The Origins Of The Fremont Expeditions: John J. Abert And The Scientific Exploration Of The Trans-Mississippi West

The Origins Of The Fremont Expeditions: John J. Abert And The Scientific Exploration Of The Trans-Mississippi West

Vernon L. Volpe

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. In his official report, Long misleadingly depicted the Great Plains as the “Great American Desert.”(5)

Further exploration languished until Joel Poinsett (1779-1851) of South Carolina was appointed secretary of war in 1837, a post he held until 1841. A man of diverse interests and accomplishments, Poinsett (who also introduced the flower poinsettia to the United States) was well educated and had wide experience in world travel, including a stint as U.S. minister to Mexico. In his first report to Congress, Poinsett recommended increasing the size of the Topographical Bureau, then a small office in the War Department, for, as he told Congress the following year, “we are still lamentably ignorant of the geography and resources of our country.”(6) Congress responded by expanding the bureau and giving it equivalent status with the better-known Corps of Engineers. Assuming control over the new corps he helped to create, Colonel John J. Abert strongly favored systematic exploration and documentation of the nation’s western territories. In addition to opening the West to settlement and trade, such efforts would enhance U.S. standing within the scientific world. Abert urged Poinsett to continue explorations to map the American west to show that “valuable and useful knowledge will always find a patron in the U[nited] States,” a view that Poinsett heartily endorsed.(7)

At Abert’s urging, Poinsett recruited Joseph Nicollet, a respected French emigre scientist whose “known eminence as an astronomer and Philosopher” added luster to the corps. Abert believed that Nicollet’s scientific procedures would produce “the best map that has yet been published of the United States west of the Mississippi.”(8) Nicollet’s expeditions in 1838 were the first sponsored by the newly independent Topographical Corps. Nicollet won attention by his systematic geographical work along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and advanced the Topographical Corps’s scientific techniques by introducing the use of a barometer to measure altitudes above sea level. Abert and Poinsett also joined forces to support Nicollet’s elaborate project to fix by observation the locations of points across the nation. Poinsett especially encouraged Nicollet’s expeditions of 1838-39 to complete information about the region between the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. Among his staff was a young lieutenant, John C. Fremont, who gained valuable experience as Nicollet’s assistant on journeys through today’s Minnesota and the Dakotas.(9)

In his 1839 Congressional report, Poinsett continued to urge an ambitious program of exploration. Praising the “activity, order, and good management” of Abert’s corps, he recommended extending “our researches over the Rocky Mountains to the shores of the Pacific Ocean.” Further, he added:

It is believed that these explorations, cautiously and slowly conducted,

will prove much more useful in their results, both as regards the geography

and natural history of that portion of our country, than the great

expeditions which have preceded them, and which could not devote the time

necessary to acquire the accurate information now sought for.(10)

The secretary’s report the next year again called for scientific missions to cross the Rockies, recommending that no future surveys be made without adopting Nicollet’s method of “astronomical and barometrical observations”(11) Embracing the insights of the renowned early nineteenth-century German explorer Alexander von Humboldt and Nicollet’s new methodology, Poinsett and Abert stressed accurate measurement and mapping in their expeditions.

Nicollet was scheduled to lead the 1842 expedition, the primary purpose of which was to construct extensive maps while contributing to a comprehensive view of the Western region’s geography. But within weeks of the expedition’s scheduled departure, he fell ill and died the following year. Nicollet’s untimely death caused untold damage to the potential scientific achievements of the corps. Fremont was hastily appointed to succeed him, but the drama of Fremont’s adventures could hardly compensate for the loss of this trained scientist. Still, Fremont accomplished enough to win Humboldt’s personal approbation as well as widespread recognition for his considerable, if inconsistent, scientific work.(12) Besides using barometers to determine altitudes, other instruments fixed positions by determining latitudes and (less accurately) longitudes. Fremont also observed weather features, geological formations, and prominent landmarks, and gathered other useful information.

Colonel Abert, Secretary Poinsett, and Joseph Nicollet were representative of many eastern bureaucrats and intellectuals whose desire for orderly scientific exploration sometimes conflicted with the efforts of proponents for western expansion to open the frontier without delay to the fur trade, settlement in Oregon, and other forms of development. The principle of scientific exploration and the drive to open the western territories operated on parallel lines for a time, to propel America’s westward advance. For example, in February 1840, Senator Benton’s fellow Missourian Lewis F. Linn asked the Senate to urge Poinsett to provide information about building a line of military posts to facilitate emigration to the Oregon country. The secretary assented, noting that the chain of posts “would be productive of the most beneficial effects upon the commerce of the whole region” but he reminded the senators that the posts could not be placed without further exploration and expense. With necessary funding, the Topographical Corps’s surveys would be extended “this summer to the passes of the Rocky Mountains.”(13) As this exchange revealed, Poinsett and Abert needed little prodding to utilize the ambitions of the expansionists for scientific ends.

