John Fremont painting

A painting of John C. Fremont, one of the great explorers of the mid-19th century.

In the 1850s, who would have been considered America’s greatest explorer? Lewis and Clark? Daniel Boone? Davy Crockett? According to author David Roberts, in the mid-19th century, America’s greatest explorer would have been considered to be John C. Fremont.

This article tells Fremont’s story and explains his connection with what would become Riley County.

John Charles Fremont was born in 1813. He joined the U.S. Topographical Corps, assisting with exploratory expeditions between the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

His work drew the interest of Thomas Hart Benton, a powerful Democratic Senator from Missouri. Benton was a strong believer in Manifest Destiny, the concept that the United States was destined to reach from coast to coast of the North American continent. After his daughter met and married Fremont, Senator Benton became Fremont’s leading supporter, pushing through a Congressional appropriation to pay for Fremont to survey the Oregon Trail.

In 1842, Fremont embarked on his first expedition. While on the riverboat to Kansas City, he spied a frontiersman in buckskins and ultimately hired him as a guide. The guide’s name was Christopher Houston Carson — better known as Kit. Fremont and Carson became lifelong friends and allies.

Fremont made five major expeditions to the west with varying degrees of success. The reports he filed with Congress were a sensation, inspiring many settlers to travel west. Benton got another Congressional appropriation to print and circulate the reports.

Fremont and Carson became heroes and celebrities as a result. Newspaper editors dubbed Fremont “The Pathfinder.” An anti-slavery advocate, he became the Republican Party’s first candidate for president.

In his prime, John C. Fremont was an American hero. Some say there are more counties, cities, towns, streets, parks, peaks and points named for Fremont in the western U.S. than any other person. The scientific names of many plant varieties also bear some form of Fremont’s name.

Fremont was highly complimentary of the region.

According to www.newworldexploration.com, near the site of present-day Manhattan, Fremont wrote of the beautiful prairies and streams:

“Our route the next morning lay up the valley, which bordered by hills and graceful slopes looked uncommonly beautiful. The stream [the Little Blue] was about 50 feet wide and 3 or 4 feet deep, fringed by cottonwood and willow with frequent groves of oak tenanted by wild turkeys.”

Fremont also wrote, “We encamped in a remarkably beautiful situation on the Kansas bluffs, which commanded a wide view of the river valley, here from 3 to 4 miles wide. The central portion was occupied by a wide belt of heavy timber, and nearer the hills the prairies were of the richest verdure … The soil of all this country is excellent, admirably adapted to agricultural purposes, and would support a large agricultural and pastoral population.”

Fremont’s sojourn in Riley County was brief, but landmarks named in his honor live on. A mural of Fremont adorns the rotunda of the state capitol in Topeka.

On most of his westward expeditions, Fremont went west up the Oregon Trail and returned via the Santa Fe Trail. On only one trip did he come through Riley County. In the expedition of 1843, he chose to go west along the south side of the Kansas River before turning north toward Oregon.

Local historian Charles Given analyzed Fremont’s journal and concluded as follows, “On the first day … (June 3), he camped on “Otter Creek,” which I believe is now the upper reaches of the Wakarusa River. On the 4th he camped on “Buck Creek” … now Mill Creek (near Maple Hill). On the 5th no location is given, but from mileage observations was probably on Deep Creek near Zeandale. For the next three days his location is harder to pin down … On the 8th of June they camped on the south bank of the Smoky Hill River about a mile above the confluence of the Smoky Hill and the Republican Rivers, near present-day Grandview Plaza.”

Fremont wrote, “The area had experienced considerable rain and the streams, while not out of their banks, were running high.” Sound familiar?

The Kansas Atlas and Gazetteer denotes a hilltop on the south side of the Kansas River near Manhattan as Fremont Point. The origin of the name is elusive. Charles Given wrote, “Certainly John Fremont passed within a few hundred yards, but there is no mention of his having climbed the hill and bestowed his name on it.”

Fremont Point is on private property on one of the highest bluffs overlooking the south side of the Kansas River. It is visible when traveling west on K-18 highway from Zeandale. The Riley County Historical Society archives include a black-and-white photo of a 1960s-era sign that used to stand at the foot of the hill where Fremont Point is located. The sign read, “The point to the west often called Fremont’s Point was used as a buring (sic) ground by Indians as well as a look out point.”

One other local tribute to Fremont remains in place, which is Fremont Street in historic downtown Manhattan. Given Fremont’s prominence in national politics at the time when the city was organized, it is understandable why Manhattan city fathers would have named a street in his honor. There is one bit of irony relating to the location.

Fremont’s journal tells of an encounter with Native Americans while he was in or near what would become Riley County. On June 6, 1843, while crossing a “wooded stream,” Native Americans attacked Fremont’s party and the explorers’ horses were scattered. The attackers were said to be Osage Indians “dressed in red blankets and with heads shaved to the scalp lock.” Fremont gave chase, recovered the horses, and traveled westward with no loss of life.

Ironically, in downtown Manhattan, Fremont Street happens to be located next to Osage Street, named for the very American Indians who attacked his party more than 175 years ago. I hope Fremont and the Osage are getting along better today.

Ron Wilson is director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas State University. He also writes cowboy poetry, is interested in local history, and lives on the family ranch near Manhattan. This article is one in an occasional series written by Riley County Historical Society members and others interested in Riley County history.

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