Today in History

Today in History: January 31

John C. Frémont: The Pathfinder

General Frémont
General John C. Frémont,
Illustration from
Eldorado; or, California As Seen By a Pioneer, 1850-1900,
by D.A. Shaw, Chapter IV, page 48.
California As I Saw It: First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900

Major John C. Frémont (1813-90), popularly admired for his mapmaking expeditions to the West, was court-martialed on grounds of mutiny and disobeying orders on January 31, 1848. General Stephen Kearny brought charges against Frémont when a dispute arose over who held governing authority in California—a region that had been recently ceded to the United States by Mexico in accordance with the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty.

In recognition of his role in the occupation of California, Commodore Robert F. Stockton appointed Frémont military governor of California in 1847. Meanwhile, federal authorities sent General Kearny to California to establish a government. Tension developed between Kearny and Stockton, with Frémont siding with Stockton. In August 1847, Kearny ordered Frémont arrested and charged with insubordination. Frémont was found guilty by a court martial and subjected to penalties, including removal from the army. Although this decision was reversed by President James K. Polk, Frémont chose to resign his commission.

In spite of this episode, Frémont retained his popularity and esteem with the American public. He and his wife Jesse Benton Frémont, daughter of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, remained in California at their Mariposa County estate. During the Gold Rush, Frémont became a multimillionaire. His well-publicized explorations of the West and his exploits in California's rebellion against Mexico contributed to his election as one of California's first senators in 1850.

In 1855, the Frémonts settled in New York. Frémont had established a reputation as an outspoken abolitionist. On June 17, 1856, the Republican Party nominated Frémont as their first presidential candidate. Frémont campaigned as the "Pathfinder" who would lead the country out of the shame of slavery.

John C. Frémont Campaign Banner
"Col. John C. Frémont
Republican Candidate for President of the United States
," 1856.

John C. Frémont and William L. Dayton Campaign Banner
"John C. Frémont and William L. Dayton. Champions of Freedom,"

John C. Frémont Campaign Banner
"Col. Frémont Planting the American Standard on the Rocky Mountains,"
Prints from the 1856 Presidential Campaign
American Political Prints, ca. 1766-1876
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

Lyrics such as these typified the presidential campaign songs of the first Republican Party ticket:

Journeyer in the distant mountains,
O'er the land has spread thy fame;
Hope is opening FREEDOM'S fountains,
'Neath the influence of thy name.

Come and rescue Fair Columbia

From her shame.
Raise on high fair Freedom's banner.
Ensign of the brave and true,
'Midst the din of party clamour
Onward "LEAD" the battle through,
Never weary,
Till we've routed slavery's crew.

"Freedom's Songs! For the Campaign of 1856! John C. Frémont. An Acrostic," 1856.
America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets

Although Frémont lost to Democrat James Buchanan, he continued his efforts on behalf of emancipation. When the Civil War broke out, he was again commissioned as Major-General of the Union Army, stationed in St. Louis, Missouri. When secessionist rebellion flared, Frémont proclaimed martial law, assumed governance of the state, and announced the emancipation of all slaves of those Missourians who had taken arms against the United States.

President Lincoln approved of Frémont's other measures against the rebellion, but he considered emancipation premature and asked Frémont to withdraw his proclamation. When Frémont refused, Lincoln issued a Public Order annulling the act.

John C. Fremont and John Cochrane
"Grand Banner of the Radical Democracy, For 1864."
Portrait of Presidential Nominee John C. Fremont and His Running Mate
John Cochrane, 1864.

After accusations of misadministration in Missouri, Frémont came under severe attack and was again relieved of his command. His supporters maintained the attack was unjust, the result of political intrigue.

In 1864, he was again considered for the Republican presidential nomination. Popular but controversial, Frémont decided that his bid for the office would cause division within the party. He retired from public life and returned to the West.

From 1878 to 1883, Frémont held public office again as appointed governor of the territory of Arizona. Just months before his death on July 13, 1890, Congress granted him a pension, acknowledging the importance of Frémont's early explorations of the West.

John C. Frémont
John C. Frémont,
Photographic Carte de Visite,
with Frémont's signature on verso,
dated June 1887.
Civil War Photograph Album, ca. 1861-65,
Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division's First 100 Years