John C. Frémont is a name many have heard or seen in the West. We have Fremont County in Idaho, which also has North and South Fremont High Schools. Mountain peaks, streams, streets also bear his name. Students of history may know he was an explorer, but how much do we really know about him?
Steve Inskeep, Morning Edition host for NPR News and author, has just published a book about John C. Frémont and his wife Jessie called “Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War.”
In an interview with BYU-Idaho Radio, Inskeep said he became interested in the Frémonts while writing about President Andrew Jackson.
“I found the Frémonts had made themselves central characters in what we call 'Manifest Destiny' that phase of America, the 1840s and 50s when the United States was expanding out to the West Coast,” he said.
The narrative of the book follows the Frémonts as they meet and marry each other and John goes on his adventures to map the west. John’s letters home become newspaper articles that spread through the civilized part of the United States. He becomes an instant celebrity.
Frémont helped map the Oregon Trail, traveled throughout the American West, was involved in the conquest of California – even briefly becoming the military governor of what would become the 31 st state. He also briefly served as one of California’s first U.S. senators and ran for president as the first candidate of the newly created Republican Party.
Inskeep said John became so famous because he and his wife were publicizing his discoveries.
“I discovered it’s really a modern story because, for him, publicity was the point,” he said. “His job was to entice Americans to settle the West in order to be sure that it was taken over by the United States and that could be done through publicity.”
Jessie Frémont was, perhaps, a woman from another time. She grew up as the daughter of an influential senator and was connected to the political world. She also became John’s secretary, publicist and ghostwriter at times.
By the time John ran for president in 1856, Jessie was even more popular than he was. One account Inskeep writes about in his book paints a scene of when John just became the Republican nominee a crowd of thousands of people went to his home and chanted for him to speak to them. This was in the days when presidential candidates gave very few speeches. He walked out on the balcony and said something then went back inside. Then the crowd chanted for Jessie.
“Jessie did appear and they cheered her more loudly then they had cheered her husband,” Inskeep said.
If she lived today she may have become the presidential candidate, Inskeep said.
After the failed presidential run, the Frémonts began to fade from the limelight. Jessie’s writing about John’s adventures helped to bring in some income. Inskeep said we likely don’t know their story today because of the complicated time they lived in.
“They were creating this much more diverse nation,” he said. “They were making America the nation of the world, which is something to celebrate today and be proud of, but it’s troubling to think of how it came about, so it’s hard for us to exactly celebrate these characters. I do think, though, we should know them and know their story.”
Inskeep’s book is on sale now from Penguin Press. It’s also available from Amazon or Barnes and Noble.