John Charles Fremont, an American explorer and soldier, born in Savannah, Ga., Jan. 21, 1813. His father was a Frenchman who had settled in Norfolk, Va., where he supported himself by teaching his native language. He died in 1818. His widow, a Virginian, whose maiden name was Whiting, with three infant children settled in Charleston, S. C. At the age of 15 John Charles entered the junior class of Charleston college. For some time he stood high, and made remarkable attainments in mathematics; but his inattention and frequent absences at length caused his expulsion. After this he obtained employment as a private teacher of mathematics, and took charge at the same time of an evening school. In 1833 he became teacher of mathematics on board of the sloop of war Natchez, then in the port of Charleston, from which she sailed on a cruise to the coast of South America. Fremont was absent in her for more than two years, and on his return passed a rigorous examination at Baltimore for the post of professor of mathematics in the navy, and was appointed to the frigate Independence; but he soon resolved to quit the sea, and engaged as a surveyor and engineer on a railroad line between Charleston and Augusta, Ga. Subsequently he assisted in the survey of the railroad line from Charleston to Cincinnati, and particularly in the exploration of the mountain passes between North Carolina and Tennessee. This work being suspended in the autumn of 1837, he accompanied Capt. Williams of the army in a military recon-noissance of the mountainous Cherokee country in Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. In anticipation of hostilities with the Indians, this survey was rapidly made in the depth of winter, and was Fremont's first experience of a campaign amid mountain snows.
In 1838-'9 he accompanied M. Nicollet in explorations of the country between the Missouri and the British line. While thus engaged in 1838, he received from President Van Buren, under date of July 7, a commission as second lieutenant in the corps of topographical engineers. While at Washington in 1840, employed in the preparation of the report of these expeditions, he became acquainted with Miss Jessie Benton, a daughter of Col. Thomas H. Benton, at that time a senator from Missouri. An engagement was formed, but as the lady was only 15 years of age, her parents objected to the match, and suddenly, probably through the potent influence of Col. Benton, the young officer received from the war department a peremptory order to make an examination of the river Des Moines on the western frontier. The survey was rapidly executed, and shortly after his return from this duty the lovers were secretly married, Oct. 19, 1841. In the following year Fremont projected a geographical survey of the entire territory of the United States from the Missouri river to the Pacific ocean. He applied to the war department for employment on this service, and received instructions to explore the Rocky mountains, and particularly to examine the South pass.
He left Washington May 2, 1842, and accomplished his task successfully in the course of four months, having carefully examined the South pass, and explored the Wind River mountains, ascending their highest point, since known as Fremont's peak (13,570 ft.). His report of the expedition was laid before congress in the winter of 1842-'3, and attracted great attention both at home and abroad. Immediately after its publication Fremont planned a second expedition, much more comprehensive than the first. He determined to extend his explorations across the continent, and to survey the then unknown region lying between the Rocky mountains and the Pacific ocean. In May, 1843, he commenced his journey with 39 men, and on Sept. 6, after travelling more than 1,700 miles, came in sight of the Great Salt lake, of which no accurate account had ever been given, and of which very vague and erroneous notions were entertained. His investigations effected important rectifications in our geographical knowledge of this portion of the continent, and had subsequently a powerful influence in promoting the settlement of Utah and of the Pacific states.
From the Great Salt lake he proceeded to the upper tributaries of the Columbia, whose valley he descended till he reached Fort Vancouver, near the mouth of that river. On Nov. 10 he set out on his return to the states. He selected a S. E. route, leading from the lower part of the Columbia to the upper Colorado, through an almost unknown region, crossed by high and rugged mountain chains. He soon encountered deep snows, which forced him to descend into the great basin, and presently found himself in the depth of winter in a desert, with the prospect of death to his whole party from cold and hunger. By astronomical observation he found that he was in the latitude of the bay of San Francisco, but between him and the valleys of California was a range of mountains covered with snows which the Indians declared no man could cross, and over which no reward could induce them to attempt to guide him. Fremont undertook the passage without a guide, and accomplished it in 40 days, reaching Sutter's Fort on the Sacramento early in March, with his men reduced almost to skeletons, and with only 33 out of 67 horses and mules remaining.
He resumed his journey March 24, and proceeding southward, skirted the western base of the Sierra Nevada, crossed that range through a gap, entered the great basin, and again visited the Salt lake, from which through the South pass he returned to Kansas in July, 1844, after an absence of 14 months. The reports of this expedition occupied in their preparation the remainder of 1844. Fremont was brevetted captain in January, 1845, and in the spring of that year he set out on a third expedition to explore the great basin and the maritime region of Oregon and California. The summer was spent in examining the head waters of the rivers whose source is in the dividing ridge between the Pacific and the Mississippi valley, and in October he encamped on the shores of the Great Salt lake. Thence he proceeded to explore the Sierra Nevada, which he crossed again in the dead of winter with a few men to obtain supplies from California for his party, with whom he made his way into the valley of the San Joaquin, where he left his men to recruit, and went himself to Monterey, which was at that time the capital of California, to obtain from the Mexican authorities permission to proceed with his exploration.