John Charles Fremont was born as an illegitimate son of Charles Fremont and Anne Beverley Whiting. His father was a former French Royalist who had left France during the days of the French Revolution. His mother His mother was member to a once-prominent Virginia family. The couple had lived together since 1811 but couldn't marry. Anne was already legally married to Major John Pryor, a man 40-years her senior. The open relationship between Fremont and a married woman was one of the great social scandals of the 1810s.
Nevertheless, the "illegal" couple settled in Savannah, Georgia and managed to raise their own children. The younger Fremont attended the College of Charleston (1829-1831) and served for a while as a teacher of mathematics to cadets of the United States Navy. In 1838, Fremont became on officer of the Corps of Topographical Engineers. The Corps was tasked with mapping out the areas of the United States (including recently annexed areas) and design suitable civil works, fortifications and navigational routes.
Fremont originally served as an assistant to Joseph Nicollet (1786-1843), a French geographer recruited to lead exploration missions of the Corps. In 1838-1839, Fremont followed Nicollet in exploring and mapping down the areas between the rivers Mississippi and Missouri. The grounds covered mostly included areas of modern Minnesota and South Dakota. In 1841, Fremont worked in mapping down certain areas of the Des Moines River.
By 1841, Fremont was prominent enough to marry Jessie Benton (1824 -1902). His wife would become a celebrated author. But the marriage had a political significance. She was the daughter of Senator Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858), an influential politician and a major proponent of Manifest Destiny. His new father-in-law championed the cause of further expansion to the United States. More explorations were thus needed. The two men had a mutually beneficial alliance. Benton would get political support for further exploration missions. Fremont would be able to lead them to success.
In 1842, Fremont was preparing to lead his first major expedition and searched for a guide. He found one in frontiersman Christopher Houston "Kit" Carson (1809-1868). The two men co-led multiple expeditions from 1842 to 1846. They explored (among others) the South Pass of the Rocky Mountains, the so-called Oregon Pass, Sierra Nevada, the Mojave Desert. Their discoveries included Mount Rainier, Mount Saint Helena, Mount Hood, and Lake Tahoe. Following a westward road to Mexican-held California. Their maps would be used by many American settlers over the following two decades. Most notably during the California Gold Rush of 1849.
Fremont and Carson reached California just before the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). They led their men and other Americans present in the area into skirmishes with the local Mexican authorities. The two Americans controversially killed unarmed civilians at times. Acts that Carson would later blame on Fremont. When the War proper started, Fremont was appointed a lieutenant colonel of the California Battalion, a volunteer militia. He led a group of 300 men in capturing Santa Barbara. The same group accepted the surrender of Los Angeles. The Treaty of Cahuenga (January 13, 1847) ended the fighting in Upper California. Fremont was appointed the new military Governor of California. He served in the position for about two months.
However, Fremont got himself involved in the internal politics of the United States military forces. Fremont had been appointed by Commodore Robert Field Stockton (1795-1866), the man in charge of the United States Navy forces in California. The arrival of Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny (1794-1848) caused Fremont problems. Kearny wanted to assume control of all Army operations in California and also assume the position of Governor. The two men acted as rival Governors for a while. Until Kearny managed to arrest Fremont and had him face a court-martial.
Fremont was found guilty of mutiny, disobedience to a superior officer and military misconduct. Sentenced to a dishonorable discharge. Fremont was seen as a national hero by the public, so President James Knox Polk (1795-1849) intervened and commuted that sentence. Fremont was allowed to resign, supposedly of his own free will. He retired to civilian life, settling in Rancho Las Mariposas, property in California which Fremont had claimed for himself.
In 1848, Fremont attempted to lead a privately-funded expedition across the 38th parallel, from Saint Louis, Missouri to San Francisco, California. He wanted to prove that a railroad line which would connect the two cities was viable. Also taking time to explore some poorly mapped areas on the way. This expedition was a failure. A major factor against it was its poor timing. The expedition set out in October and had to face winter weather throughout its path. Fremont stubbornly refused to divert its course towards the river passes of the Arkansas River and the Rio Grande, where the weather was relatively mild. Instead leading his men on a straight mountainous path which had them at times trapped in snowy mountain tops. The expedition ended up in Taos, New Mexico in February, 1849. Ten men were dead, many had deserted and most of their mules were gone. It was to be the last expedition of the "Great Pathfinder".
