Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


Conducting Biographical Research in Government Publications: John C. Frémont and the U.S. Congressional Serial Set

Although John C. Frémont faded into relative obscurity in the 20th century, he was without question one of the best known public figures of his time. He may also be one of the few individuals not a president, cabinet member or longtime member of Congress whose career is so fully documented in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set. More importantly, he may be the only 19th-century figure whose public career was launched and sustained by Serial Set publications.

Frémont was an explorer and cartographer, an author, a Civil War general and departmental commander, a wealthy entrepreneur and railroad speculator, not to mention a senator, presidential candidate and territorial governor. However, today his name is perhaps best known to Americans for the 2.1 million lights that are part of the sound and light show on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas, the home of the much-broadcast World Series of Poker.

Frémont's military career began when a family friend obtained for him a commission from President Van Buren as a Second Lieutenant in the newly organized Corps of Topographical Engineers with an assignment to accompany the French émigré astronomer and cartographer Joseph N. Nicollet on an expedition to map the upper Mississippi drainage.

Conducting Biographical Research in Government Publications: John C. Frémont and the U.S. Congressional Serial Set


Conducting Biographical Research in Government Publications, Part II: John C. Frémont and the U.S. Congressional Serial Set

To read Part I of this article in the Spring 2006 issue of The Readex Report, click here.

What finally made John Frémont's career was the second western expedition. This time the Army ordered him to map the wagon route all the way to Oregon. Having had some trouble with Indians on the 1842 trip, Frémont decided to requisition not just an assortment of guns and ammunition, but also a cannon—a brass 12-pounder mountain howitzer (S.Doc. 14, 28-1).

Leaving in May, 1843, from what is now Kansas City, Frémont's main party followed the emigrant route through Nebraska and Wyoming. Frémont and a few companions soon split off to travel a more southerly route, taking them near modern Denver and allowing them to explore the northern edges of the Great Salt Lake before reuniting with the expedition. His published report's glowing description of the region around what is now Salt Lake City would be largely responsible for Brigham Young's decision to move his people there.

When Frémont reached Oregon in November, 1843, he decided not to return as instructed along his outward route. Instead, he decided to explore southward along the eastern edge of the Cascades and search for the legendary River Bonaventura, which some believed flowed westward through the Sierras to the Pacific. If it existed, which most doubted, emigrants would have an easy passage through the mountains to California.

Conducting Biographical Research in Government Publications, Part II: John C. Frémont and the U.S. Congressional Serial Set


Conducting Biographical Research in Government Publications, Part III: John C. Frémont and the U.S. Congressional Serial Set

On the heels of the release of his second report, John C. Frémont was sent out again to map a better route through the Sierras to California. This time he took with him 60 well armed men and perhaps secret orders to act as he thought best if hostilities with Mexico seemed imminent.

This third expedition, his final government-sponsored expedition of exploration, quickly segued into the Bear Flag Revolt, which he essentially instigated and led. At its successful conclusion he was appointed Provisional Governor of California by the American commander on the spot, Commodore Stockton of the U.S. Navy, but eventually fell prey to a jurisdictional dispute between the Army and the Navy. In August 1847 he was taken into custody by one-time friend, now bitter enemy, General Stephen Watts Kearny and taken back to Washington under arrest to await court martial in the fall of that year.

In January 1848, despite a valiant and vigorous defense, Fremont was found guilty of mutiny, refusing a lawful command, and conduct prejudicial to military discipline. He was ordered dismissed from the service. President Polk rescinded the punishment, but declined to overturn the conviction itself. Feeling ill treated, Fremont resigned his commission in protest.

It is interesting to note that all of the related court martial materials, none of which were congressional in nature, appear in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set because the President collected them and submitted them to Congress in the form of a message (S.Exec.Doc. 33, 30-1). This is a reflection both of the importance of the underlying issues and Fremont's continued popularity in Congress and among the public.

Conducting Biographical Research in Government Publications, Part III: John C. Frémont and the U.S. Congressional Serial Set


Around the World in 80 Documents: 19th-Century Publications on Europe, Africa and Asia in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set

Not only are American government documents not just about American government, they aren't just about America. Asked to highlight the U.S. Congressional Serial Set's richness for exploring the wider 19th-century world, I immediately thought of the fictional Phileas Fogg and his 1872 bet that he could travel around the globe in 80 days. I challenged myself to find remarkable and relatively contemporaneous documents on every country that Fogg visits in "Around the World in Eighty Days" (1873), Jules Verne's classic adventure novel.

Phileas Fogg, accompanied by his man servant Passepartout, departs London on October 2, 1872. Passing through France and Italy by train with little comment, Fogg leaves for the East on the steamer Mongolia from Brindisi on October 9. The steamer crosses the Mediterranean, transits the Suez Canal, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and deposits Fogg in Bombay on October 20. He travels across India by train and elephant. On October 24 he and his rescued Indian noblewoman depart Calcutta on the steamer Rangoon, which takes them to Hong Kong after a brief stop in Singapore. The party is briefly separated at Hong Kong. Fogg travels on to Shanghai by a rented vessel, reuniting with Passepartout in Yokohama.

From Yokohama Fogg departs for San Francisco on the Pacific Steamship Mail Co. on November 14. In New York Fogg just misses his December 11 connection with a Cunard liner and rents another vessel to carry him across the Atlantic to Ireland. From there, following some final misadventures, Fogg travels back to London. With this quick summary of Fogg's itinerary, we can now try to mimic his course with Serial Set publications.

Around the World in 80 Documents: 19th-Century Publications on Europe, Africa and Asia in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set


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