James Theodore Talbot

James Theodore Talbot
1825 - 1862


Ann Talbot Brandon Womack and Farris W. Womack
December 2002
(Revised June 2005)

James Theodore Talbot lived a brief 37 years but during his lifetime he was involved in some of the most important events of the 19th century.  While his health was never good and his death from tuberculosis may have only been a manifestation of the health problems that plagued him all his life, he led what could surely be described as a physically demanding life and his Army career stands as mute testimony to his determination and endurance.  His experiences in the American west in the middle of the century brought him into contact with some of the planet's most beautiful scenery albeit located in  some of the most remote and challenging places.  While not a star player in the events leading up to the Civil War, he was one of a handful of people who not only saw them unfold but was actually in the room when they occurred.

James Theodore Talbot was born December 25, 1825,  the son of Senator Isham Talbot and his second wife, Adelaide Thomason, a native of the Island of Santa Cruz.  Adelaide was 17 years of age when she married the Senator and he was 44.  Isham Talbot's marriage to Adelaide, March 27, 1817, followed the death of his first wife, Margaret Garrard, in 1815.  Margaret was the daughter of James Garrard, Governor of Kentucky and a revered patriot from the American Revolution.  Margaret Garrard Talbot gave birth to four children: Cordelia M., Elizabeth Garrard, Juliet Mountjoy, and William Garrard.   Much of the current Talbot family lore holds that all of Isham's children were the issue from his marriage to Margaret but  the story that we report here disputes that and we know that there were two others, James Theodore, our subject, and a sister, Mary Louisa, a few years older than Theodore.   James Theodore spent his childhood in the privileged salons of his famous father and his friends and from those beginnings, he developed acquaintances with the "movers and shakers" of his day.  He learned to move easily and well in the halls of power.  Because he died at such an early age, he never succeeded to positions of power and influence on his own but that might well have been different had he lived long enough.   He was, however, a trusted functionary, as our story will show.  

{The Talbot web site:  http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.com/~fww64/talbot_I.html  has a more complete story of the Talbot family including Theodore's distinguished ancestry.}

The childhood and youth of James Theodore are clothed in mystery and we know nothing of his earlier years except for one oblique reference that he attended military school in Kentucky.  We know that he was born on Christmas Day 1825 in Washington, DC and that he may have spent some of his youth in Kentucky.   From his writings, even when he was still a teenager, we can deduce that he received a fine education.  He was fluent in several languages and often quoted from the classical scholars.   Theodore was 12 years of age when his famous father died.  And in the will that his father left, certain provisions provide an insight to the relationship between his father and mother.  His father made explicit that Theodore's mother, Adelaide, was to receive a life interest in the Washington, DC mansion in which she lived and an annual payment of five hundred dollars for the term of her life.  Mary Louisa inherited the mansion at the death of her mother.  Theodore received a bequest of five hundred dollars, which sum would be raised to two thousand dollars on the condition that his mother agreed to permit Isham's Trustees to direct Theodore's education.  While a "broken home" was unusual in the early 1800s, it was the circumstance in which young Theodore grew to manhood.   Fortunately, we know a great deal about his life from 1843 until his death from tuberculosis in 1862.  There are numerous pieces of evidence, almost all of them in his own handwriting and many carefully preserved in the Library of Congress.  At least two books have been written about his letters and journals, one published in 1931 and still another published in 1972.

