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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.

From Publishers Weekly

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 Fr‚mont 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.

From Library Journal

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.

From Booklist

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. Margaret Flanagan
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Review

“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, People Magazine

"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






About the Author

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.

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Top reviews from the United States

Daniel Putman
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Preparing the way West
Reviewed in the United States on October 9, 2017
John Fremont, through his maps, scientific data and published journals, was responsible more than any other single person for preparing the way for Western emigration. Fremont was a unique combination of incredible courage in terrible natural conditions along with poor or... See more
John Fremont, through his maps, scientific data and published journals, was responsible more than any other single person for preparing the way for Western emigration. Fremont was a unique combination of incredible courage in terrible natural conditions along with poor or weak decision-making most of the rest of his life. Though Fremont has numerous cities and dozens of streets named after him in this country, most people today know very little about him. Tom Chaffin’s biography fills a void in American history.

The height of Fremont’s career came early in his life in the form of three expeditions he led to the West, especially the first two. (He led five altogether.) Chaffin does a terrific job putting the reader into the midst of these often incredible journeys. I sit in an armchair worried about if it will freeze tonight while reading about a group of explorers who crossed the Sierras in winter (second expedition) and who came so close to starvation in the snowbound Rockies that, on the fourth expedition, they ended up cooking leather straps for sustenance. When Fremont reaches California, especially for the first time on his second expedition, the reader through Chaffin’s writing gets a real sense of what a paradise this was for Fremont.

Most of the book is taken up by Fremont’s expeditions with a limited amount given to his run for president in 1856 as the first presidential candidate of the new Republican Party. After Lincoln became the successful candidate of that party in 1860, he made Fremont a general in the Union army in Missouri and, it is almost universally agreed, Fremont did more harm than good. He did not last long in that position which was true for mostly everything he did after the war.

Chaffin shows us all sides of Fremont, including his revenge at times on Native Americans and, at other times, his close working relationship with them. His wife Jessie is developed much more as a historical personage in this book compared to the spouses in many biographies of 19th century men. Chaffin is an excellent writer. The book is well-organized with clearly written paragraphs and excellent transitions. This is a book that will put the reader through many emotions, from being amazed to being shocked at times at the realities of American history. The book is part adventure story and part the story of one man’s life before, during and after the Civil War. It is also a book about the early development of California as part of America. I highly recommend it.
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Steven H. Hoskins
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Great Bio and easy to read
Reviewed in the United States on August 18, 2021
Fremont may be one of the most underrated heroes of the American pantheon. This book was well researched and well written. Where there were discrepancies in the historical account the author dutifully noted it, but didn''t dwell on it like some authors. History... See more
Fremont may be one of the most underrated heroes of the American pantheon.

This book was well researched and well written. Where there were discrepancies in the historical account the author dutifully noted it, but didn''t dwell on it like some authors. History is best when told as a story, and this book accomplished that.

The only possible warning is that it is a long book. (450 pages i believe) Probably not the best book as an intro to the opening of the American west. But if you know you like the subject, it''s well worth the time and effort.
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Garry Boulard
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Beautifully Written.
Reviewed in the United States on August 5, 2017
There have been biographies of John Charles Fremont before, but Tom Chaffin adds a modern sensibility and excitement to the story of the famous explorer and his quest to document the land, sea, and air of the West. Chaffin''s descriptions of where Fremont went and what he... See more
There have been biographies of John Charles Fremont before, but Tom Chaffin adds a modern sensibility and excitement to the story of the famous explorer and his quest to document the land, sea, and air of the West. Chaffin''s descriptions of where Fremont went and what he saw read like a novel. And while he clearly admires Fremont, he is not reluctant to discuss Fremont''s shortcomings, which included an at times self-destructive impulsiveness and, in later years, endless quest for financial reward.

