Struggling to be Accepted as an American: Tye Leung Schulze

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
…I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Those welcoming words are enshrined on the Statue of Liberty that towers over New York harbor. But despite that generous offer, America has made it very difficult for many people to enter the country. And few groups have been as badly treated as Chinese Americans.

From 1882 until its repeal in 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Act banned all immigration from China. It was the only United States law ever to specifically ban one ethnic group. While new immigrants were banned, Chinese Americans who were born and raised in the United States were subject to hostility and prejudice. Among those who suffered was a tiny Chinese American woman named Tye Leung Schulze who spent most of her life trying to help Chinese Americans to become valuable members of the community.

Tye Leung Schulze

Born in San Francisco in 1887, Tye Leung was unable to attend public school because California’s segregated school system did not provide schools for Chinese students. Fortunately, she discovered a Presbyterian Mission School where she found education and encouragement.

In 1910, Leung took the civil service exam and became the first Chinese American woman employed by the federal government. Assigned to the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay, she became a translator. Two years later she made history by voting in the 1912 presidential election. (California women had gained the right to vote in 1911). She was the first Chinese woman in vote in a United States election, and perhaps the first to vote anywhere in the world.

Leung valued the importance of voting and she expressed her faith in the importance of women’s suffrage in an interview shortly after she had voted: I think…that we women are more careful than the men. We want to do our whole duty more. I do not think it is just the newness that makes use like that. It is conscience”

While she was working at Angel Island, Leung met her future husband, Charles Schulze, an Immigration Inspector. But once again the government opposed her because of her Asian roots. At that time, California banned intermarriage between whites and Asians. To escape this law, Leung and Schulze had to travel to Washington State to celebrate their marriage. And to add further injury, both Leung and Schulze lost their jobs with the Immigration Service when they returned to Angel Island.

Eventually, Tye found work with the Pacific telephone exchange. She and her husband lived in San Francisco’s Chinatown and raised four children. Although her husband died in 1935, Tye continued to work with the Chinese American community as a bookkeeper for the Chinese Hospital and an operator for Pacific Telephone’s Chinatown exchange. During World War II, she helped Chinese brides to enter the country and become citizens. She remained an active force in the community until she died at the age of 86.

Tye Leung Schulze’s life story has been told in a documentary film available on YouTube .

You can also read more about her life in Julia Flynn Siler’s book The White Devil’s Daughters: The Women Who Fought Slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown (2019).

In 1987, Leung Schulze was designated a Women’s History Month Honoree by the National Women’s History Project. She is a woman well worth remembering and honoring.

Giving Women Control—Margaret Sanger

For more than a century, suffragists fought for women’s right to vote, but voting wasn’t the only thing on women’s minds at that time. What good was the right to vote if women weren’t entitled to get an education so they could learn about political issues and develop their opinions? And being able to vote was small comfort to women who were barred from holding a job that would make it possible for them to earn a living. But even the right to learn and to get a job were not enough to give women control of their lives.

Margaret Sanger

Deciding when to have a child and how many children to have made a huge difference in women’s lives. Today It is hard to realize how the lack of birth control affected families. Employers often refused to hire married women because they might become pregnant. Graduate schools rejected married women applicants with the excuse that an unplanned pregnancy could derail a degree plans at any time. And lots of women, especially poor women, often had far more children than their family could support. But during the 19th and early 20th century it was very difficult to get information about birth control. Christian reformers had passed laws declaring that information about birth control was obscene and therefore distributing it was illegal. In many states even married couples were forbidden to use contraceptives.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, progressives began to recognize this problem. One woman, Margaret Sanger, devoted most of her life to changing the way women experienced motherhood. Born in 1879, the sixth child in a family of Irish immigrants in Corning, New York, she saw at first hand the result of having a large family. Each year as another child was added to the family, Michael Higgins, their father, who was a sculptor of gravestones, became less able to support them all. Maggie Higgins, Margaret’s mother, gave birth to 22 children of whom eleven survived to grow up. She died at the age of 48 leaving the family to struggle on without her.

