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Jessie Fremont, a Trailblazer in Her Own Right

October 13, 1985|WILLIAM S. MURPHY

John Charles Fremont was to remain a controversial figure throughout his life, but through all his travails his wife, Jessie, daughter of the powerful Democratic Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, remained his staunchest supporter.

From 1838-39 Fremont served as an assistant on a surveying expedition between the upper Mississippi River and the Missouri. His work came to the attention of Sen. Benton who invited him to his house where Fremont met Jessie, then 16. It was love at first sight.

The senator was angered when he learned of his daughter's infatuation, for he considered a lowly army engineer a poor match. The couple eloped in 1841. When they confronted Benton with the news of their marriage, an angry scene followed.

Words of Ruth

It was at this point that Jessie invoked the words of Ruth, and it was a story she was fond of retelling in later years. Standing beside her husband, she declared:

"Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God!"

The senator relented. Fremont moved into the house. In 1842, Fremont led an expedition to the Rocky Mountains, and the next year he went to Oregon, later crossing the Sierras into Mexican California. This second expedition would have been aborted before it began had it not been for Jessie Fremont's determination that it succeed. She was already exhibiting a talent as a writer, transforming her husband's dull topographical reports into prose that was to later excite the nation.

Jessie accompanied her husband to St. Louis where she remained while he went on to Kaw Landing, now Kansas City. Here his men gathered to make final preparations for the long march.

Jessie was serving as the expedition's secretary, receiving all mail at St. Louis and forwarding what she considered important to her husband at the staging area. Here she opened a document containing upsetting news. In an article she wrote in 1891 for Century magazine, Jessie described how she reacted:

"One day there came for him an official letter from his colonel, the chief of the Topographical Bureau; it was an order recalling him to Washington, whither he was directed to return and explain why he had armed his party with a howitzer; saying that it was a scientific, not a military expedition, and should not have been so armed. I saw at once that this would make delays which would involve the overthrow of great plans, and I felt there was a hidden hand at work. . . . I wrote Mr. Fremont that he must not ask why, but must start at once, ready or not ready. The animals could rest and fatten at Bent's Fort. Only GO. There was a reason, but he could not know it; my father would take care of everything. And as we acted together unquestionably, he did go immediately. . . ."

Jessie wrote the colonel what she had done, explaining "that the country of the Blackfeet and other fierce tribes had to be crossed, and that the Indians knew nothing of the rights of science, but fought all whites; that these tribes were in number and the party not 50 men, therefore the howitzer was necessary. . . ."

As Jessie later recalled: " . . . I had no hesitation in risking for him all consequences. Upon this second expedition hinged great results. It made California known in a way which roused and enlisted our people and led directly to its being acquired during the third expedition (that of 1846-47). . . ."

Fremont had many friends in California. Following the discovery of gold, a constitutional convention was held at Monterey on Oct. 2, 1849 to establish a civil government. Delegates drew up a constitution and legislative machinery was established. Peter H. Burnett, a Democrat, was elected the first governor and the legislature selected two U.S. senators before statehood was ratified by Congress and President Millard Fillmore signed the bill Sept. 9, 1850. One was William M. Gwin, a former Southerner, and the other was John C. Fremont, the famed Pathfinder. He served until 1851.

In 1856, Fremont was the first Republican candidate for President, but lost the election to James Buchanan. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Fremont returned to the army as a major-general. He was given command of the Western Department headquartered at St. Louis, but his militant policy against slaveholders led to his removal.

Fremont lost his fortune in a railroad venture during 1870. Jessie had become an established author, supporting her husband with her literary earnings.

On July 13, 1890, he died unexpectedly of peritonitis in a New York rooming house. Jessie was in Los Angeles at the time. She outlived her husband by 12 years, residing in Los Angeles, with her daughter, Elizabeth. Jessie wrote several books, and contributed to numerous magazines. In 1890, the women of Los Angeles presented her with an attractive cottage at 28th and Hoover streets. She died there at the age of 78 on Dec. 27, 1902. Her obituary published in The Times the following day read in part:

" . . . the brilliant and beautiful woman so long associated with the early history of the state is no more. Only a memory is left of her beauty, her wit, her gracious use of power, her influence for good. . . ."

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