gibbon. The Marx brothers in their Duck Soup mode would be more like it. When he decided to challenge the Mexican authorities in Monterey he threw up a hasty fort of sorts a few miles away on Gavilán Peak and raised the American flag over it. But the Mexicans were slow to come out and fight and, a few days later, the flag blew down in a windstorm. Frémont seemed to have felt that honor had been satisfied, so he packed up his flag and went north. This wimpy behavior enraged the dandyish but hot-tempered mountain man Joseph Walker, who said that “morally and physically” Frémont was the worst coward he had ever known.

In the north Frémont permitted—but did not personally take part in—a massacre of Indians on the Sacramento River. Kit Carson did take part in it and said: “I do not know how many we killed. It was a perfect butchery.” David Roberts, in A Newer World,* his interesting study of Frémont’s relations with Carson, thinks the Sacramento River massacre, in terms of numbers killed, ranks with three other infamous nineteenth-century massacres of Indians by whites: Aravaipa, Sand Creek, and Wounded Knee. However many were killed that day, the massacre was only the first breath of the genocidal gale that—in the Gold Rush years—blew the California Indians away.

Kit Carson had a strong stomach when it came to killing Indians. He killed many, in his years in the wilderness, and scalped them, too; but what he saw that day on the Sacramento River did not sit easily on his soul.

Other than noting that the Napa Valley would be a good place to grow grapes, Frémont made few good calls during his muddled year in California. He vacillated, blustered, held himself aloof, interfered, changed his mind, and was tolerated, just barely, by everyone from John Sutter to the two commodores he had to deal with, John Drake Sloat and Robert Stockton. Frémont was, after all, the son-in-law of a powerful senator, a man who had President Polk’s ear. It was assumed by many that Frémont was acting under secret orders, an assumption Frémont did nothing to discourage; but when a splenetic Commodore Sloat finally pinned him down, Frémont sheepishly admitted that he was acting on his own responsibility, a revelation which did not improve relations with Commodore Sloat. Nevertheless, the incoming Commodore Robert Stockton managed to more or less get along with Frémont, even making him governor of California when he himself departed.

General Stephen Watts Kearny, with Kit Carson guiding him, arrived in California thinking the state was pretty much won, only to find himself seriously challenged in the Battle of San Pasqual in 1846, the only major battle of the conquest. The ever-useful Kit Carson slipped off and got the general some reinforcements. Kearny survived, and, eventually, prevailed politically; one of his problems, of course, was subduing Frémont, who announced that he preferred to report to the departing Commodore Stockton rather than the arriving Stephen Watts Kearny.

Kearny was a friend of the Benton family, but he was not prepared to brook such behavior from this vainglorious son-in-law. As soon as he got the Pathfinder back to Missouri he put him under arrest and charged him with mutiny, failure to obey an order from a superior officer, and conduct prejudicial to military discipline. The ensuing court-martial lasted nearly three months, long enough to bore everybody except Frémont and his father-in-law. Frémont was found guilty on all three charges. Benton and Kearny were friends no longer. President Polk, recognizing that the situation in California had been rather confusing, was willing to put aside the verdict and allow Frémont to remain in the army, but Frémont, profoundly offended by the verdict, wouldn’t have it.

The mid-century was approaching; railroads were clearly the coming thing. The West would eventually be linked with east, but where exactly? Senator Benton thought the 38th parallel might do nicely; after all he had a home on it. Yet another company was cobbled up and the Pathfinder set out for the West again. If one follows the 38th parallel in an atlas, it’s clear that in southern Colorado it crosses a formidable massif: the Sangre de Cristo, the San Juan, and the La Garita mountains. Frémont proposed to cross this massif in the dead of winter, to demonstrate that the railroad could readily operate in all weathers. This is the point at which judgment deserted Frémont: megalomania took over. He was Frémont! He could go anywhere, anytime! It was shaping up to be a severe winter. Many people tried to talk Frémont out of this folly, but he ignored them.

The very experienced Kit Carson had guided Frémont on all three of his earlier expeditions, and the equally experienced mountain man Thomas Fitzpatrick had pitched in on the second. Neither man was available this time. The only person Frémont could persuade to come with him was the wild mountain man known as Old Bill Williams, half preacher and half killer, of whom Kit Carson said: “In starving times no man who knows him walks in front of Bill Williams.” Frémont knew Williams, who had traveled with him for a while on the Third Expedition. He should have known to be wary of him, and quite possibly he was wary; but he could find no one else.

In late October 1848 the Fourth Expedition set out. What followed was a winter disaster story to rank with Scott in the Antarctic or the Donner party in the Sierra Nevadas. Many scholars have studied this disaster, trying to determine what went wrong and where. Two women, a local historian named Patricia Joy Richmond and the English mountaineer Gwen Moffat, have done their best to trace out Frémont’s route. What seems clear is that the choice of season, rather than route, destroyed the expedition and nearly a third of its men, and that choice was based on nothing except Frémont’s hubris. He seems to have forgotten how close his company came to perishing in the terrible winter crossing of the Sierra on the Second Expedition. What he faced in the last month of 1848 was much worse. Frémont went anyway, and the gods of rock and storm threw him back.

Nothing sours the reader on John Charles Frémont as thoroughly as his dreadful behavior on the Fourth Expedition, when he clearly put his own reputation above the safety of his men. Even when he realized that his party faced “inevitable ruin”—his words—in the paralyzing storms and nearly bottomless snowdrifts he still insisted on trying to save his baggage and equipment rather than getting out as quickly as possible with his men. The mules were eating their ropes and bridles, the men were eating their shoes and even their belts while Frémont remained insistent that the 38th parallel was a fine place to put a railroad. The extent of his megalomania can best be judged by this sentence, in a letter to his wife: “The survey has been uninterrupted up to this point, and I shall carry it on consecutively.”

