Frémont Explores the American West Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

John C. Frémont’s explorations of the American West provided the main source of critical geographic information for settlers from the East and helped to foster increased settlement of the West.

Summary of Event

John C. Frémont was an officer in the U.S. Army Topographical Engineers and Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton’s Benton, Thomas Hart son-in-law. Between 1842 and 1854, he led five expeditions into the West. On the first, he set out from St. Louis, Missouri, in May, 1842, with Charles Preuss as his cartographer and Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell as his hunter. On his way up the Missouri River to Chouteau’s Landing (now Kansas City), he met Kit Carson, who was to guide him west. Following the Santa Fe Trail Santa Fe Trail to near modern Topeka, Kansas, the expedition then turned northwest to the Platte River near the Grand Island. Frémont, John C. [p]Frémont, John C.;explorations Exploration Exploration;American West [kw]Frémont Explores the American West (May, 1842-1854) [kw]Explores the American West, Frémont (May, 1842-1854) [kw]American West, Frémont Explores the (May, 1842-1854) [kw]West, Frémont Explores the American (May, 1842-1854) Frémont, John C. [p]Frémont, John C.;explorations Exploration Exploration;American West [g]United States;May, 1842-1854: Frémont Explores the American West[2240] [c]Exploration and discovery;May, 1842-1854: Frémont Explores the American West[2240] [c]Geography;May, 1842-1854: Frémont Explores the American West[2240] [c]Cartography;May, 1842-1854: Frémont Explores the American West[2240] Carson, Kit Abert, John James Fitzpatrick, Thomas Godey, Alexis Maxwell, Lucien Bonaparte Preuss, Charles Walker, Joseph R.

John Frémont planting an American flag atop what he mistakenly thought to be the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

Accompanied by a few companions, Frémont then moved west along the Oregon Trail to the mouth of the South Platte River (North Platte, Nebraska) and followed the South Platte River to Fort St. Vrain (near Greeley, Colorado). He then proceeded north to Fort Laramie Fort Laramie , rejoined the main party, and took the Oregon Trail to South Pass. The expedition then traveled north to just beyond modern Pinedale, Wyoming. Here, Frémont climbed what he thought was the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains Rocky Mountains;exploration of and dramatically displayed a U.S. flag with a superimposed eagle and arrows. Frémont probably climbed Woodrow Wilson Peak, south of Gannet Peak, which is the highest peak in the Wind River Mountains but not the highest peak in the Rockies. Finally, Frémont retraced his steps to modern Grand Island, Nebraska, continuing to St. Louis via the Platte and Mississippi Rivers.

Frémont’s commanding officer, Colonel John James Abert Abert, John James , then directed him to survey the gap between his 1842 mapping and Commodore Charles Wilkes’s Wilkes, Charles 1841 Pacific coast survey. Frémont left St. Louis on May 29, 1843, with Preuss Preuss, Charles , Maxwell, Maxwell, Lucien Bonaparte and Thomas Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick, Thomas In an evasion of orders, they took a twelve-pound mountain howitzer from the St. Louis arsenal. Frémont followed his 1842 route to near the site of modern Topeka, Kansas, but followed the Kansas River westward to the junction of the Republican and Smoky Hill branches (Junction City, Kansas). Frémont thereafter paralleled Republican River to near modern Atwood, Kansas, diverting Fitzpatrick north to the Platte River with the bulk of the party along the way. Leaving the Republican River, he turned northwesterly to the South Platte River, following it to Fort St. Vrain. There he met Alexis Godey Godey, Alexis and Carson, who had journeyed north from Taos.

Frémont then explored the area between Fort St. Vrain and the Arkansas River. After returning to Fort St. Vrain to meet the main party, Frémont crossed the mountains by way of the Cache de la Poudre River. Fitzpatrick and most of the party went north to Fort Laramie with instructions to rejoin Frémont at Fort Hall (near Fort Hall, Idaho). Frémont intersected the Oregon Trail at a point about twenty miles above the Devils Gate, now submerged by the Pathfinder Reservoir.

Frémont then followed the Oregon Trail into the mountains of western Wyoming. At Beer Springs (now Soda Springs, Idaho) Idaho;exploration of on the Bear River, he sent Carson north to Fort Hall for supplies, while he traveled south to the Great Salt Lake Great Salt Lake Utah;exploration of . Rejoining Fitzpatrick at Fort Hall, he sent some men back to Missouri. Frémont then took the Oregon Trail to the Walla Walla mission, continuing down the Columbia River to The Dalles. Here Frémont left most of his party under Carson Carson, Kit , while he traveled by canoe to Fort Vancouver to confer with Hudson’s Bay Hudson’s Bay Company[Hudsons Bay Company];trading posts Company officials and obtain supplies.

Instead of retracing his route homeward, Frémont proposed to map a new course, across the Great Basin and Rocky Mountains Rocky Mountains;exploration of . He hoped to determine whether Klamath Lake was the source of the Sacramento River, to locate Mary’s Lake somewhere between Great Salt Lake Great Salt Lake and the Sierra Nevada, and to find the Buenaventura River, shown on early maps as flowing from the Rocky Mountains into San Francisco Bay. On November 25, 1843, Frémont started down the Des Chutes River, reaching the edge of the Great Basin by January, 1884. Food was scarce there, and men and animals were near exhaustion. Either because of these difficulties or by design, Frémont abandoned his proposed route, crossing the Sierra Nevada California;exploration of into California. Along the way, his men became snowblind, some of his Indian guides deserted, and two men were driven mad on the monthlong trip. The group abandoned its howitzer and survived on horse and dog meat, eventually arriving at Sutter’s Fort (near Sacramento, California).