Theo, as he often called himself when signing his letters, was only 18 years of age when John C. Fremont began to organize for his Second Expedition to explore the west, principally the Trans Mississippi West including the Oregon Territory.  It isn't clear exactly what role young Talbot had, or why he was allowed to make the trip when so many others who wanted to accompany Fremont  were not chosen to do so.  Having spent a lifetime in or near the centers of power might have had its first payoff in this instance.  In reporting on the initial phase of the journey, Fremont wrote to his superior, Col. J. J. Abert, ..."Agreeably to your directions, Mr. Theodore Talbot, of Washington City, had been attached to the party, with a view to advancement in his profession..."  Colonel Abert was a friend of the Talbot family and, no doubt, intervened on young Theodore's behalf.  The mention of "...his chosen profession..." suggests that Theodore was expecting to join the military and that he did as we shall soon see.  He had apparently attended Military School in Kentucky and this may well have been the outcome of the provision in his father's will that his inheritance would be increased if his mother consented to Theodore's education being under the direction and supervision of his Isham's trustees.  At any rate, he was selected to make the trip. 

Richard Reeves, in a fascinating tale entitled: The Oregon Trail: A Manuscript by Richard Reeves, wrote about the young Theodore in quite dramatic fashion.  A portion of his work follows: 

Fremont’s books on his 1842 and 1843 expeditions west were popular for their maps and general accuracy. The first volume described the route from the Missouri River to the Rockies, the second on the route from the Rockies to the Pacific Coast. The Pathfinder warned Overlanders of the dangers of the calm Platte River in Kansas: “The bed of the river is generally quicksands. in which the carts begin to sink rapidly so soon as the mules halted. . .”

One of the 39 men with Fremont, Theodore Talbot, a civilian reporting to the government’s Corps of Topographical Engineers, told a more dramatic story in his 1843 diary:

“One of our men, Sam Neal, feeling thirsty, turned off the road to a little stream flowing near, leading with him his horse & a pack mule. . . He suddenly found the ground giving way under him, alarmed at such an unusual an occurrence which appeared nothing less than a special and pressing invite to the company of his very Satanic Majesty, he retraced his steps pretty nimbly, once more reaching Terra Firma safe and sound. Not so his charger “Old John” or big headed mule ‘Jane’ . He could see but the nose of one and the head of the other floating around in a sort of white, semi-fluid lake. He called immediately for aid, ropes were brought (and) forth came the two animals looking exceedingly miserable.”

Talbot, who wrote his journal for his mother, had a particularly good eye and he provided some of the best descriptions of what the first pioneers saw as moved north and west in Kansas Territory. On June 3, 1843, he wrote: “We nooned in the neighborhood of a Kanzas village, and were accordingly visited by all the men, women, and children it could boast of. The men are generally of good size, well built and for the most part well armed with rifles which they handle to advantage. Their heads are closely shaven, with the exception of a single tuft called the scalp lock, and this they decorate with feathers. They paint the face head and body with vermillion, in all the variety of rings, streaks and stripes. The women are of low stature and not over clean, perhaps from their multifarious household duties, in which the men take no part, hunting and warring being their sole occupations. They are all great rogues and inveterate . . . . . . . . During the afternoon we had observed the threatening appearance of some distant clouds and many forbode an approaching storm- about 10 o’clock it burst upon us in all its violence. The whole camp was filled with one incessant glare of lightning while the deafening crash of thunder resounded on every side: apparently we were in its very focus and upon us, was spent its concentrated wrath. Our frail tents soon left us completely at the mercy of the greatest elemental war I have ever witnessed. After several hours duration the wind and rain abated.”

The reader must bear in mind that these are the words of an 18 year old who was selected for the trip more out of deference to his famous name than to any expected contribution that he might make.  Yet it was his journals that brought a richness to the trip that Fremont's narratives lacked.

On July 15, 1843, Fremont and his party left St. Louis and by the 22 of August, Talbot wrote in his Journal:

 "Today we set foot in Oregon Territory, the land of promise. As of yet it only promises an increased supply of sagebrush and sand."

 Two weeks later, 7 September 1843, he wrote:

 "We went a few miles farther when we had to cross a very high hill, which is said to be the greatest impediment on the whole route from the United States to Fort Hall. The ascent is very long and tedious, but the descent is still more abrupt and difficult."

