John Charles Frémont, who led several expeditions that helped map the American West in the 1840s, is the subject of this admiring biographical novel. Supported by his powerful and expansionist father-in-law, Senator Thomas Hart Benton, Frémont discovered mountain passes and laid the groundwork for settling the Great Plains and beyond the Rockies. The story of his elopement with the senator’s 17-year-old daughter reads like romantic fiction, but Nevin’s account of a secret marriage conducted by a Catholic priest squares with the historical record. Jessie Frémont was a full partner with her husband in ventures like his campaign as the Republican presidential nominee in 1856, an early version of Bill and Hillary running as two for the price of one.
The best parts of the book deal with the desperate conditions faced going through frigid mountain passes led by Kit Carson and other legends. Crossing the mountains into old California, Frémont’s explorers became involved in the rebellion against Mexico that led to California’s eventual inclusion in the United States, forestalling a supposed acquisition by England. Nevin’s hero has much to recommend him to the modern reader, such as a decision to emancipate the slaves in territories under his Civil War command in the state of Missouri. Frémont’s business ventures are always portrayed as part of his overall idealism, but there was substantial evidence of fraud and forgery in many of his dealings. The book justifies what was seen as his insubordination in California by referring to secret orders by the delightfully devious President Polk, one of the book’s better villains. This reprinted novel stimulated my interest enough to read Tom Chaffin’s recent biography Pathfinder, which I would recommend as a corrective or a substitute.