Daughter of a Senator and wife of a famous explorer and presidential candidate, Jessie Benton Fremont spent much of her life in the public eye. She was clever, well-educated and energetic, but she lived under the 19th century rule that women never interfere in the important schemes of their menfolk. Because of this, her life became a delicate dance between her interests and talents and the rules that limited women’s lives.
Jessie’s father, Thomas Hart Benton, always longed for a son, so when Jessie, his second daughter was born in 1824, he didn’t let her gender stop him from giving her a male name and educating her as though she were a boy. And Jessie enjoyed the role. She was quick to learn, loved reading, and picked up languages quickly. As a young teen she began following her father around to serious adult meetings soaking up the political atmosphere of Washington D.C.
Jessie was only sixteen when she met John Fremont, a handsome Army officer who, like Senator Benton, was eager to see America expand. Although he was eleven years older than Jessie, John Fremont fell in love with her. Jessie’s parents strongly opposed their marriage, because of Jessie’s youth, and perhaps also because John was the illegitimate son of an obscure French immigrant. However, Jessie and John would not be stopped. Eventually they eloped and found a Catholic priest who would marry them.
Senator Benton and his wife finally accepted the marriage and the young couple moved into the Benton household. Having learned to serve as her father’s unofficial assistant, Jessie soon found a way to transfer her skills to serving her husband’s career. Senator Benton arranged for John to be appointed as leader of an expedition to explore territory west of the Missouri River.
Both Senator Benton and the Fremonts accepted the idea of Manifest Destiny—the belief that the United States would eventually expand its territory to the Pacific Coast.
John Fremont led three exploratory expeditions to the West. His adventures caught the imagination of many Americans. Newspapers were eager to write about his exploits and Jessie saw to it that his letters were turned into exciting articles for readers. His picture became familiar across the country and several cities were named for him.
While John continued his explorations throughout the western territories, Jessie remained in Washington D.C. maintaining her ties with her father’s government friends and strengthening John’s fame. When John reached California in 1846, he found it a paradise and agreed with his father-in-law and many others in determining that it should be part of the United State. Jessie joined him for a while in California, one of the few times in their married life that the couple lived together.
The rest of John Fremont’s life was dominated by the struggle to make California a part of the Union, but somehow things always seemed to go wrong for him. He often acted impulsively without waiting for orders from Washington, which, of course, were slow in arriving from the East Coast. He was court martialed in 1848 for exceeding his authority, but nonetheless remained popular enough so that when California finally became a state in 1850, he was elected a senator. He returned to Washington to serve his term but stayed only one year before returning to California to campaign for re-election. By that time, of course, gold had been discovered in California and the state’s population had exploded.
The 1856 presidential election was one of the most bitter in American history as divisions grew between slave states and free states. Both John and Jessie Fremont opposed slavery and John was finally chosen as the first candidate of the new Republican Party. His campaign was disastrous and John Buchanan, the Democratic candidate, became the new president.
We will never know what Jessie Fremont thought of her role in her husband’s exploits. One commentator wrote of the couple “I thought as many others did, that Jessie Benton Fremont was the better man of the two, far more intelligent and comprehensive.” Jessie herself supported her husband throughout his life and never indicated that she could have handled his role better than he did. She remained in the background trying to correct his mistakes and keep the family going. When he finally lost the fortune he had gained in California, she managed to support him by writing stories and articles. Reading about her now in the 21st century, I can’t help but wonder what Jessie Fremont would have become if she had been born in our times.
A new book by Steve Inskeep Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Fremont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War tells the exciting story of this tumultuous period. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about the people who built America.