And one week later, on 14 September 1843, he reported:

 "Paid a visit to Capt. Grant. Fort Hall is a small and rather ill constructed Fort, built of 'Dobies.' It was established in the summer of 1834 by Nathaniel Wyeth, a yankee. He could not compete with the H.B. [Hudson's Bay] Compy and finally sold out to them. The Fort is near the entrance of Portneuf into Snake River. The river bottoms are wide and have some fertile lands, but much is injured by the slat deposits of the waters from the neighboring hills. Wheat, turnips have been grown here with success. Cattle thrive well."

By October, the party was beginning to make its way further into the exploration and even the young, inexperienced, rawboned Talbot had become a seasoned veteran of the west and by every account, he loved it.  He wrote:

 At this place, we again and for the last time cross Snake River.  We immediately commenced crossing our baggage and carts in the two canoes belonging to the Fort.  We finished our transportation early in the afternoon and having swam over our Cavallade went into camp on the river bank opposite to the Fort.  (The Journal of Theodore Talbot, 1843 and 1849-52, edited by  Charles H. Carey [Portland Metropolitan Press, 1931].)

Fremont was a charismatic man and his influence on young Theodore Talbot was significant.  But he was not the only famous person that Talbot encountered on the trip.  A frequent traveler with the party although not an official member of the Expedition, was Kit Carson. In point of fact, in January of 1844, Theo wrote about the party's composition: 

"... the expedition was comprised of twenty-seven men, including Christopher "Kit" Carson and Thomas "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick, sixty seven mules and horses, and one mountain howitzer."

One wonders whether or not Theodore knew of the Talbot family relationship to Kit Carson.  Briefly, for those of you who don't know or have forgotten, Hale Talbot, oldest son of Matthew (II) and Mary Hale Day Talbot, and Lindsay Carson were very good friends in Kentucky and perhaps beyond.  Hale Talbot's oldest son was named Christopher and when Lindsay Carson's son was born, he was named Christopher as well.  The close family relationship persisted after the Hale Talbot family moved from Kentucky to Missouri about 1810.  Hale Talbot and his wife, Betsy Irvine Talbot, along with all of their children, including Jane who had married her cousin, James, son of Isham Talbot, Senior, the grandfather of Theodore, all moved to Montgomery County, Missouri on L'outre Island in the Missouri River.  There is little doubt that Fremont and his party used the Missouri River to travel from St. Louis to Kansas City, the point at which they began the overland march to the Oregon Territory.  It seems unlikely that young Theodore Talbot was aware of any of the foregoing because, given his penchant for recording details in his letters and journals, he could hardly be expected to miss such an important one. 

On 6 September after traveling over 1,700 miles, the party came in sight of Great Salt Lake. Their investigations corrected many vague and erroneous ideas about this region, of which no accurate account had ever been given, and had great influence in promoting the settlement of Utah and the Pacific states. It was Fremont's  report of this expedition that gave to the Mormons their first idea of Utah as a place of residence. After leaving Great Salt Lake, he explored the upper tributaries of the Columbia, descended the valley of that River to Fort Vancouver, near its mouth, and on 10 November set out on his return. His route lay through an almost unknown region leading from the Lower Columbia to the Upper Colorado, and was crossed by high and rugged mountain chains. Deep snow soon forced him to descend into the great basin, and he presently found himself, in the depth of winter, in a desert, with the prospect of death to his whole party from cold and hunger. By astronomical observation he found that he was in the latitude of the bay of San Francisco; but between him and the valleys of California was a snow clad range of mountains, which the Indians declared no man could cross, and over which no reward could induce them to attempt to guide him.

Fremont undertook the passage without a guide, and accomplished it in forty days, reaching Sutter's Fort, on the Sacramento, early in March with his men reduced almost to skeletons, and with only thirty-three out of sixty-seven horses and mules remaining.  

Resuming his journey on 24 March he crossed the Sierra Nevada through a gap, and after another visit to Great Salt Lake returned to Kansas through the South pass in July 1844, having been absent fourteen months.

