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‘A Presidentess Among Us’

Jessie Fremont
Courtesy Nevada State Museum

Jessie Fremont

An adventurer, author, and savvy political strategist, Jessie Frémont is an unsung Western icon

John C. Frémont was the first official explorer of Nevada, and the first white American to see such wonders as Lake Tahoe and the Great Basin. The published accounts of his extensive travels captivated a restless young nation. Among the icons of Western adventurers and pioneers, Frémont’s place is as assured as any.

But while John literally put Las Vegas on the map, it was his wife Jessie who turned his expeditions into international bestselling books, making his maps available to thousands of emigrants colonizing the West. Jessie Benton Frémont was also a savvy political operative who played confidante and advisor to the most powerful men in the country; an eloquent anti-slavery activist; and a keen student of history and human nature. Why is Jessie Frémont but a footnote in history? It’s certainly not because she was discreet, reticent, or retiring.


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Rebel in the classroom

Long before she was famous as an author, political strategist, adventurer — and as Mrs. John C. Frémont — Jessie Benton was a schoolgirl in the nation’s capital.

“Miss Jessie, although extremely intelligent, lacks the docility of a model student,” a letter from the Georgetown Female Seminary informed her father. “Moreover, she has the objectionable manner of seeming to take our orders and assignments under consideration, to be accepted or disregarded by some standard of her own.”

The year was 1840, and U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton [pictured right], alarmed by the number of Jessie’s suitors, had enrolled her in the elite academy three miles from swampy Washington. “I fear you will find her a Don Quixote,” Jessie’s mother had warned the very proper Danish headmistress. While the letter from the seminary was intended to compel Benton to rein in his feisty daughter, Jessie hoped it would have the opposite effect. Her father had not raised her to be a parlor creature, and she knew he would not be surprised by her independent streak — and would perhaps even be proud of it.

He had wanted a son, but on May 31, 1824, the dark-haired baby girl was born. Still, he named her Jessie after his father, a scholarly Englishman and North Carolina plantation owner. From that day forward, he treated her like a prince, molding her in an image for which there was no role model. “I think I came into my father’s life like a breath of his own compelling nature,” Jessie would later reflect, “strong, resolute, but open to all tender and gracious influences.”

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Benton recognized her as a kindred spirit — animated and mischievous, perceptive and playful, willful, and curious. He was alternately intrigued and exasperated by the child’s strong personality, and took it upon himself to oversee her rearing. As she grew, he placed a small desk next to his in their Capitol Hill home, and under his careful guidance and tutoring, Jessie was a highly responsive student. The girl’s presence in Benton’s library became a familiar sight to all who visited the most powerful senator in America, her huge brown eyes taking in everything around her.

She had learned to read by the time she was four years old, and as a pre-teen, she spoke five languages, read Latin and Greek, and was well-versed in history, geography, literature, and science. While tutors conducted her formal education, Benton instituted a strict set of intellectual habits: “First, to look for every word in the dictionary, the exact meaning of which is not known to you; secondly, to search for every place on the maps which is mentioned in your studies; third, to observe the chronology of all events.”

Benton took her quail hunting, introduced her to bird-watching with his friend John Audubon, and impressed upon her the importance of disciplining her mind and exercising her body. He would take her to the Capitol every morning, leaving her for several hours in the care of the congressional librarian, under whose supervision she perused Thomas Jefferson’s 6,000-volume collection of books. From her earliest years, Jessie accompanied her father to the White House, where Andrew Jackson tangled her locks with his fingers while discussing politics with Benton, one of the president’s strongest supporters in building the Democratic Party. “I was to keep still and not fidget, or show pain, even if General Jackson twisted his fingers a little too tightly in my curls; he liked my father to bring me when they had their talks, and would keep me by him, his hand on my head — forgetting me of course in the interest of discussion — so that sometimes his long, bony fingers took an unconscious grip that would make me look at my father, but give no other sign.”

