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Pathfinder

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Pathfinder
John Charles Fremont and the Course of American Empire. By Tom Chaffin. (Hill & Wang - A Division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York: 2004. Pg. xxx. 559. Illustrations, Maps, Chronology.) ISBN: 0-8090-7556-3.

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - May 17, 2004

John Charles Fremont did much to change nature and the image of the American frontier. An explorer and an adventurer, Fremont led several expeditions through the American West. In the process he mapped the route that was to become known as the Oregon Trail, and he surveyed large portions of California, Utah, Nevada, and Colorado. In the course of his colorful career he served as a Union general, ran for president, and he was a railroad speculator. However, he is best known for his work surveying and mapping the American West.

Fremont was a complex and colorful individual. During his lifetime, countless settlers headed west. They were drawn west by his descriptions of the frontier, and they followed the maps he created that allowed them to chart their journey with some measure of certainty. He was acclaimed for this scientific surveys of the west, for his explorations, and for his ability to fire the imagination of those yet to visit the lands he was exploring. In other areas, he was not so well regarded. He made enemies during his political career that haunted his military career during the Civil War, he was despised for some of his business ventures, and his image was tarnished by his tendency to exaggerate his own achievements.

So who was Fremont? Was he the acclaimed expedition leader? Or, was he, as some of his enemies implied, a fraud? Tom Chaffin helps to answer these questions, and many more, in his new book, Pathfinder: John Charles Fremont and the Course of American Empire. In the process of separating the truth from the fiction, Chaffin paints a vivid portrait of the explorer, and his impact on the American psyche.

Written in an engaging narrative style, this biography is both mesmerizing and enlightening. This book not only details Fremont's public life, but it also strives to provide a glimpse into Fremont's personal life and feelings. Chaffin explores Fremont's interactions and reliance on his wife Jessie, the forces that motivated him, and the force of personality that allowed him to overcome set backs, including submitting to a court-martial, that would have stymied a lesser man.

Fremont was born in 1813, and died in 1890. In charting the course of Fremont's life, Chaffin has also charted the course of America's expansion westward and the growing pangs of a nation dealing with a series of complicated issues ranging from slavery and the dislocation of the Native Americans, to the annexation of California from Mexico and the consequences that resulted from the development, and implementation, of the idea of Manifest Destiny.

Pathfinder is a rousing story. Chaffin's accounts of Fremont's expeditions are phenomenally vivid and gripping. Throughout the narrative is interwoven with quotes from letters, journal entries, published reports, and other sources that help to enliven the narrative and bring Fremont, and the America of the 1800's, to life. Provocative and unforgettable, Pathfinder provides a comprehensive look at a man, and his life's work. Yet, rather than tell you what kind of man Chaffin thinks Fremont was, the author allows the reader to develop their own, informed, opinion about whom Fremont really was and the role he played in shaping the course of American history.

Accessible to the general reader, Pathfinder is also an authoritative historical work. Chaffin has included a thorough bibliography of primary and secondary sources, and the text includes endnotes, maps, illustrations, and a chronology that puts the events depicted in this text in perspective to the major events in American history during the same period. The text is ideal for us as supplemental reading material in American history courses at both the senior high school and college levels.


Related Reviews:

Exploring the Colorado River: Firsthand Accounts by Powell and His Crew, by John Wesley Powell.
A fascinating, first hand account of Major Powell and his crew's groundbreaking 1869 journey down the Colorado River.

The Story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, by Noah Brooks.
A fascinating account of Lewis and Clark's monumental three-year journey across a continent, surveying, for the first time, the lands they passed as they roamed from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean.

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