Heading south to avoid another difficult mountain crossing, Frémont was led by an Indian through a more southerly pass, probably Oak Creek Pass, about five miles south of Tehachapi Pass. Frémont intercepted the Old Spanish Trail below Cajon Pass and followed it to Santa Clara (Utah), where Joseph R. Walker Walker, Joseph R. joined as a guide. Continuing north, they traveled along the Wasatch Mountains to the Great Salt Lake Great Salt Lake . Frémont then crossed Soldier Summit, skirted the south flank of the Uinta Mountains, and followed the Yampa River across western Colorado. Reaching the Front Range, he turned south through the Parks, intersecting the Arkansas River below the Royal Gorge. He then followed the river to Bent’s Fort (between Las Animas and La Junta, Colorado). Leaving the Santa Fe Trail about twenty miles east, Frémont cut north to the Smoky Hill River and proceeded east to modern Kansas City.

In February, 1845, Frémont was ordered to mount a third expedition to the headwaters of the Arkansas and Red Rivers. Upon reaching Bent’s Fort, he sent Lieutenant James W. Abert Abert, James W. , the son of Colonel John J. Abert, down the Canadian and Arkansas Rivers, guided by Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick, Thomas Accompanied by Carson Carson, Kit , Godey Godey, Alexis , and Walker, Frémont moved up the Arkansas River, skirted the Royal Gorge, crossed Tennessee Pass, followed the White River, crossed the Grand and Green Rivers, and went down the Duchesne and Timpanogos Rivers to the Great Salt Lake Great Salt Lake Utah;exploration of Nevada;exploration of . He then crossed the Salt Lake Desert to Pilot Peak, Nevada. At modern Mound Spring, he sent the main party down the Humboldt River under Walker to the Humboldt Sink. He took a small detachment southwest across the Great Basin to Walker’s Lake, where the expedition reunited.

Frémont then directly crossed the Sierra Nevada Sierra Nevada;exploration of to Sutter’s Fort, while Walker Walker, Joseph R. and the main body marched south through Owen’s Valley and crossed Walker Pass to join Frémont in California. There, Frémont became involved in the Bear Flag Revolt (1846) Bear Flag Revolt (1846) and the Mexican War (1846-1848) until January, 1847, when he returned east.

In 1848, after resigning from the army, Frémont obtained private funding for a fourth expedition seeking a pass through the Rocky Mountains Rocky Mountains;exploration of along the thirty-eighth parallel. This expedition became snowbound and lost eleven of thirty-three men by starvation and exposure, without finding a pass. Frémont retreated to Taos, New Mexico Taos, New Mexico , reorganized, and continued to California by way of the Gila River.

Frémont’s fifth expedition, privately financed, again sought the thirty-eighth parallel railroad route. Leaving Westport (Kansas City), September 20, 1853, with photographer Solomon Nunes Carvalho Nunes Carvalho, Solomon and topographer-artist F. W. von Egloffstein Egloffstein, F. W. von , Frémont proceeded to Bent’s Fort. The men then crossed the Rocky Mountains by Cochetopa Pass, which they reached on December 15. They crossed the Colorado Plateau to Parowan, Utah, losing one man to cold and hunger. There Frémont left Carvalho and von Egloffstein and continued across the Great Basin and into California by the headwaters of the Kern River.


Frémont’s scientific contributions were slight: Plant collections from his first two expeditions were lost, his expeditions’ geological collections were sketchy, and he collected no zoological material. In some cases, it appears that his reports, written after his return, exaggerate and rationalize his actions. Frémont’s maps and route descriptions, however, became the principal guides to U.S. western migration, and he became a public hero and stimulated western development.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chaffin, Tom. Pathfinder: John Charles Frémont and the Course of American Empire. New York: Hill & Wang, 2002. A comprehensive biography describing Frémont’s varied life and career. Includes information on his expeditions, relationships with allies and adversaries, and his marriage to Jessie Benton Frémont.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Egan, Ferol. Frémont, Explorer for a Restless Nation. 1977. Reprint. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1985. Focuses on Frémont’s career to 1854.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frémont, John C. Memoirs of My Life. New York: Belford, Clarke, 1887. Frémont’s story in his own words.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goetzmann, William H. Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966. Describes Frémont’s first two western expeditions and evaluates his significance to science, geography, and politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jackson, Donald, and Mary Lee Spence, eds. The Expeditions of John Charles Frémont. 3 vols. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970-1984. Includes annotated original documents such as Frémont’s reports, his correspondence, and a map portfolio.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Preuss, Charles. Exploring with Frémont. Translated and edited by Erwin G. Gudde and Elisabeth K. Gudde. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958. An interesting perspective of the German scientist and cartographer who disliked the West, his assignment with Frémont, and Frémont himself.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roberts, David. A Newer World: Kit Carson, John C. Frémont, and the Claiming of the American West. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. An account of Frémont’s expeditions from the early 1840’s until the beginning of the Civil War. Describes Kit Carson’s role in the expeditions and the relationship of the two men.

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Categories: History