Frémont, Jessie Benton (1824–1902)
Frémont, Jessie Benton (1824–1902)
American writer and wife of explorer John C. Frémont who chronicled the American scene during the 19th century. Name variations: Jessie B. Fremont. Born Jessie Ann Benton on May 31, 1824, near Lexington, Virginia; died on December 27, 1902, in Los Angeles, California; second of four daughters and five children of Thomas Hart Benton (a senator from Missouri) and Elizabeth (McDowell) Benton; educated by private tutors; attended Miss English's school, Georgetown, Washington; married Lieutenant John Charles Frémont (an explorer), on October 19, 1841; children: Elizabeth Benton (b. 1842); Benton Benton (b. 1848); John Charles Benton (b. 1851); Anne Beverley Benton (b. 1853); Frank Preston Benton (b. 1854).
Outspoken and strong-willed from childhood, writer Jessie Frémont witnessed and chronicled the changing American scene during the final half of the 19th century from a woman's perspective. The daughter of Thomas Hart Benton, the famous senator from Missouri, and Elizabeth McDowell , whose family was active in Virginia politics, Jessie was born on May 31, 1824, near Lexington, and raised in a richly social atmosphere and schooled by private tutors at home. She described a happy childhood, dominated by her father, whom she called "a companion and a friend from the time almost that I could begin to understand." Jessie was 16 and attending Miss English's academy for girls in Georgetown, when she met and fell in love with the brilliant and handsome Lieutenant John Charles Frémont, 11 years her senior and an ill-paid member of the army's Topographical Corps. Although her parents disapproved of the match, Jessie continued to see John Frémont during weekends at home. (At one point, her father attempted to end the relationship by having John sent off to map the Des Moines, but the young man returned as ardent as ever.) Jessie and John were married by a sympathetic Catholic priest in a secret ceremony in October 1841. Although initially furious, Benton eventually bestowed his blessings on the union and then became active in promoting John Frémont's career as an explorer. Jessie, in addition to giving birth to five children, two of whom died in infancy, channeled her own ambition into her husband's future.
During the 1840s, John headed up a series of government expeditions to the West, designed to prepare for and encourage future expansion to the Pacific. He returned home from the first expedition to the Wind River Range in October 1842, just a month before the arrival of the couple's first child, a daughter. Jessie used her considerable literary talent to help him prepare his notes and recollections of the expedition into an extremely lively and widely acclaimed report, which was published as a Senate document in 1843. It was the beginning of a collaboration with her husband that would become her life's work.
As John Frémont was preparing to leave on a second expedition in May 1843, Jessie intercepted a letter sent to him from the War Department, which she interpreted as a threat to his command. Sending him a message to leave immediately, she then wrote to authorities in Washington telling them what she had done. Upon John's return in 1844, after a successful tour in Oregon and California, she was once again influential in the preparation of the account of the expedition, which was printed as a Senate document in an edition of 10,000 copies and widely sold in a commercial edition as well. Entitled simply the Report, it was said to have influenced Far Western settlement more than any other single book.
In 1845, while on his third expedition, John Frémont became involved with the American settlers in California in their Bear Flag Rebellion against Mexico. His battalion of volunteers, composed of some of the settlers and voyagers from his topographical party, became known as
the California Battalion and served during the Mexican War under the command of Robert F. Stockton, who became chief of naval and land operations on the Pacific Coast and who later appointed Frémont governor of the conquered territory. The arrival in California of Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny, however, created problems for John Frémont. Caught in the middle of the struggle between Kearny and Stockton for supremacy of command, Frémont chose the wrong side, was ordered to march east behind Kearny's army and, despite his father-in-law's efforts, was ultimately court-martialed and convicted on charges of mutiny, disobedience, and conduct prejudiced to military discipline. President James K. Polk remitted the penalty and ordered him to duty again, but Frémont, unwilling to admit in any way the justice of the decision, resigned from the army.
Throughout his ordeal, Jessie and her father stood staunchly by him. In June 1847, Jessie defended him in an interview with President Polk. In 1849, while John led yet a fourth expedition westward to chart a railroad route, Jessie and her daughter underwent a grueling crossing of the Isthmus to meet him in California. The family eventually settled on the Mariposas estate, a large tract of land that John had acquired in the Sierra foothills, east of San Francisco, where they lived under primitive frontier conditions. Upon her husband's election as senator from California in 1850, Jessie accompanied him to Washington for a brief term that ended in March 1851. After another year in California, they traveled to London to raise money to develop the gold mines on the Mariposas property.
In 1855, having grown quite wealthy, they moved to New York City, where John further promoted his mining interests and his plans for the Pacific railroad. He also became involved in politics and was nominated as the first Republican candidate for president. Jessie, unfortunately, was limited by custom to a small role in her husband's campaign, mainly assisting with the official biography and entertaining supporters, but her contribution was a major factor in his strong showing. She was devastated by his defeat and took a vacation to France before returning to California.
Jessie also served as her husband's ally during his troubled Civil War service, first as commander of the Department of the West, headquartered in St. Louis, and later in field command in Virginia. She supported his controversial proclamation emancipating the slaves of Missourians bearing arms against the Union and stood by him through criticism of his policies and attempts to take over some of his command. At one point, she traveled to Washington to argue her husband's case before President Abraham Lincoln, but her efforts proved unsuccessful. John was eventually stripped of his command. Jessie wrote about the uncompleted campaign in a series of impassioned articles for the Atlantic Monthly, which were published in book form in 1863, titled The Story of the Guard: A Chronicle of the War.
During the later war years, the Frémonts returned to New York, where Jessie, who had been instrumental in establishing the Western Sanitary Commission in New York and St. Louis, was active in raising money and recruiting volunteers for Sanitary Commission hospitals in the West. Unwise railway and mining speculations brought financial hardship, which increased with John's unsuccessful run as a Radical Republican candidate for the presidency in 1864. In 1873, when John was forced to declare bankruptcy, Jessie turned to writing to support the family, which now included their three children and the daughter of a friend whom they had adopted. While living in a small house on Staten Island, Jessie produced a flood of reminiscences, travel sketches, and stories for leading magazines. The best of her work was collected in A Year of American Travel (1878), Souvenirs of My Time (1887), Far-West Sketches (1890), and The Will and The Way Stories (1891). She was also the principal author of her husband's Memoirs of My Life (1887).
Jessie Frémont spent her final years in Los Angeles, California, where, after her husband's death, she lived with her daughter in a house presented to her by the women of the city. She continued to write until two years before her death, at age 78, in 1902.
James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Harvard University Press, 1974.
McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.
Randall, Ruth Painter. I Jessie: A Biography of the Girl Who Married John Charles Frémont. Boston, MA: Little Brown, 1963.
Herr, Pamela, and Mary Lee Spence, eds. The Letters of Jessie Benton Fremont. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 1993.
The Frémont Papers, which include the letters and autobiographical writings by Jessie Frémont, are in the Bancroft Library, University of California, and in the Southwestern Museum in Los Angeles.
Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts
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