John Charles Fremont was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1813. When he was 25, Fremont joined an expedition to the upper Mississippi and Missouri rivers, where he learned mapping and surveying.
Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton, who became Fremont’s father-in-law in 1841, believed passionately in expanding the United States westward. To open the region to white settlers, the senator sponsored Fremont on several exploratory missions, which allowed Fremont to map much of the territory between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean.
On the first expedition, begun in 1842, Fremont surveyed a route through what is today Nebraska, Wyoming, and Idaho. The route would become the Oregon Trail, a highway into the West for millions of white settlers.
While surveying the area, Fremont climbed what he thought was the highest peak in the Rockies (historians are uncertain which peak Fremont climbed). After returning to Washington, D.C., Fremont and his wife wrote an account of his adventures, firing the imagination of the nation to the potential of the West.
In spring 1843, Fremont led a party of 40 men into the mountains again, this time to find a suitable route to the Pacific Ocean. The expedition moved west and found the Great Salt Lake in what today is Utah. Fremont turned north, reached Oregon, and then journeyed south into California.
By winter 1844, the men were starving and freezing in the Sierra Nevada. The Indian guides deserted them, and Fremont and his men struggled for 30 days until finally reaching safety in Sacramento, California. In 1845, Fremont returned to the West, blazing and mapping a new trail to California.
Again, Fremont wrote a stirring version of his adventures that became immensely popular with the American pub-lic, earning him the nickname “Pathfinder.” Besides encouraging white settlement in the West, Fremont’s expeditions made him popular enough to run for president in 1856, but he lost to James Buchanan.