Early Life

Although at various points in his life John C. Frémont experienced great wealth, he was not born into a life of wealth and privilege. The circumstances surrounding Frémont’s birth and childhood may not be what you would expect for a man who would become a presidential candidate and one of the most famous personalities of the 19th century. In fact, some of the more shocking details about his birth would later be used by his opponents in the 1856 presidential election to try and persuade voters that he was not suited for the job. Studying Frémont’s early life brings forward two important facts themes from his life. First, Frémont was guided by several great mentors. Second, although Frémont did not always act like a star student, he loved reading and learning.


From Savannah to Charleston

Plan of the City of the City & Harbour of Savannah in Chatham County state of Georgia, taken in 1818. Georgia Historical Society Map Collection, 1361MP – 006

Plan of the City of the City & Harbour of Savannah in Chatham County state of Georgia, taken in 1818. Georgia Historical Society Map Collection, 1361MP – 006

John C. Frémont was born in Savannah, Georgia, on January 21, 1813. His parents were Charles Fremon and Anne Pryor. Charles Fremon was a French émigré. An émigré is someone who moves from their own country to live in another for political reasons. Thousands of Frenchmen like Charles Fremon left France in the 1790s during the French Revolution.

When Charles Fremon and Anne Pryor met in Virginia, Anne was already married. When Anne’s husband found out about their relationship, she and Charles left Virginia and eventually came to Savannah, Georgia where they had their first child, John C. Frémont.

Frémont had two younger siblings, Elizabeth and Frank. The family traveled a lot when Frémont was very young. His sister Elizabeth was born in Nashville, Tennessee and his brother Frank was born in Norfolk, Virginia. Sadly, Frémont’s father died in 1817. After his death, Anne took her three children to Charleston, South Carolina.

Think About It

Why does John Frémont spell his name differently from his father? John Frémont used to spell his name Fremon until his mentor Joseph N. Nicollet, a famous French explorer, encouraged Frémont to embrace his French ancestry. Immigrants often changed the spelling or pronunciation of their name when they came to America. Some immigrants thought it would help them fit in better or find a good job. We do not know exactly why Charles Fremon changed the spelling of his name.

  • Do you have any family members who came to America from another country?
  • Did they change their first or last name to fit into their new country?

From the Source

The highlighted section of this December 10, 1812 newspaper advertisement was submitted by C. Fremon, John C. Frémont’s father. Click on the newspaper to see a larger copy.

  • What services C. Fremon advertising?
  • How long after this advertisement was John C. Frémont born in Savannah? Hint: his birthdate is mentioned at the top of this webpage.
  • What other things are printed on this newspaper page? What can you learn about Savannah in 1812 from this source?

 

Savannah Republican and Evening Ledger, December 10, 1812. Courtesy of the Georgia Historical Society


Primary Education & College

Charleston Harbour and the adjacent coast and country, South Carolina : surveyed at intervals in 1823, 1824, and 1825. Drawn by Hartman Bache, J.D. Graham, C.M. Eakin, W.M. Boyce, S. Wragg. Library of Congress Geography & Map Division.

Charleston Harbour and the adjacent coast and country, South Carolina : surveyed at intervals in 1823, 1824, and 1825. Drawn by Hartman Bache, J.D. Graham, C.M. Eakin, W.M. Boyce, S. Wragg. Library of Congress Geography & Map Division.

Throughout his life, Frémont had several mentors who helped him become successful. One of these mentors was a lawyer in Charleston named John Mitchell. Frémont did such a good job as his clerk that Mitchell decided to pay for his tuition to study at a local preparatory school run by John Robertson. Frémont was about thirteen years old when he began his formal schooling. Frémont enjoyed his studies. He learned Greek and Latin and read books like The Odyssey by Homer in their original language. The study of ancient languages like Greek and Latin and the literature and history from ancient civilizations is called Classics.

While at school, Frémont became very close with John Robertson, the schools owner and main teacher. In 1829, at the age of 16, Frémont entered the College of Charleston as a junior. At the College of Charleston, Frémont continued to study Classics, and he also learned mathematics and science.

Glebe House, 6 Glebe Street, Charleston, SC. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, HABS SC,10-CHAR,169—6

Glebe House, 6 Glebe Street, Charleston, SC. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, HABS SC,10-CHAR,169—6. It is likely that Frémont took classes in this building.

