Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

'Imperfect Union' Explores How John & Jessie Frémont Shaped A Developing Nation

Baker & Godwin
Wikimedia Commons
A campaign banner for John C. Frémont, who was the Republican presidential contender in 1856, evokes heroic memories of his famous exploring expeditions to the Rocky Mountains."

In 1850, a magazine declared John C. Frémont as one of the three most important world historical figures since Jesus Christ.

Wait, John who?

Most of us don’t recall the name Frémont from our history lessons even though you can find a “Frémont” village, river, hotel, or school throughout the country. But John Frémont was very much a part of westward expansion, mapping America, the Civil War, and the origins of the Republican Party.

Frémont's wife Jessie was an equally important historical figure. The daughter of Missouri Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, who was deeply involved in the West, Jessie Frémont used her connections to make her husband’s career as a wilderness explorer, writer, army officer, and California conqueror possible.

NPR host and author Steve Inskeep says that as a kid he loved reading about the old West, the Civil War and railroad expansion. But the name Frémont didn't have an impact on him until revisiting this history as an adult.

"They’re all through 19th century history so, later as a grown-up when I began looking at westward expansion, [John and Jessie Frémont] seemed to me to be ideal characters to focus on," he says. "It was an opportunity to tell the story of a developing nation through the eyes of these two very interesting people."

Credit Penguin Random House
Penguin Random House
When John C. Frémont was first exploring the West in 1842, he was relatively unknown. By the time he was 40, Americans began naming mountain peaks and towns after him.

Inskeep dives into the lives of the Frémonts in his latest book, Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War.

Part of why people's recognition of the Frémonts is so spotty has to do with the nature of this period of history, according to Inskeep.

"This is a period that we as Americans are not quite sure what we think about because a lot of people were shoved out of the way, in a very racist way," notes Inskeep. "It was seen as this new race of people, the Americans, going West shoving aside Indians and shoving aside Mexicans to make room for the American version of civilization. We're not sure what we think about that and so it's a little hard to teach it precisely."

However, had it not been for explorers like Frémont, one can only image how the American West would have been shaped. Frémont's early expeditions to map the unknown provided more than just visual aids but also stories of adventure that would later be published, and often ghost written by his wife Jessie.

"One of the things that I love about learning about John C. Frémont doing this is that he was an amateur," says Inskeep. "He was a guy who had gotten interested in celestial navigation by looking at pictures in a book that was in Dutch, which he could not read — that was his formal education in celestial navigation."

Stories of the westward expansion and Manifest Destiny are often filled with adventure and awe. And Inskeep says it's important to write history in a way that takes the reader there. Whether it's writing for a radio script or the page of a history book — both have a lot in common.

"I try to write visually, to put pictures in people's heads, to make sure that you can see the landscape passing by so that when John C. Frémont climbs a mountain and nearly dies on the way up the mountain and finally plants an American flag ... I hope you can see that image of him looking out over other peaks in the Rocky Mountains," Inskeep says.

Audrey Nowakowski hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2014.