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American Explorers - Military:

John Charles Fremont


John Charles Frémont was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1813. Though poor, through the efforts of a family friend, John Charles was prepared for and entered Charleston College at the age of 16. In one year he had advanced to the Junior Class, and though he showed great promise in languages, science, and mathematics, a few weeks before graduating he was expelled for non-attendance.

He early worked as a schoolteacher, teacher of mathematics, and surveyor. Attracting the attention of Joel Poinsett (former Senator, Ambassador to Mexico, and later Secretary of War) Frémont was commissioned as Professor of Mathematics in the Navy. The appointment convinced Charleston College to then confer upon him the degrees of Bachelor and Master of Arts. He was assigned to the Frigate Independence, where he taught mathematics to midshipmen--there not yet being a Naval Academy at that time.

In 1837, at the age of 24, he was appointed a civil engineer in the Army Topographical Corps of Engineers by President Jackson. A number of government and railroad surveys followed. In 1838 was commissioned as Second Lieutenant of Topographical Engineers.

In 1838 and 1839 he was assigned to a survey of the area between the upper Missouri and Mississippi Rivers under Joseph Nicolas Nicholet, an eminent French astronomer and mathematician. He had also become attracted to the 15 year old daughter of the powerful Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton. The attraction was mutual, but Jessie Benton's age, and Frémont's birth and Army career, made him unsuitable as a suitor. The Nicholet survey, and an 1841 survey of the Des Moines River, kept Frémont conveniently apart from Jesse. But on his return the two became secretly married.

Senator Benton was furious over the marriage, but soon became reconciled to the union, and thereafter used his influence at every opportunity to promote Frémont's career. This came soon, in 1842. Because of ill health, Nicholet was unable to conduct a mapping expedition of the Oregon Trail to the Rockies through the South Pass. The command fell to Frémont. Now known as Frémont's First Expedition, the results were a great success, and the report written in a narrative form by Frémont with the assistance of Jessie, was published by Congress in 1843 and appeared in all major newspapers. The Report made Frémont known and also introduced Christopher "Kit Carson" to the American public.

Frémont's Second Expedition was an even greater success. It included many men from his First Expedition, including cartographer Charles Preuss, and Kit Carson. Dividing his men, he sent most of the expedition along his previous route under mountain man and trapper Thomas "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick. Frémont traveled a new route to include the first mapping and exploration of the Great Salt Lake. Reuniting the party at Fort Hall, he then continued on to Fort Vancouver, tying his survey in to the recently completed Wilkes Coastal Survey.

The Expedition then moved south through what is now central Oregon and western Nevada arriving a what Frémont named Pyramid Lake. It was mid winter, and being low on supplies, he decided to cross the Sierra Nevada to Sutter's Fort on the Sacramento River. This turned into a monumental effort, but was ultimately accomplished. Every detail of this mountain crossing is covered in The Crossing described on this site.

Traveling south through the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, the Expedition joined the old Spanish Trail, from which it later turned north and returned to Missouri. The Report of this expedition, after an initial printing of 20,000 copies by the Senate and the House of Representatives, was published world wide. The map of 1845 produced and published with the report was the first accurate map of the region west of the Rocky Mountains, and was the basis of later maps of the area for many years. Frémont was now a national hero, as was Kit Carson. Second Lieutenant John Charles Frémont, now popularly known as "The Pathfinder", was awarded a double brevet in rank.

The next year, Captain John Charles Frémont left Missouri on his Third Expedition. The goal of this expedition is less clear. The United States was on the verge of war with Mexico over the annexation of Texas. It was feared that in the event of war, California, removed from Mexico and beyond Mexico's ability to protect, might fall under the protection of England or France. Mexico owed England a large war debt from their own war of independence. That and the unsettled joint occupation of the Oregon Territory by the United States and England seemed to require a military presence in California.

The first California Volunteer Militia was organized by, the man historical writings refer to as "The Pathfinder. This same individual later became one of the State's first Senators and was appointed a Major General in the Union Army during the Civil War.

This man was Captain John Charles Fremont, U.S. Army topographer, explorer, and trail blazer. Captain Fremont began his treks westward into United States trerritory and beyond in 1842. It was during his third expedition (1845-1846) that he assisted in turning the course of history in California.

In December 1845, Captain Fremont, and a force of sixty men, entered into the Mexican province of Alta California ostensibly to map the west coast area. Although he officially made contact with Mexican authorities, his movements around the province was a point of consternation to Mexico's Northern Regional Commander, General Jose Castro. In particular, the latter did not care for Fremont's contact and sympathy for American settlers and emigrants.

The Fremont Party having traversed the territory as far north as Klamath on the California/Oregon border, turned south upon hearing that a proclamation had been issued by General Castro, aimed at driving out foreigners from the province. Fremont, though sympathetic could not commit U.S. Forces to aid the settlers. Nevertheless, he did decide to stay and advise those who chose to confront the Mexican authorities. Captain Fremont established his base camp at the base of four buttes (Sutter Buttes) in the Sacramento Valley a few miles north of John Sutter's Fort.