Abert’s Topographical Corps earned little public notice until the dashing Fremont won national attention following his first two western expeditions, and even so, the Fremont family later diminished the important role the corps played in planning Fremont’s famous journeys. As a fellow South Carolinian, Poinsett had helped Fremont obtain his military commission, and Nicollet had instructed the young officer in the fundamentals of scientific exploration during the 1838 expedition. In his memoirs Fremont recalled fond feelings for Poinsett and Nicollet and acknowledged they aided his early career, but he denigrated them to the relatively passive roles of “patron” and “mentor.” Benton went even further, describing Fremont’s 1842 exploration as “unofficial” and disputing that it was conducted under the auspices of Abert and the Topographical Corps. Historians who have depended on these accounts likewise have neglected Abert and have failed to sufficiently acknowledge his contributions.(14)

Accounts of Fremont’s expeditions written by Fremont and his wife Jessie some decades later may have been influenced by events in Fremont’s subsequent career. His status as the “Conqueror of California” ended in disappointment after a dispute with the new territory’s military governor, Stephen W. Kearny. Fremont was court-martialed and resigned from the service in 1848. Two privately financed western expeditions in 1848-49 and 1853-54 were largely unsuccessful, though his fame did not diminish. In 1850 Fremont took office as California’s first U.S. senator. His presidential campaign as the Republican nominee in 1856 was unsuccessful, but in 1861 President Lincoln appointed Fremont, now a prominent Republican leader and anti-slavery advocate, to a sensitive Civil War command in Missouri. His premature attempt to free the slaves and his efforts to pacify a divided state failed, however, and Lincoln removed the controversial general, effectively ending Fremont’s mercurial career.(15) Still, Fremont’s enduring fame as a western pathfinder retained a certain luster, and through it all, the romantic appeal of his early western adventures provided an almost inexhaustible source of continuing public adulation.

Senator Benton had long anguished at what he took to be the national government’s tardiness in promoting American expansion to Oregon, but after Fremont’s fall from California glory, he also had personal reasons to disparage the government. According to Senator Benton, Fremont’s 1842 expedition had been planned without the government’s knowledge and “executed upon solicited orders, of which the design was unknown.”(16) Fremont later confirmed that the first two expeditions of 1842 and 1843-44 had been “planned by Senator Benton and myself.”(17)

The documentary evidence suggests, however, that the collective memory of Benton and Fremont exaggerated the, latter’s authority. Actually, compared to the broad authority Abert granted Nicollet, Fremont’s orders were quite detailed and rather restrictive. In authorizing Nicollet’s expedition of 1838, Abert had professed “utmost confidence” in the French scientist’s abilities; after the frequent conversations between Abert and Nicollet, he wrote, “further instructions are considered unnecessary.”(18) Abert’s directions to Fremont granted him far less discretion than the family would have liked to recall. Indeed, Fremont’s appointment as Nicollet’s successor probably owed less to his father-in-law’s influence than to Nicollet’s recommendation of his former protege Thus, the mission began rather unremarkably until Benton sought a larger role, as the new documents now make clear.

Senator Benton cherished the dream of opening the western wilderness to settlement. Through his connections to the St. Louis fur trade he knew the importance of South Pass in Wyoming, and as Fremont’s first expedition prepared to depart in 1842, the Missouri senator sent a note to Abert asking to have Fremont’s orders revised to include examination of the vital pass. Abert responded briefly to Benton’s note but only informally relaxed Fremont’s orders.(19) The exchange of these brief notes highlights the respective motivations of both Abert and the Benton-Fremont family.

Abert’s orders directed Fremont to conduct a survey of the Platte River and to continue “up to the head of the Sweetwater” He was also to survey the Kansas River, should circumstances permit.(20) South Pass was not mentioned in the directive, but historians have assumed that going to the head of the Sweetwater River would also take Fremont to the pass, and that this was one of the mission objectives. In writing his memoirs over a decade later, Benton recalled that Fremont had considered the original instructions too restrictive, returned them to Abert, and had “the Rocky Mountains inserted as an object of the exploration, and the South Pass in those mountains named as a particular point to be examined, and its position fixed by him.”(21)

Benton’s note to Abert at the War Department indicates that it was Benton who found the orders too restrictive and attempted to have them changed. Benton wrote:

I think it would be well for you to name, in the instructions to Mr.

