New Book! The Biographies of John Charles Fremont

Fremont Cover 2My new book, The Biographies of John Charles Fremont, is now available in a Kindle edition from Amazon for $2.99 or free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Rarely has a character appeared on the American scene of greater color and controversy than John Charles Fremont. Fremont’s name is sometimes spelled in the French fashion (Frémont), but the accent mark will be deleted in this work. Dubbed “The Pathfinder” for having conducted some of the first rigorous scientific explorations of the American west, emigrants used his maps and reports as their guide to Oregon and California. Fremont was instrumental in the military campaigns which secured California for the United States, only to be arrested and court-martialed for mutiny and insubordination. Nominated the young Republican party’s first candidate for president, Fremont lost the 1856 election in a bitterly contested campaign. Appointed one of four major-generals at the outbreak of the Civil War, Fremont was placed in command of the Department of the West. Succeeding in holding wavering Missouri for the Union, Lincoln relieved him of his command amid allegations of widespread corruption. Having earned a fortune from his California gold holdings, he was impoverished by railway speculation. Fremont’s life was a series of glorious triumphs and dismal defeats. Through it all, he remained a figure adored by some and despised by others.

This short book (~70 pages) considers the development of the Fremont biography, analyzing works about the life and career of John Charles Fremont in their historical context. The term “biography” will be used in a wide sense, to include works which may deal with only limited aspects of Fremont’s career.

This book originated as a paper I wrote as an undergraduate at Purdue University in 1989 during the summer before my senior year. I offer it here mainly as an experiment in Kindle publishing before I tackle other more recent work.

I long held an active interest in history. I became aware of John Charles Fremont in my high school studies of history – a footnote character who was a noted explorer, spearheaded the Bear-Flag Rebellion and conquest of California, and served as the first Republican candidate for president in 1856. Irving Stone’s fascinating history of the men who lost election to president, They Also Ran, depicted Fremont as an unstable adventurer. Stone argued Fremont was better off to have lost election than to have plunged the nation into Civil War four years earlier under his potentially erratic leadership. Now there’s an alternate history some Civil War buff ought to tackle instead of refighting the Battle of Gettysburg for the umpteenth time! Fremont’s remarkable story came alive to me in the 1986 miniseries, Dream West, based upon David Nevin’s historical novel of the same name – not to be confused with Allan Nevins’ landmark biography, Fremont: Pathmarker of the West.

As an avid reader of history, I easily tested out of enough basic history classes at Purdue to fulfill the minimum requirements for my engineering and physics degrees. I continued reading, studying and testing out of additional classes until the Purdue history department, apparently tiring of the ease and rapidity with which I was testing out of their sophomore level classes, suspended the testing program and reworked the tests. By a remarkable coincidence, once they resumed their testing program, I was unable to pass the newly revised tests, putting an end to my studies in history for the time being. This was a remarkable pity, because there is no telling how far I might have gone in history were it not for the heavy-handed response of the Purdue history department, trying to preserve funding received from service courses by attempting to force students to enroll in classes for which they were already well-qualified.

As I approached my final year at Purdue, I already had an Industrial Engineering degree under my belt. The remaining classes needed to complete my physics degree would hardly fill my time, and I saw it as an opportunity to try to take all the extra interesting classes I’d always wanted to take, but hadn’t. These included everything from a fascinating graduate level class in fracture mechanics taught by Professor Thomas N. Farris, a course in the management of science and technology from Professor W. Dale Compton, and even a course in ballroom dance. I also re-engaged my studies in history. Frontier history had long been of interest to me. I loved Irving Stone’s Men to Match My Mountains, and I’d read and absorbed Ray Allen Billington’s Westward Expansion, as well as more classic works like Frederick Jackson Turner’s The Frontier in American History and Walter Prescott Webb’s The Great Plains. I wanted to pursue more advanced studies in history, but that would require passing the senior level class in frontier history. Based on past experience, I was understandably leery of attempting to pass out of the frontier history class through formal channels. I took the direct method of approaching Professor Donald Parman, who taught the class. I offered him a proposition: let me take the final exam with the class. If I got an A, I’d complete a research project under his direction during the summer, and he would allow me to sign up for his frontier history class the following spring and award me the A. If I failed to get an A, I would sign up for his class in the spring. He generously agreed. I did well enough on his final exam to satisfy him, and he undertook to supervise my independent study on the subject of John Charles Fremont.

