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How Did Frémont Become a Surveyor and Map Maker,
and How Good was He?

"To this gate I give the name Chrysopylæ, or Golden Gate,
for the same reason that the harbor of Byzantium was named the Golden Horn, Chrysoceras."

John Charles Frémont was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1813.Though poor, through the efforts of a family friend, John Charles was prepared for and entered the Junior Class at Charleston College at the age of 15.Though he showed great promise in languages, science, and mathematics, a few weeks before graduating he was expelled for nonattendance.

Note: Some years later, when he became famous, Charleston College awarded him a BA and MS. But no statue.

He early worked as a schoolteacher, teacher of mathematics, and surveyor. Attracting the attention of Joel Roberts Poinsett (former Senator, Ambassador to Mexico, and later Secretary of War) Frémont was appointed Professor of Mathematics in the Navy. The appointment convinced Charleston College to then confer upon him the degrees of Bachelor and Master of Arts. He was assigned to the Frigate Independence, where he taught mathematics to midshipmen--there not yet being a Naval Academy at that time.
Yes, Poinsett was also an accomplished botanist; that is his name attached to the, now ubiquitous, Christmas flower.

At the age of 24, Poinsett brought him to Washington where he applied for, and was appointed, a civil engineer in the newly organized Army Topographical Corps of Engineers by President Jackson. A number of government and railroad surveys followed. In 1838 Frémont was commissioned as Second Lieutenant of Topographical Engineers, and was assigned as chief assistant to a survey of the area between the upper Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.

go Frémont's contributions to the botany of the West.

Leading the expedition was fifty-two year old Legend of Honor member Joseph Nicolas Nicollet, an eminent French astronomer and mathematician, and foremost surveyor and mapmaker of his day. Nicollet, had been the protoge of Laplace, and is recognized in the last vol. of Mecanique Celeste as an observer of comets, and for his work on the great map of France. At the time of the revolution of 1830, Nicollet was astronomer at the bureau of Longitudes at the Royal Observatory in Paris. Financially ruined by the revolution, he came to America, where he became associated with Ferdinand Hassler of the U. S. Coast Survey. Fremont's introduction to Nicollet was through Poinsett and Hassler.

"In the philosophical study of nature, where we seek to determine the laws that govern progressive and variable phenomena which are continually presenting themselves, we want chiefly points of departure, well fixed, and observations made with care to show us the vicissitudes of the phenomena, so as to connect the present and the past by numerical comparisons of determinate epochs...If only in every thousand years the mean temperature of the atmosphere of the earth in different latitudes could have been determined...we should know in what ratio the heat of different climates has increased or diminished, and if any change has taken place in the height of the atmosphere." Joseph N. Nicollet, 1838"

This was a stroke of luck! With Frémont's background in mathematics and the physical sciences, Nicollet trained him surveying, botanical, meteorological, and geological observation, and topographical map work.

[To Nicollet] an astronomical observation was a solemnity, and required such decorous preparations as an Indian makes when he goes where he thinks there are supernatural beings. Frémont, Memoirs

I feel myself sensibly advancing in professional knowledge, & the confused ideas of Science and philosophy whith which my mind has been occupied are momently arranging themselves into order and clearness.
Letter, Frémont to Joel Poinsett, June 8, 1838

go An adventure from this expedition--LOST ON THE PRAIRIE

Nicollet was a pioneer in the use of the barometer on surveys.
go HYPSOMETRY--Frémont's determination of elevations.
go and, related, Frémont's contributions to meteorology.

Following the survey, Frémont returned to Washington with Nicollet, where the latter took great pains to impress upon Poinsett and the President his assistant's brilliant performance. Here Frémont also came under the influence of Nicollet's friend and colleague Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler. A Swiss-born scientist, Hassler was the first Chief of the Coastal Survey, and of Weights and Measures, and one of the finest scientists and geodetic surveyors of his time.

"So, Mr. Hassler, it appears that the Secretary and you cannot agree about this matter [of your salary]," remarked President Andrew Jackson.

"No, Sir, ve can't."

"Well, how much do you really think you ought to have?"

"Six thousand dollars, Sir."

"Why, Mr. Hassler, that is as much as Mr. Woodbury, my Secretary of the Treasury, himself receives."

"Mr. Voodbury!" declared Hassler, rising from his chair. There are plenty of Voodburys, plenty of Everybodys who can be made Secretary of the Treasury. But," said he, pointing his forefinger toward himself, "there is only one, one Hassler for the head of the Coast Survey."

Hassler got his $6,000.

Nicollet had an observatory atop Hassler's Washington home, where they and Frémont and Topographical Corps head J. J. Abert worked at making observations, reducing positions from the survey, and mapmaking.

