Readers of my blogs know well my view of John C. Frémont. He’s the 19th century military adventurer and politician for whom Fremont Street in Las Vegas is named, as well as a great number of other places around the country. Long before becoming New To Las Vegas, I considered him a rank war criminal, guilty of massacring Indians and Latinos in the run-up to the Mexican War to open the American West to greedy East Coast gringos.
The Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas, entirely left out that angle when in 2018 it mounted “Finding Frémont,” a detailed but feel-good exhibit of his life, which included being the Republican Party’s first presidential candidate in 1856. The museum’s curator of anthropology, Eugene M. Hattori, essentially confessed error when I challenged him on the omissions during a broadcast of a local public radio station’s daily public affairs show, “KNPR’s State of Nevada.”
Now we have a new book about the life of Frémont (1813-1890), the first in some years. I’m pleased to report the facts contained therein amply reaffirm my view of his flawed character. The book is Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity and Helped Create the Civil War. The author is Steve Inskeep, whose day job is a host on NPR’s “Morning Edition.”
In my judgement Imperfect Union doesn’t really break a lot of new ground for students of Frémont’s admittedly colorful life, although it will educate those who slept through American history in high school. Perhaps in keeping with the gender equality of the current era and maybe hoping to find new new readers, the book plays up to some degree the role of Jessie Benton Frémont (1824-1902), Frémont’s wife. She was the daughter of a powerful U.S. senator who eloped with the decade-older Frémont when she was just 17.
Well-educated unlike her husband–who was expelled from college as a lackluster student–she bolstered his image by ghost-writing his famous accounts of exploratory journeys across the largely unmapped West. The Jack and Jess Show, one might say. Jessie also worked hard to keep out of print inconvenient facts about Frémont’s life, such as being born out of wedlock.
Among other inconvenient facts in his life were his role in unjustified killings as the Mexican War was about to play itself out in the 1840s. The war was orchestrated by President James K. Polk as part of his mantra that it was “Manifest Destiny” the United States expand across North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Standing in the way of this, of course, was Mexico, which at the time controlled everything west of Texas and south of Oregon, especially California.
This was a problem for Frémont, whose father-in-law had gotten him the U.S. Army job of mapping the West for future gringo settlers. Still, aided greatly by Kit Carson, the noted scout and Indian killer for whom the Nevada territorial capital of Carson City would be named, Frémont made a number of expeditions. His foolhardiness in trying to traverse the Sierra Nevada in the dead of winter came close to wiping out his expedition party, but he survived. When accounts of the trips were written up by Jessie and published by the Federal Government, Frémont became a famous, even glamorous figure.
After Polk’s election in 1844, it was Frémont’s third military expedition starting in 1845 that showed his true character. He would later claim he had secret orders to attack Mexican forces if the U.S. declared war, although, as Inskeep points out in the book, nothing in writing supported that. Mexican military officials in the provincial capital of Monterey, California, ordered Frémont out of California. He and his troops retreated north to Oregon.
Around Klamath Lake in May 1846, Klamath Indians, upset with the rough ways of Frémont’s troops, attacked them as they slept, killing three. Frémont, with Carson’s enthusiastic backing, launched a wildly disproportionate response of collective punishment, circling the lake, torching Klamath villages and killing many Indians. Inskeep doesn’t say how many, but other historians have suggested hundreds. Since Frémont’s troops had guns and the Indians had only arrows, it wasn’t a fair fight. At least one victim described by Inskeep was a woman fleeing in a canoe, although Frémont, with Jessie’s help, rewrote history to say it was a man wearing the shoes of one of his slain comrades, falsely suggesting a measure of justice.
As we might say today, fake news.
Two months later, on June 28, 1846, having re-entered California as the U.S. declared war on Mexico, Frémont and his troops found themselves in San Rafael, at the top of San Francisco Bay. They saw three Latinos crossing the waterway in a boat. Inskeep writes:
One eyewitness, a man named Jasper O’Farrell, said Captain Frémont ordered Kit Carson and two other men to intercept them once they made land. Carson asked, “Shall I take these men prisoners?” According to the witness, Captain Frémont replied, “I have no room for prisoners.” Carson’s men rode to meet the men near the water’s edge and killed them.
Inskeep, who calls the incident “an atrocity,” points out that O’Farrell’s account didn’t surface for a decade until Frémont ran for president and that the slain men may have been bearing a message for Mexican troops. “There was legitimate reason to detain them,” he writes. “Killing them was another matter.” In later writings Frémont tried to distance himself from the incident. Inskeep footnotes his account of the San Rafael incident to the multi-volume work, History of California, by famed historian Hubert Howe Bancroft. However, Bancroft wrote a little more definitively–while Frémont was still alive, no less–“Justice also requires me to call attention to the fact that Frémont has never, so far as I know, denied the accuracy of O’Farrell’s assertion.”
It even might have been a moment of inspiration for Frémont. Just three days later, he bestowed the memorably famous name upon the Pacific Ocean entrance to San Francisco Bay. “To this Gate I gave the name of ‘chrysopylae,’ or ‘Golden Gate,’ for the same reason that the harbor of Byzantium was called Chrysoceras, or Golden Horn,” Frémont wrote in his later-published diary. (Inskeep credits Frémont for the naming but doesn’t mention the timing.)
So there you have it: a war criminal whose names adorns Las Vegas’s second most famous street, a liberal neighborhood in liberal Seattle, cities in at least 15 states, counties in five, a river in Utah, a mountain in Washington State, a species of tree and buildings of all stripes. Inskeep, who in his book does not use the phrase “war criminal,” seems to attribute much of Frémont’s enduring renown to the triumph of celebrity over substance. I’ll say.