As we stagger through this year’s presidential campaign, it might help to look back at the election of 1856, when, for the first time, the West yielded a presidential candidate.
His name was John Charles Frémont, and he was a big name in his day. He still is: From Colorado to California, we have rivers and mountains named after Fremont, as well as towns, counties, parks and streets. Besides being famous, he was daring—and not unlike today’s presidential candidates, deeply flawed.
Frémont led four expeditions to the West in the 1840s. He had married well, partnering with Jessie Benton, the daughter of Missouri Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, who ballyhooed westward expansion. Boosted by his father-in-law’s influence, Frémont in 1842 launched his first expedition with mountain-man Kit Carson as a guide. It was a partnership based on ambition: Carson needed Frémont to make him famous, a favor he returned by keeping the tenderfoot mostly out of trouble as they explored the region.
In a 2001 book called A Newer World, the superb mountaineering author Michael Roberts chronicled the lives of the two men, principally through the lens of these expeditions. Roberts says he admires Kit Carson, but his praise for Frémont is more reserved. You understand why after you’ve read Roberts’ account of a climb in what is now Wyoming—of a mountain that Frémont thought was the highest peak in the Wind River Range. Fremont refused to share the glory of that first ascent with Carson; instead, he permitted a lesser light of the expedition, Charles Preuss, to accompany him to the top.
Yet Frémont and Carson crossed the continent together repeatedly. A pivotal year was 1846. U.S. troops were dispatched to defeat Mexico and, in the process, secure the Southwest for the expanding American empire. Ulysses Grant, then a lieutenant serving in the Mexican-American War, described that conflict late in his life as “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.”
While Grant dodged bullets in Mexico, Frémont defied orders and lingered in California. Finally, he got in on the conquest. The Mexicans had no wall to protect them against Northern invaders. There’s a shameful asterisk in the tale of Frémont’s bold ambitions for American’s manifest destiny: The Americans seized three Mexicans near San Francisco Bay. None of them were fighters; they just happened to live there. Kit Carson inquired as to what should be done with them.
“I have no use for prisoners,” Frémont said, according to first-hand accounts. “Do your duty.” Carson, who had recently wed his beloved Josefa Jaramillo, a Mexican resident of Taos, followed orders and shot the three Mexicans. Later, in the 1856 presidential election, the executions became an issue. Frémont, according to Roberts’ account, disavowed any part in the killings.
The worst was yet to come. Frémont’s father-in-law had in mind a railroad that would cross the West on the 38th parallel. So Frémont set out in the winter of 1848 to scout the route. His timing could not have been worse. The route was bewildering—across the steepest, most rugged ranges in the Rocky Mountains, in today’s Colorado. After crossing the Sangre de Cristos, Frémont and his men then faced the huge San Juans. They literally got in over their heads in snow.
Reading Roberts’ book, the word “idiot” comes to mind. Why didn’t Frémont’s men mutiny instead of traveling ever deeper into the range, which climbs above 12,000 feet? When Frémont finally turned back, his men were left to crawl, snowblind and starving, driven first to eat mules and then each other. Ten of them died. Once again, Frémont ducked responsibility. He blamed his guide, the fur trapper “Old” Bill Williams. Unlike Harry Truman, the buck never stopped with Frémont.
Frémont, by then living in San Francisco, would soon become the Republican Party’s first presidential candidate. He faced a former president, Millard Fillmore of the Know Nothings, a party that opposed the immigration of people like my relatives—Germans dodging the draft in Prussia who came to America to clear forests in Illinois—as well as Catholics, of any origin. The eventual winner of the presidency was James Buchanan, who favored expanding slavery into the West. Frémont, with his checkered past, condemned the expansion of slavery, and because of that principled stand, lost the election.
Frémont was an egotist, and he was reckless with other people’s lives. But here’s what’s perplexes me: From my safe perch 160 years later, I think I might have voted for the despicable scoundrel.
If you see parallels to this year’s election, here’s something to keep in mind: Four years later, we got Abraham Lincoln.
Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, where this piece first appeared.