With his careers as a soldier and explorer both over, Fremont started a new career in politics. He was one of the first Senators elected in California, serving from 1850 to 1851. Later in the 1850s, Fremont was among the founders of the new Republican Party. In 1856, he became the first Republican presidential candidate. Campaigning with a slogan "Free soil, free labor, free speech, free men, Fremont". In other words, more lands for homesteaders, no more slavery, no more censorship of the press.
In the 1856 election, Fremont was branded an "extremist" candidate but came a strong second. He gained 1,342,345 votes and 114 electors. Translating to about 33,1% of the total popular vote, as opposed to the 45,3% of winner James Buchanan of the Democratic Party. Millard Fillmore of the "Know-Nothing" party, nativists, came third. Received 21,6% of the popular vote. The "extremist" Republicans managed to win over most of the Northern United States, while performing poorly in the Southern United States. Arguably setting the stage for the American Civil War (1861-1865).
When the War begun, Fremont was called back to arms. He was appointed a Major General and served as commander to the Department of the West (May-November, 1861). His conduct in the position was controversial at best. Missouri, a slave-holding state, had avoided officially siding with either the Union or the Confederacy. While both sides had their supporters and volunteers within the state, there were efforts to avoid direct hostilities. With a hope that it could become a "neutral" state. Fremont would have none of it. He ordered his troops to secure Missouri for the Union, imposed martial law, started confiscating the property of pro-Confederate citizens and started his own program of emancipating the slaves.
His activities polarized the pro-slavery and anti-slavery elements within the Union itself. While increasing the support for the Confederacy within Missouri and a number of slave-holding states who hadn't picked sides yet. Abraham Lincoln was concerned and asked Fremont to revise his orders. Fremont would have none of it and refused to back down. He fell out of favor with Lincoln and was relieved of his command. Lincoln publicly accused him of being incompetent and rendered the emancipations of Fremont declared illegal.
The reputation of Fremont had been severely damaged. But Lincoln decided to give him a supposed second chance. By having Fremont tasked with leading units in Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky. All areas where the Confederates had the upper hand. Fremont's opponent was Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson (1824-1863). Their activities against each other culminated in the Battle of Cross Keys (June 8, 1862). Fremont with 11,500 Union troops failed to overcome Jackson and his 5,800 Confederates. Unsurprisingly, Fremont's reputation further suffered.
On June 26, 1862, Lincoln created an Army of Virginia which merged several smaller Union Armies. Fremont's troops were among those merged into the Army. Fremont to serve under John Pope (1822-1892), one of his own former subordinates. He took this as a personal insult and declined to serve. He retired to New York City, expecting a better offer. An offer which never came. Lincoln had no further use for him and was glad to see him leave.
This backfired on Lincoln. Fremont was a hero to the abolitionists. Who felt that Lincoln was betraying their cause. As the presidential elections of 1864 approached, the Republicans split. One "moderate" faction following Lincoln. The so-called "Radical Republicans", hard-lined abolitionists following Fremont. However both political rivals were surprised when the Democrats united behind General George McClellan (1826-1885). Launching a strong campaign and calling for "an immediate cessation of hostilities and a negotiated settlement with the Confederacy." Fremont and Lincoln were forced to reconcile in order to avoid what they viewed as the Confederates winning the War. Fremont's terms merely required Lincoln to dismiss members of his cabinet unacceptable to the Radicals.
In 1866, the Pacific Railroad company folded and came under the possession of the state of Missouri. Missouri offered the company for sale. Fremont viewed as a business opportunity and bought the assets of the company in exchange of c. 1,300,000 dollars. He reorganized it as the "Southwest Pacific Railroad". He was supposed to, pay a second installment of the money in 1867. But failed to do so and the company became state-owned again. Fremont lost most of his fortune with this event.
He remained active in politics and was appointed governor of the Arizona territory (term 1878-1881). But this was to be his last success. Fremont never recovered financially. He came to rely on the literary earning of his wife to survive. he died of peritonitis in New York City. He was mostly forgotten by the time of his death. However, Fremont remains a significant figure for American historians.