Word of the camp reached a group of settlers who were most vociferous in their dislike of the province's government. Leader of this group calling themselves Osos (Spanish for Bears), was Ezekiel "Stuttering" Merritt. Merritt was well known in the territory, and the west, for having been a fur trapper in the Rocky Mountains. Captain Fremont gladly accepted the twenty Osos, and went so far as to appoint Zeke Merritt a lieutenant of the irregulars.

Fremont remained in the background of events, not wishing to involve the United States in any altercations the Osos might be involved in; however, he and his force had already been branded "bandits" by General Castro, after an alleged horse stealing episode near Salinas during May 1846. Hence, in early June, Captain Fremont gave advice to capture the Northern Headquarters of General Mariano Vallejo at Sonoma. On June 14, the Osos took the town of Sonoma in the early dawn light without firing a shot. And with the acceptance of General Vallejo's surrender the Osos declared California a Republic, and raised the Bear Flag over the plaza.

Captain Fremont saluted the Bear Flaggers, whose force now numbered ninety, when both the flag of the United States and California Republic were raised on July 4, 1846, in celebration of United States and California Independence.

Following the celebration, Captain Fremont proposed that a unified force be organized, under his command. A discussion was held July 5, with William Brown Ide (Grigsby-Ide emigrant party of 1845), who the Bear Flaggers had elected as their Commander-in-Chief. A compact was drawn up for all volunteers to sign, which in part read: Not to violate the chastity of Women; conduct their revolution honorably; and pledge obedience to their officers. With the signatures or marks of the men, the California Battalion was formed. Fremont appointed a Marine Corps Officer, Captain Archibald H. Gillespie, his Adjutant. Captain Gillespie had joined Fremont when the latter was at the Oregon Border. Gillespie had crossed the Mexican nation and entered California about the time hostilities broke out with the opening of the Mexican War, May 1846. Fremont requested the Battalion's volunteers to elect their officers from the ranks. Chosen were: Richard Owens, John Grigsby, Granville P. Swift, and Henry L. Ford.

The California Battalion was given further legitimacy when on July 23, it was recognized by the American military leader in California, Commodore Robert Field Stockton, Commander of U.S. Naval Forces in the Pacific. J.C. Fremont was promoted to Major by Commodore Stockton, and given command of all Volunteer Militia. Major Fremont and the California Battalion eventually came under the command of Brigadier General Stephen Watt Kearney. Following this command change the Battalion came into prominence when in January 1847 they accepted the surrender of the Californios, thereby ending the conflict in California.

Californians and the Military
John Charles Frémont prior to the Bear Flag Revolt

The Mexican War and California
The Acquisition of California

By Mark J. Denger

Thought of the acquisition of California by the United States dates back at least to the time of President Andrew Jackson. Under President Tyler, acquisition by purchase was actively considered. Upon the collapse of the Mexican Empire in 1824, which was followed by the Mexican Republic, President Polk entered upon his administration in 1835 with the definite resolution of winning the prize, offering to purchase northern California, including San Francisco Bay. His offer was refused. Yet, the slight tenure by which Mexico held California is clearly perceived –with some of the leading Californians even ready to welcome a change of flags.

Mexico's relations with the United States had become increasingly critical, largely because of the complex Texas question. California had come to be looked upon as a capital prize, sure to fall, in the course of a short period of time.

In an era of "Manifest Destiny," Colonel John C. Fremont is considered by some to be the actual conqueror of the California region in 1846. Encouraged, if not directly aided by Fremont, settlers at Sonoma, revolted against Mexican authority and on June 14, 1846, raised the Bear Flag, issued a proclamation declaring California to be free and independent.

When one considers the remarkable history of California in the stirring years immediately following the Bear Flag Revolt, and its consequential relationship to the great Republic of which it was about to become a part, the raising of the Bear Flag takes on added significance. The Bear Flag Revolt, as a small affair, was soon submerged in far deeper currents.

When Commodore John D. Sloat raised the United States flag over Monterey and claimed California for the United States on July 7, 1846, there is evidence that Sloat was dissatisfied and distressed when he learned that Fremont had acted on his own authority. Not knowing of "any formal declaration of war" between the two nations, Commodore Sloat "acted upon the faith" of Fremont's operations in the north.

The Bear Flag, which had flown over Sonoma for twenty-five days, was withdrawn and gave way to the United States flag on July 9, 1846.

Although the flag of the United States was raised over Monterey by Commodore Sloat, commander of the naval forces on the Pacific Coast, on July 7, 1846, it should be noted that the city of Los Angeles was then the capital of the Province of Upper California, and its was taken possession of by the combined forces of Commodore Stockton and Colonel John C. Fremont on August 13, 1846, with Don Pio Pico, the Mexican Governor, having left the city on the 12th of August.

Commodore Stockton, who had succeeded Commodore Sloat as commander of the Pacific squadron, issued a proclamation to the people, signing himself "Commander-in-Chief and Governor of California" on August 17, 1846. He announced that the country was now the property of the United States and California would be governed like any other territory of that nation, but meanwhile by military law, though the people were invited to choose their local civil officers.