First Birth Control Clinic

Margaret Sanger was fortunate in having older sisters who helped her to get an education and to become a nurse. After getting her degree she married, quit work, and settled down to raise her three children. For several years she was a traditional housewife and mother, but she wanted a more active life. When she went to work in New York City as a visiting nurse, she saw for herself the way women’s lives were restricted by the number of children they bore. Most of the women she worked with were immigrants with little money and no way of finding out how they could limit the number of children they had. Sanger decided that she had an obligation to give these women information. In 1916, she opened the first birth control clinic in the city and was promptly arrested for distributing obscene material. That arrest inspired her to become a lifelong crusader for birth control.

Sanger has become one of the most controversial leaders of the early feminist movement, but much of the criticism directed at her has been misinformed. She has been reviled for supporting abortion, but in fact she always opposed it. She knew that many women were driven to having abortions because they had suffered through too many pregnancies. These illegal abortions sometimes led to illness and death. Sanger promoted birth control as a way of preventing abortions by allowing families to limit the size of their families. She founded birth control clinics in Harlem and in the Lower East Side. She worked with African American leaders to make sure that both Black and White women could control the number of their pregnancies.    

Margaret Sanger founded the American Birth Control League which later became Planned Parenthood and has become a national source of support for women’s health across the United States. Sanger’s interest in the eugenics movement during the 1920s, has led to much criticism, but she was only one of many people who were searching for ways to encourage Americans to have fewer, but healthier babies. She was a woman of many enthusiasms who spoke out about her beliefs and incited both strong support and bitter hatred. Several biographies have been published. For a well-balanced account of her life and accomplishments, you might want to try one of the more recent ones—Jean Baker’s Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion (2011).

When the Doctor is a Woman–the Blackwell Sisters

During 2020 we celebrated the suffragists who worked to gain votes for women. They won that right in 1920 when the 19th Amendment was passed. But during the same years that the suffragists were fighting for women’s right to vote, many women paid little attention to voting but pursued other paths to empower women. When we consider how women’s lives have changed over the past century, we can see that women’s right to participate in business and professions may have been just as important as winning the right to vote.

One example of women’s changing role is the number of women doctors in the United States. In 2019, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, one-third of practicing physicians were women. And in that same year, the Washington Post reported that the majority of medical students were women. We take these figures for granted now, but the battle to allow women to practice medicine was long and difficult.

Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman to become a medical doctor, made great strides for women, but never bothered to support women’s right to vote. This year has seen the publication of a new biography of Elizabeth Blackwell and her sister Emily, both of whom were pioneer doctors. Janice Nimura’s recent biography The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine (Norton 2021) gives a vivid picture of how difficult it was for women to be accepted in the medical profession.

Elizabeth Blackwell

Through the years, centuries even, men have found it hard to accept women into the schools and professions. Elizabeth Blackwell was accepted as a student at Geneva Medical College in New York mainly because the medical students were allowed to vote on whether or not she should be admitted. Faculty members refused to make that decision, but many students thought it would be a good joke to have a female student in their classes. No one apparently expected Elizabeth to become a real doctor. That idea was outlandish.

After completing medical school and earning high grades in her classes, Elizabeth Blackwell was unable to find a hospital that would allow her to observe patients and to learn from practicing doctors. She had to travel to Europe—to both England and France—to find hospitals that gave her the chance to observe patients and practice her skills.

Elizabeth Blackwell demonstrated an almost superhuman persistence and strength in seeking entry to the field. Early in her life she decided that women should be treated by female doctors who could understand their symptoms and establish more useful doctor-patient relations than men could. She did not, however, seem to believe that many other women could follow her path. Her relations with women did not demonstrate great understanding or sympathy. Although she found a number of male mentors in her tireless pursuit of medical training, she was critical of the women she encountered. When she met the wives of doctors with whom she worked, she complained about their dress and manners. “Women so dressed out,” she declared, “don’t look like rational beings and cannot be expected to be treated as such.”

