John Charles Frémont and the Course of American Empire

The career of John Charles Frémont (1813–90) ties together the full breadth of American expansionism from its eighteenth-century origins through its culmination in the Gilded Age. Tom Chaffin’s biography demonstrates Frémont’s vital importance to the history of American empire, and illuminates his role in shattering long-held myths about the ecology and habitability of the American West.

As the most celebrated American explorer and mapper of his time, Frémont stood at the center of the vast federal project of western exploration and conquest. His expeditions between 1838 and 1854 captured the public’s imagination, inspired Americans to accept their nation’s destiny as a vast continental empire, and earned him his enduring sobriquet, the Pathfinder.

But Frémont was more than an explorer. Chaffin’s dramatic narrative includes Frémont’s varied experiences as an entrepreneur, abolitionist, Civil War general, husband to the remarkable Jessie Benton Frémont, two-time Republican presidential candidate, and Gilded Age aristocrat.

The new paperback edition of Pathfinder from the University of Oklahoma Press features a new, additional, updated introduction by the author.


“A superb biography….Chaffin’s masterful grasp of storytelling creates a deeply nuanced portrait of a man of many parts—dashing explorer, businessman and politician—and the tumultuous times he lived through and helped shape. There’s something here for every history buff: gripping accounts of Frémont’s expeditions to map the rugged terrain of the West; insightful portrayals of Frémont’s allies and adversaries that reveal the author’s deep understanding of how power is wielded in both political and nonpolitical settings; and superb analysis of the philosophical underpinnings of American empire. Chaffin . . . even delivers a memorable love story-the relationship between Frémont and his wife, Jessie, daughter of powerful Missouri Sen. Thomas Hart Benton-that could easily stand on its own.”
— ★ Starred review, Publishers Weekly

“This well-researched but sprawling new narrative biography of Frémont elaborates his subject’s many flaws, but also tries to stand back from them and see him as a creature of his times.”
—Robert Wilson, Washington Post

“A robust eye-opening new biography…Did Frémont deserve his luck? That’s the question Chaffin poses for himself, and part of the fun of ‘Pathfinder’ lies in watching this thorough and uncommonly graceful historian trying to make up his mind….Chaffin makes…connections artfully, without confusion and in high spirits. He has the born explorer’s sense of momentum—an unerring feel for when to forge ahead, when to pitch camp and look around, which out-of-the-way sidetracks to investigate and which to pass by.”
—David Kipen, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

“An enthralling new biography….a captivating tale of a seminal moment in American history, a moment that Pathfinder captures in spellbinding fashion.”
—Scott W. Helman, Boston Globe

“It is hard to think of a single equivalent to [Frémont]…today. Like John Glenn, he turned fame as a government explorer into a political career. . . . Chaffin is right in casting him in imperial terms.”
—Richard White, Los Angeles Times Book Review.

“Chaffin writes well and his biography will entertain and inform most readers. . . Chaffin meets his objective of writing a full biography, and it is a fair-minded study that is neither overly favorable to Frémont nor condemns him.”
—Joseph G. Dawson, Journal of Military History

“It is most refreshing to read Pathfinder, a new and well researched biography of John C. Frémont, an outstanding explorer whose monumental exploits have largely gone undocumented except by California-based historians. As an independent researcher, this reviewer always spends time absorbing the depth of the author’s research by looking over the lists of works consulted. Tom Chaffin has done a masterful job of drawing on extremely diverse primary materials, both in manuscript and in published formats. This must have been a labor of love.”
—Henry Goldman, H-Net Civil War

Pathfinder offers an exhaustive account of Frémont’s experiences that praises many of his abilities but reveals a complex, ambiguity-ridden, and often contradictory ‘pathfinder.’ . . . This marvelous and readable book will delight scholars and those with interests in Americana.”
—P. D. Travis, Choice

“A comprehensive, lively study of one of America’s greatest explorers. . . of great interest to students of Western history.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Essential reading for historians of the West, and its accessible style will make it enjoyable for many general readers as well.”
—Charles K. Piehl, Library Journal

“Emotionally engaging and highly informative, Pathfinder is sweeping narrative history of the first order.”
—Chris Patsilelis, Houston Chronicle

“More than any other American John C. Fremont the pathfinder for a vast inland empire stretching from the Mississippi Valley to the Pacific Ocean. In a biography that, like its subject, never knows a dull moment, Tom Chaffin captures the spectacular successes as well as failures of this complex and colorful character.”
—James McPherson, Princeton University

Pathfinder is the most eloquent, understanding, and yet very candid biography of Frémont that has appeared to date. A major contribution to American historical writing.”
—Howard R. Lamar, Yale University

“Throughout the nineteenth century, the most celebrated explorer in America was not Lewis or Clark or Pike or Powell. It was the extraordinary Pathfinder, John Charles Frémont. In his mesmerizing biography, Tom Chaffin brings to life not only Frémont but the amazing personalities who populated his world, including William Clark, Kit Carson, Robert E. Lee, and Abraham Lincoln.”
—Landon Jones, former managing editor, People magazine

“John Charles Frémont was a man—some would say the man—who epitomized mid-nineteenth century America’s driven, supremely confident spirit. Tom Chaffin has brought his remarkable character back into our midst, and by doing so he has shown us something of the heroism and blindness of that pivotal time in the nation’s history.”
—Elliott West, University of Arkansas

“A masterful storyteller, Tom Chaffin vividly narrates the personal as well as private lives of Frémont and the other colorful figures of his generation who pushed America to the Pacific.”
—David J. Weber, Southern Methodist University