To call any of Fremont’s expeditions purely “scientific,” as he often did, would be disingenuous. Ulterior considerations lurked behind nearly all his movements in the West. Overtly or not, his larger purpose was to advance the cause of American emigration, American expansion, American hemispheric hegemony—which is to say, he was carrying out Sen. Thomas Benton’s vision like a good and dutiful son-in-law.
But from the beginning, Fremont’s third expedition, begun in 1845, was the most political and least scientific of all. He seemed to trust that the third time really was the charm, that this journey would catapult him from the musty studio of a mere mapmaker into another role altogether—that of a glorious conqueror. Before he left Washington, Fremont had met with Polk, and it was clear that the president wanted the Mexican province of Alta California. He was happy to buy it if Mexico would entertain his overtures, but he was willing to fight for it, too.
California was then an errant state, only weakly tied to Mexico City. It had recently been convulsed by a series of revolutions and counterrevolutions. Its Hispanic inhabitants, proud and fiercely independent, had primarily settled along the lush Pacific coast, clustered around a constellation of Spanish missions. Yet other parts of California were slowly and steadily becoming Americanized: For years, a growing trickle of American emigrants had been crossing the Sierra Nevada and settling the fertile Sacramento Valley, and American whalers had been using the fine port of Monterey for a generation. Richard Henry Dana, in his immensely popular Two Years Before the Mast, published in 1840, had opened the nation’s eyes to California’s charms and quickened the popular yearning for American ports on the Pacific.
In 1842 an American commodore named Thomas Catesby Jones, acting on false reports that war was on with Mexico, had actually sailed into Monterey harbor, seized the port, and raised the American flag. (He soon profusely apologized and quit the port with his tail between his legs.) Though it was a ridiculous action, the fact that Commodore Jones was able to take Monterey without the slightest resistance showed leaders back in Washington just how easily the ripe fruit could be plucked.
All the trends were inevitable, Polk felt. It was only a matter of time before California, like Texas, would be fully absorbed by the United States. Why not now?
Such was the pregnant international climate when John Fremont left St. Louis on June 1, 1845, with fifty-five volunteers and headed out for points west on his third exploratory expedition. As far as his immediate superiors at the Corps of Topographical Engineers were concerned, Fremont’s mission was quite limited: The assignment they’d given him was to map and explore the eastern slope of the southern Rocky Mountains, tracing the watershed of the upper Arkansas River, and returning to St. Louis by year’s end.
But Fremont seems to have been operating under secret orders, or at least some tacit understanding of a wide latitude, afforded by higher authorities (precisely who has never been clear—Benton? Polk? Other officials within the army or navy?). He had no intention of dallying in the Rockies taking dreary measurements. As soon as he reached the Arkansas River in the late summer of 1845, Fremont abandoned his tame-sounding survey project. As though diverted by some pressing appointment with destiny, he made a beeline for California.
Along the way there were the usual sorts of misadventures that often seemed to befall Fremont on his transcontinental jaunts. In the Great Salt Lake Desert, he insisted on routing his men across a fearful malpais that local Indians assured him humans had never successfully traversed. His party could have expired from thirst in this dicey passage, but Carson saved the expedition again, this time riding some sixty miles ahead of the others toward a distant mountain, where he quickly located water and grazing grass, and then, by prearranged agreement, built a signal bonfire on the summit as a beacon to Fremont to come on, there was hope ahead.
By early winter 1846, Fremont had crossed the Sierra Nevada and dropped down into the Sacramento Valley. There he made contact with American settlers, taking the political pulse of the province and trying to stir up a nascent patriotic fervor on which he might capitalize. Already Fremont was quietly building alliances with these rough-and-ready expatriots and making bold assurances that, should war break out with Mexico as expected, his party—which, after all, was an official (and reasonably well-armed) expeditionary force of the United States Army—would be there to protect them. Captain Fremont was the only army officer within two thousand miles of California: Should hostilities begin, he was, by default, the commander apparent.
He quietly slipped into Yerba Buena, as the tiny town of San Francisco was then called, making inquiries among Americans there and staying long enough to coin a name for the picturesque mouth of the great bay—the Golden Gate, he called it. Fremont then brought his men south and had them set up camp in the vicinity of the provincial capital of Monterey.
Naturally enough, Mexican authorities took issue with the seemingly bellicose presence of sixty armed American “explorers” insinuating themselves without invitation in their fair province. On March 5, Gen. Jose Castro, the comandante in Monterey, issued Fremont an unequivocal demand to leave California at once.