I chose to approach the subject not as a study of John Charles Fremont himself, but rather on the secondary level of studying the evolution of biographies of John Charles Fremont – starting from the earliest hagiographic biographies that came out during his presidential campaign, through the later dueling biographers whose positions ranged the full spectrum from deification through denigration.

My summer course work included my Fremont project, as well as an advanced class on differential equations using Fourier series. The highlight of that class was when the professor scrawled “Laplacian” on the chalkboard followed by the mathematical definition. One of my classmates, unable to read the professor’s abominable handwriting, raised his hand and asked the professor how to spell “Laplacian.” The professor’s response? He didn’t know either. He acknowledged just writing “Lap” followed by a deliberate scrawl. “Look it up in the textbook,” he said. The class went downhill from there, and I was delighted to escape with my B at the end of the summer.

My Fremont project was much more personally rewarding, involving as it did reading books I found interesting, taking notes of useful quotes or tidbits, and seeking out additional references. I discovered Purdue had a great map collection, and I was able to review copies of the actual maps drawn by Fremont and his contemporaries and use a large format copier to make copies of them for myself. In particular, James H. Simpson’s 1859 survey map of a wagon route from Carson Valley, Nevada to Camp Floyd near Provo, Utah came in handy when I drove US 50 along the same route a few years later. The 1859 map showed stagecoach stations and Pony Express stops, many of which were still visible as anonymous lumps of decayed adobe and rubble within a few hundred yards of the modern-day highway. Dellenbaugh’s Fremont and ‘49 follows the author’s effort to retrace Fremont’s steps, often times finding his exact campsites. I would like to retrace a few of those trails myself but regrettably haven’t yet made the opportunity.

I was living in a hovel at the time. Usually writers use that term figuratively. I mean it literally, here. Three friends and I rented a three bedroom place at 315 N. Grant Street in West Lafayette. We leased the second floor and attic of the place. The house was so old that gas nozzles for lighting were evident in the walls. The floors sagged about six to eight inches lower in the middle of the rooms than at the walls. The ceilings similarly sagged. I thought it might collapse at any minute. Remarkably, the house still stands today, a quarter century later. Members of the Purdue chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism dubbed my abode “House Rodentia.” But the location couldn’t be beat for convenience to the campus. And it was cheap – $600 per month split four ways was only $150 month. With the occasional trip to Plasma Alliance to sell my blood, my cost of living was low enough to afford the occasional pizza as a luxury. The Indiana heat was oppressive, but my room had a small window AC unit.

To save money on utilities and escape my dismal surroundings, I spent most of my waking hours elsewhere. The Purdue Memorial Union was just a few blocks down the street. At that time, the Union had a reading room of interesting contemporary books (that were current to about 1940 or so). Many were the evenings I spent there reading my history books, the books in the reading room’s collection, or other authors. Most memorable from the reading room’s collection was Miller’s You Can’t Do Business with Hitler, a contemporary voice urging pre-war Americans not to support the Nazi regime. In reviewing a list I kept of my reading that summer, I see I read a half dozen Heinlein novels, a dozen of Jack L. Chalker’s novels, including the Well World and Rings series, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, and sequels, Crighton’s Andromeda Strain, John Christopher’s The White Mountains, Larry Niven’s The Patchwork Girl, Trevanian’s The Eiger Sanction, Haldeman’s There is No Darkness, and Poul Anderson’s Guardians of Time. I also read Victor Hugo’s Ninety Three, a half dozen works of O. Henry lent to me by my friend Bob Tracy, and Merwin-Webster’s Calumet K. In addition to a couple dozen books on Fremont and Western history, I read a few non-fiction books like Rosenberg’s How the West Grew Rich. I also read the single most challenging (non-mathematical) book I ever read in my life – Richard Henry Dana’s excellent Two Years Before the Mast. Dana brought the over-abundance of obscure nautical terminology to vivid life by the his stirring autobiographical account of the early days of California and its tenuous nautical connection to the eastern seaboard around the treacherous Cape Horn.