The Fremont Expedition returned to St. Louis in August 1844 and young Theodore was filled with excitement and happiness.  He was only 19 years of age yet he had already seen the breadth and scope of the land and had a good idea about matters that would have been unclear to most learned adults.  We do not know what he did during the next several months but by February 1845, plans were already being made for yet another trip to the west and Talbot surely was counting on being among the group chosen to accompany the great John C. Fremont.

In late May 1845, Talbot wrote to his mother that he had arrived in St. Louis and was busy preparing for the trip.  By now he was in the Army at the rank of Sergeant.  He reported that he had hoped to make a side trip to "see the Frankfort folks"  during his journey down the Ohio River but that circumstances had prevented him from doing so.  He wrote six letters to his mother and sister during the latter days of May and first part of June 1845, each one containing details of the preparations and a few questions about family friends.  

The Third Fremont Expedition, the second one for Talbot, spent the summer in exploring the watershed between the Pacific and the Mississippi.  They encamped in October on the shore of the Great Salt lake, and after crossing the Sierra Nevada with a few men, in the dead of winter, to obtain supplies, Fremont left his party in the valley of the San Joaquin while he went to Monterey, then the capital of California, to obtain from the Mexican authorities permission to proceed with his exploration. This was granted, but was almost immediately revoked, and Fremont was ordered to leave the country without delay.    

The main group, under Theodore Talbot and guided by Joseph Walker, journeyed down the Humboldt River while a smaller party under the command of Fremont headed off to the south, eventually arriving at Walker Lake nineteen days later. The Talbot-Walker group joined them at Walker Lake three days later. From this point, Fremont sent the main party south via the Owens Valley while he took a smaller group up to the north and through the upper Truckee River Canyon and over Donner Pass.

Fremont now made his way northward through the Sacramento valley into Oregon without further trouble, and near Talmath Lake, on 9 May 1846, met a party in search of him with dispatches from Washington, directing him to watch over the interests of the United States in California, there being reason to believe that the province would be transferred to Great Britain, and also that General Castro intended to destroy the American settlements on the Sacramento. He promptly returned to California, where he found that Castro was already marching against the settlements.  On 13 January 1847, Fremont concluded with the Mexicans articles of capitulation, which terminated the war in California and left that country permanently in the possession of the United States.  Theodore's letters are filled with references to this epic struggle and the role that he played in it.

Theodore spent much time in the company of John Fremont and was surely enamored of him.  History shows that Fremont ran into a good bit of trouble later in his career and we don't know how Theodore reacted to that but we do have a quote from him that captures his thoughts about Fremont's plight.  Perhaps he was thinking of himself as well when he penned the following:  "As long as a man remains below a certain mediocrity all is well, he is promising, gallant, this, that and the other; but the moment he rises beyond that point, a host of enemies crowd around, their fawning turned to envious snarles. "

By the late winter and early spring,  Theo was on his way to Vera Cruz.  He had been promoted to Second Lieutenant and was looking forward to combat duty in Mexico.  But by the time he arrive, the War issue had been resolved and he spent much of his time in the boredom that surrounds all such assignments that have "wrapping" up as their principal duties.  Talbot spent the first eight months of 1848 in Vera Cruz but by mid September 1848, he was back at Fort Columbus on Governor's Island in New York Harbor.

By November, Talbot had received new orders to report to the garrison in Oregon.  For the third time in his young life, he would be making the trip to the far west, a journey that only a few had been fortunate enough to make at all.  In December 1848, Theo was promoted to First Lieutenant and by May 1848, after a long and difficult voyage, he arrived at Astoria.  A U. S. Army report, dated August 1848,  provides some details concerning his assignment.