Fremont, the great pass through the Rocky Mountains, called the South West

Pass. It is the gate through the Mountains from the valley of the

M[ississippi]. It will be a thorough fare for nations to the end of time.

In the mean time we only know it from the reports of hunters & traders, its

lau. & lat. unknown, its distance & bearings from navigable water equally

unknown. It is an object worthy to increase the exploration of the great

river which approaches it, and may be considered the most striking and

interesting point in the communication with the country on the Columbia



In his reply of 28 April 1842, Abert informed Benton that he would call his suggestion to Fremont’s attention, but feared “to make it a part of his instructions, lest I should overload him.” “The country So. west of the Missouri is a vast unexplored field, which will require the labor of several seasons,” he wrote. (Poinsett earlier had estimated that the current sequence of planned surveys would take at least three years to complete.) Abert noted that the bureau was “extremely anxious” to have the surveys of the Platte and Kansas rivers, and he doubted Fremont could achieve more during the season.(23) Thus, as far as Abert was concerned, the original orders remained essentially intact.

As late as June, the department still listed Fremont’s duties as the “Survey of the Platte or Nebraska, and Kansas rivers,”(24) and in July, Abert informed the company outfitting Fremont’s party that the only duties assigned him were “the Surveys of the Kansas and the Platte.” Abert complained that despite the limited objectives of Fremont’s mission, his requisitions almost equaled that of much larger and more extensive expeditions in that area.(25)

As he had promised, Abert sent a copy of Benton’s letter, Abert’s reply, and the colonel’s explanation to Fremont in St. Louis. The unusual nature and delivery of this correspondence could explain why it has only now come to attention. Abert advised Fremont:

If you can do what he desires this Season, without hazarding the work

committed to you, It is extremely desirable that it Should be done, but,

from my answer to Col. B[enton]. you will see why I have not made his wish

an instruction to you.(26)

Abert’s reluctance to authorize Fremont to survey South Pass may have stemmed in part from a fear that the strategic point lay in Mexican territory. Although “mountain men” used the pass regularly, its precise location was still undetermined. Fremont’s calculations would show that South Pass stood just north of the forty-second parallel, the border set by the 1819 treaty with Spain. But in April 1842, Abert was in no position to sanction missions with aggressive overtones. The sensitive diplomatic concerns involved could also explain the unusual method of communication.

This exchange of letters can help to clarify a number of points concerning Fremont’s explorations. Benton’s recollections about the orders for the first expedition, although imperfect, were not entirely deceptive; although it was Benton who appealed the instructions, not Fremont, Benton preferred to enlarge his son-in-law’s role and diminish his own. More importantly, Fremont’s orders were not officially expanded, although Benton’s claim was substantially correct in that Abert had informally relaxed his instructions to allow Fremont to visit South Pass.

At the conclusion of the 1842 expedition Fremont traveled beyond the continental divide via South Pass. In his popular published journal, the eager explorer compared the ascent to climbing Washington’s Capitol Hill, thus suggesting that emigrant wagons could easily negotiate’ the pass over the dreaded Rocky Mountains. Taking even further advantage of the leeway Abert had implied, Fremont proceeded beyond South Pass to explore the summits of the Wind River Range, ultimately climbing what he mistakenly took to be the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains. There he triumphantly planted a makeshift American flag atop the Rockies in what proved to be the expedition’s symbolic and suitably romantic climax.(27)

As the documents demonstrate, while Abert had allowed Fremont some discretion, the young explorer exceeded his orders by engaging in significant operations along the Wind River Range’s western slope, beyond the parameters of Abert’s original directives or his subsequent adjustment. To achieve these dramatic results, Fremont neglected the planned survey of the Kansas River, which required additional work on the second expedition. Moreover, despite Benton’s emphasis on South Pass, Fremont at first slighted fixing of its exact position in his rush to explore the high peaks of the Wind River range beyond the pass.(28)

These brief documents better illuminate the negotiations that resulted in Fremont’s famous expedition to the heights of the Rocky Mountains. Appropriately enough, the documents reside in the same archive with the flag that Fremont hoisted atop the Rockies and later presented to his young wife and the infant daughter she had delivered during his absence. In addition to clarifying Abert’s original instructions, the documents reveal the degree to which Fremont exceeded Abert’s informal offer of discretion. They also further illustrate the Topographical Engineers’ role in exploring the West.