The Blackwells were a large family and they worked together well. Elizabeth encouraged her younger sister, Emily, to become a doctor even though she recognized how hard a path that was. After several attempts to be accepted at an American medical school, Emily was finally able to earn her degree. Like Elizabeth, she had to go to Europe to find the practical experience to complete her skills. Along the way, both Blackwell sisters encouraged other women to follow their path.

Emily Blackwell

Ever so slowly, women gradually entered the medical field. More of them became nurses than doctors, but nonetheless, generations of women discovered they could support themselves and sometimes their families by entering medicine. This movement into economic freedom was probably as important in most women’s lives as the movement to gain votes. Nimura’s book about the Blackwell sisters shows us both the importance and the difficulty of their pioneer work. It is well worth reading.   

Pointing the way toward a new world—Shirley Chisholm

Like most Americans, I spent the early days of this past week worrying. Would there be violence at the Inauguration? Would armed intruders try to disrupt the ceremony?  It wasn’t until after President Biden was safely sworn in that I was able to take a long, peaceful breath.

Although the ceremony was held the midst of a pandemic, as well as in the aftermath of an unprecedented assault on the U. S. Capitol, everything went well. The in-person audience was small, but the virtual audience was huge. History was made and a new team entered the White House. Life is returning to normal.

Now I’ve had a few days to savor the feeling of having a Vice President who is the first woman, the first Black person, and the first Indian American to hold that office. It is time for us to rejoice and to pay homage to some of the pioneers who paved the way for that innovation.

Kamela Harris

I am not alone in celebrating the foremothers who provided models for Kamala Harris. Many women at the Inauguration ceremony wore purple, a color that has become associated with women in government. And, according to the New York Times, Representative Barbara Lee of California wore a pearl necklace which once belonged to Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman who was a serious candidate for the presidency.

In 1968, Shirley Chisholm made history by becoming the first Black woman to be elected to Congress. Once there, she made her mark by refusing to be quiet and follow the dictates of politicians in her party. She fought to serve her constituents by supporting bills to provide federal funds for childcare facilities, and she opposed the Vietnam War writing “Unless we start to fight and defeat the enemies in our own country, poverty and racism, and make our talk of equality and opportunity ring true, we are exposed in the eyes of the world as hypocrites when we talk about making people free.

When she was unable to change the focus of the country through legislation, Shirley Chisholm decided to run for President. Her 1972 campaign was not taken seriously by political leaders. She spent very little money on the campaign and was not able to hire strong staff for her efforts. The country was not ready for an African American president and especially not for one who was a woman. Despite her failure to gain support for her nomination, (Senator George McGovern became the Democratic candidate.) Chisholm continued to be an active member of Congress until 1982 when she retired.

Shirley Chisholm continues to be an inspiration to Kamala Harris and all the other women who are moving into public office in the country. Because of her strength and courage America’s government has become more representative of all the people of the country. This week is a good time to remember and honor her.

Happy Birthday Louisa May Alcott!

November 29 is  the birthday of Louisa May Alcott, one of the most popular authors America has ever produced. And unlike many best sellers of the 19th century, Alcott’s books are still familiar to most Americans.

Louisa May Alcott

Success did not come easily to Alcott, but once it arrived, it lingered for more than her lifetime. Her most famous book, Little Women, lives on not only in print, but in a long parade of film versions. Looking at the last several versions shows an interesting perspective on the storylines and actresses favored over the years. The leading character in each of these adaptations is Jo, the tomboy who grows up to be a writer. The actresses who have played  Jo mirror some of the changes in the way we have viewed women over the years.

During the difficult years of the 1930s when Americans were struggling with lost jobs and few opportunities, many of them turned to the movies for encouragement. The 1933 version of Jo was played by Katherine Hepburn, who brought to the film the sharp-tongued, cleverness of an actress who exemplified the never-say-die attitude that helped us survive the difficult 1930s.

By the time 1949 had rolled around, America had recovered from the Great Depression and World War II was over.  The sweet-faced June Allyson was a perfect example of a spunky American girl who no longer needed the sharpness of Hepburn. She made her way through life with a sunny smile and obstacles melted in her path.

