Famous Women—An Interview with Professor Donald Elder—Jessie Benton Fremont

Apr 27, 2018 by

Jessie Benton Fremont

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Professor Elder, we have all heard the saying “Behind every successful man is a woman” and this is especially true in the case of Jessie Benton Fremont.  She was apparently the driving and motivating force behind her husband, John C. Fremont and his exciting westward explorations. When and where did this person grow up and how and when did she meet and marry John C. Fremont?

Jessie Benton was born on May 31, 1824, in Lexington, Virginia into a politically powerful family. Three years before her birth, the Missouri state legislature had chosen her father to represent the state in the US Senate, and her uncle would soon become the governor of Virginia. According to a family legend, her father had wanted a boy, and planned to name his first-born child Jesse. With the birth of a daughter, he simply changed the name to Jessie, and then tried to raise her as a son.

Accordingly, he took her with him as him made his rounds in Washington DC to carry out his duties as a senator. This gave Jessie insights into the political realm that few other females at the time had the chance to gain.

For her formal education, her parents enrolled her in a female seminary located in the Washington DC suburb of Georgetown. At the age of 16, her father brought a US Army lieutenant named John C. Fremont to their house for a visit. Fremont had just returned from an expedition to explore the territory between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, and because of Senator Benton’s position on the military affairs committee he wanted to find out what Fremont had learned.

By all accounts, Jessie and John immediately fell for each other, and Fremont soon asked Jessie’s parents for their permission to marry her. Her parents did not give their blessing, however.

Undoubtedly, Jessie’s age had something to do with their opposition, and Fremont’s lowly status in the US Army probably added to the senator’s opposition to the union. His stance may well have led him at that point to exert influence on the US Army to send Fremont to present-day Iowa to explore the Des Moines River. This imposed absence did not diminish the affection the couple had for each other, and upon his return from his expedition the two decided to elope on October 19, 1841.

Senator Benton initially refused to have anything to do with the newlyweds, but eventually relented. Indeed, he would become a powerful proponent for his son-in-law.

  1. Apparently she took copious notes about his travels and turned them into excellent books. What were the names of some of these books and how did they impact America?

As previously noted, before his wedding Fremont had extensive experience exploring territory on the American frontier. Soon after his wedding, Fremont received orders to explore the territory along the route of the Oregon Trail. Fremont had already established himself as a keen observer of his surroundings, and when he returned from his expedition in 1842 he brought with him detailed journals.

At this point, Jessie offered to help turn his findings into a more readable form. She admirably succeeded in this task, and in 1843 newspapers across the country published their joint work as the Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains. This established a pattern of the two working together to create literary works detailing his exploring expeditions.

Interestingly, Jessie would write many books in her lifetime, but the first of these would not appear until 1863. Until then, her works appeared solely in newspapers and magazines.

  1. Further, she seemed to be a public relations person of sorts and brought fame to her husband. Do you have any details?

Jessie Benton Fremont became her husband’s champion shortly after their marriage through her writings, and she publicly and privately remained steadfast in her support of him for the rest of her life. This first became apparent in 1848, when she defended her husband as he faced a court-martial for his actions in California during the Mexican-American War. Her work continued on his behalf in 1856, when her husband became the first Republican candidate for president.

During the Civil War, Fremont initially commanded Union forces in Missouri, but Lincoln removed him because of Fremont’s attempt to abolish slavery there in the fall of 1861. Deeming Fremont’s actions premature, Lincoln removed him from command, and Jessie personally lobbied Lincoln to reinstate her husband. Lincoln refused, and Jessi responded by publishing a book that defended her husband’s actions.

Fremont never regained the reputation that he had enjoyed during his years as an explorer, but what positive feelings that the American people had towards him owed largely to the flattering accounts that Jessie had written about him.

  1. Lastly, she was somewhat of an activist. What was she advocating for or involved with?

Jessie Benton Fremont is primarily remembered today for the role that she played in her husband’s career, but she also deserves recognition for activities that she engaged in on her own.

For example, during the Civil War she became involved in providing for the welfare of Union soldiers. At the start of that conflict, the US military had great trouble providing adequate care for sick and wounded soldiers. Because of this deficiency, many Northern civilians began to fill the void by creating aid societies. Because her husband commanded troops in the Western theater of operations, Jessie became involved in one of these organizations known as the Western Sanitary Commission.

In the beginning, this group focused solely on giving aid to sick and wounded soldiers, but towards the end of the Civil War the agency expanded its mission to include providing for the needs of newly freed African-Americans. Thus, with the possible exception of Harriet Tubman, Jessie Benton Fremont had the greatest impact on the lives of African-Americans of any female until Rosa Parks took her courageous stand in the 1950s.

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