The traditional depiction of Fremont’s expedition suggests that Benton used his political clout to skirt the authority of Abert’s corps and “ease around” the government authorities to further the goals of the westward expansion “without official sanction.”(29) But in fact, Fremont’s 1842 expedition was part of an ongoing plan for extensive scientific explorations of the Rocky Mountain regions that the Topographical Corps had devised long before receiving Benton’s dispatch in April 1842. As Abert noted in a report to the secretary of war dated 30 December 1839, Nicollet’s earlier missions had been limited to the north of the Missouri and it was “extremely desirable” to survey the uncharted territory south of the river. Abert urged at that time that the observations be extended to the Rocky Mountains–thus completing the project launched by Nicollet.(30)

Abert was aware of the strategic value of openings like the South Pass well before Benton’s letter. Early in 1842 Abert reported that the contemplated chain of military posts would have to be located according to the mountain passes and that there was as yet no survey of the passes. Information available indicated that the most promising passes were in U.S. territory, but their precise locations were uncertain. From the Rockies to the Columbia remained “a want of that exact information” to allow any recommendations about the locations of posts. Abert warned that it would not be safe to designate such “without an examination of the country.”(31)

Indeed, Abert was already lobbying for funding to conduct the necessary surveys, a task he considered an extension of Nicollet’s unfinished labors. In a report written in October 1842, well after Fremont’s first expedition had departed, Abert noted that this survey “of the Kansas and the Platte rivers” came only after the corps had completed a “highly scientific reconnaissance” of the extensive region north of the Missouri River. The current mission would extend these observations south of the river to construct a map similar to that already undertaken by Nicollet and Fremont for the northern region. Thus, Benton’s entreaties only complicated a quite unromantic bureaucratic tussle for enlarged responsibilities and additional funding.(32)

The source of funding for the 1842 expedition has also been an issue of some confusion. Relying on Benton’s account, several writers maintained that Benton faced “little difficulty” in winning a special appropriation of $30,000 for the Topographical Corps to sponsor the 1842 expedition.(33) But Abert’s reports show that in March 1841, even before Nicollet’s illness, the corps had received an appropriation for $20,000 proposed by Senator Robert J. Walker of Mississippi to carry on “military and geographical surveys west of the Mississippi.”(34) Benton, whose voice was heard on a variety of issues during the session, remained silent on this matter. Records indicate that Abert specifically allotted $4,000 for the 1842 expedition, and he was dismayed when Fremont quickly exceeded this amount and then requested an additional $4,000. Caught between a tightfisted Congress and a spendthrift young officer, Abert eventually allowed the lieutenant another $3,000. Fremont later complained that secrecy surrounding the funding dictated “limited means” and “a close economy in the outfit.”(35) In fact, historians could find no record of a special appropriation for the 1842 expeditions because the Topographical Corps received no additional funds in 1842; the amount on hand was considered sufficient for that year, but demanded the economy of which Fremont complained.(36)

The Benton-Fremont account of mysterious funding does not stand up to close scrutiny. Instead, the available evidence indicates that the 1842 expedition, expected to be led by Nicollet, had been approved and the funds authorized according to the usual unremarkable bureaucratic procedures. By depending too readily on Benton’s self-serving account, historians have overdrawn the Missouri senator’s role in encouraging western exploration. The pressure exerted by expansionists in Congress certainly created conditions favorable to stimulating further exploration. Beyond this, Benton’s part was limited to several sporadic and not always successful attempts to supervise his son-in-law’s explorations. Thus, the origins of Fremont’s expeditions are more properly placed in the context of the Topographical Corps’s long-term policy of systematic and professional exploration.

Abert’s Topographical Corps could expect to win the support of expansionists in Congress. Benton and Linn had been encouraging immigration to settle Oregon throughout 1841-42. Senator Linn sponsored resolutions promoting the Oregon venture, while Benton called attention to the strategic necessity of an American port on the Columbia. As Fremont returned from the Rockies in August 1842, Linn announced to the Senate that

For the purpose of ascertaining the best points for these posts, Lieutenant

Freemont [sic] had been despatched by the War Department, early in the

summer…. From the known abilities of this gentleman, we expect much

valuable and interesting information relating to the valley of the river

Platte … whose sources almost interlock with the branches of the Columbia

River, in the great southern passes of the Rocky Mountains.(37)