When Greta Gerwig remade the story for a new film in 2019, Jo had changed into a very 21st century woman who knows her own mind and finds her own independent path. Played by Saoirse Ronan, she no longer needs the sharp tongue of Hepburn or the sweet smiles of Allison. Striding into the future that she is determined to build no mere man would dare to question her right to her ambition or to her success.

I can’t help wondering what Louisa Alcott would have thought of these versions. Growing up in a family plagued by poverty even though her father was part of a vibrant group of New England intellectuals,  she wrote her most famous book under the pressure of need. She resented having to write a book for children, but her family needed money and she felt she had no choice. Success came quickly as Little Women became a best seller and gave the family security, but Louisa was never quite content. During a long life of writing bestsellers and supporting her family, she was never able to fulfill her deepest ambition to write meaningful adult novels.

Bronson Alcott

The story of Louisa May Alcott and her father Bronson Alcott has been well told in John Matterson’s 2008 book Eden’s Outcasts; The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father. Matterson’s biography is an adult version of what life was like for the Alcott girls as they grew into womanhood. It offers a poignant recasting of how one American family grew during the turbulent 19th century. If you read Little Women when you were a child,  perhaps it is time to read Eden’s Outcasts. It will broaden your understanding of how real life interacts with the fictions that grow out of it.

In the meantime, let’s all raise a toast to Louisa May Alcott on her birthday this weekend.

Women Who Joined the Parade

Veterans Day Parade

This week we celebrated Veterans Day in the United States. The date, November 11, commemorates the signing of the armistice ending World War 1 on November 11, 1919.   It was during the 1920s that Veterans Day parades became common throughout the United States. 

At first the veterans were almost always men. But now, according to the Veterans Administration, about one in ten veterans are women. And women veterans are very visible n public life. Several women veterans  serve in Congress and even more have entered politics at the local and state level. But like so many other gains made by women, it was not easy for the first female veterans to be given recognition.

The first large group of veterans who joined together to help one another were the veterans of the Civil War. The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was founded to help Union soldiers readjust to civilian life and to support voting rights for the African American men who served with them. For fifty years or more it was an important political force, and it was also the first Veterans association to have female members—although very few of them.

The first woman admitted to the GAR was Kady Brownell of Rhode Island. Born in 1842 to a British soldier serving in South Africa, she moved as a child to the United States. When the Civil War started and her husband joined the Rhode Island regiment, Kady went with him. She served mainly as a nurse and flag bearer at several battles, including Bull Run. When her husband was severely wounded and had to leave the service, she left with him. Both she and her husband received honorable discharges.

Kady Brownell

Both the Brownells were interested in the rights of veterans and supported the GAR. In 1870, Kady Brownell became an official member of the association and eventually both she and her husband were granted Veterans’ pension. She was given $8 a month, while her husband received $24. That doesn’t seem quite fair, but it was better than nothing.

Sarah Emma Edmonds took a different path to becoming a veteran. She was born in 1841 in New Brunswick, Canada near the Maine border. When she was 15, she ran away from home to escape an arranged marriage and an abusive father. Traveling and getting a job as a woman was difficult, so Edmonds disguised herself as a man and adopted the name of Franklin Thompson.  As a man she was able to get a job and support herself by selling Bibles, but when the Civil War broke out, she decided she wanted to serve the Union.

Edmonds enlisted in the 2nd Michigan Infantry on May 25, 1861, also known as the Flint Union Greys. At first, she worked as a nurse and also carried messages. She also claimed to have served as a spy, although her career is difficult to document. She wrote a best-selling memoir about her life as a spy describing her many disguises and adventures, but a few historians have questioned some of her facts. Being a spy means having to keep secrets, so perhaps we will never know all the details of her work.

Sarah Emma Edmonds

In later life Edmonds married Linus. H. Seelye and raised two children. She also became a lecturer and an activist for Veterans’ rights. She was awarded a government pension of twelve dollars a month. In 1897, she was admitted to the Grand Army of the Republic, but her membership was short because she died in 1898.