Fremont responded with pure histrionics. He moved his men to Gavilan Peak, a small mountain in the Coastal Range, northeast of Monterey, and there he built a rough-hewn fort. Hunkering down for an Alamo-style defense, he ordered his men to erect a tall sapling on which he hoisted the American flag. It was a brazen if thoroughly half-cocked act of war, and one that could well have gotten his men slaughtered in the face of the thousands of soldiers Castro could easily have organized. Fremont wrote to the American consul in Monterey, in a melodramatic and almost comically dishonest explanation of his actions: “We have in no wise done wrong to the people or the authorities of the country, and if we are hemmed in and assaulted, we will die every man of us, under the Flag of our country.”
General Castro issued a passionate proclamation to his people urging them to “lance the ulcer” of the American invasion. He began to muster a response, and in the fields below Gavilan Peak there were rumblings of an imminent battle. In two days Fremont seemed to come to his senses and realized this was a standoff he could not win, one that would only result in certain death and dubious martyrdom. Perhaps Carson injected a note of sanity into his commander’s thinking. Conveniently for Fremont, his hastily erected flagpole tumbled to the ground on March 9, and he apparently took the soiling of the flag as a bad omen: “Thinking I had remained as long as the occasion required, I took advantage of the accident to say to the men that this was an indication for us to move camp.”
So ended his defiant (and short-lived) stand at Gavilan Peak, the un-Alamo. Fremont slinked away to the safety of the north again, following the course of the Sacramento. By April he had found his way into Oregon and halted on the southern shores of Klamath Lake, where for a time he resumed his role as explorer while keeping a weather eye on California. He seemed to be stalling for time, hovering within striking distance, waiting for something to break.
And then something did. Out of the forest stepped a stranger named Lieutenant Archibald Gillespie, bearing cryptic messages from Washington. He was a gimlet-eyed Marine from New Jersey, sickly but irascible and quite arrogant.
The trek Gillespie had taken to reach this lakeside wilderness has to rank as one of the great solo courier missions in history. He had left Washington in October of the previous year after having met with President Polk and other government officials, including the secretary of the navy, George Bancroft. He took a steamship from New York City down to Veracruz, Mexico. While on board he committed to memory the texts of his most sensitive dispatches and then destroyed the original documents. From Veracruz, he traveled inland to Mexico City, assuming various disguises and taking copious notes on the turbulent political climate and the nation’s disposition toward war.
By December, Gillespie reached Mazatlán, on the west coast of Mexico, and boarded an American whaling ship bound for Hawaii—the Sandwich Islands, as they were then known. From Honolulu he made an about-face, sailing east toward California in an American man-of-war. His ship hove into Monterey in April, and he slipped ashore posing as a merchant. After meeting with the American consul there, Thomas Oliver Larkin, he quietly pushed inland to the Sacramento River, wending his way north along the river until he caught Fremont’s scent.
Gillespie, it seemed, was Polk’s far-flung secret agent, not just a messenger but someone who had been given considerable discretion to improvise decisions on the ground. History does not know precisely what his dispatches said, or precisely what oral information might have been lodged in his head. Neither Gillespie nor Fremont ever came clean on this question. It remains one of the imponderables of American history just what Fremont knew, when he knew it—and what he chose to ignore.
This much is clear: Polk and others in Washington were worried about California, and they wanted Fremont to return there posthaste to help ensure that the coveted province fell into American hands while simultaneously making certain the British did not try to seize it for themselves.
This fear was not entirely unfounded. England’s interest in California dated all the way back to 1579, the year Sir Francis Drake came ashore somewhere north of present-day San Francisco and claimed “Nova Albion,” as he called it, for the British crown. In 1846 the British were well-ensconced in Oregon. Their ships prowled the Pacific coast of California, and officials in Mexico City were offering to sell California to England in exchange for a war loan. In addition, an Irish priest named Eugene McNamara had secured Mexican permission for a curious scheme (never to reach fruition) that would have brought over boatloads of Catholic immigrants from English-held Ireland to start a new utopian colony in Southern California. Through official and unofficial channels, then, Britain was certainly intrigued by California—the question was how far it was willing to go to antagonize the Americans.
Fremont stayed up talking with Gillespie and reading his dispatches in the flickering firelight. War with Mexico had already broken out, and plans for the grand march of the Army of the West were under way, but Gillespie did not—could not—know that yet; such was the snail’s pace of communication then that it would be another month before anyone in California heard the news.
It was perhaps a measure of the national arrogance that in the flushed excitement over the possible intrigues of England and Mexico and the course of empire, the Americans forgot about the other inhabitants of the region—the Indians all around them. Fremont was so preoccupied that he neglected to post a watchman that night.
But by the time he drifted off to sleep, Fremont had already made up his mind which path he would take. He later wrote, “The information through Gillespie had absolved me from my duty as an explorer, and I was left to my duty as an officer of the American Army with the future authoritative knowledge that…to obtain possession of California was the chief object of the President.” Fremont said he now fully appreciated that “the men who understood the future of our country, and who ruled its destinies, regarded the California coast as the boundary fixed by nature to round off our national domain.”