Confronting persistent foes in Congress, Benton and Linn may have harnessed Fremont’s newly acquired fame to support their own projects and claimed more responsibility for his success than was in fact the case. Fremont merely claimed that his authority for expanding his early expeditions stemmed from Benton’s “circle” friendly to western expansion.(38)

Benton again attempted to intervene in the planning for Fremont’s second expedition of 1843-44, suggesting that the exploration continue beyond South Pass to connect with the Columbia River surveys of Charles Wilkes in 1841. Benton even asked for an additional allotment for Indian presents. Abert, although accommodating, required Fremont to submit detailed estimates for the projected mission before any orders were issued. While Fremont quickly complied, he included an unauthorized mountain howitzer in his requisition, causing Abert to question whether the “discretion and thought” that characterized Fremont’s first journey would be “much wanting in the second.” Abert feared that Fremont’s preparations would exceed the authorized amount, placing the lieutenant “in the most serious difficulties.” The howitzer especially concerned Abert because it promised to change the mission from a “peaceable expedition … to gather scientific knowledge” into a military one, thus expanding the expedition beyond acceptable limits. Abert reasoned that if the prospects of Indian hostilities were so great, then Fremont could not complete his geographical objectives and he should return instead.(39)

Abert’s warning convinced Fremont and his wife Jessie that a “hidden hand” sought to sabotage the expedition. In a memoir many years after the fact, Jessie concocted a dramatic story about how she saved the expedition from unwarranted obstruction by government authorities, particularly Abert. Had she not intervened by suppressing Abert’s dispatch and hurrying John on his way, she wrote, the “grand plan” of continental expansion would have fallen victim to “petty official routine” that cloaked a more menacing “evil interference.” Jessie always insisted that her husband’s exploration of the western domain had proceeded” in spite of Washington.”(40) The howitzer incident provided a convenient example of how John and Jessie were forced to win a continent against the active opposition of the government.

The Fremonts refused to understand that Abert’s motives were not so devious. The furor over the howitzer came at an inopportune time for Abert, whose Topographical Corps was then locked in a jurisdictional struggle with the Corps of Engineers. As Abert tried to explain to Jessie, her husband’s requisition of the howitzer seemed calculated to direct his mission “more to military than to Scientific results.”(41) As Topographical chief, Abert could not authorize such a military expedition under the appropriation he had received for the survey.

Responding to a complaint filed by Senator Benton over the incident, Abert admitted that Fremont was a most promising officer, but he explained that the lieutenant could not keep his superiors “entirely uninformed.” By obtaining the howitzer, Fremont had changed the expedition’s object without the consent of his commanders. Should violence with the Indians result, Abert insisted, the lieutenant would not be held blameless.(42) Fremont fulfilled expectations for his second mission, but just as Abert predicted, he was forced to abandon the offending howitzer in the mountains. In the years ahead Abert would be forever frustrated with the explorer’s failure to follow established procedures in preparing for and commanding his expeditions.(43)

The howitzer episode has overshadowed larger considerations concerning Fremont’s second expedition. As in 1842, Fremont clearly exceeded instructions in the 1843-44 expedition by entering Mexican territory without authorization. Abert’s instructions, though evidently constructed with Fremont’s collaboration, did not permit him to cross into Mexico. Upon surveying the Arkansas River, Fremont was to cross the mountains along the “boundary between the United States and Mexico.” After joining his 1842 survey with that of Wilkes on the Columbia, he was to return “by the Oregon road” to circuit the Wind River Mountains.(44) Fremont, however, first made an excursion into the Great Basin, primarily through Mexican territory, and then crossed the Sierra Nevadas into Mexican California. Both in 1842 and 1843, Abert had been very explicit about Fremont’s objectives; in refusing to expand the limits of Fremont’s journeys, he had sought to focus the young explorer on scientific goals rather than expansionist ones.

Whatever Abert’s frustrations in dealing with the well-connected explorer, the evidence now available suggests that historians underestimated the colonel’s capacity to maintain the Topographical Corps’s independence despite the best efforts of Senator Benton to undermine it. The origins of the Fremont expeditions lay in the step-by-step survey of America’s still substantially unknown existing domain envisioned originally by Abert, Poinsett, and Nicollet. While Nicollet and Poinsett, who was replaced as secretary of war in 1841, faded from the scene too soon to join in the credit for their parts in Fremont’s success, their planning established the framework for Fremont’s early expeditions to the Rocky Mountains. That Fremont and Benton subsequently altered the first two missions’ purposes and later sought to magnify their role in planning the original expedition should not obscure the first journey’s true origins.