This week as we thank all veterans for their service, is a good time to pay tribute to these pioneers who made the acceptance of women into the United States Armed Services possible.

Labor Day Is for Women

Lowell Mill girls
Labor Day belongs to women. That may not be the way most people look at it, but history shows us that some of the earliest agitators for workers’ rights were women. Take the women of the Lowell Mills in Massachusetts, for example. They set the pattern for the cooperative struggle that finally brought us Labor Day.

In the early 1800s, New England was primarily agricultural. Small farmers tilled the fields and raised livestock in most states. If a man did not own enough land for all of his sons to carry on with farming, there was plenty of land in the West that could be settled and farmed.

But times were changing. Manufacturing became another source of wealth after Francis Cabot Lowell imported the secret of English looms to America. The Lowell mills in Massachusetts took advantage of the easy availability of waterpower and the low cost of cotton from Southern states, and a new industry was born.

The Lowell Mills soon found a good source of cheap labor among the daughters of New England farmers. Girls in their late teens could earn as much as $1.85 to $3.00 a week in the mills. There was no need for the mill owners to worry about their health or stamina. If anything went wrong, they could be sent back to their families. And when they got married, their husbands were expected to take care of their retirement.

All of the young women lived in boarding houses owned by the factory and paid room and board out of their salaries. Their activities were supervised by the boarding house matrons who saw that the girls went to church every Sunday and did not engage in unseemly activities during the week. They were encouraged to continue their education by attending lectures and writing articles for the mill’s newspaper, Lowell Offering. You can read some of their writing in Benita Eisler’s anthology The Lowell Offering: Writings by New England Mill Woman.

When the economy sagged during the 1830s, the mill girls’ work hours were increased to 75 hours a week. Many of them no longer had time for writing or even reading. In 1834 and again in 1836, they joined together to go on strike and demand shorter hours. Both strikes were defeated, but the mill girls did not give up. In the 1840s they formed the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association to press for reducing the workday to 10 hours. Although women could not vote at that time, the mill girls started a petition campaign to bring their demands before the legislature. Unfortunately, despite the publicity generated, their efforts failed. The ten-hour day was not won for most workers until many years later. Mill owners discovered they could hire immigrant woman to work in the mills for long hours at lower pay than the local farm girls.

Although their early efforts were not successful, the Lowell Mills girls had started something. Years after their time had passed, other women such as Mother Jones and Rose Pesotta led successful drives to encourage women to join unions and make working conditions more humane. And one of the most famous union songs of all times, memorably recorded by Pete Seeger, was written by a woman:

Which Side Are You On?
A Song by Florence Patton Reese

Come all of you good workers
Good news to you I’ll tell
Of how that good old union
Has come in here to dwell

Chorus
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

My daddy was a miner
And I’m a miner’s son
And I’ll stick with the union
Till every battle’s won

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair

Labor Day would be a good day to listen to that song one more time.

Eunice Hunton Carter–The Career that Never Happened

Today we remember the life of a woman who died 50 years ago this year after a career that was successful, but not as brilliant as she had hoped. When she was born in 1899, she seemed destined to be a winner—a woman who did everything right. She graduated with honors from a prestigious college and earned a law degree. There seemed nothing to keep her from achieving her dream of becoming a notable political leader. But two things held her back—her gender and her race.

Eunic Hunton Carter

Eunice Hunton grew up in a prosperous family. Her father was the founder of the Black division of the YMCA and traveled both in the United States and internationally for his work.  Segregation and prejudice affected every aspect of her family’s lives, but they did not allow these disadvantages to deter them. They built themselves an alternative world in which they could live reasonably comfortably—just as long as they did not step outside the rigid boundaries of the times. Eunice attended Smith College, worked as a social worker for a few years, and then decided to become a lawyer. She became the first Black woman to receive a law degree from Fordham University. Along the way, she married a prosperous African American dentist and changed her name to Eunice Hunton Carter.

