Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War -Steve Inskeep


If you live in San Francisco or have visited the “City by the Bay”, I believe you will agree that views of the Golden Gate Bridge are nothing short of breathtaking. It is an iconic structure that is easily recognized as a symbol of the Golden State. But I confess that I never asked myself where the name Golden Gate came from. Two weeks about, this recommendation showed up in my feed. I did not know who John Charles Frémont (1813-1890) nor his wife Jessie Ann Benton Frémont (1824-1902). But the title of the book caught my attention, and I knew I had to make the purchase.  And having finished the book, I can say that not only was it a fulfilling read but also a story I should have learned years ago. In this informative and eye-opening book, author Steve Inskeep takes up back in time when America was still a young nation embracing expansionism into parts unknown and the life story an accomplished yet tragic explorer whose actions and experiences helped to write new chapters in the history of the United States.

Naturally, I wondered why I had never heard of John Frémont and his journeys west. I had a sobering realization that there is a great deal of American history that remains to be told.  John is the pivotal figure in the book and Inskeep provides an early recap of his early life and that of his wife Jessie, whose father, Senator Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858) plays a significant role in both of their lives as the story progresses. Story picks up in pace as John begins the first of several expeditions that changed his life and the United States. Readers will take notice of the extensive periods of time that pass between the times John and Jessie are together. It may be hard for young readers to envision but in an era before modern forms of communication, letters were the only option. Frankly, there are parts of the story in which Jessie does not know where her husband is. We do as readers but putting myself in her place helped me to understand how rough life was in the early 1800s. Further, the extensive journeys are not for the faint at heart, as Inskeep shows with his descriptions of the harsh condition faced by Fremont and his parties. Adding to the suspense is the fact that Frémont was venturing into territory that did not belong to the United States. The stakes are high, not just for John but for others, including the famous Kit Carson (1809-1868) whose friendship with Frémont is on display as the two venture further west confronting the elements and the unknown.  Their excursions did not go unnoticed and as White American explorers continued to move west, tensions increased with Native Americans and Mexico who claimed a majority of what is today the State of California, igniting a major conflict which the author revisits to examine Frémont’s role. At home was Jessie, but as we learn in the book, she was not the type of woman to sit still and has her journey from start to finish which is also of interest for its moments of grief and reunions with John who she never ceased to love.  It can be argued that Jessie could have become a celebrity “First Lady” had Frémont been elected.

The annexation of territory outside of America’s border was ugly and the author does not hide this fact. The Mexican American War was a turning point in North American history and by its end, California’s fate had been changed permanently. Frémont has a significant role on the side of the United States, yet comically, he finds himself the target of military justice upon the war’s conclusion which saw him appointed as the first Governor of California. But U.S. President James K. Polk (1795-1849) who valued the officer’s successes and talents. Others also took notice, including a group of politicians who had recently formed the Republican Party. Running heavily on the platform against the expansion of slavery and if possible, its elimination, the Republicans struck fear across the South where slavery was a way of life. And it is this part of the book that explains the author’s contention that the Frémonts helped cause the American Civil War.

Of course, Frémont was not the proximate cause of the conflict but the expanding union which began to include more slavery-free states, raised eyebrows in the South. Surprisingly, I was not aware that Frémont was the first Republican candidate for president. The incredible story is contained here, and it is a valuable history lesson. Following Frémont’s rise to fame, his star slowly fades away as a new candidate named Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) rises in the Republican Party and captures the White House in 1860. The South had already been on edge due to the Republican’s support for the abolition of slavery or the stop of its expansion. But a major trigger for the coming war can be found in how the Republicans won the election. This alone should have been a warning to the South that a conflict with the North would never be quick and easy. Sadly, the war did come and though Frémont was in Europe for a time, upon returning to America he suited up again for the Union Army as America was at war with itself.  The Confederacy eventually suffered defeat but for Frémont, he would never again have the fame he once had. And before Lincoln’s assassination, the two clashed over Frémont’s fiercely independent nature. The details are within and caused me to ponder if Frémont carried bitterness toward Lincoln for becoming president. Inskeep does not explore that idea and it is up to readers to draw their own conclusions. The latter part of his life is uneventful but also heartbreaking for we see a man who is restless and in need of action true to his character. There is no happy conclusion for Frémont nor for Jessie. But unlike her husband, she made the best of her later years, and even published several books during her lifetime. John’s final days are sad, but he did live a life full of incredible experiences that are part of America’s legacy. And any time I visit San Francisco, I will stand at the Golden Gate with an understanding of how and why it all came to be.


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