The survey has been uninterrupted? Only a man for whom reality is whatever he says it is could make such a claim when he had just lost ten men, almost all his livestock, his baggage and equipment, and was himself lucky to be alive. Peter Bart, editor in chief of Variety, reflecting recently on the difficulties being experienced by the talent agent Michael Ovitz, said that he knew Ovitz was in trouble because he had begun to buy his own sell. And so did Frémont: he bought his own sell. Certainly it may be that Bill Williams made mistakes; he may have gone up this canyon when he should have gone up that canyon, but the ultimate responsibility was Frémont’s, and his delay in attempting to seek safety had terrible consequences. He never published a word about the Fourth Expedition, and never bothered to write the second volume of his autobiography, in which he would have had to deal with this and other defeats.

Far from carrying on the survey “consecutively” Frémont dropped down to the southern route and went on to California. He was only thirty-five but his successes were behind him. In the forty-two years that remained to him the habit of blaming whatever went wrong on someone else never left him; and a very great deal went wrong. He was first a multimillionaire and then a bankrupt. In 1856 a young Republican Party ran him for president—such was his fame that he got more than 1.3 million votes; but Buchanan won. When the Civil War began, Lincoln put him in charge of the Department of the West, an appointment that’s hard to understand. Frémont had no military training and had never commanded large numbers of troops in the field. Nor was he a strategist. Within two months he had lost half of Missouri and seriously embarrassed Lincoln by issuing his own Emancipation Proclamation.

Lincoln soon dismissed him but gave him another command in Virginia and Tennessee, where he spent some unhappy months eating Stonewall Jackson’s dust. Fame made him a presidential candidate; fame made him a general; fame brought him innumerable business opportunities, almost all of which eventually failed. He and his wife, Jessie, bought or built great houses and lost them; they bought smaller houses and lost them too. There was a business scandal in France, having to do with the Memphis, El Paso, and Pacific Railroad—Frémont was sentenced to jail in absentia. For years they yo-yoed back and forth between the West Coast and the East, living in shabbier and shabbier quarters. They got by on the General’s pension and Jessie’s journalism. To the end the General, as Jessie had taken to calling him, looked very handsome—very handsome and very sad. When he died in New York, Jessie could not even raise the money to bring his body back to California.


It seems hardly right to leave Frémont without mentioning two people who were in a way his good angels: his wife, Jessie Benton Frémont, and his old mentor, the scrupulous French scientist Joseph Nicolas Nicollet, the man who patiently taught Frémont the topographical science that got him sent on the expeditions in the first place.

Jessie Benton Frémont was very much a Washington girl. She was the daughter of a powerful senator and she never hesitated to lobby on behalf of her John, the man she had eloped with when she was seventeen. As Frémont was starting the Second Expedition his boss, Colonel John Abert, discovered that Frémont had requisi-tioned a howitzer, hardly a standard item on topographical surveys. Indignant at this extravagance he flashed off a letter ordering Frémont back to the office. Jessie hid the letter until the Pathfinder was safely away. The howitzer was eventually abandoned on the east slope of the Sierra Nevada. When she sensed that her husband was in trouble she twice bearded presidents: Polk, in hopes of stopping the court-martial, and Lincoln, to try to keep him from removing Frémont from the Department of the West. Both presidents held their ground, and Lincoln admitted that it was all he could do to keep from quarreling with her.

It is hard not to have some sympathy for Jessie. She married Frémont only to have him disappear for five of the first eight years of their marriage. She lost two children. Then, when the exploring was finally over with, everything went wrong. She spent much of the rest of her life defending the General from people who just couldn’t see that none of the bad stuff could possibly be the General’s fault. Frémont was often unfaithful. Jessie was left nearly penniless when he died. The Congress voted her a small pension and loyal friends in Los Angeles built her a small house where she lived out her days, dying in 1902. Some thought she wrote Frémont’s Reports for him, and he did dictate them to her, remarking, curiously, that if he sat down to write things out he had too much time “to think about words.” In other words, to write—Bernard DeVoto was perhaps correct to claim that Frémont was at bottom a literary man.

Joseph Nicolas Nicollet was working on his exhaustive surveys of the Mississippi Valley when, in 1838, he took young Frémont on as an assistant. Nicollet was working on the Coteau des Prairies, the plains between the headwaters of the Mississippi, the Missouri, and the Red River of the north. Nicollet liked John Frémont, and, to his credit, Frémont always revered Nicollet, the one man capable of keeping him strictly honest. For, in Nicollet’s work, method and accuracy were honesty. Measuring accurately earned you a kind of truth.

Frémont never forgot his instructor, or his instruction. His overlooked but perhaps most valuable work, the Geographical Memoir upon Upper California (1848), very acutely assessed the great potential of the new state. The Geographical Memoir was the real fruit of what Nicollet taught his famous pupil. Frémont was not the first to explore the Great Basin, but he named it and he understood it. He didn’t find the road to India that Senator Benton wanted, but he did eliminate a cartographical ghost, the Buenaventura River, a staple on many maps. Frémont, by tramping down the Sierra and finding no river that cut through them, corrected this old error, though President Polk, presented with this news, was skeptical: Wasn’t this whippersnapper a little young to be rubbing out rivers?

Joseph Nicolas Nicollet died alone in a Washington hotel room while Frémont was on his Second Expedition; and yet this sober scientist achieved a curious immortality. When Mary Tyler Moore, working girl of Minneapolis, so brilliantly throws her cap in the air at the beginning of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, she is standing in Nicollet Mall.

  1. *

    A Newer World: Kit Carson, John C. Frémont, and the Claiming of the American West (Simon and Schuster, 2000).