U.S. ARMY- Lt. Theodore Talbot was instructed by General Persifor F. Smith at Ft. Vancouver to examine the coast of Oregon, especially the Alsea River area. Talbot, with a detachment of a sergeant and nine men, left Ft. Vancouver, went to Oregon City and hired Joaquin Umphraville (French trapper) to act as guide and interpreter. They left Oregon City on the 20th, traveling up the eastern side of the Willamette to Champoeg, crossing the Willamette at a ferry three miles above then up the Willamette Valley. The party reached Kings Valley (in 1856 the site of Ft. Hoskins) on the 24th. The next day they turned west following a Klickitat Indian trail which crossed Marys River several times. On the 26th, they camped on a fork of the Siletz River. The party met Governor Lane and two other gentlemen on the lower river. Lane informed them that one year before a party of white men discovered coal in the vicinity. Lane was there to examine the area. On the 29th, they parted company with Gov. Lane and went on to Yaquina Bay. The next day, Talbot hired a canoe with five Indian paddlers to examine the mouth of Yaquina Bay and on to Alsea Bay. On September 7th the party reached Devils Lake, then eastward up a trail (along Salmon River) used by settlers in the Willamette Valley to drive cattle to the coast and on to Astoria. The next day they crossed the summit, then down the Yamhill River to the Willamette River and on to Oregon City on the 13th. Two days later he was back at Ft. Vancouver

In his own Journal 25 August 1849, he penned:

The mountains were enveloped with such a dense mass of smoke, occasioned  by some large fires to the south of us, that we could see but little of the surrounding country.  These fires are of frequent occurrence in the forests of Oregon, raging with violence for months, until quelled by continued rains of the winter season.

His duties at Fort Vancouver during the next three years were surely a mixed bag, some periods of intense activity followed by long periods of boredom and feelings of being far from the civilizing influences of the east coast where he had spent his youth.  If he found this period boring, he never mentioned it.  About Christmas 1852, Talbot left Oregon and the west, never to see it again.  

He was assigned recruiting duties in 1853 and from 1854 until 1861 he was posted at various garrisons on the east coast not too distant from Washington.   In January 1854 he was serving as the Recruiting Officer in Lancaster, PA. From April 1854 until March 1855 he served at various posts in Virginia and Florida.  From March 1855 until late 1857, he was with Company K, First US Artillery, at Fort McHenry, Maryland. From January 1858 until March 1858, he was at Fort Dallas, Florida. From April 1858 until August 1858, he was at Fort Brooke, near Tampa, Florida. He was on leave during September, October and part of November 1858. In December 1858 he was assigned to Company H, First US Artillery, at Fort Moultrie, SC. In November and December 1859, he was again on leave (possibly because of his health). In January 1860, he was in temporary command of Company H, First US Artillery, at Fort Moultrie. .  These were enjoyable years for Talbot for a variety of reasons.  He was near his mother, Catholic parishes were available, and he was able to be in the company of people whose interests were considerably broader than those he had encountered during the first ten years of his Army career.

Although we cannot fix the exact date of his assignment to Fort Sumter, it did occur before February 1861.  On 21 February 1861, the Journal of proceedings of the United States Senate contains the following entry:

I nominate First Lieutenant Theodore Talbot, of the 1st Regiment of Artillery, to be an assistant adjutant-general in the Army of the United States, as proposed by the Secretary of War. _ James Buchanan

And on the 28th, he wrote to Robert Anderson:

From Theodore Talbot to Robert Anderson, February 28, 1861


Ft. Sumter. S. C. Feb. 28. 1861.

In the event of the Channel entrances being effectually closed and the available military force of So. Carolina assembled in their Defences, it will require a force of one thousand well disciplined U. S. Regulars to open a communication with Sumter, these troops being landed in suitable boats from U. S Naval vessels and covered in part by their fire.

