Jesse Benton Fremont

By Richard Duree (Col. Richard Dodge, SASS 1750 Life)


Ruth Levin Duree and Richard Duree

When Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton devoted his attentions to his second daughter, Jesse, he made more of a contribution to the nation than he realized. The powerful senator, architect of the "Manifest Destiny" movement, badly wanted a son but it was not to be until later after several daughters. Jesse was his favorite and he bestowed upon her a childhood and education not typical for a proper young lady of the early 19th century. She was well-read and fluent in both Spanish and French.

Born of a brawling frontier politician and a fifth generation Virginia aristocrat, Jesse grew into an intelligent, strong willed, and self-confident beauty who knew her own mind and was not afraid to use her charms – or her government connections. She could be very persuasive and gracious at the same time. Raised in a world of influence, she moved with ease among kings and presidents, politicians and professors, scientists and artists. Above all, she was a free thinker, not hesitating to question and challenge the political and moral attitudes of her time. Like her father, she became an ardent abolitionist in the smoldering decades before the Civil War.

While the senator was occupied in the Senate, Jesse, still a teenager, availed herself of the nearby Library of Congress, devouring books on history, art, and literature. At the tender age of 15, while browsing in that famed library, she encountered a handsome young army officer and immediately knew he was for her. She would not be dissuaded. John Charles Fremont was a very junior officer of unknown quality and breeding (it turned out later that he was indeed born out of wedlock – a serious social barrier at that time).

When Jesse was age 16, she eloped with her dashing young man (he was 27) to the astonishment and outrage of her parents. The senator threatened to disavow his daughter, never to speak to her again. It is not certain what changed his mind, perhaps Jesse was more precious to him than his concern with his son-in-law's social standing, but they did reconcile and American history began to take a new course.

Perhaps Benton saw in the young Fremont a tool to further his cherished "Manifest Destiny" objectives. Fremont, in turn, realized the opportunities afforded by his father-in-law's support and quickly adopted the senator's passion for westward expansion. He was a trained topographical engineer – the elite career objective in the army in America's formative years. Even so, it is questionable if Fremont would have ever achieved fame without his powerful father-in-law's patronage. Despite his dashing physical image, he was impulsive, contradictory, irritating, pompous, and ambitious – not qualities to endear him to either his superiors or his fellow officers. They were glad to be rid of him when Benton put forth the idea of sending Fremont off into the wilderness to explore and map the western reaches of the young nation's proposed new territories.

Leaving his young bride in St. Louis, Fremont did indeed lead several now famed expeditions into the West. He was the first Anglo-American to see Lake Tahoe. His expedition members were some of the most skilled explorers (including Kit Carson), cartographers, naturalists, and geologists of the day and their findings were the first real research into the new lands. They mapped the Oregon Trail and recorded the wildlife, flora and fauna, watersheds, mountain passes and climate in that immense space.

On his return, Jessie carefully and skillfully elicited the information from her husband's complex and undisciplined mind to create clear and concise reports and journals Their reports were wildly popular and served to spur the enormous immigration to the west that quickly followed.

In California, Fremont's ambitious nature got him into trouble. In the late 1840s, Anglo-Americans were becoming more and more numerous, taken with the obvious riches of that far-away Eden, inhabited only by a few "grim old Spaniards" – the Californios. Fremont took it upon himself to interpret conflicting orders from his superiors to proclaim himself Military Governor of California – an act for which he was later court-martialed for disobeying orders.

Fremont, when it came to preparing a comprehensive report of his explorations, was an abject failure. He seemed unable to compose an understandable sentence. And now Jesse began her entrance into history as his ghostwriter. She was to spend the remainder of her life as his publicist and advocate, not hesitating to use her family's influence when it became necessary.

Her studies and education were not wasted. Jesse wrote with a clear and concise hand. She quickly realized how important she would be to her husband's career and entered into the role with quiet enthusiasm and skill. Her reports, written from his dictation, were the ones read in Washington and across the country – and the world – and Fremont became the famed "Pathfinder."

In 1850, the couple moved from St. Louis to San Jose, California – at least, they had planned San Jose, however, Fremont's agent, American consul Thomas Larkin, had mysteriously purchased land for him near Mariposa, near the southern end of the fabulous Mother Lode. Any misgivings the Fremonts may have had about the remote location disappeared when a fabulously rich vein of gold was discovered on the property, making them instant millionaires.

Mariposa is the gateway to the wonders of Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees. Jesse was spellbound by their beauty and magnificence. She was disturbed at the intrusion of farmers and ranchers into the unmatched beauty of the valley and so began an unrecognized role in Jesse's life – conservationist.

The Fremonts moved to a fine house on 13 acres on Black Point in San Francisco, site of present-day Fort Mason. They lived there from 1860 to 1861 and Jessie took delight in remodeling the house and grounds into one of the city's social centers. It was like being "on the bow of a ship," in Jessie's words, surrounded by water on three sides; Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate – so named by her husband – were right outside her front window.

Jesse was now in her element. With her husband frequently absent on one of his many campaigns and business ventures (many of which were abject failures), Jessie held a weekly salon, attended by the most notable of writers, including Herman Melville and Bret Harte, as well as the most powerful and intellectual men of the west, such as Carlton Watkins, famed photographer of Yosemite, the orator Reverend Starr King, Frederick Law Olmstead, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Horace Greeley, and Israel Ward Raymond.

With this influential group of admirers and backers, Jessie formed what was to become one of the first and most effective conservation organizations in the country. Following Jessie's lead, their lobbying efforts to Congress and President Lincoln resulted in the Yosemite Land Grant that preserved her beloved Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove of Big Trees from the encroachment and development. Jessie typically took little credit for this magnificent accomplishment, content to stay out of the glare of publicity. "Jessie's role was that of a catalyst and muse, prodding and encouraging (them) to write and speak," wrote John Henneberger of the National Park Service.

Husband John Fremont proved to be a rather inept businessman and managed to lose their entire fortune, including the wonderfully rich Mariposa mine. Politically ambitious, he dabbled in politics and even attempted a run for President four years before Lincoln. Through it all, Jessie supported them with her widely popular writings, many of them, stories of her own life's adventures. Were it not for Jessie, John would have faded from history as just another bumbling adventurer, but she made him and others, including Kit Carson, famous household names in American history. She stands as one of the most influential and remarkable women in America's western history.

Herr, Pamela; Jessie Benton Fremont: A Biography; University of Oklahoma Press, 1988

Herr, Pamela and Spence, Mary; The Letters of Jessie Benton Fremont; University of Illinois Press, 1992