As Topographical Chief, Colonel Abert understood he could not authorize adventuresome expeditions independently. From the first, he viewed Fremont’s journeys as simply another small step in the orderly scientific investigation of the American domain. Sometimes portrayed as a well-meaning but unimaginative bureaucrat, Colonel Abert’s commitment to exploration may be seen in his decision to send his son, Lieutenant James Abert, to accompany Fremont’s third expedition in 1845. The colonel’s scientific outlook also is reflected in his sustained correspondence with the famed naturalist John J. Audubon. He was also a devotee of the great German explorer Alexander von Huraboldt, as were Nicollet, Fremont, and other members of the corps.(45)

Although Senator Benton did not play as large a role in masterminding Fremont’s expeditions as he later claimed, Benton and Fremont essentially achieved their personal and political ambition. Yet Abert and his corps also fulfilled their objectives while sharing in the popular acclaim won by Fremont’s explorations. Even Benton’s Senate ally Lewis Linn applauded Abert’s contributions, recognizing him as the “skillful and vigilant” leader of the Topographical Corps, which was conducting “numerous valuable and incessant surveys” to collect information of “the highest importance to the country.”(46) Abert did not reprimand his now famous subordinate but instead appointed him to command still more demanding operations.

With Lieutenant Fremont’s ceremonial planting of a makeshift American flag atop the Wind River Range, the first expedition’s scientific objectives, crafted by Abert, Poinsett, and Nicollet, were effectively supplanted by a symbolic though obvious emblem of America’s westward destiny. Few would remember that before planting the flag, Lieutenant Fremont first employed a barometer atop the high, rocky peak to ascertain its altitude as Nicollet had taught him. Instead, numerous artistic renditions of Fremont’s famous flag-raising graphically illustrated how expansionistic impulses first joined and then transformed the expedition’s initial scientific objectives. Just a few years following Fremont’s mountaintop flag ceremony in 1842, other, more official American flags would be flying over missions and government houses, both in Mexico’s former California province and in the Mexican capital itself.

(1) See Allan Nevins, Fremont: Pathmarker of the West (New York, 1955); John Logan Allen, “Division of the Waters: Changing Concepts of the Continental Divide, 1804-44,” Journal of Historical Geography 4 (1978): 357-70; and David E. Miller, “John C. Fremont in the Great Salt Lake Region” The Historian 11 (Autumn 1948): 14-28.

(2) See William H. Goetzmann, Army Exploration in the American West, 1803-1863 (New Haven, 1959), 65-69, 74-77; and Goetzmann, Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of [No Continuation in Original Text]

(3) Goetzmann, Army Exploration in the American West, 9-12, 69-76.

(4) Benton to Abert, n.d.; Abert to Benton, 28 April 1842; and Abert to Fremont, 28 April 1842, Fremont collection, Southwest Museum, Los Angeles.

(5) See Goetzmann, Army Exploration in the American West, 40-45; Goetzmann, Exploration and Empire, 60-64; and Roger L. Nichols and Patrick L. Halley, Stephen Long and American Frontier Exploration (Newark, 1980).

(6) “Report of the Secretary of War,” 2 December 1837, Congressional Globe, 25th Cong., 2d sess., appendix, 4; “Report of the Secretary of War,” 28 November 1838, Congressional Globe, 25th Cong., 3d sess., appendix, 1-4.

(7) John J. Abert to Joel Poinsett, 17 January 1838, Office of the Chief of Engineers, Letters Sent Letterbook, National Archives Record Group 77 (hereafter OCE, Letters Sent, NA-77); see also George W. Cullum, Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy, vol. 1 (Boston, 1891), 101-2.

(8) Abert to Nicollet, 28 December 1837; and 11 January 1838; Abert to Poinsett, 17 January 1838; all in OCE, Letters Sent, NA-77; Nicollet to Poinsett, 28 December 1838, Joseph N. Nicollet on the Plains and Prairies: The Expeditions of 1838-39, With Journals, Letters, and Notes on the Dakota Indians, ed. Edmund C. Bray and Martha Coleman Bray (St. Paul, 1976), 227-33; see also Martha Coleman Bray, Joseph Nicollet and His Map (Philadelphia, 1980), 189-95.

