Jessie Benton Frémont (1824 – 1902)
Jessie Benton Frémont was the daughter of a famous Missouri senator and wife of a well-known explorer of the West. She was a behind-the-scenes politician and a writer whose lively accounts of her husband’s western expeditions encouraged thousands of people to move west.
Jessie Ann Benton was born on May 31, 1824, at her grandparents’ estate in Virginia. Her parents were Senator Thomas Hart Benton and Elizabeth Preston Benton. Jessie was the second of five children. She was a lively and intelligent girl and became her father’s favorite. Jessie grew up in Washington, D. C., and in St. Louis, her father’s political base.
Senator Benton made sure Jessie had an excellent education in history, literature, and languages. In St. Louis, she went to a French primary school and studied Spanish with a tutor. Jessie learned about politics and developed a strong interest in the West by listening to her father and his friends. Senator Benton believed in “manifest destiny.” He wanted the government to gain control of lands west of the Mississippi River.
Love and Romance
While Jessie was attending a girls’ school in Washington, D. C., she met and fell in love with John Charles Frémont, an attractive army explorer. Jessie’s parents didn’t approve of her romance. Frémont’s father had never married his mother, so he was not a good match for a senator’s daughter. Jessie rebelled. On October 19, 1841, when Jessie Benton was seventeen, she secretly married Frémont. Senator Benton was upset when he found out, but soon accepted his daughter’s marriage and promoted his son-in-law’s western career.
John Charles Frémont took many important journeys to the west. He headed several major expeditions that started in St. Louis. Frémont traveled overland to the Rocky Mountains as well as Oregon and Mexican-held California. When Frémont returned home, Jessie helped him write his expedition reports. Based on what Frémont told her, Jessie wrote richly detailed accounts that made Frémont and his scout, Kit Carson, national heroes. Her dramatic narratives influenced thousands of people to go west.
Adventure, Profit, and Politics
In March 1849, Jessie set out on an expedition of her own. The Frémonts had decided to move to ranch land in California. Frémont went overland, searching for a possible railway route from St. Louis to California. Jessie and her six-year-old daughter went by ship. They traveled via Panama and crossed the isthmus by dugout canoe and mule. During the trip, Jessie became ill with a tropical fever and almost died. Her fortune improved greatly once she got to California. Huge gold deposits were found at their ranch, and her husband was elected California’s first senator.
Jessie suddenly found herself rich and married to a politician. Frémont became the first presidential candidate of the newly formed Republican Party. He and Jessie strongly opposed slavery. Though Jessie played an active role in Frémont’s campaign, she had to remain behind-the-scenes because she was a woman. Senator Benton did not support his son-in-law’s bid for the presidency. Jessie was caught between her husband and father.
Frémont lost the 1856 election, though he had won the northern vote. Four years later, Abraham Lincoln was elected president. The Civil War began and Lincoln named Frémont commander of the Department of the West with headquarters in St. Louis. Jessie eagerly returned to St. Louis on July 25, 1861, but found it “a hostile city.” The Union force was small and undersupplied. Jessie wrote to Washington, D. C. for help. She even traveled there to meet with Lincoln. Serving as her husband’s aide, Jessie attended meetings, met visitors, and worked with the press to present a positive image of Frémont. Many people were shocked that a woman would play such an active role in politics. Jessie was branded “General Jessie.”
Jessie had strong leadership abilities, great intelligence, and a remarkable memory. Her husband wrote that Jessie had Senator Benton’s “grasp of mind.” But unlike her famous father, Jessie could not exercise her talents directly because of social customs of the times. She channeled much of her energy and ambition into her husband’s career.
Financial and political ups and downs plagued Frémont for the rest of his life. Jessie remained devoted to him, and in 1873 began to write professionally to support their family of five. Books such as A Year of American Travel (1878) and Souvenirs of My Time (1887) tell about the Missouri Jessie knew as a child.
Jessie Benton Frémont died on December 27, 1902, in Los Angeles, California, two years after her husband. Her income was small, and she lived in a house donated to her by a group of California women. She carved out a place in history as a writer and an opponent of slavery. She was also an important link between her father’s dream of a transcontinental nation and her husband’s role in making it come true.
Research and Text by Carlynn Trout
Christensen, Lawrence O., et al, eds., Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999. pp. 318–20.
Corbett, Katharine T. In Her Place: A Guide to St. Louis Women’s History. St. Louis, MO: Missouri Historical Society Press, 1999. pp. 83–84.
Dains, Mary K., ed., Show Me Missouri Women: Selected Biographies. 2 vols. Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1989, 1993. Vol. 1: pp. 184–85.