Born in 1813 in Georgia, John Fremont played a critical role in the expansion of the United States during the mid 19th century. This role was facilitated by his marriage to Jessie Benton, daughter of Missouri senator Thomas Benton. Senator Benton was an advocate of Manifest Destiny, a belief that saw the mission of Anglo-Saxon Americans to expand the United States across North America. With an eye towards annexing Mexican territory, writers such as John L. O'Sullivan asserted that, "The Anglo-Saxon foot is already on its border. Already the advance guard of the irresistible army of the Anglo-Saxon emigration has begun to pour down upon it, armed with the plough and the rifle…" While Senator Benton used such arguments to push appropriations through Congress, Fremont was able to lead expeditions that reported back the attractiveness and availability of western lands.
In 1845, Fremont was leading his third expedition, a survey of California. Ostensibly, he was mapping the West Coast for the U.S. Army. However, Fremont was believed to be inciting American settlers to revolt against Mexican authorities and was ordered to leave the territory. On May 9, 1846, four days before the United States declared war on Mexico, Fremont received information that the Mexican military commandant was going to order all American settlers to leave California. Fremont quickly returned to the Central Valley and informed the settlers. As the United States was not yet at war with Mexico, Fremont could not officially get involved in a domestic dispute, yet it is suspected that he advised the settlers to capture the northern headquarters of the Mexican army at Sonoma. On June 14, a group of twenty men moved on Sonoma, captured General Vallejo and declared California a republic with the raising of the Bear Flag.
While the Bear Flag Revolt was a surprise to the Californios, Fremont's subsequent actions came as a true shock. While scouting the shoreline near Suisun Bay in mid June, a patrol under Fremont's command encountered three unarmed Californios. The three men were shot without provocation and left to die on the beach. When informed of the incident, Fremont reportedly exclaimed, "It is well!" and let the matter go. For Californios, this event illustrated their worst fears about American expansion. As Manuel Castro explained, "Until then, we Californios did not know whether we would have to struggle against savage hordes organized under the Bear Flag…or against civilized soldiers."
When U.S. forces arrived in early July, Fremont organized the Bear Flag revolters into the California Battalion and worked to complete the conquest of California. On January 13, 1847, Fremont received the final surrender of the Californios with the signing of the Treaty of Cahuenga.
Fremont's activities in California were the expression of the idea of Manifest Destiny. Through his explorations and reports, he helped stimulate U.S. interest in settling the West. By encouraging settlers to revolt against the Mexican authorities, Fremont sought to pave the way for the annexation of California by the United States. In this context, Fremont represents the drive of American expansionists to control the continent. This desire would lead to new questions about the assimilation of diverse populations into the American social fabric.
- Students explain the economic, social, and political life in California from the establishment of the Bear Flag Republic through the Mexican-American War, the Gold Rush, and the granting of statehood. (4.3.5)