Eventually, Benton let her observe the debates on the floor of the Senate, and every day they would take a walk together and discuss her experiences. He instilled in her a dedication to Jacksonian democracy and to the egalitarian views of Jefferson, and taught her to value logic, to form opinions based on fact, and to defend her principles with courage and an unwavering ferocity in the face of opposition. As she grew, her father began including her more and more frequently in his public life.

They must have made for a striking sight as they walked the halls of Congress. She was a raven-haired beauty, he a towering frontiersman. The two forged a legendary bond, Jessie acting as the senator’s constant companion and confidante, a surrogate for her invalid mother. They were the talk of the town, traveling in the most rarefied social and political circles of the raucous, dusty capital. She was his consort and collaborator, his apprentice and creation. Their symbiosis was envied, her devotion to him inspiring. She was known for her magnetism and loveliness, with her full lips and rich dark hair pulled back in the fashion of the day. Considered “the prettiest girl in Washington,” Jessie’s slim figure was hinted at beneath her rustling silk gowns.

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Uncharted territory

For years she sat patiently and quietly in her father’s book-lined room as a string of dignitaries — politicians, explorers, scientists, and diplomats — sought an audience with the senator, who was a prevailing force for American expansion and what would become Manifest Destiny. She had served as her father’s secretary, taking his dictation and eventually helping him research and write his many speeches. But Jessie had not just learned the classics and accompanied her father as an attractive escort. Her immersion in his political world was complete, giving her a sensibility lacking in other girls of her generation. All that she had heard and imbibed were as much a part of her education as any refinement of arts, literature, and culture.

Many Washington men coveted the role Benton enjoyed with his daughter. She had already had two proposals of marriage, including one from President Martin Van Buren, who was forty years her senior, which had prompted Benton to cloister her in the rural academy. It was at the desk in her father’s study where she had seen and heard so much that made the snooty finishing school seem so irrelevant by comparison, where she found the conceited daughters of senators, congressmen, and military officers vapid to the point of inanity.  The school’s focus on music and deportment was mundane compared with the rigorous academic curriculum her father imposed on her.

She was desperate to return to the small desk that sat in the corner of her father’s library next to the fireplace, where lately something was going on that Jessie could not bear to miss. The oak table in the study of the massive, ivy-covered C Street home was piled with colorful maps of the still-uncharted American frontier. She had long been thrilled and intrigued by the constant discussion of expansionism, the girl an armchair adventurer before she was a teen. Most exciting of all was the presence at her father’s home of a dusky, blue-eyed young Army lieutenant fresh from an expedition exploring the West. John Charles Frémont had arrived in Washington to report his findings to the president — Jessie’s disappointed suitor, Van Buren.

The 27-year-old surveyor was ensconced at a Capitol Hill townhouse, where he was charting the night sky and creating an enormous map of his recent findings. Word spread through the capital, prompting senators and congressmen to drop by to meet the dashing explorer. Among the first and most enthusiastic was Missouri’s stalwart Senator Benton, who had long been intoxicated by his desire to probe the American West in order to open trade with India. He was immediately enamored of Frémont, whom he saw as just the instrument to fulfill the national destiny he envisioned. The men had an instant bond, forged by their common vision of America’s future. The avuncular Benton took the young officer under his wing, tutoring him in the same way he had mentored his own daughter.

When Benton introduced Jessie to John, she was spellbound by his “Gallic good looks.” His slight stature was oddly imposing, and tanned face and flashing white teeth rarities for the time and place. The two were instantly smitten, and when he brushed her hand with his lips Jessie was speechless. The “bloom of her girlish beauty” captivated John. From that moment, the couple would be passionately, fatefully, historically enmeshed — John her “very perfect gentle knight,” Jessie his “rose of rare color” with whom he had “fallen in love at first sight.”

