The amazing life of the explorer who first mapped the West and forever changed nineteenth-century America
The career of John Charles Frémont (1813-90) celebrates and ties together the full breadth of American expansionism from its eighteenth-century origins through its culmination in the Gilded Age. Tom Chaffin''s important new biography demonstrates Frémont''s vital importance to the history of American empire, and his role in shattering long-held myths about the ecology and habitability of the American West.
As the most celebrated American explorer and mapper of his time, Frémont stood at the center of the vast federal project of Western exploration and conquest. His expeditions between 1838 and 1854 captured the public''s imagination, inspired Americans to accept their nation''s destiny as a vast continental empire, and earned him his enduring sobriquet, the Pathfinder.
But Frémont was more than an explorer. Chaffin''s dramatic narrative includes Frémont''s varied experiences as an entrepreneur, abolitionist, Civil War general, husband to the remarkable Jessie Benton Frémont, two-time Republican presidential candidate, and Gilded Age aristocrat.
Chaffin brings to life the personal and political experiences of a remarkable American whose saga offers compelling insight into the conflicts, tensions, and contradictions at the core of America''s lust for empire and its conquest of the trans-Missouri West.
John Charles Fremont (1813-1890), nicknamed "the Pathfinder" in recognition of his groundbreaking expeditions to map the American West, is not as well known as Lewis and Clark, but with this superb biography, the reader is soon convinced that Fremont''s life is well worth examining, not only for its dizzying ups and downs but also for its intersection with so many hugely important themes in the nation''s history: Manifest Destiny, the settlement of the West and displacement of Native Americans; the building of the railroads; and the corrosive debate over slavery. Chaffin''s masterful grasp of storytelling creates a deeply nuanced portrait of a man of many parts-dashing explorer, businessman and politician-and the tumultuous times he lived through and helped shape. There''s something here for every history buff: gripping accounts of Fremont''s expeditions to map the rugged terrain of the West; insightful portrayals of Fremont''s allies and adversaries that reveal the author''s deep understanding of how power is wielded in both political and nonpolitical settings; and superb analysis of the philosophical underpinnings of American empire. Chaffin (director of Emory University''s Oral History Project) even delivers a memorable love story-the relationship between Frmont and his wife, Jessie, daughter of powerful Missouri Sen. Thomas Hart Benton-that could easily stand on its own. 21 b&w illus., 4 maps not seen by PW.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Chaffin (Narcisco Lopez and the First Clandestine U.S. War Against Cuba) here examines the life of John Charles Fremont, one of the great figures in the American expansion throughout the West during the second third of the 19th century. With good storytelling sense, the author weaves together Fremont''s work surveying the vast unmapped expanses of the trans-Mississippi region. Chaffin also reveals his subject''s involvement with some of the major political issues of his time-e.g., relations with Indian tribes and with Mexico. We also see fascinating people: colorful and controversial fellow soldiers like Kit Carson and powerful politicians, such as his patron and father-in-law, the Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton. But unlike Andrew Rolle''s psychological portrait in Character as Destiny: John Charles Fremont, Chaffin focuses on the empire of the West, which Fremont helped create and into which he thrust himself. Ultimately, the author sees his subject as tragic, used and ultimately pushed aside by a nation that had become larger than this larger-than-life man. This book will be essential reading for historians of the West, and its accessible style will make it enjoyable for many general readers as well. For large public libraries.
Charles K. Piehl, Minnesota State Univ., Mankato
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Long neglected by historians and laypersons awed by the tremendous accomplishments of Lewis and Clark, John Charles Fremont played an equally vital role in the mapping of the American West. In fact, Chaffin argues that Fremont''s numerous expeditions generated more scientific data and covered more territory than the more famous Lewis and Clark expedition. This robust biography charts the course of Fremont''s multiple careers as an explorer and surveyor, businessman, U.S. Army officer, politician, and abolitionist. Opinionated, charismatic, and independent, Fremont also embodied and symbolized a new type of American frontier spirit. Willing and unafraid to take advantage of every political, military, and economic opportunity that presented itself to him, he was largely responsible for expanding the American empire to the West Coast. This fascinating portrait vivifies the extraordinary life story of an often controversial--but undeniably significant--American hero.
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“With this superb biography, the reader is soon convinced that Frémont’s life is well worth examining, not only for its dizzying ups and downs but also for its intersection with so many hugely important themes in the nation’s history . . . Chaffin’s masterful grasp of storytelling creates a deeply nuanced portrait of a man of many parts . . . There’s something here for every history buff: gripping accounts of Frémont’s expeditions to map the rugged terrain of the West; insightful portrayals of Frémont’s allies and adversaries that reveal the author’s deep understanding of how power is wielded in both political and nonpolitical settings; and suberb analysis of the philosophical underpinnings of American empire.”
Publishers Weekly, September 23, 2002
"A comprehensive, lively study of one of America''s greatest - and most controversial - explorers . . . of great interest to students of Western History."
Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 2002
"More than any other American, John C. Frémont became the pathfinder for a vast inland empire stretching from the Mississippi Valley to the Pacific Ocean. In a biography that, like its subject, never knows a dull moment, Tom Chaffin captures the spectacular successes as well as failures of this complex and colorful character."
-James McPherson, Princeton University
"Throughout the 19th century the most celebrated explorer in America was not Lewis or Clark or Pike or Powell. It was the extraordinary ''Pathfinder,'' John Charles Frémont. In his mesmerizing biography, Tom Chaffin brings to life not only Frémont but the amazing personalities who populated his world, including William Clark, Kit Carson, Robert E. Lee, and Abraham Lincoln. Near the end of his life, Frémont''s remarkable wife Jessie Benton Frémont, remarked to her husband that ''All your campfires have become cities.'' Today the American empire we see throughout the West is the enduring legacy of Frémont''s campfires."
-Landon Jones, former Managing Editor,
"John Charles Frémont and the Course of American Empire is the most eloquent, understanding and yet very candid biography of Frémont that has appeared to date. As the first general mapper of the West he reinvented the West for Americans as a key to their ''rising empire.'' Tom Chaffin''s beautifully written, dramatic biography of Frémont is a welcome major contribution to American historical writing. "
-Howard R. Lamar, Yale University
"John Charles Fremont was a man--some would say *the* man-epitomizing mid-19th century America''s driven, supremely confident spirit. Tom Chaffin has brought his remarkable character back into our midst, and by doing that he has shown us something of the heroism and blindnesses of that pivotal time in the nation''s history."
-Elliott West, University of Arkansas
"A masterful story teller, Tom Chaffin vividly narrates the personal as well as private lives of Frémont and the other colorful figures of his generation who pushed America to the Pacific. Drawing from his own deep exploration of the sources, Chaffin judiciously explains rather than blames his controversial protagonist."
-David J. Weber, Southern Methodist University
"In clear and vivid language, Tom Chaffin''s Pathfinder recreates the life of John C. Frémont, allowing us to see this extraordinary man warts and all. More, Chaffin shows us Frémont''s importance to the great issues of his day. Explorer, soldier, businessman, politician, Frémont as much as any man, lived the ambitions of American empire and the ideals of the American republic."
-Elliott J. Gorn, Purdue University
Tom Chaffin, author of
Fatal Glory: Narciso López and the First Clandestine U.S. War Against Cuba, teaches at Emory University. His work has appeared in
The New York Times, Harper''s, The Nation and other publications. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.