This is the story of the meeting of two Western American Legends in California in 1846. They were an ambitious (and slightly unstable) U.S. Army officer, and a wealthy Swiss born hacienda owner who was so far away from the local government as to be almost a sovereign ruler himself. They were Captain John Charles Fremont (not "Freemont", as the cast given here is shown) and General John Sutter.
I have touched on Fremont elsewhere on these threads. His father-in-law was Senator Thomas Hart "Bullion" Benton (Andy Jackson's once enemy turned close political and personal friend). Fremont wooed and married Senator Benton's daughter Jessie. It was a real love match (Irving Wallace made it the subject of a novel, and there is an error filled television series about the Fremonts with Richard Chamberlain as the explorer). Actually Senator Benton did not forgive Jessie for marrying John Charles after he said he was opposed to it. The Senator knew that Fremont had a reputation for his work exploring the western territories and making up various valuable charts and reports used by American settlers going into those territories. But he was aware that Fremont had problems due to his background (he was considered by some to be illegitimate) and had an ego problem that was not matched by his intelligence. Also he suspected that Jessie's social position regarding her father may have influenced Fremont in marrying his daughter: Benton was head of the military affairs committee of the U.S. Senate. For years the Senator would not have anything to do with Jessie or John Charles, until a situation regarding the loss of a piece of military hardware (a cannon he didn't need to borrow) led to a court martial. Even after that affair Benton was far from totally accepting Fremont as his son-in-law.
In 1846 Fremont was asked (in a roundabout way) by President James K. Polk to travel to California and "explore" it. Polk (who had the reputation of "Polk the Mendacious") wanted Fremont to spy on that territory, and see how American forces could grab it. Of course he did not put this down on paper (Fremont's orders simply told him how he was to explore trails). Polk, always very careful, wanted to have an escape hatch if something went wrong - pure denial that he gave such instructions to the ambitious, half-cracked Fremont.
Throughout his career Fremont did amazing exploration work, but in everything else he touched it all came apart because of cleverer men. Senator Benton, General Stephen Kearney, Presidents James Polk and Abraham Lincoln were just four capable men who saw through him, and except for Benton (due to Jessie) all let him soak in his own blunders.
Here, Rip Torn is Fremont (an early television role for him - and he is a little too stiff in the part, but his presence carries the role as an ambitious army officer on an espionage trek). He reaches California, and finds he is on the huge property of General John Sutter (Carroll O'Connor). O'Connor is friendly and hospitable, but he gradually realizes that this young explorer is not just exploring. He realizes that Fremont is trying to find out troop strength of the local Mexican authorities and their ability to quickly move troops around. Finally Sutter confronts him, but Fremont points out the inevitability of the U.S. winning the coming war with Mexico. Sutter of course is dubious of all this - and since he's been entertaining Fremont he's capable of bringing the Mexicans down on his head! The episode does end with Fremont leaving and the word that the war has begun.
And so did Sutter's tragedy. He maintained his own neutrality in the war, but after the American's won he watched as they overran his land and created several cities (including Sacramento). This especially happened after one of his men, John Marshall, found a gold nugget on his land, which caused the California Gold Rush. He campaigned for renumeration for decades, but the population was hostile (they killed one of his sons, and another drowned fleeing the state). Finally a deed was given to Sutter for his properties' values, and it entitled him to huge rents from the "squatters". He was chased off his land. Still seeking restitution, Sutter died in squalor in Washington, D.C. still having the deed to the greatest fortune on earth in his possession in 1880.
His chief oppressor became one of California's first U.S. Senators, and then (in 1856) the first Republican Presidential candidate (he lost to James Buchanan). Fremont also was one of the early military leaders of the Northern forces in the Civil War, until graft and incompetence caused his dismissal. He never reached the White House, and his last years were involved with a mine stock swindle and his term as an absentee territorial governor of Arizona (appointed by a temporarily blinded President Hayes, he was quickly dismissed by President Chester Arthur). He died in straightened circumstances, still married to Jessie, in 1890.
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