(9) John C. Fremont, Memoirs of My Life (Chicago, 1887); see also J. Fred Rippy, Joel R. Poinsett, Versatile American (Durham, N.C., 1935; reprint, New York, 1968); Joel R. Poinsett, Discourse on the Objectives and Importance of the National Institution for the Promotion of Science (Washington, D. C., 1841).

(10) “Report of the Secretary of War,” 30 November 1839, Congressional Globe, 26th Cong., 1st sess., appendix, 23-26.

(11) “Report of the Secretary of War, 5 December 1840” Congressional Globe, 26th Cong., 2d sess., appendix, 11-12.

(12) Report Intended to Illustrate a Map of the Hydrographical Basin of the Upper Mississippi River, Made by J. N. Nicollet (Washington, 1843); Abert to Audubon, 22 January 1845; and 19 January 1848, both in Audubon Papers, Missouri Historical Society; Abert, “Report of the Chief Topographical Engineer,” Executive Documents, 28th Cong., 2d sess., vol. 1,214; Humboldt to Fremont, 7 October 1850, The Expeditions of John Charles Fremont, vol. 3, Travels from 1848 to 1854, ed. Mary Lee Spence (Urbana, 1984), 205-6; see also Goetzmann, New Lands, New Men: America and the Second Great Age of Discovery (New York, 1986), 183.

(13) Congressional Globe, 26th Cong., 1st sess., 166, 231; J. R. Poinsett to Richard M. Johnson, 26 February 1840, in Senate Documents, 26th Cong., 1st sess., vol. 5, 1.

(14) Fremont, Memoirs of My Life, 32, 55-56, 68-69, 71; see also Fremont to Poinsett, 8 June, 5 September 1838, and 3 January 1840, Poinsett Papers, Library of Congress.

(15) See Vernon L. Volpe, “The Fremonts and Emancipation,” The Historian 56 (Winter 1994): 339-54.

(16) Thomas Hart Benton, Thirty Years’ View; or, A History of the Working of the American Government for Thirty Years, From 1820-1850, vol. 2 (New York, 1856), 468-69, 478.

(17) Fremont, “Condensed Paper on California,” Bancroft Library; and Memoirs of My Life, 65, 71.

(18) Goetzmann, Army Exploration in the American West, 66; Abert to Nicollet, 7 April 1838, 4 March 1839, both in OCE, Letters Sent, NA-77; Nicollet to Henry H. Sibley, 18 March 1839, in Bray and Bray, Nicollet, 235-36.

(19) Benton to Abert, n.d.; Abert to Benton, 28 April 1842; and Abert to Fremont, 28 April 1842, Fremont collection, Southwest Museum, Los Angeles.

(20) Abert to Fremont, 25 April 1842, in The Expeditions of John Charles Fremont, vol. 1, Travels from 1838 to 1844, ed. Donald Jackson and Mary Lee Spence (Urbana, 1970), 121-22.

(21) Jackson and Spence, eds., Travels from 1838 to 1844, 122; Benton, Thirty Years’ View, vol. 2,478; see also Ferol Egan, Fremont: Explorer for a Restless Nation (Garden City, 1977; reprint, Reno, 1985), 55.

(22) Benton to Abert, n.d., Fremont collection.

(23) Abert to Benton, 28 April 1842, Fremont collection. The original could not be located in the Topographical Corps’s files, but the copy’s form matches that of the standard entry in the letterbooks. See also “Report of the Secretry of War, 30 November 1839,” Congressional Globe, 26th Cong., 1st sess., appendix, 26.

(24) “List of Officers of the Corps of Topographical Engineers in charge of surveys” 8 June 1842, OCE, NA-77; J. McClellan to Secretary of War, 16 June 1842, OCE, Letters Sent, NA-77.

(25) Abert to P. Chouteau & Co., 28 July 1842, OCE, Letters Sent, NA-77.

(26) Abert to Fremont, 28 April 1842, Fremont collection.

(27) Fremont, “A Report of an Exploration of the Country Lying Between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains on the Line of the Kansas and Great Platte Rivers,” in Travels from 1838 to 1844, ed. Jackson and Spence, 253-54, 270.

(28) Jackson and Spence, ed., Travels from 1838 to 1844, 252-54, 258, 269-71,273, 465-66.

(29) Egan, Fremont, 55; Goetzmann, Army Exploration in the American West, 76-77; Exploration and Empire, 240; and New Lands, New Men, 170.

(30) Abert to Secretary of War, 30 December 1839, OCE, Letters Sent, NA-77.

(31) Abert to Secretary of War, 15 January 1842, OCE, Letters Sent, NA-77; see also Goetzmann, Army Exploration in the American West, 56-57.