On the same date, August 17th, the Warren, anchored at San Pedro from Mazatlan, bringing definite news of a declaration of war.

California, as an unorganized territory, remained under military Governors for over three years –from the time of the change of sovereignty till December 20, 1849.

As Commander-in-Chief and Governor of California, Stockton, on August 22, 1846, ordered an election of Alcaldes and other local municipal officers to be help September 15th in the several towns and districts of the territory. On September 2nd, the last day of his stay in Los Angeles, issued a general order creating the office of Military Commandant of the Territory, which was divided into three departments, and appointing Col. John C. Fremont to fill the new command.

Despite orders from Washington brought by Col. Richard B. Mason, who arrived at San Francisco, February 12, 1847, that Gen. S. W. Kearny on his arrival in California was to be recognized as Civil Governor. But before these orders were received in California, Commodore Stockton, namely, on January 16, 1847, issued commissions to Fremont as Governor and to W. H. Russell as Secretary of State.

On January 22, Governor John C. Fremont issued a proclamation announcing the establishment of civil rule. His headquarters were at Los Angeles, where he won many friends, especially among the native Californians.

With General Kearny's arrival in California, Kearny appointed Col. Mason to succeed him in command and also as Governor on May 31, 1847. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, by which California was ceded to the United States by Mexico, was signed on February 2, 1848, and was proclaimed by the President on June 19, 1848, and news of the same reached California and proclaimed by Governor Mason on August 7, 1848.

Meanwhile, on January 24, 1848, at a small mill in the valley of Coloma, gold was discovered. The discovery of gold soon caught men's imaginations around the world. They came to California from South America, from Africa, Asia, and Australia, from Europe and the Orient. Within one year the population of San Francisco grew from about 850 to 35,000 and continued to grow.

General Persifer F. Smith soon arrived and superseded Governor Mason. His incumbency of the office of Governor was brief and unimportant; it only extended from February 26 to April 12, 1849. On the latter date, Bennett Riley, Lieutenant Colonel of the Second U.S. Infantry, arrived at Monterey, with instructions to assume the administration of civil affairs in California. Two months later, on the 3rd of June, 1849, Governor Riley issued a proclamation calling for an election, on August 1, of delegates to formulate a Constitution, who were to meet at Monterey on September 1, 1849.

In accordance with the proclamation of de facto Governor Bennet Riley, the Constitutional Convention had met at Monterey in September, 1849. Its forty-eight delegates, nearly all of them young and energetic men, engaged in the sober task of drafting a government. When the work of the convention was completed and the constitution was put to vote at the first general election held in California, on November 13, 1849.

The California Constitution was adopted by the people of California by a vote of 12,064 ayes to 811 noes; and on that same day Peter H. Burnett was elected Governor. Governor Riley's term was thus to end on December 20, 1849.

A state government was set up with Peter H. Burnett as its first Governor. Edward Gilbert and George Wright were elected as representatives to Congress and the legislature proceeded to elect William M. Gwin and John C. Fremont as U.S. Senators.

The overwhelming sentiment of the Constitutional Convention favored immediate statehood, completely by-passing all thought of territorial status. In this is seen the reason why California is known as the Minerva State, and the explanation of her appearance on the official great seal –full grown from the brow of Jupiter.

California was for all practical intents and purposes a state, and San Jose was its capital, followed by Vallejo, Benicia and finally Sacramento. In Washington, however, the crucial issue lay with the first session of the 31st Congress, extended from the 3rd of December, 1849, until the last day of September, 1850. This extraordinary session of the legislature, extending through the long summer months, was without precedent.

Clay had introduced his great Compromise Bill on the 29th of January, 1850. In Washington, California's political leaders, elected to the Senate and House of Representatives, earnestly sought admission of their state into the union, playing an important part in the "irrepressible conflict" that plagued the nation. The question of admission had a fundamental significance in the historic, memorable debates of Webster, Clay, and Calhoun.

The California Bill, in one of the stormiest sessions of Congress on record, finally came to vote and was approved by the Senate on August 13, 1850, and after debate ratified by the House on September 7, 1850. Only two days later President Fillmore wrote the word "Approved" and affixed his signature under the bill signalizing the admission of California into the Union, thus adding the thirty-first star to the national ensign.

However, it should be remembered that it was President Taylor who had been chiefly instrumental in advancing the cause of California's admission –but his death on July 9, 1850, explains how the final approval of the California Bill fell to his successor.

Finally, the Golden State of California was clothed with full statehood –with its thousand-mile coastline along the Pacific, greatest of all the seas –predestined to have a profound influence upon world history.

photo of Fremont

map of Fremont expeditions in Oregon and northern California

From the ashes of his camping sites have sprung cities.

John Charles Fremont (1813-1890), nicknamed "the Pathfinder" in recognition of his groundbreaking expeditions to map the American West. An amazing explorer, controversial soldier, and a failure as a Civil War general and a businessman.

Also see > Edward F. Beale, Joseph Reddeford Walker, Kit Carson

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