One of Hassler's important contributions to cartography was the invention of the Polyconic Projection. The U.S.G.S. uses it to this day for its field sheets.
See Cajori, Florian, The Chequered Career of Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler, First Superintendant of the United States Coast Survey, Christopher Publishing House, Boston, 1929.

There was a mass of astronomical and other observations to be calculated and discussed before a beginning on [a map] could be made. Indeed, the making of such a map is an interesting process. It must be exact. First, the foundations must be laid in observations made in the field; then the [mathematical] reductions of these observations to latitude and longitude; afterward the projection of the map, and the laying down of positions fixed by the observation; then the tracings from the sketch-books of the lines of the rivers, the forms of the lakes, the contours of the hills. Specially, it is interesting to those who have laid in the field these foundations, to see them all brought into final shape--fixing on a small sheet the results of laborious travel over waste regions, and giving to them an enduring place on the world's surface. Frémont

In 1842, because of ill health, Nicollet was unable to conduct a mapping expedition of the Oregon Trail to the Rockies through the South Pass; the command fell to Frémont. At this point, because of his university degrees, his tutelage under Nicollet, Hassler, and Abert, and his field experience, at just 29 years of age, he was not only qualified, but he was without a doubt the most qualified man in the country. Now known as Frémont's First Expedition, the results were a great success, and the report written in a narrative form by Frémont with the assistance of Jessie, was published by Congress in 1843 and appeared in all major newspapers.

The maps which resulted from this and the following expedition (1848 map at right) were drawn by George Karl Ludwig Preuss, whose name (Charles Preuss) appears on the maps with Frémont's. The German-born Preuss was a skilled cartographer and artist. Out of work, and unable to feed his family, Preuss was hired by Frémont in Washington to reduce astronomical observations. This work, Preuss could not do, but Frémont did the work for him to keep him employed until the start of the expedition.


Frémont's three Topigraphical Corps survey's, and the reports and maps which resulted from them, became the standard of the way future surveys were conducted. One difference is that Frémont was his own astronomer, hypsometrist, meteorologist, geologist, botanist, and ethnographer--later surveys employed specialists. As the contribution of a single man, his collected body of information and data over an immence unexplored area, was absolutely enormous.

The narrative style of his report was literally a best seller; in addition to the 20,000 copies published by Congress, there immediately followed at least six commercial American editions, two English editions, and several foreign language editions. One of the American editions may have exceeded 100,000 copies. Always in the Public Domain, Frémont never profited from the sales of the Report, but as an author, he was as read as the likes of Louisa May Alcott and Harriot Beecher Stowe.

The Frémont/Preuss maps of the period 1842 to 1848 were the basis for all western maps of the following two decades.The next important large map was G. K. Warren's 1857 map which accompanied The Topographical Engineers Reports of the Surveys For Railroad Routes From the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Frémont's determinations of such points as the Great Salt Lake, Old Bent's Fort, the mouth of the Fountaine Qui Bouit, and California locations such as Lassen's Ranch on Deer Creek and Fort Reading were still important determinations, and often found to be more accurate than later ones.

More to be added re the 3rd expedition survey work.

Smucker, Samuel M, A. M., The Life of Col. John Charles Frémont and His Narrative of Explorations and Adventures in Kansas, Nebraska, Oregon and California, Miller, Orton & Mulligan, New York, 1856.
It is searchable, and is editable text!
go Entire text now available online!

go See Frémont and the Determination of Coordinates,
go and Frémont and the Determination of Altitude,
go and GPS, Latitude, and the Discovery of Frémont's Long Camp.
go Watching the heavens change. How polaris has moved 2 degrees closer to the celestial pole during recorded California history, and why John C. Frémont got up at 3:00 a.m. to sight polaris in 1844--wasn't it there all night long?

A new University of Oklahoma Press edition of Tom Chaffin's now classic Pathfinder: John Charles Fremont and the Course of American Empire.

"The most eloquent, understanding, and yet very candid biography of Frémont that has appeared to date"--Howard R. Lamar, Yale University

The character and extent of Frémont's astronomical and other physical observations on this long, arduous, and dangerous journey constituted the great value of his exploring work. In few instances did it fall to Frémont's lot to first explore any section of the country, but it was his good fortune, as it was his intent, to first contribute systematic, extended, and reliable data as to climate, elevation, physical conditions, and geographical positions. The hypsometrical work begun by Frémont culminated, indeed, in the unparalleled collation of elevations by Gannett; his climatic observations have been perfected by the Signal Corps; his astronomical and geological data have been overwhelmed by the magnificent collcctions and field work of the United States Coast and Geodetic and Geological Surveys; but it is to be noted that Frémont's observations, which he gave in detail, were so honest and good that they have withstood successfully the test of hostile examination. General A. W. Greely, USA gold medalist of Royal Geographical Society and Société de Géographie, Paris

©1999, 2007
Bob Graham