Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

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.

Published in Community Voices

Dear Mexican: Why is it that mid-30s Mexican heinas let their bush go all out? And then they get mad ’cause you ain’t eatin’ them?

I Won’t Make a Pink Taco Joke, Promise

Dear Pocho: Bruh, you’ve watched too much porn—you really think expecting women to have no pubic hair so they can look prepubescent is healthy? That’s pedophile territory right there—I should call To Catch a Predator on you. If the mexicanas you bed are au natural, it’s because they’re in touch with Pachamama and rightfully have no shame with what God granted them.

As for the second pregunta: I actually answered it a decade ago, with me reporting then that “a 2002 report by the National Center for Health Statistics showed that 74 percent of Latino men had performed cunnilingus at one point in their life.” Now comes the 2010 results from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which found that 84.6 percent of Latino males reported performing oral sex … but only 72 percent of Mexican Americans did the deed. And we wonder why so many of our mujeres leave us for gabachos and Salvadorans …

Dear Mexican: A young California high school boy of Latino heritage asked me: Why did us whities steal California from Mexico? I asked him who told him that, and he said his father. I told him we purchased California from Mexico, via the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the opportunity to discuss the history or the details of the transaction with him.

Is common for Hispanics to think California was stolen? If so, that makes them appear very uneducated about their so-called homeland … don’t you think?

Retired Teacher

Dear Gabacho: Wow, so many babadas to unpack here! First off, pick: Hispanic? Latino? Those terms ain’t interchangeable. Really, you mean “Mexican”—say our name, pendejo.

Most importantly, the U.S. “purchased” California and the rest of Aztlán from Mexico the way the U.S. “purchased” Georgia from the Cherokees. Mexicans see the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo for what it is: a purchase done down the barrel of the Mexican-American War. And it wasn’t just us: Abraham Lincoln opposed it while a congressman, and Ulysses S. Grant described the war years later as “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory”—and all those guys did was save the Republic, you know?

Even if we play your Manifest Destiny game, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was still thievery: It didn’t respect the land rights of the conquered Mexicans, therefore allowing a bunch of Pikers to murder, pillage and rob Mexicans of their lands under the threat of marrying their daughters. “Uneducated about their so-called homeland?” That’s you and your fellow gabachos, pendejo.


Last week, I tweeted about the horrific assault on Leslie Jones’ website and tried to use the hacker obsession with Harambe as a punchline. People took it as me comparing the actress to an ape, which shows I REALLY need an editor.

The tweet pissed off and hurt good folks—I’ve owned up to my pendejada, and I will continue to do so. This column has slammed raza for our inherent anti-blackness almost from the start, and we need black and brown solidarity now more than ever in this era of Trump—and definitely don’t need a weak-salsa satirist fucking shit up.

Ask the Mexican at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; be his fan on Facebook; follow him on Twitter @gustavoarellano; or follow him on Instagram @gustavo_arellano!

Published in Ask a Mexican