A Newer World : Kit Carson, John C. Fremont and the Claiming of the American West
John C. Frémont, nearly forgotten today, was one of the giants of nineteenth-century America. He led five expeditions into the American West in the 1840s and 1850s, covering a greater area than any other explorer. His expedition reports -- ghost-written by his beautiful and talented wife, Jessie Benton Frémont -- were bestsellers in their day. Riding the wave of his popularity, he captured the Republican Party nomination for president in 1856 but narrowly lost the election.
Frémont's scout on three of his expeditions was Kit Carson. Frémont fancied himself a mountaineer, and he possessed great stamina and courage, but he lacked Carson's skills and knowledge. The only expedition Frémont led without Carson was a disaster that, like the better-known Donner Party debacle, culminated in one of the rare documented instances of cannibalism in American history.
A Newer World is the fascinating story of the Frémont-Carson expeditions and of two men, utterly unalike in so many ways, who became friends as well as fellow explorers. Frémont owed his life to Carson, who saved him on several occasions, while the legend of Kit Carson, the greatest mountain man of his day, grew out of Frémont's expedition reports. The Frémont-Carson expeditions are second only to Lewis and Clark's in their significance for America's western expansion. Their 1845-46 campaign, for example, helped to precipitate the Mexican-American War and led to the wresting of California from Mexico.
Carson is often remembered today for his 1863-64 roundup of Apaches and Navajos, leading to the infamous Long Walk. David Roberts demonstrates that Carson, who was twice married to Indian women, was profoundly ambivalent about the campaign, which was ordered by an Army officer who was his superior.
Throughout the book, Roberts draws on little-known primary sources in telling the dramatic stories of these expeditions. He shows how Frémont saw himself as a historical figure, especially in his reports, while Carson -- taciturn where Frémont was outspoken, modest where Frémont was boastful, and, significantly, illiterate -- was oblivious to his own fame. Yet it was Carson who underwent an evolution from an Indian killer to an Indian advocate.
In addition to his archival research, Roberts traveled the routes of Frémont and Carson's expeditions to gain a firsthand knowledge of the territory they explored. In analyzing how Frémont and Carson advanced the Americanizing of the West, Roberts writes with a modern-day sensitivity to the Indians, for whom these expeditions were a tragedy.
Kit Carson (1809-1868) and John Fremont (1813-1890) are not generally regarded as a pair the way Lewis and Clark are in terms of exploring new territory. Indeed, Carson and Fr mont are only teamed in two of the four expeditions recounted by Roberts in his stirring tale of the opening of the American West. But the author makes a strong case that the two explorers contributed as much as anybody to America's westward movement. Of the four expeditions described by Roberts (Escape Routes, etc.), a frequent contributor to Outside and other magazines, two are the most intriguing: Fremont and Carson's 1845-1846 excursion into California, which played a major role in the U.S. taking control of that territory from Mexico, and Fremont's 1848-1849 trek that began as a search for a railroad path through the Rockies, but ended in disaster. Roberts has such a tremendous feel for his subject that it is disappointing that he didn't devote more space to Fremont's role in California's Bear Flag revolt. But the ground Roberts covers captures the beauty and harshness of life on the frontier in a vivid and passionate style. The treatment of Native Americans during America's march west is another prominent story line: while Roberts is quick to criticize the nation's Indian policy, he puts it in the context of the times. With Carson and Fremont surrounded by a cast of colorful characters, Roberts delivers an engrossing story of a period in American history when explorers never knew what they would find around the next bend in the trail. (Jan.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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Simon & Schuster
January 16, 2001
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Excerpt from A Newer World by David Roberts
They set out, fifteen men on fifteen mules, shortly after dawn on August 12, 1842, carrying two days' worth of food -- dried buffalo meat, macaroni, and coffee. In the lead, as usual, rode Kit Carson, threading a trail through tangles of downed limber pine, across tilted slabs of granite where the mules' hoofs skated and slipped, beneath waterfalls and around cobalt lakes. And as usual, calling the shots from the middle of the pack, John C. Fremont straddled his mule as the alien landscape enfolded him, his quicksilver spirit veering between exultation and despair. Directly ahead of the party loomed its goal, the peak Fremont had judged loftiest in all the Rocky Mountains, snowfields gleaming in the sun, rock towers spiking the sky.
As yet, these two were nobodies, Kit Carson and John Fremont, their deeds discussed, if at all, only within the arcane circles of their peers and cronies. But this summer's jaunt would make them famous, launching a joint passage into the realms of myth that would place them, before the century's end, among America's eternal heroes. From the 1842 expedition onward, their destinies and renown would be intertwined; yet in all the West, no pair of adventurers more different in character than Carson and Fremont could be found.