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A trailblazer for American imperialism

Pathfinder, John Charles Fremont and the Course of American Empire, Tom Chaffin, Hill and Wang: 560 pp., $35

November 24, 2002|Richard White | Richard White is the author of "'It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own': A New History of the American West." He is a professor of American history at Stanford University.

The great mystery of the United States to outsiders is how a country that has achieved so much wealth and power, for good and evil, has had a public life so dominated by mediocrities, by men such as John C. Fremont. To succeed, Fremont relied on political expediency, a network of connections that gave him opportunity and allowed him to survive his mistakes, personal ambition, greed and the ability to project images of substance where there was, in fact, precious little substance. Dashing and brave, he symbolized republican values and a vibrant nationalism that masked what accompanied the expansion of empire: sordid ambitions and an ability to bear up well under the sufferings of others.

Fremont, or "The Pathfinder," as his 19th century contemporaries styled him, was an imperial figure. The explorer and popularizer of the West in the American mind was feckless, often reckless, and if he had not had such an abundance of bad judgment, he would have had no judgment at all. Only when he had risen to a point where it was impossible to disguise his limitations did he descend into a long twilight of impoverishment and embarrassment. His wife, Jessie (the daughter of powerful expansionist Missouri Sen. Thomas Hart Benton), who was so critical to his success, went down with him.

He was, however, blessed with protectors whose aid prevented his failures from impeding his rise. He was an explorer, a popular hero, an author, an officer instrumental in the conquest of California, a senator, a millionaire (briefly), a presidential candidate and a Civil War general. For a man with important connections, American political life is eminently forgiving.

The names of numerous American places, many of them now enveloped in the suburbs, commemorate Fremont, and, like them, Fremont's name has become part of the vaguely familiar suburbs of American history. In the mid-19th century, however, he seemed to have been at the center of expansion, politics, war and business. He was not really an explorer, however, but an officer in the Topographical Engineers, a group of surveyors and mapmakers. Others had traveled the routes before him, and Indians as well as non-Indians were virtually everywhere he went.

After a typical Fremont accident in which a boat overturned on the Kansas River in 1842, losing much of the expedition's supplies, Fremont wrote that only a traveler in a "strange and inhospitable country" could imagine his dilemma. The next day, however, Kansas Indians appeared and provisioned him with a cow, a calf, butter, pumpkins, beans, onions, lettuce and 30 pounds of coffee. This wasn't exactly Webvan, but neither was Fremont in most of his travels far from succor and supply. Fremont was a fairly competent cartographer and, with his wife's help, a skilled writer whose reports publicized him as much as the country they covered. Sometimes, even given the limited tools and skills he possessed, he was a shrewd observer. He was the first, according to Tom Chaffin, to recognize that the Great Basin did not have an outlet to the sea. But his ethnography rarely rose above dismissive judgments about Indians, despite the dependence of virtually all of his expeditions on members of the Delaware tribe and other Indian hunters.

He was capable of incredible daring, as in his winter crossing of the Sierras in 1844, but his success seems more luck than skill. His last two expeditions to seek a railroad route from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean were privately financed and ended in disaster. In 1848-49, his expedition became trapped in the winter snows of the San Juan Mountains. Nearly a third of the 32-man party died, and at least one seems to have been cannibalized by his comrades. When the next expedition blundered into serious trouble, Fremont gathered his men for a campfire chat whose theme was the importance of not eating each other. This does not inspire confidence in a leader.

Even before that, there were plenty of reasons to question his leadership. Leading a government expedition into California at the time of the Mexican War, his actions were sometimes bizarre, often indecisive and occasionally murderous. His tendency to vacillate between indecision and overplaying his hand ended up with his arrest, court-martial and expulsion from the Army because of his insubordination while military governor in California.

Fremont as usual landed on his feet. Blessed with gold on his Mariposa Ranch in the Sierra foothills, a ranch he had acquired by sheer luck, he proceeded to squander the fortune. Elected as one of the first two senators from California, his anti-slavery sentiments -- one of the few moral chords that ever vibrated in him -- led to his selection as the Republican Party's presidential candidate in 1856. He ran under the slogan of "Free Men, Free Soil and Fremont." He lost, and along the way, his sexual escapades and other poor choices alienated many of his advisors, who regarded him as both inept and immoral.

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