Saturday, July 16, 2016

One Clever Bastard: John C. Frémont in Early L.A.

At the dawn of the nineteenth century in Virginia, seventeen-year-old Anne Beverley Whiting, whose stepfather had squandered her family's fortune, was married off to Major John Pryor, a wealthy man in his early sixties.

In 1810, the Major hired a French Canadian immigrant, Charles Fremon, to tutor his young wife. By July of 1811, he discovered they were having an affair, confronted the couple, and filed for divorce.

In 2016, this isn't too surprising (for jaded Angelenos, anyway). But in 1811, it was extremely shameful. In spite of the scandal, the Virginia House of Delegates refused to grant the Major's divorce petition, meaning that Anne and Charles could not marry. Undaunted, they moved to Savannah, Georgia and lived together as a married couple. Their first child, John Charles Fremon, was born January 21, 1813.

Charles Fremon's real name was, in fact, Louis-René Frémont. He had escaped from a British prison and changed his name to evade British naval agents. John began using his father's true surname in 1838 at the age of 25.

Much has been written about Frémont's career as a military officer; for brevity's sake, this entry will only concern his actions in Southern California. I will, therefore, skip to the Mexican-American War, a few weeks after the famous Battle of San Pasqual. (Contrary to misconception, Frémont was not in that particular battle.)

Late in 1846, Frémont was ordered to lead 300 men from the California Battalion to capture Santa Barbara. Frémont's unit crossed the Santa Ynez mountains at San Marcos Pass on the night of December 24, 1846 - with great difficulty. It was raining heavily, and the mountains became so muddy and slippery that many horses, mules, and cannon were lost. Still, the men regrouped in the morning, bloodlessly taking the Presidio and the rest of the city.

In January 1847, Frémont and his men were entering the northern San Fernando Valley when an (unknown) Frenchman from Los Angeles rode up, carrying a message ordering Frémont to bring in his men as reinforcements for General Kearny, who had taken Los Angeles. Frémont ignored the message, electing to negotiate with the Californios himself.

A few months previously, Frémont had saved insurgent José de Jesús Pico, cousin of Pio Pico, from execution with the caveat that he accompany Frémont to Los Angeles. Once the troops had set up camp on Mission San Fernando's grounds, Frémont dispatched Pico to the defeated Californios' camp in the Verdugo Hills. (I told you he was clever!)

By this point in the war, just 120 Californio rebels remained, and they were running out of weapons and ammunition. The U.S. forces numbered 1,000, and were quite well-armed. The writing was on the wall. Commandante Flores (who was also a cousin of José de Jesús Pico) was none too happy with Pico for fighting alongside Americans, but agreed that the Californios could negotiate with Frémont as long as he treated them with honor (something Frémont's superior, Commodore Stockton, had refused to do).

A delegation of the remaining Californios met Frémont the following morning. They were prepared to end the war, provided they were treated respectfully and their leaders were included. If that did not happen, they were prepared to adopt guerrilla tactics and even destroy their own properties.

Having been privately promised the future governorship of California by Stockton, Frémont knew making friends with the Californios he would eventually govern would make his job much easier. He declared a détente and invited the Californios to bring their wounded to Mission San Fernando, where they could be attended to by his own surgeon. Negotiations commenced that afternoon, with three Battalion officers, prominent Californio José Antonio Carrillo, and former California Assembly secretary Agustín Olvera hammering out the terms of the agreement.

Andres Pico, brother of exiled Mexican governor Pio Pico, was the leader of the California Lancers and acting governor of Alta California. On January 13, he and Frémont sat down at the kitchen table in an aging adobe house in Campo de Cahuenga and signed the Treaty of Cahuenga. (That kitchen table can now be seen at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.)

The treaty, written in both English and Spanish, called for Californios to give up their weapons, refrain from taking up arms for the duration of the war, and obey the laws of the United States. The trade-off was that Californios were to be allowed the same rights and privileges as U.S. citizens, were to be allowed to return to their homes and ranchos, were not required to swear allegiance to the United States until a formal peace treaty was signed, and were permitted to leave the country if they so desired. (Remember, this was a time when people of color were not considered people in the eyes of U.S. law, and Catholics were eyed with great suspicion by the WASPy majority. Giving equal rights to Californios, some of whom were mixed race, was a major compromise for the time.)

In spite of his intelligence and remarkable abilities, Frémont had poor impulse control and a problem with authority. He finally contacted his superiors after the treaty was signed - his first contact with them since arriving in Southern California. Not only had this smart-assed upstart ignored instructions, he'd signed what they considered an extremely liberal treaty with the Californios - and all without consulting them!

They decided it was best to endorse it anyway.

Other Americans believed the Californios would take up arms against them again. But they didn't. Andres Pico, writing to his brother Pio, deemed the struggle over.

Stockton quickly named Frémont governor of occupied California. Frémont established a headquarters in the old Bell adobe mansion (formerly at the southwest corner of Aliso and Los Angeles Streets) and quickly set about winning the respect of the Californios, going so far as to adopt ranchero-style dress and invite local leaders to meet him at his quarters. This tactic didn't always work (some, like Jose Antonio Carrillo, refused to meet with him), but Frémont understood that when in Los Angeles, one does as Angelenos do. Americans strongly disapproved of Frémont's fraternizing with Californios, but in the end, locals often credited Frémont with saving their lives by peacefully ending the war. Many liked him, or at least respected him. If nothing else, at least he wasn't Commodore Stockton.

The American rumor mill was not kind to Frémont, and perhaps the nastiest rumors concern his (unproven) philandering in Los Angeles. Henry Hamilton, editor of the Los Angeles Star, even claimed to have proof of Frémont's alleged "harem", but never produced any of it. Those vicious allegations would resurface in 1856, when Frémont was nominated for the Presidency by the Republican Party. (Since Frémont respected women enough to demand that the members of the California Battalion swear not to violate their chastity, it seems unlikely that he would have had, as Hamilton put it, a "harem". Hamilton, by the way, was a Democrat and is known to have disliked Frémont's politics.)

Kearny had orders from President Polk and secretary of war William Marcy to serve as military governor. Frémont refused to give up the governorship, and Kearny had him court-martialed. His dishonorable discharge was commuted by President Polk owing to the extent of his services (having a prominent senator for a father-in-law probably helped).

Frémont resigned his commission, purchasing Rancho Las Mariposas in the Sierra Nevada foothills in 1847. When gold was discovered in the area, he hired Mexican laborers to mine for gold on his land for a percentage of the findings. This made him quite wealthy and allowed him to purchase properties in San Francisco.

When California became a state in 1850, Frémont was elected to the United States Senate. His re-election bid was defeated largely because he was opposed to slavery and did not want it to spread to the free Western states. (Frémont's opposition to slavery is especially notable since he and his siblings were raised with the assistance of a household slave known only as Black Hannah. In fact, Frémont's mother financed leaving her husband by selling some slaves she owned.)

Frémont went on to continue his military and political career in other parts of the United States...but that's a bit beyond the scope of this entry. There are several books on John Frémont and his wife Jessie. For those interested in the history of conflict and violence in early Los Angeles, I highly recommend John Mack Faragher's recent book Eternity Street.

Campo de Cahuenga, where the Treaty of Caheunga was signed, is in modern-day Studio City. The original adobe was demolished in 1900; the current building is a replica opened in 1950.

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