Her father Benton was not impressed. He well knew that Frémont, for all his courage and adventure in the West, was the illegitimate son of a French Royalist émigré and a runaway Southern belle. The poor man of dubious background and breeding was not a suitable mate for his exceptional daughter. Yet Benton was powerless in the face of such irresistible romantic chemistry. He was forced to recognize that the strong, decisive woman before him was no longer a schoolgirl, but an adult female who knew her own mind. Very much her father’s daughter, she had been groomed as much as any young man to be president, if not for her gender. Called by one “a Benton in petticoats,” a later president, James Buchanan, described her as “the square root of Tom Benton.” 

The couple eloped, enraging the senator. But he could not stay angry with his daughter for long, and ultimately welcomed them both back to the C Street home. Much would be made later of Frémont’s opportune marriage to the daughter of one of America’s most influential figures. But Frémont was hardly the swashbuckling neophyte many historians have caricatured. When John married Jessie, he was already an expert topographer, a skilled astronomer, a student of botany and geology, an accomplished surveyor, and a proven leader of men. The favorable match accelerated a career already destined for success, if not greatness.

John and Jessie would become the power couple of the Wild West — witnesses and participants in the defining moments of 19th-century American expansionism, from the exploration of the West to the Gold Rush to the birth of the Republican Party to the Civil War.  Along the way, they maintained a marriage and shared a quixotic political and ideological vision of what America should be. Through all the disappointment and failure over the decades to come — some of their own making, some at the hands of fate — they would remain steadfast in their commitment to one another and to their country.


The second mind

In 1842, the couple threw themselves into preparations for a Benton-supported expedition that would open migration to Oregon. Jessie naturally assumed the role of John’s assistant, secretary, and adviser, just as she so ably had done for her father, serving as the barrier between him and the many people wishing an audience with the celebrity explorer. Inventors and emigrants, job-seekers and adventurers, politicians and rivals made their way to him, and with a diplomacy and patience she would perfect in the future, she determined who should be granted access into their inner sanctum, and who would waste their precious creative and intimate time together.

When John returned from that successful expedition where he had raised an American flag on a peak in the Rockies, staking it as the gateway to the West, Jessie eagerly accepted the role of his “second mind” to co-author his report to the War Department. Calling herself John’s “amanuensis,” Jessie collaborated in transforming the expedition into a wonderful adventure story. Working closely as a team, their travelogue infused the landscape with drama and breathed life into the characters — Kit Carson, Indians, mountain men, fur traders, and scouts. On the written page, the unshaven, rough-hewn explorers became heroes, and for the first time in U.S. history an explorer’s report had a gripping narrative. “It was both a keenly observed description of a Western journey by a trained scientist and a dramatic adventure story buffed to a high literary polish,” wrote one historian. 

The War Department submitted Frémont’s 215-page report to Congress, which ordered 1,000 copies printed. Within days, it was excerpted in newspapers throughout America, and literary critics compared it to Robinson Crusoe. “Frémont chasing buffalo, Galahad Carson reclaiming the orphaned boy’s horses from the Indians, Odysseus (Alexis) Godey riding charge against hordes of the red butchers — there was here a spectacle that fed the nation’s deepest need,” wrote historian Bernard de Voto. Frémont was instantly famous, his name synonymous with the lure of the West romanticized by James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, and Washington Irving’s Adventures of Captain Bonneville. John and Jessie were the toast of Washington, their book a bestseller blending scientific detail with frontier gossip.

Jessie waited in Washington, while John’s next expedition traversed the Mojave Desert, finally reaching the oasis of spring-fed meadows the Spanish called Las Vegas. The report from that expedition was three times longer and even more readable than the first, a literary adventure story filled with descriptions of natural beauty, tales of hardship and strife, and riveting human-interest anecdotes. This was an even more sensational bestseller, bringing international attention to the explorer whom his admirers had dubbed the Pathfinder. “Handsome Frémont and beautiful Jessie were everything a growing nation needed for a symbol of success, and the country was not to see this combination of youth and daring again until the later cults of hero worship for George and Elizabeth Custer, Charles and Anne Lindbergh, or John and Jacqueline Kennedy,” wrote one historian.

