C 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins
Portions of this article originally appeared in the Frontier Gazette.
In Arizona, John C. Fremont is remembered for serving as Territorial Governor from 1878 to 1881. Prior to taking office, however, he made history for decades as one of the premier explorers of the American West. Born in 1813, Fremont aspired to do great things. At the age of 25 he was appointed to the Corps of Topographical Engineers and began his career as a surveyor.
Following his 1841 marriage Jessie Benton, daughter of a Missouri senator, Fremont began planning his first expedition. In 1842 he led 22 men to explore the Platte River between Missouri and the Rocky Mountains. His guide was fellow explorer Kit Carson, whom he had met in St. Louis. Carson knew the way to South Pass, Wyoming as well as Colorado to the south. The endeavor was a success.
Fremont spent much time in Colorado the next year, planning a second expedition to California in 1843. Finding supplies lacking due to Indian uprisings in New Mexico, Fremont finally found assistance at an American farming community just south of Colorado Springs. “They had a fine stock of cattle,” he later reported, “and furnished us with an abundance of excellent milk.” The group successfully made it to California.
The adventurer undertook a third expedition in 1845. This time he led a group of 62 men from St. Louis to locate the source of the Arkansas River in Colorado. Rather than complete the project, however, Fremont decided to return to California and made a brazen attempt to overtake the territory on behalf of the United States. He was promptly arrested for defying orders and court marshaled.
By late 1848 Fremont had returned to Colorado to organize yet another expedition—this time to see if a railroad could pass through the Rocky Mountains. The trip was financed by Senator Benton, but Fremont could only gather about 30 men after seasoned settlers warned of an especially harsh winter. Carson was also unavailable, so Fremont stubbornly hired a mountain man to guide the group. The party soon became lost. The men were forced to eat their mules, belts and mocassins. Ten died. The survivors used pots to shovel through 30-foot drifts before making their way to Taos.
Fremont eventually returned to California and was elected Senator in 1850. The appointment only lasted for six months. By 1853 he was back in Colorado where he organized one last expedition to Utah, overcoming another harsh winter to complete the trip. In 1856 he next ran for president against James Buchanan. But his image was marred by his previous behavior, the failed third expedition and his position as an abolitionist. After losing the election, Fremont boldly attempted to abolish slavery on his own without seeking President Lincoln’s blessing. Once again he was court marshaled.
Fremont eventually received a presidential pardon, but his downward spiral continued. A railroad investment failed. By 1870 the family was broke, relying on wife Jessie’s writing career. Then in 1878, Fremont was appointed 5th Territorial Governor of Arizona. The family moved into a roomy home at Gurley and Marina Streets in Prescott. The rent was $90, but it gave Jessie a pleasant place to receive guests.
Unfortunately, the new governor was frequently absent while trying to regain his wealth. In 1881 Fremont was asked to either resume his duties as governor or resign. He chose the latter, moving to California a final time in 1887 and dying during a trip to New York in 1890, just months after receiving a pension from the government.
Today there are counties, towns, schools and festivals all over the West named for Fremont, the “Great Pathfinder”. His home in Prescott was relocated to Sharlot Hall Museum in 1971, where it remains a testament to a determined man whose epitaph should probably read, “He meant well.”