In all, an extraordinary work on an extraordinary man.
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Laurie Flood
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Very Informative With Some Issues...
Reviewed in the United States on July 26, 2014
This is a really good book with a lot of information. Like the other reviewers stated, the author tends to use ridiculously ornate and complex words at times. I can say that, because I am an English teacher. This will not detract from the readability too much for the... See more
This is a really good book with a lot of information. Like the other reviewers stated, the author tends to use ridiculously ornate and complex words at times. I can say that, because I am an English teacher. This will not detract from the readability too much for the average reader, though. It is just a bit annoying.

The only other thing I would add is that, it would have been great if the author had worked with someone who had more outdoor knowledge, so this perspective would be infused in the work. A book about a famous explorer really needs this. At times, I keenly feel that perspective and information missing.
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Robert G. Hooper
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Outstanding Book About A Remarkable Man
Reviewed in the United States on April 7, 2014
This is a thoroughly researched book about a major piece of western history. Though written in great depth, it is very readable and the message is easy to follow. That is certainly not true of a lot of history books. The extensive bibliography is a handy source for... See more
This is a thoroughly researched book about a major piece of western history. Though written in great depth, it is very readable and the message is easy to follow. That is certainly not true of a lot of history books. The extensive bibliography is a handy source for additional reading.

A strong point of the book (among several) is the clear prose concerning the political ramifications surrounding Fremont''s exploits. In addition, the author does an excellent job telling of the extreme hardships that Fremont and his men endured year after year. Fremont was a great man by most standards. However, he made a lot of stupid command decisions on his expeditions. Its amazing to me that his men didn''t desert in droves. Imagine dragging a damn cannon across the western U.S.! His tragic attempt at floating the Platt River was the height of folly, as was crossing the Sierra Nevada and the San Juan''s in winter. I could go on.....

The book neither romanticizes nor vilifies Fremont. I think it does a good job of pointing out his weaknesses and his strengths, his successes as well as his failures.

I have read two other volumes about or by Fremont. If one really wants to know the man, I would recommended this one: "Pathfinder" by Dr. Chaffin.
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CKETop Contributor: Photography
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
very worthwhile biography
Reviewed in the United States on February 16, 2006
John Fremont was (in some aspects) the Alexander Hamilton of the mid-19th century. That may seem like a strange comparison, but they had one very strong similarity.... you either loved them or you hated them. Both were seen as larger than life and aroused strong emotions... See more
John Fremont was (in some aspects) the Alexander Hamilton of the mid-19th century. That may seem like a strange comparison, but they had one very strong similarity.... you either loved them or you hated them. Both were seen as larger than life and aroused strong emotions throughout the country.

There are some pretty significant differences between the two - Fremont was world-renowed explorer of the American Wild West - while Hamilton was a bona fide finacial genius (which Fremont definitely was not!). Hamilton died too young and became somewhat of a martyr and his reputation has grown. Fremont may have lived a little too long and scandal soiled and diminished his reputation.

Now to Chaffin''s wonderful biography on Fremont: What a great/interesting read! The characters are much larger than life John Fremont, Thomas Hart Benton (His father-in-law), General Stockton (Who helped win California fo America) and of course Fremont''s exploring buddy Kit Carson.

Chaffin tells a tale that is so odd that it must be true. The tales of Fremont''s four main explorations is straight out of a Hollywood movie. We follow Fremont up mountains, across rivers, through deserts - we see how they faced extreme starvation and how some members were forced to turn to canabalism (ouch!).

Chaffin presents Fremont with warts and all - there is mention of his affairs, his conceit, his insubortination, his shameless self-promotion and his many financial blunders. While Chaffin does not apologize for Fremonts faults he also chooses not to dwell on these aspects.

So why only four stars? There are some minor flow problems (for me) I found that the section on the war for California to be far too long, and the sections on Fremont''s role in the Civil War and his ill fated Presidential campaign to be far too short. However, a significant amount of the book concentrates on Fremont''s explorations.... which is exactly why I give a full recommendation.
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Terence Duffy
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Like you’re there
Reviewed in the United States on February 13, 2020
Book is easy to read, interesting to too. Actually come to know the origins of the name of many familiar places, love that kind of knowledge.
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Kenneth A. Tripp
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Book in fine condition
Reviewed in the United States on February 13, 2020
I love holding the pages in my hand...
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