Frémont became both symbol and manifestation of American expansion, his exploits elevated to a par with such mythic figures as Captain Cook and Coronado. Frémont had proved that the continent could be traveled and populated from sea to sea, and his report would serve as a guide for thousands of westward emigrants, delineating prime locations where new settlements could be built and crops could be raised.

There followed several more expeditions — a series of partings and reunions for John and Jessie. As became a pattern in their marriage, a hero’s welcome and a round of public festivities greeted each of his returns as the couple geared up for their next literary collaboration. John was a superstar — the capital alive with talk of his adventures in California and Oregon, the Rockies and the Great Basin, the Sierra Nevada, and the Great Salt Lake — and invitations, letters, and requests for information besieged the attractive young couple.

But John’s service in the Mexican-American War and his conquest of California — the plum of Manifest Destiny — would earn for him neither the eminence nor the fortune that might have been expected. Instead, in 1847 he would face charges of mutiny and insubordination, the result of a power struggle between Army General Stephen Watts Kearny and Navy Commodore Robert Field Stockton. Still, he would be named the military governor of California after the Mexican surrender of the territory, only to be found guilty by a jury and quickly pardoned by President James K. Polk. Often compared to the prosecution of Aaron Burr on charges of treason, Frémont’s was one of the most dramatic court martial trials in U.S. history.

All the while, Jessie stood resolutely beside him, and the two never forgave the government for what they saw as a betrayal. John resigned his Army commission, and the couple set their sights on California. John’s tales of the golden landscape — he had discovered and named the “Golden Gate” — depicting a veritable Garden of Eden, enticed Jessie and everyone else with whom he engaged. They moved with their two small children into a hacienda in Monterey, where they became involved in antislavery and statehood politics, and in 1850 John became one of California’s first U.S. senators. Though a confessed Free-Soil Democrat, John was not overtly political, and was widely seen as a creature of Jessie’s own ambition — objectives she could fulfill only through her husband, constrained as she was by societal and cultural limitations on women.


‘Give us Jessie!’

Five years later, Jessie and John had been married for 13 years. They had made millions of dollars in gold mines. She had given birth to four children and buried two, and was pregnant with her fifth. They had traveled across the continent numerous times, alone and together, and experienced what one biographer called the “peaks of glory” and the “valleys of despair.” But that spring of 1855, John was being recruited by the new and radically progressive Republican Party to be the first presidential candidate to challenge slavery. By that fall, the viability of his candidacy was so promising that Jessie and John moved to New York City. The campaign marked the first time in American history that women were drawn into the political process. The “Frémont and Jessie” campaign, as it became known, inspired thousands to take to the streets, and their zeal for Jessie was palpable. Seen as a full-fledged partner in her husband’s pursuits, she became an overnight heroine to women who had been disenfranchised since the nation’s inception. Jessie straddled the boundaries of Victorian society — outspoken but polite, irreverent but tactful, opinionated but respectful — a woman so far ahead of her time that other women flocked to her.

A devoted wife, dutiful daughter, engaged mother, and clear-minded intellectual, the 31-year-old was the embodiment of womanly virtue and feminine power. More than anyone, she recognized her abilities and the limitations imposed upon her by society and culture. She once paraphrased Portia from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “Should I not be stronger than my sex/Being so Fathered and so Husbanded?” Still, she remained self-deprecating and deferential to both her father and her husband, whom she regarded as heroes of mythic proportions. That she was young, beautiful, well-bred, refined, educated, and rich further enhanced her aura. “She had seen much of the world, and knew men, cities, politics, and literature,” a biographer described her. “Vivacious, keenly interested in life, quick to measure others, strong in her dislikes, stronger in her likes, with a delightful combination of poise and animation.”

