If ever California had a heroine that history overlooked, it was Jessie Benton Frémont.
You won’t find her name memorialized on peaks, streams or towns. Yet, if not for Jessie Benton Frémont, the west may not have been settled as it was, slaves may not have been freed as they were or Yosemite preserved as it is.
A movement is under way to right that omission. This past month, the El Dorado County Historical Society joined other historians to petition that Yosemite National Park name its southwest entrance near the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, which Jessie helped preserve, after her.
Jessie Benton Frémont’s life (1824-1902) spanned a period of exploration, expansion, conscience, war and awareness. As the daughter of Missouri Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, a leading proponent of “Manifest Destiny” which advocated the nation expanding its borders west and one of the most powerful Democrats in the U.S. Senate, her library was the Library of Congress, she grew up listening to William Clark tell stories of his travels with Meriwether Lewis, and she received an education few men in the 1830s could claim. She became fluent in French and Spanish, was a gifted writer and was at ease in any political discussion.
At 16, Jessie – who was beautiful and had many suitors – eloped with a handsome, yet star-crossed Army lieutenant who had a job as romantic then, as any astronaut’s. Her lover was the dashing John C. Frémont who was assigned to explore the West. Accompanied by scout and mountain man, Kit Carson, Frémont led epic journeys to survey the frontier.
However, upon his return from those treks, Frémont was unable to describe on paper what he’d done or seen. Jessie coaxed it from him and transformed his descriptions into prose so compelling that they became best-selling books, used by pioneers to guide their route west. John W. Caughey observed wryly, that Lt. Frémont had “acquired by marriage a very attractive literary style.”
The reports she ghost wrote for her husband made him and Carson mythic folk heroes. Soon, the connected, gorgeous Jessie and her romantic explorer husband were the toast of society with fame that, in comparison, transcended that of today’s celebrity couples.
In 1849, Jessie traveled to California, crossing the Isthmus of Panama, to join her husband at their Mariposa ranch upon which gold had been discovered. Frémont then served briefly as one of California’s first two U.S. senators and, in 1856, became the first Republican candidate for president, proposing to abolish slavery. Unusual for a woman then, Jessie was very involved in her husband’s campaign. She was so popular that one slogan read, “Fremont and Jessie too.” Had he won Pennsylvania, she would have been First Lady and so influential that many believed she would have served, effectively, as the first female president.
Thereafter, intellectual luminaries of the day traveled to meet the Frémonts at their homes in San Francisco and on their Bear Valley Ranch in Mariposa County during the 1850s and early ‘60s. It was in her parlors that Jessie spoke of the moral imperative of abolishing slavery and introduced the noble and novel idea of saving the still unspoiled wonders of Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias for posterity.
Through those parlor discussions and trips to the Yosemite, she influenced such men as Horace Greeley, Thomas Starr King, Richard Henry Dana Jr., Carleton Watkins and U.S. Senator Edward Baker to join her, Galen Clark and Sen. John Conness in influencing Congress and President Abraham Lincoln to set aside Yosemite and its Giant Sequoias, what today comprises the heart of Yosemite National Park.
In 1864, at the height of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant, the first instance of land being set aside specifically for its preservation and public use by a national government.
It was an extraordinary idea, proposed in extraordinary times, in part by an extraordinary woman. Historian Craig MacDonald asked, “If not for what she did behind the scene, would there be a Yosemite National Park today, would John Muir have been drawn to the valley because of the attention given it by its protection, would there even have been the foundation necessary to lead to establishing national parks?”
The Yosemite Grant set the foundation not only for the national parks, but for the California state parks, as well. Still, today, the words “Since 1864” are inscribed on the state park symbol. In El Dorado County, Emerald Bay State Park, D.L. Bliss State Park, Marshall Gold Discovery State Park, Washoe Meadows State Park and Ed Z’Berg Sugar Pt. Pine State Park remind us of what this heroine helped set in motion.
Many of the men who were influenced by Jessie Benton Frémont to act are remembered today on Yosemite peaks, but not Jessie. She brokered power and influence, but sought no recognition in return. Behind-the-scene contributions by women, such as Jessie, were often overlooked because they lacked the ability to hold public office and their advocacy was not on the public record, but hidden in private meetings and correspondence, seen only by historians.
Those attempting to right this omission have asked Yosemite’s superintendent to name the park’s southwest entrance station (now being improved) after her. However, the park superintendent has no direct say over the naming of features within the park. That is left to a commission, and the process of naming mountain tops and federal buildings is lengthy and often frustrating. A more effective approach is to petition Congress.
Starting in 2013, El Dorado County’s Congressional District 4, held by Rep. Tom McClintock, will include Yosemite National Park. Fortunately, for those seeking overdue recognition for Jessie Benton Frémont, Rep. McClintock is the right man to get her recognized. He is a member of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, but more than that, he has a personal interest in history, particularly that of California and our country.
Few frontier women matched her power, respect, reputation or influence. So, it is surprising that she is little remembered today. The best opportunity to correct that is to petition Congressman McClintock that a feature within Yosemite National Park be named in honor of Jessie Benton Frémont. To do so, visit mcclintock.house.gov/contact.
Jessie Benton Frémont spoke and wrote to guide emigrants through the frontier, to free slaves and to preserve Yosemite for posterity. Let’s speak and write to memorialize this overlooked heroine’s contributions to our country.
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.