With the same conditions, adding such Force as can probably be assembled in a brief period by the other States of the Southern Confederacy, it will require Three thousand five hundred U. S. Regulars to effect the object desired--

The above crude estimates pre suppose the efficient cooperation of the naval vessels with their guns and boats and that these vessels should be specially selected for the service-- Without such aid Troops could not operate successfully. Respy. submitted.

Theo. Talbot.

1st Lt. 1st Arty

The events of the next few weeks seem more like the staccato of  machine gun fire and we present them in the order below in the hope that the reader will sense the rapidly changes events that would eventually lead to war.

On April 2, 1861, to celebrate his promotion to captain, Talbot writes to his sister one last time from Fort Sumter: “We thought that we should ... certainly receive some orders from Washington yesterday in relation to our departure from this post. If no orders are received in the meantime I think it not unlikely that within a week Major Anderson will take the responsibility of making his own terms and withdrawing the Troops. We are as you know short of provisions.”

President Lincoln sent Robert Chew accompanied by Captain Theodore Talbot to Charleston. Talbot had carried Anderson's letter of April 1 to Washington. He was now to attempt a return to Sumter, or at least to communicate with Anderson, urging the commander to hold out until the relief expedition arrived.

April 8, 1861 -- Lincoln's messengers, Robert S. Chew and Captain Theodore Talbot, having arrived in Charleston in the early evening, around 6 p.m., met with Governor Pickens. Chew read Lincoln's message and handed him a copy. The governor called in General Beauregard and read him the same message. 

Beauregard refused Talbot's request to return to his post at Sumter or to communicate with Major Anderson. Beauregard remarked that he was under orders to permit no communication with Fort Sumter, unless it conveyed an order for its evacuation.

The interview over, Chew and Talbot were escorted to the railroad depot and left Charleston at 11 p.m.

In Washington, with both expeditions in the process of departing, Lincoln wrote to the governor of neighboring Pennsylvania, saying that the necessity of being ready "increases. Look to it."

Our Mission is closed----Letter from Captain Theodore Talbot, US Army, to the Secretary of War, April 12, 1861. ...


The Officers at Fort Sumter

On April 12, 1861, Fort Sumter was attacked and subsequently surrendered.  Major Robert Anderson and his men reached Sandy Hook Harbor in New York on April 18, 1861.  The bloodiest struggle in American history had begun.

In August 1861, Brevet Captain James Theodore Talbot, Assistant Adjutant General, was promoted to Brevet Major in the same position.   On April 22, 1862, just a year after the momentous events of Fort Sumter the previous April, James Theodore Talbot died in Washington, DC of tuberculosis,  He was 37.  He was laid to rest on the burial grounds at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Washington, DC.  His was the first Talbot interment there in plot # 146 to be followed by his mother and sister.   Within days of his death. fellow officers presented a petition to the Congress in which they asked for a pension for the mother of James Theodore Talbot but that petition was ultimately denied. 

And so after a short 37 years, the life of James Theodore Talbot came to an end.  Abner Doubleday wrote in his book, Reminiscences of Forts Sumter and Moultrie; "First Lieutenant Theodore Talbot, when very young, had shared the dangers, privations, and sufferings of Fremont's party in their explorations to open a path-way across the continent. He was a cultivated man, and a representative of the chivalry of Kentucky, equally ready to meet his friend at the festive board, or his enemy at ten paces."  He had never married, had a small number of survivors to mourn his passing, and he surely would have passed into history, unknown and unheralded, in much the same way that thousands of his generation did.  But Talbot had kept a clear record of the things that he had experienced.  His survivors preserved his letters and journals and ultimately gave them to the Library of Congress.  And through these writings, we see a picture not only of Theo but of a whole generation of adventurers who contributed much to the settlement of the west.   Accordingly, he owns a place in our nation's history that he would not otherwise have had.  


The Journals of Theodore Talbot, Metropolitan Press, Portland, Oregon, 1931

Soldier in the West: Letters of Theodore Talbot During His Services In California, Mexico, and Oregon, 1845-53.