John traveled frequently to Washington, while Jessie covertly strategized, ever sensitive to the potential backlash of operating beyond her womanly sphere. She turned childrearing over to the two maids she brought to the U.S. from France, and gave her full attention to the political matters at hand. The adulation of Jessie began within a week of John’s nomination, when a massive crowd gathered at the New York Tabernacle to welcome the first Republican presidential candidate. But when John appeared on the balcony to speak, the enthusiastic shouting drowned his words, calling “Jessie! Jessie! Give us Jessie!”

Never before had a candidate’s wife been called to appear in public. When Jessie finally came onto the balcony, the crowd went wild — a hint of the coming summer of 1856, when processions miles long cheered for Jessie and John in the national campaign. Sixty-thousand people accompanied by 50 bands marched in Indianapolis alone. Women poured into the streets wearing violet-colored dresses in honor of Jessie’s favorite flower and color.

She eschewed social engagements, writing a friend that when she ventured out into New York society, she found the “women were dressed within an inch of their lives and stupid as sheep.” But as Frémont’s candidacy gained momentum, as the couple became ubiquitous in New York newspaper articles, they were among the most highly sought-after invitees. Jessie viewed it all with a healthy nonchalance, accustomed as she had long been to the sycophantic whirlwind that attended social and political celebrities. “Just here & just now I am quite the fashion — 5th Avenue asks itself, ‘Have we a Presidentess among us’ — and as I wear fine lace and purple I am in their eyes capable of filling the place.”

Equal rights for women remained a far-off ideal, but activists in both the suffragist and antislavery movements pinned their hopes for the future on the nascent Republican Party. In one of the stormiest campaigns in American history to that point, Jessie was the behind-the-scenes manager every step of the way — a fact the Democrats exploited to suggest she “wore the pants” in the family. In one of the dirtiest campaigns, the Democrats — led by her father Benton, who actively supported John’s rival, James Buchanan —smeared the Frémonts for their abolitionist and progressive beliefs, as well as their broad-minded lifestyle. In the end, the new party had neither the money nor the political machine to fight back, and Buchanan won by 1.8 million votes to Frémont’s 1.3 million. The campaign was the death knell to the triangulated relationship between the Frémonts and Jessie’s father, a family breach that would never be restored.

Jessie Benton Frémont was unquestionably a political animal, as schooled to be president as any man. Yet she could not even vote. All the while, she struggled to operate within the bounds of acceptable female behavior. As shrewd and ambitious, brilliant and idealistic as she was, her life and fortune were constrained, or dictated, by the era in which she lived. Viewed historically as merely the wife of a gifted adventurer and daughter of a larger-than-life politician, she was, in fact, an indomitable political force in her own right, with a mental acuity and emotional toughness more commonly associated at the time with the “stronger sex.” When President Abraham Lincoln made John a Union commander of the Western Department, Jessie was eager to play a role in the war, ever passionate about slavery and the union, and threw herself headlong into an advisory role to her husband. She earned the unflattering sobriquet of “General Jessie” — famously derided by Lincoln as a “female politician”— while elevating her legacy into the position of military and political strategist and national best-selling author of a book and nearly a hundred magazine articles.

“She could not trek across the wilderness with Indian scouts and Kit Carson, run for President, or command a Civil War department,” wrote one scholar, but she “created opportunities for herself by acting as her husband’s strategist and, later, as the chronicler of their history.” Still, she has been grossly misunderstood and chauvinistically demeaned, her motives distrusted, her assertiveness ridiculed, and her candor called into question. She was a woman caught in the crossfire of men whom history has designated as “great,” men whose competition and vanity, ambition and pride restricted her as she tried to influence the major events of her time.

“‘For man is man and master of his fate,’” Jessie once wistfully quoted the poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson, in a letter to a friend. “That is poetry,” she added. “When one is not man but woman, you follow in the wake of both man and fate, and the prose of life proves one does not so easily be ‘master’ of fate.”

Sally Denton is an investigative reporter, author, and historian. Her next book is titled All the Pretty Girls, and Me: A Memoir of Murder.