Continuing her list of firsts, Eunice Carter soon became the first Black female Assistant District Attorney in New York State where she worked under the direction of the New York’s ambitious special prosecutor, Thomas E. Dewey. Assigned to cover the women’s court, as most female lawyers were at the time, she dealt mainly with prostitution cases. She soon realized that the prostitutes and brothel keepers who appeared before her cycled through the court system quickly. They seldom spent much time in jail or paid large fines.

Although most of her associates thought that most prostitutes and brothel keepers worked independently, Carter recognized that the entire operation must be protected by bosses who had a web of corrupt police officers and lawyers under their control. Slowly and carefully she built up her case, taking testimony from the prostitutes and finding connections between them and the city-wide mob that controlled much of the crime in the city.

After Eunice Carter had built up a strong case against the major Mob boss, Lucky Luciana, she brought her findings to Dewey. The resulting trial was one of New York’s most highly publicized and important cases of the 1930s, but Carter was not allowed to participate in it. Despite all the work that she had done, Dewey decided to handle the prosecution himself and appointed several white, male lawyers to be his assistants. The prosecution was successful, the Mob was dealt a severe blow, and Dewey’s political career took off.

Thomas E. Dewey

Eunice Carter continued to be a loyal associate of Thomas Dewey and watched him ascend the political ladder to become governor of New York and run in two Presidential elections. She rallied the African American vote and supported his ambitions but was never appointed to any important post in his administration. She lived her life as a supporting figure.   

Now Carter’s grandson, Stephen L. Carter, a Yale Law School professor has written a biography, Invisible; The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster. It tells the story of Eunice Hunton Carter and paints an unforgettable picture of life in mid-twentieth century New York. Now that the country has at last become more aware of the terrible waste caused by racist policies, it is time to honor Eunice Hunton Carter, one of the many gifted people who have suffered from America’s divisive policies.

Margaret Fuller–a Hero for Our Time

Sunday, July 19, 2020 will be the 170th anniversary of the death of a famous woman, perhaps the best-known  woman of her time. She was  both glorified and laughed at for her revolutionary views on how women should live their lives. Her name was Margaret Fuller,  a name known today mostly to students and historians. But I think of her often. She has been a favorite hero of mine ever since I first heard about her many years ago in a college classroom. In the years since then I have not only written a biography of Margaret but paid tribute to her through her cameo appearances in each of my four mystery novels.

During the 1840s, Margaret Fuller became an important figure in the intellectual life of New England. She edited one of America’s first important journals, The Dial, she wrote the first book calling for equality for American women, Women in the Nineteenth Century, and served as a foreign correspondent covering the 1848 Italian revolution for Horace Greeley’s newspaper the New York Tribune. Although she died in a shipwreck at the age of 40, she left an enduring legacy. And many of her ideas are still important to us today.

Margaret famously declared that  women should play an active role in the world. “But if you ask me what offices they may fill, I reply—any. I do not care what case you put; let them be sea-captains if you will.” That line caused a lot of scornful laughter in Boston and New York, but it aroused many women to think about their lives and ignited the flame of the women’s suffrage movement that changed the world.

It wasn’t only women’s causes that Margaret worked for. She was one of the few Americans in early 19th century who recognized the wrongs inflicted on Native Americans by relentless European invasions. “Our people and our government alike have sinned against the first-born of the soil” she wrote. The injustices she called out are still blots on American history.

Because I admired Margaret Fuller, I wanted others to know about her. Several years ago, I wrote a short biography, Margaret Fuller: An Uncommon Woman,  to introduce others to this unforgettable woman. The Kindle version of the book is now on sale at Smashwords.com for $1.50 during the month of July. Both the Kindle and print versions are available on Amazon.com.

Even after I had written the biography, Margaret continued to fascinate me. When I wrote my quartet of historical mysteries—the Charlotte Edgerton Mysteries—I followed Margaret’s footsteps, setting each book in one of the places Margaret visited during her lifetime.

A Death in Utopia is set in Massachusetts

Death Visits a Bawdy House in New York City

Death Calls at the Palace in London, England

Death Enters the Convent in Florence, Italy

You can find these books in print and Kindle versions on Amazon.com.

Jessie Fremont–Daughter and Wife

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 Benton Fremont

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

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.