Seattle’s funky Fremont area is named after a war criminal

As the self-styled “Center of the Universe,” Seattle’s inner-city Fremont neighborhood relishes its quirky, if dated, reputation as a haven for artists and those with counterculture inclinations. There’s a 16-foot-high statue of Lenin rescued from behind the fallen Iron Curtain, surely one of the very few erected in the U.S.  Under the Route 99 bridge sits the Fremont Troll, an 18-foot-high statue (its picture adorns the top of this blog) of a creature clutching a real Volkswagen Beetle.  Each year, the summer solstice is ushered in with a clothing-optional parade of bicyclists.  I think it fair to say Fremont’s political leanings skew a bit to the left, even by the standards of liberal Seattle.

John C. Frémont

Which to me, being New To Seattle from the Los Angeles area, makes the neighborhood’s handle all the more fascinating. That’s because Fremont is named after a war criminal in California who later had the distinction of being the very first presidential candidate of the Republican Party a century and a half ago.

Technically, the Fremont neighborhood is named for Fremont, Neb., the hometown of two real estate promoters who headed West and co-founded the separate city in 1888 (which Seattle annexed three years later). But Fremont, Neb., itself, and by extension its Seattle namesake, is christened for John C.  Frémont (1813-1890), whose accent acute today is frequently dropped. In the middle of the 19th century he carved out quite the national and even international reputation in a variety of realms–military, politics and business.

Plus a little wartime murder. Not just once, either.

A Georgia native expelled from military college for bad attendance, Frémont nevertheless joined the Army. Largely inept as a soldier, he found he had a terrific sense of P.R. and an extraordinary amount of luck. It also didn’t hurt that he married very well, the daughter of a powerful U.S. Senator from Missouri. Rising eventually to the rank of major general, the good-looking Frémont, who held a high opinion of himself, cultivated the press and got insanely favorable coverage. He probably was the country’s best known military officer, which was saying something. (How many major generals today can you name?) The scribes called Frémont “The Pathfinder” or even “The Great Pathfinder” for his mapping expeditions across the West. Most of the time, though, it was his equally famous sidekick, Kit Carson, doing the pathfinding. However, Frémont, a prolific author, had a definite way with words; it was he who dubbed the entrance to San Francisco Bay the Golden Gate.

That was during his journeys in the West, which brought him to California–then part of Mexico–in the mid-1840s just as U.S. President James K. Polk set about implementing the policy of “manifest destiny.” That was the notion of a God-given right that the United States, then confined to the eastern half of North America between Canada and Mexico, should grab the other half, especially California. Latinos and Indians be damned, especially if Yankee Gringos hankered after their land, which, of course, they did.

Polk’s initiative was another spectacular example of that Frémont luck. He was in the right place at the right time, commanding a squad of well-armed “topographical engineers” sniffing around Northern California in early 1846 when Polk, like those obnoxious TV ads for Cialis, decided the time was right. The Mexican military authority had ordered Frémont and his men to leave, which, after a fake show of force, they did, moving north to Oregon. Polk sent a courier with orders for them to return into California.

But Klamath Indians upset about the U.S. incursion into their remote trial area and understandably fearing the worst attacked Frémont’s unit and killed three men. He ordered retaliation on a massive scale. His troops sent several days moving around the 87-mile perimeter of Klamath Lake killing every Indian they could find–as many as 14 at one time–and making little effort to determine the guilty parties. Since Frémont’s troops had guns and the Indians had bows and arrows, it really wasn’t much of a fight. His men found it particularly sporting to pick off Indians at long range.

Now a genuine war criminal, Frémont expressed great satisfaction with his actions. “It will be a story for them to hand down when there are any Klamaths on their lake,” he said.

But there’s more. Frémont and his fellow killers returned to Northern California. His troops stole horses, raped Indian women and shot their husbands. “We killed plenty of game and an occasional Indian,” wrote one of Frémont’s soldiers. “We made it a rule to spare none of the bucks.”

He wasn’t referring to elk or deer.

