Becomes an explorer

In 1834, Fremont got a chance to put his navigational knowledge to work. A prominent Charleston resident, Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851), invited him to serve as a mathematics teacher aboard the American warship Natchez during a

two-year tour of South America. The trip convinced Fremont that he was destined to lead a life of adventure. Shortly after he returned, he helped survey a railroad route from Charleston to Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1836, he joined a government survey team that mapped the Cherokee Indian territory in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia. The U.S. government wanted a detailed map of the region because they were preparing to force the Cherokee off of their ancestral lands. Fremont did not question the government's policies. In general, he liked and respected the Indians he met on his travels. But he was not overly concerned that his mission—charting areas for future white settlement—would destroy the native cultures.

In 1837, Fremont joined the U.S. Army Bureau of Topographical Engineers. This section of the army produced detailed maps of the natural and man-made features of various regions for the government. For his first assignment, he accompanied the famous explorer and scientist Joseph Nicolas Nicollet (1790-1843) on an expedition to survey the area of the West that had been acquired from France in 1803. Known as the Louisiana Purchase, this territory had not been fully explored until that time. In 1839, Fremont traveled with Nicollet to Washington, D.C., to present their findings to the U.S. Congress.

During his time in Washington, Fremont met Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858), a powerful U.S. senator from Missouri. Benton was known for his stand against slavery and for his strong support of westward expansion. The senator liked Fremont and encouraged Congress to let him lead his own survey expeditions. But Benton was not pleased when Fremont fell in love with his daughter Jessie. He wanted her to marry someone more stable, wealthy, and politically connected. But the young couple ignored his objections and were married in 1841.

Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton. Benton's daughter married John Fremont. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

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