In writing my Fremont paper, however, I was tied to my computer at home. I had a Zenith EZ-PC, an XT-class machine with a 7MHz processor, 640kB of memory, and a 20MB hard drive. I did my school papers in Microsoft Works, a low-budget version of the Office suite for student and home users. The computer and the air conditioner shared a common circuit, and in the heat of the day, the breaker was prone to trip. I was a couple of weeks into my Fremont paper with a couple of weeks before it was due at the end of the month when disaster stuck. I realized I had not backed up my file in a couple of hours and I really should in case the breaker tripped again. I saved my file and as the hard drive was happily spinning away, the power went off. When I reset the breaker, the file and my two weeks of work was gone. The file had been in the process of being overwritten when the power died and the file was corrupted. I investigated how I might be able to recover the data, but in those pre-World-Wide Web days, finding such information was more difficult. I finally reconciled myself to the inevitable and rewrote the entire first third or so of the material, about a dozen pages in all from my notes and my memory.

As I was reviewing my records and files from that long ago summer to write this forward, I made a rather remarkable discovery: a .tmp file with a timestamp of July 6, 1989 at 7:48am and a 0kB file called fre_rep which was timestamped that same day at 12:48pm. A recovery program yielded the missing first draft of my Fremont report, lost for more than a quarter century. I was long haunted by the thought of how good my Fremont report might have been if only I hadn’t lost my work and had to start all over. But now as I compare the original version to the rewritten version, they are in fact remarkably similar. Many of the turns of phrase are the same and the ideas are in almost the same order. In fact the final version reads a bit better than the original lost draft, if only because I went back and edited the final version more closely before turning it in. For instance, here’s the description of how Fremont wooed and wed his wife Jessie from the final rewritten version:

More profound yet was the effect of Senator Benton’s nearly sixteen year old daughter, Jessie. Fremont was attracted by her beauty and intelligence. For her part, Jessie found the 27 year old army officer handsome and adventurous. She returned his attentions to the dismay of her parents who thought the impoverished officer would not make a suitable husband. The Bentons likely interceded with their friend, Joel Poinsett, and Fremont was soon taken away from his work with Nicollet, having received orders to conduct a supplemental survey of the Des Moines River. Fremont returned from the survey in less than six months with a wealth of valuable data. The separation had not changed John and Jessie’s feelings. The pair sought out clergymen willing to perform the ceremony without Senator Benton’s consent. Finally, a Catholic priest agreed, and John Charles Fremont married the seventeen-year-old Jessie in secret on October 19, 1841. Senator Benton was initially furious, but reconciled himself to the inevitable.

Here’s the “lost draft” version of the same paragraph:

Equally significant was the impact of Senator Benton’s 15 year old daughter, Jessie. Fremont was attracted by her beauty, character, and intellectual brilliance. In turn, Jessie admired the adventuresome officer. Their mutual attentions concerned Senator and Mrs. Benton, who thought the unsettled life of an army officer unfavorable and Jessie too young to be considering marriage. Influence was likely brought to bear on Senator Benton’s friend, Secretary of War Poinsett, and Fremont was soon startled to receive orders to conduct a survey of the Des Moines River in Iowa. Nicollet was left to struggle with the map alone. Fremont returned having performed the required [survey] in under six months. Their feelings unchanged, John Charles Fremont married seventeen year old Jessie Benton in secret on October 19, 1841, having found a clergyman willing to perform the ceremony without Senator Benton’s consent. Initially furious, the Senator shortly reconciled himself with his daughter and new son-in-law.

My time these days is fully occupied between my work, my family, and my other independent research and writing projects. Making a virtue of necessity, I have left this work as originally written in 1989 with the exception of some copyediting to correct errors in grammar, spelling, and formatting. I would not use the inline references in writing today, but the format is consistent, so I have chosen to let them stand. Similarly, I adopted the convention of two spaces after a period, which again I have let stand. As an appendix, I have added my original lost draft.

I am deeply indebted to Professor Parman for his courtesy and his willingness to supervise my work, and honored by his determined though ultimately unsuccessful efforts to lure me to history as a career. My historical training under his tutelage served me well, not only in the present work, but also in my more recent technical books in which I emphasize the origins of electromagnetics in general and antenna engineering in particular.

Following is the Table of Contents. The Kindle edition of The Biographies of John Charles Fremont is available from Amazon for $2.99.

Table of Contents:

Author’s Forward



2.1      ORIGINS

2.2      YOUTH








2.10    GOLD











3.5      DELLENBAUGH’S FREMONT AND ’49 (1914)

3.6      NEVINS’ FREMONT: PATHMARKER OF THE WEST (1928, 1939, 1955)




3.10    NEVIN’S DREAM WEST (1983)









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