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Explorer John C. Fremont's Legacy: Famed Pathfinder Or War Criminal?

A woodcut poster for his 1856 Republican presidential campaign shows John C. Fremont planting Old Glory atop the Rocky Mountains.
By Baker & Godwin via Wikimedia Commons

A woodcut poster for his 1856 Republican presidential campaign shows John C. Fremont planting Old Glory atop the Rocky Mountains.

One of the most famous streets in Nevada is named for a war criminal, a Las Vegas writer says.

Americans in the mid-1800s celebrated John C. Fremont, who explored Nevada and much of the West.

Along with being dubbed “The Great Pathfinder,” Fremont was an Army general, the first Republican presidential candidate, a senator from California and governor of the Arizona territory. He also mapped Nevada during excursions he led through the West. 

The founders of Las Vegas recognized him in 1905 by naming Fremont Street — the main drag downtown — in his honor. A traveling exhibit of some of his artifacts just opened at the Nevada State Museum in Las Vegas.

The opening of the exhibit prompted longtime journalist William P. Barrett to write in his New to Las Vegas blog that Fremont massacred Native Americans and summarily executed prisoners during the Mexican War.

“He was a figure in the 19 th century. A lot of people have heard of him but they’re not sure why. So, in that respect, this exhibit is a good thing because it tries to answer the why,” Barrett said.

But Barrett said while the exhibit covers Fremont's life and expeditions, it doesn't include the more problematic parts of the explorer's life.

"Finding Fremont," an exhibit about 19th-Century explorer John C. Fremont, can be found at the Nevada State Museum in Las Vegas for the next year/Credit: Nevada State Museum

Gene Hattori is the anthropology curator for the museum and he agreed that Fremont has a troubling history.

He said while in Nevada Fremont is seen as the intrepid explorer who helped map the state and open the area to settlers.

In other parts of the country, Fremont is not highly regarded especially in California where some believed he was a tax cheat, in Oregon where Native American tribes see him as perpetrating a massacre and in New Mexico where he abandoned one of his expeditions.

“It’s a mixed review. It’s much like politicians today,” Hattori said.

But Hattori said the museum wanted to create the exhibit to help educate people about what he did for Nevada.

“We went with what we had on hand that focused principally on the return of his second expedition from Oregon country back to the United States and that’s when he came through Las Vegas,” he said.

Fremont is so well regarded in Nevada that a replica of the mountain Howitzer he took with him during his expeditions is the trophy UNR and UNLV fight for in their annual football game.

The issue provides an example of the challenges of assessing 19th-century individuals with 21st-century eyes.

Along with Fremont, east-west streets in downtown Las Vegas also honor explorers Kit Carson, Benjamin Bonneville, and Peter Ogden. They opened the continent and endured personal hardships, but they all also exhibited cruelty to Native Americans

Gene Hattori, anthropology curator, Nevada State Museum in Carson City;  William P. Barrett, Las Vegas writer

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With deep experience in journalism, politics, and the nonprofit sector, news producer Doug Puppel has built strong connections statewide that benefit the Nevada Public Radio audience.