The Origins of the Fremont Expeditions: John J. Abert and the Scientific Exploration of the Trans-Mississippi West

By Volpe, Vernon L. | The Historian, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

The Origins of the Fremont Expeditions: John J. Abert and the Scientific Exploration of the Trans-Mississippi West


Volpe, Vernon L., The Historian


John C. Fremont (1813-90), one of the most colorful and controversial figures in nineteenth-century U.S. history, based his heroic reputation as an explorer of the American West on expeditions he led to the Rocky Mountains in 1842 and 1843-44. In his own accounts and those of his powerful father-in-law, Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, he emerged as a heroic figure whose expeditions into the wilderness effectively marked the trails to be followed by immigrants on the western expansion. In 1842, Fremont surveyed the Oregon Trail as far as South Pass and then explored the Wind River Range of the Rocky Mountains. He followed up his success with a more ambitious journey in 1843-44 to the Oregon settlements, and after exploring the Great Basin, he crossed the Sierra Nevada mountains into California. There, on his third mission of 1845-46, Fremont led a revolt against the Mexican authorities and established the Bear Flag republic that preceded California's incorporation into the Union. Although Fremont was later condemned during political infighting over the new state of California and court-martialed, he became one of the state's first senators (1850-51) and subsequently was an unsuccessful presidential candidate in 1856.(1)

Fremont's adventures captured the American imagination and whetted the national appetite for western expansion. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the public's acclamation for Fremont's exploits largely overshadowed the original scientific motivations for the initial 1842 project. Likewise captivated by the allure and evident intrigue surrounding the Fremont journeys, historians typically have stressed the relationship between "exploration and empire" in planning for the young lieutenant's missions.(2) Relying largely on Fremont family accounts, Fremont's explorations are usually depicted in terms of the Manifest Destiny of westward expansion espoused by Senator Benton. In fact, however, the 1842 and 1843-44 expeditions were part of a series of exploratory operations carried out by the U.S. Army's Topographical Corps to explore and map the western territories. While Fremont's exploits garnered public acclaim, the foundation for his success was laid by Secretary of War Joel R. Poinsett, Topographical Corps Chief Colonel John J. Abert, and the French scientist Joseph Nicollet, who had led previous expeditions and trained the young Fremont. Only the accident of Nicollet's illness and subsequent death led to Fremont's last-minute appointment to head up the 1842 expedition.(3)

Recently uncovered evidence in the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles supports this revised view of the origins of the Fremont expeditions and refocuses attention on the meticulous efforts of the Army Topographical Corps to explore systematically the western domain and document its major features. This brief but telling 1842 correspondence between Colonel Abert and Senator Benton discusses Fremont's original orders and reveals the degree to which he subsequently exceeded his instructions by crossing ill-defined territorial borders into lands claimed by Great Britain and Mexico--thereby altering the significance of his missions from scientific pursuits to geopolitical ones.(4)

Much of the western territories had been acquired in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, a rich but indefinite acquisition whose precise boundaries in the faraway Rockies remained indistinct at the time of the Fremont missions. Previous expeditions led by Stephen Long in 1817 and 1819-20 to survey the existing lands of the Upper Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains had achieved only limited success. Although Long had taken care to include scientific specialists in his party, his mission's actual accomplishments were hampered by lack of geographical precision, failing to ascend the Arkansas or Platte rivers to their sources, and confusing the Canadian River for the Red River. In addition, valuable records were lost when several men deserted the expedition. …

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