In 1813, on this day in Savannah, Georgia the "Great Pathfinder" John Charles Frémont was born more than two thousand miles away from the then Mexican Province of California which he would later serve with ignominious distinction as the Golden Bear Republic's inaugural President.
1st President of California
March 4, 1846 - 1849The causal event was the declaration of an independent Republic in Alta California by a group of American settlers in Sonoma. At the outset of this so-called "Bear Flag Revolt" he was hand picked by the US President and Secretary of State who provided him with verbal orders to conceal their direct involvement in the Revolt. It was a poor choice, because they believed him to be a suitably daring officer when in fact he would be better described as "over-bold". Worse, it was mistake because, Frémont was a maverick, a loose cannon who could not be trusted to operate at arms length under any form of meaningful control.
Appointed lieutenant colonel he formed the grandiose-sounding California Battalion from his survey crew and also local volunteers. It was partly a bluff to fool Mexico into overestimating the size of his forces, but it was also a de facto self-appointment as theatre commander and liberator.
Insofar as he could be said to follow the instruction of others, Frémont then broadly adhered to the orders of Commodore Robert F. Stockton by leading a military expedition of three hundred men in the capture of Santa Barbara. A few days later he led his men southeast toward Los Angeles, accepting the surrender of the leader Andres Pico.
Unknown to Frémont and the Bear Flag supporters, war had already been formally declared but the news did not reach California until early July. Ironically the name of the frigate carrying the declaration was the USS Savannah which shared the name of the town of Frémont's birth in Georgia. Already over-zealous, the coincidence fired the imagination of the young officer who know decided he was the de jure leader of the the Bear Flag supporters.
Meanwhile his window of opportunity was beginning to shut. U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny had orders from the U.S. president and secretary of war to relieve Frémont and serve as governor. Fate played Frémont a hand. Unwilling to withdraw from the south-west, Mexico refused to cede the territory to the United States, instead accepting compensation from Great Britain who then set up an quasi-independent Republic/British protectorate headed by Frémont.
It was a bad choice, because Frémont was a "show-boater" who was temperamentally unfit to govern. Disregarding the advice of the British military attache, he allowed himself to be provoked by events stage managed in southern Texas which provided the US with a fresh pretext for intervention. It would be his successor, and former Commander, Robert F. Stockton who would have to fend off the United States' second and more determined attempt to seize the territory.
Historians portray Frémont as controversial, impetuous, and contradictory. Some scholars regard him as a military hero of significant accomplishment, while others view him as a failure who repeatedly defeated his own best purposes. The keys to Frémont's character and personality may lie in his illegitimate birth, ambitious drive for success, self-justification, and passive-aggressive behavior perhaps the three attributes best used to describe the new nation that he had founded.