(32) Abert, “Report from the Topographical Bureau,” 31 October 1842, Executive Documents, 27th Cong., 3d sess., vol. 1, 276; see also John C. Spencer, “Report of the Secretary of War,” 26 November 1842, Congressional Globe, 27th Cong., 2d sess., appendix, 36.

(33) Nevins, Fremont: Pathmarker of the West, vol. 1, 87-88; Congressional Globe, 27th Cong., 1st sess., H. R. Bill #8, 453.

(34) Abert to Secretary of War, 5 January 1843, OCE, Letters Sent, NA-77.

(35) Abert to Fremont, 25 April, 8 July, 13 August, 1842, Jackson and Spence, Travels from 1838 to 1844, 122, 126, 128; Fremont, Memoirs of My Life, 71.

(36) Abert to Secretary of War, 5 January 1843, OCE, Letters Sent, NA-77; Abert, “Report from the Topographical Bureau” 31 October 1842, in Executive Documents, 27th Cong., 3d sess., vol. 1, 276; Fremont, Memoirs of My Life, 71.

(37) Congressional Globe, 26th Cong., 2d sess., appendix, 8 January 1841, 105; 27th Cong., 1st sess., 2, 17 August 1841, 278, 341; 27th Cong., 2d sess., 13, 15 April 1842, 416, 426, appendix, 31 August 1842, 736.

(38) Fremont, Memoirs of My Life, 65, 71.

(39) Abert to Fremont, 24 April, 22 May 1843, OCE, Letters Sent, NA-77.

(40) Donald Jackson, “The Myth of the Fremont Howitzer” Bulletin of the Missouri Historical Society 23 (April 1967): 205-14; Jessie Fremont, “The Origin of Fremont Explorations;’ Century Magazine, March 1891, 768-70; Fremont, Memoirs of My Life, 168; Jessie Benton Fremont and Francis Preston Fremont, “Great Events During the Life of Major General John C. Fremont, United States Army, and of Jessie Benton Fremont,” unpublished manuscript, Bancroft Library, 163; Jessie Benton Fremont to Charles Lummis, 16 July 1902, Fremont collection; Jessie Fremont to ?, n.d., Fremont Papers, Library of Congress.

(41) Abert to Secretary of War, 22 December 1841; Abert to Jessie Fremont, 23 June 1843, OCE, Letters Sent, NA-7; see also Goetzmann, Army Exploration in the American West, 6-10; Abert, “Report of the Chief Topographical Engineer,” 26 November 1838, Executive Documents, 25th Cong., 3d sess., vol. 1, 343.

(42) Abert to Benton, 10 July 1843, OCE, Letters Sent, NA-77.

(43) Benton to Abert, 7, 20 March 1843, OCE, Letters Received Register, NA-77; Abert to Fremont, 10 March 1843; Abert to Benton, 10 March 1843, OCE, Letters Sent, NA-77; Fremont to Abert, 13 March 1843, OCE, NA.

(44) Abert to Fremont, 10 March 1843, OCE, Letters Sent, NA-77.

(45) Abert to Fremont, 12 February, 10 April, 14 May 1845, OCE, Letters Sent, NA-77; see also “Journal of Lieutenant J. W. Abert, from Bent’s Fort to St. Louis, in 1845,” Senate Documents, 29th Cong., 1st sess., vol. 8, 1-75; Colonel Abert’s letters in the John J. Audubon collection, Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, e.g., Abert to Audubon, 20 September 1841; Goetzmann, New Lands, New Men, 52-60, 150-93.

(46) Benton, Thirty Years’ View, vol. 2,479; see also Robert Walker, “Letter of Mr. Walker, of Mississippi, Relative to the Annexation of Texas” in Frederick Merk, Fruits of Propaganda in the Tyler Administration (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), 228; “Fremont’s Expeditions” The United States Magazine and Democratic Review 17 (July and August 1845): 68-77.

Vernon L. Volpe is a professor of history at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

Vernon L. Volpe reassesses the origins of the famous surveying expeditions led by John C. Fremont in the early 1840s across the American West along the Oregon Trail. Under the leadership of Colonel John J. Abert, head of the U.S. Army Topographical Corps, governmental officials intended an orderly investigation of the American domain. Relying on long neglected documents, Volpe reveals the extent to which Fremont exceeded his instructions by crossing into unauthorized territory, thereby altering the significance of his missions from scientific pursuits to geopolitical ones.

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