The Mexican War was under way when Frémont’s army reached San Rafael, just north of San Francisco. His troops spotted three innocent, unarmed Mexican settlers–an elderly man and two nephews–crossing a waterway toward them. Using a telescope, Frémont himself watched the small boat as it neared the shoreline.

“Captain,” Kit Carson said, “Shall I take these men prisoners?”

Frémont airily waived his hand. “I have no room for prisoners,” he replied, according to a witness account the Great Pathfinder never disputed. His answer amounted to a death warrant. Using their rifles at point-blank range, Carson and two soldiers eagerly gunned down the helpless Californios.

They then reported back to Frémont what they had done. “It is well,” he said approvingly. His soldiers then stripped the dead bodies of all clothing. Frémont rebuffed one dead man’s son who asked for return of his father’s poncho.

For Frémont, the rest of the Mexican War solidified his reputation as a man of action, if nothing else. He quickly captured largely abandoned Monterey, the Mexican military capital of California south of San Francisco, then sailed down the coast toward Los Angeles. Team Frémont triumphantly marched into the City of Angels but was forced to retreated by outraged civilians who were better shots. But in early 1847 he returned, signing (without any authority) the cease-fire that essentially ended the Mexican War.

If they’re on the wining side, war criminals are never made to account for their atrocities. That certainly was true of Frémont, although he was court-marshaled for insubordination, essentially showing up his superiors. Meanwhile, he bought a 44,000-acre ranch near Yosemite Valley (using inside information he gained while surveying the land for the military) from someone who did not have clear title. When gold was discovered in the vicinity–that old Frémont luck again–he worked to alter the boundaries of the defective deed to cover some of the gold lands and evict miners already at work there. The maneuvering made him for a time very, very wealthy. Yet he balked at paying his local property taxes. That prompted the Sacramento Bee to editorialize, “It is hard to wring taxes out of rich men. Small property holders pay taxes with grace, but large ones never, if they can avoid it.”

In 1850 Frémont became one of California’s two inaugural U.S. senators, chosen by a state legislature dominated by Yankee interests. But he spent so much of his time in Washington looking after his land holdings that disgusted lawmakers denied him another term.

That hardly stopped him. In 1856 the fledgling Republican Party chose this war criminal–by then officially a resident of Staten Island, N.Y.–as its first presidential candidate. He lost nationally to the Democrat James Buchanan in a three-way race. Frémont really lost California, not even mustering 20% of the popular vote. In the area around his ranch, he got only 6% of the vote; in some precincts, 0%.

Frémont rejoined the military on the Union side for the Civil War, but fellow Republican Abraham Lincoln fired him for grandstanding on the issue of slavery (Frémont wanted to push for abolition far faster than his Commander in Chief). After the war Frémont peddled worthless bonds in Europe for a sketchy U.S. railroad, blew through his gold fortune and went bankrupt. He died in 1890 broke but famous and celebrated in many, many circles.

Despite his murderous actions toward Indians and Mexicans–which occasionally surfaced as issues during his political career–a lot of things around the country are named after him. They include rivers, islands, mountains, streets, schools, libraries, hospitals, cities, counties–and one neighborhood in Seattle.

If you take a close look at the Fremont Troll, you’ll see the VW he is squeezing–as though snatched from the overhead bridge–bears a California license plate. I suspect that’s a political commentary against all the Californians who were pouring in here when this unique piece of public art went up in 1990. But to me, the irony is simply delicious.

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Seattle’s funky Fremont area is named after a war criminal — 9 Comments

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  6. Interesting piece. Seems to me that the key difference between the Fremonts of history, and today’s military leaders [generals /presidents /prime ministers /dictators /etc] is simply that ours no longer perform the war crimes themselves. Others are their surrogates. Quite a clever evolution of imperialism, allowing the true criminals to keep their hands sanitized.

  7. Fascinating account of John C. Fremont. Reminded me of the gang in Blood Meridian, with Fremont as the Judge. I lived on Queen Anne Hill for 20 years, and never thought to ask how Fremont got its name. As to the troll, I always read it as a response to the Californication in the 90s.

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