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.