In 1830, Frémont lost focus on his studies. He often skipped school to explore the outdoors. In his Memoirs, Frémont explains those early adventures: “In the summer we ranged about in the woods, or on the now historic islands, gunning or picnicking…” After skipping one too many days of class, Frémont was expelled from the College of Charleston. However, Frémont did not lose his love of reading and learning just because he was not in a classroom.

Think About It

Schooling has changed a lot since John C. Frémont was a student. When Frémont started at the preparatory school in the 1820s, there was no official government-sponsored public school system. The type of education you received often depended on your family’s occupation and status and was different from state to state and even town to town. Some communities built schools and paid for teachers, wealthy families often hired tutors to teacher their children, and people like Frémont ‘s teacher John Robertson opened their own schools and charged tuition. Some children never attended school. It was not until 1866 that the Georgia Assembly created the first organized public education system in Georgia.

  • How is your experience in school different from John C. Frémont’s experience?
  • How is what you study similar and different to what Frémont studied at preparatory school and the College of Charleston?

From the Source

In this quote from his Memoirs, Frémont talks about two books that changed his life.

The accidents that lead to events are often hardly noticeable. A single book sometimes enters fruitfully into character or pursuit. I had two such. One was a chronicle of men who had made themselves famous by brave and noble deeds, or infamous by cruel and base acts. With a schoolboy’s enthusiasm I read these stories over and over again, with alternate pleasure or indignation. I please myself in thinking they have sometimes exercised a restraining or inspiring influence. Dwelling in the memory they were like the ring of Amasis.

 

The other was a work on practical astronomy, published in the Dutch. The language made it a closed book but for the beautifully clear maps of the stars and many examples of astronomical calculations. By its aid I became well acquainted with the night skies and familiarized myself with the ordinary observations necessary to determine latitude and longitude. This was the beginning of the astronomical knowledge afterwards so essential to me.

 

John Charles Frémont. Memoirs of My Life. New York: Bedford, Clarke & Company, 1886.

  • How do you think these two specific books may have influenced his becoming an explorer and adventurer in the American West?
  • Do you have any books that you read over and over?
  • What about a movie you have seen hundreds of times?

Becoming an Adult

J.R. Poinsett, Secretary of War. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-23834

J.R. Poinsett, Secretary of War. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-23834

Around the time he was expelled from the College of Charleston, another important mentor came into Frémont’s life: Joel Poinsett. Poinsett was a well-known physician, diplomat, and politician. He helped shape Frémont’s opinions on politics and helped give him important career opportunities. Poinsett disliked slavery, had a love of the Union, and a wish to see the United States expand its territory in the west. Soon Frémont came to share these same opinions.

At age twenty-two, Frémont got a job as a mathematics teacher aboard a U.S. Navy ship sailing to South America. The U.S. Navy did not have the same methods for training their sailors as they do today, and it was Frémont’s job to teach the sailors how to use mathematics to successfully navigate on open waters. This was Frémont’s only adventure by sea; he would soon start his career as an explorer by land.

Think About It

Did you know that the popular Christmas flower Poinsettias are named in honor of Joel Poinsett? Poinsett came across the flower in 1828 while serving as ambassador to Mexico. Joel Poinsett brought a clipping of the plant back to Charleston, South Carolina, where he grew it in his greenhouse. Today, the plant is a popular Christmas decoration in the United States.

From the Source

In this quote from his Memoirs, Frémont talks about the important role of mentors in his life.

Throughout, at different periods it has been my good fortune to be in familiar relations with men who were eminent, each in his own line, all of whom were individualized by character and some distinguished by achievement. Even if insensibly, such associations influence the course of life and give its coloring to it. The early part of mine was desultory. “The path that men are destined to walk ” had not been marked out for me. Later events determined this, and meantime I had freedom of choice in preparatory studies.

 

John Charles Frémont. Memoirs of My Life. New York: Bedford, Clarke & Company, 1886.

 

  • What circumstances in Frémont’s childhood made it important for him to have male role models in his life?
  • How did his relationship with Poinsett influence Frémont’s life choices?
  • Is there someone you look up to as a role model or mentor?

Continue to Early Explorations