Last week, I spent a night camping at Fr
émont Peak State Park in the Gabilan Mountains about 10 miles
west of San Juan Bautista. It was the middle of the week, and I had
the oak-canopied campground all to myself.
Last week, I spent a night camping at Frémont Peak State Park in the Gabilan Mountains about 10 miles west of San Juan Bautista. It was the middle of the week, and I had the oak-canopied campground all to myself.
OK, I did share it with a couple of wild pigs and a raccoon who confiscated my bag of dried apricots while I slept.
When I tell people about Frémont Peak, they are surprised to learn about the dramatic history of the location. The Spanish explorers originally called it Gabilan Peak after the hawks that fly there. And the rocky summit of the mountain was the first place in California where the American flag was ever raised – illegally, it turns out. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
With the American settlement of California, the peak was named to honor John Charles Frémont, one of the Old West’s most colorful and influential personalities. He first came to the area in early 1846 near the turbulent end of Mexico’s rule of California. The brilliant and egotistical adventurer found his way here as the leader of the United States Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, a squad of explorers surveying America’s uncharted frontier.
Born in 1813 in Savannah, Ga., the illegitimate child of a Virginia socialite and a poor French refugee, Frémont grew up to become an ambitious man with a knack for social climbing. His wife Jessie was the daughter of Senator Thomas Hart Benton, the expansionist Democratic leader of the Senate for more than 30 years, and Frémont was quite helpful in advancing his father-in-law’s “Manifest Destiny” ideals.
When Frémont returned from his various survey expeditions, Jessie helped him write best-selling books that promoted the settlement of the West.
So popular were these guides that Frémont became known as “The Great Pathfinder” – although in reality he merely followed trails that others had blazed or discovered.
Frémont had a huge impact on the Bay Area’s history. It was he who gave the entrance to San Francisco Bay the poetic name of “The Golden Gate,” now also the name of the famous bridge spanning the gap. While he and his troops were encamped for the winter at Rancho Laguna Seca, near what is now San Jose’s village of Coyote, Frémont formulated plans for helping America seize the bountiful Alta California territory from Mexico.
He visited the nearby New Almaden Quicksilver Mines and reported to the federal government about this tremendous mineral treasure house. And it was Frémont who, in an act of defiance of Mexico’s rule, first raised the American flag in California, at the crown of the 3,169-foot mountain that now bears his name. The act was clearly one of aggression against the Mexican military. The flagpole blew down during a powerful windstorm; Frémont took it as a bad omen, and he and his bad of 60 men left the mountain, traveling to the San Jouquin Valley through Pacheco Pass. A marker and flagpole at the state park mark the historic spot.
Frémont later helped initiate the Bear Flag Revolt by organizing a volunteer battalion that helped in the American conquest of California. After statehood, he served as one of California’s first two U.S. senators, and in 1856 he ran unsuccessfully as the Republican Party’s first presidential candidate (he lost to James Buchanan). During the Civil War, he served as a general for the Union Army in Missouri, but because in August 1861 he emancipated slaves of that state without federal approval, President Lincoln stripped him of the command. His later years were spent in poverty, living off money from his wife’s writings. He died in 1890 in New York while working on a magazine article.
The famous name of the Great Pathfinder lives on throughout the region. Several schools are named after him, and the city of Frémont, just north of Milpitas, is named in his honor. And, of course, there is the mountain peak which can be seen from Monterey, San Benito, Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties.
Toward sunset, I climbed to the top of the peak and, standing next to the metal flag pole, watched the red sun drop into the Pacific Ocean. A light breeze blew from the west. I thought about the man who more than 150 years ago, stood on that spot and looked out on the folding hills and valleys of the mountain range below. I’m sure he looked up at the stars, wondering what future destiny had in store for this magnificent land called California.
As night came, I also looked at the stars, and considered the idea Frémont would have certainly recognized their constellation patterns. The Milky Way spread across the darkness like the sky’s backbone. Perhaps, I considered, the photons of light now hitting my eyes from many of those celestial bodies left their place of origin during the week Frémont and his men spent on the mountain.
With the darkness, I could see the streetlights of Salinas, Monterey, Hollister, San Juan Bautista, Gilroy and Morgan Hill. I shivered with the breeze cooling my skin. What if the ghost of John Charles Frémont might be standing here beside me. What would the explorer think looking down on these communities.
How dramatically the region has changed socially and politically in the last 150 years since he gazed on this terrain. But the terrain itself has hardly changed at all, Frémont would surely observe. The players come and go, but the geological stage remains hardly changed.