Congress has the opportunity to put politics aside and recognize a woman who, 150-years ago, advocated an extraordinary concept… that Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias be protected in their natural state as a public park for all time.
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The Yosemite Grant, signed by President Abraham Lincoln in June 1864 at the height of the Civil War, was the first act by any government to preserve wild land in its natural condition for the people.
It was a remarkable, untried idea, proposed in part by an equally remarkable woman. That Jessie Benton Frémont was principally involved in advancing the idea to save Yosemite before it was destroyed, is well established.
A figure no less influential than Galen Clark (Yosemite’s first protector) wrote in his 1880 Reminisences that Jessie and Israel Ward Raymond were the two “most active workers” to preserve Yosemite. Similarly, the Sierra Club identified Galen Clark as crediting Jessie Benton Frémont as being “the one person most responsible for the Yosemite Land Grant.”
However, few of Jessie’s biographers and no public record then noted the significance of her involvement in getting the Yosemite Grant approved. Only in recent years have historians woven together her personal letters, meetings hosted by her, writings by others that she met and corresponding actions taken by those with whom she met to establish the significance of her role in advocating for and influencing approval of the Yosemite Grant.
In May 2012 this column described nascent efforts being considered to commemorate Jessie’s role in preserving Yosemite. Congressman Tom McClintock made them concrete by authoring HR 1192 to rename Mammoth Peak within Yosemite National Park, Mount Jessie Benton Frémont.
One would think renaming an obscure and confusing peak within Yosemite National Park would be a slam dunk… that everyone would rise in support of recognizing a woman who had worked to advance the idea of preserving Yosemite long before John Muir had even stepped foot in California.
After all, several of the men most involved in promoting the Yosemite Grant have had mountain peaks named after them, including Galen Clark (Mount Clark), Israel Ward Raymond (Mount Raymond), U.S. Sen. John Conness (Mount Conness), and Thomas Starr King (Mount Starr King).
Then, this past month during an informational hearing about HR1192, Victor Knox, associate director of the National Park Service expressed his agency’s opposition to renaming the peak, admitting that while “Jessie Benton Frémont was an important figure in the advocacy for and the establishment of the Yosemite Grant,” the NPS was opposed because “there is no direct or long-term association between her work and Mammoth Peak.”
Huh?! Had it not been for Jessie’s advocacy there would be no Yosemite National Park. Yet, the NPS finds no direct or long-term association between what she did and the national park? Then, what direct or long-term association did Clark, Raymond, Conness, Starr King or any of the many men from that time and later years have with the Yosemite peaks named after them? She did as much as they did. The only difference was that she was a woman living in the 1800s.
There’s been a lot of hyperbole about the “War Against Women,” though in the 1800s there really was a war against women. They could not vote or hold office. John Henneberger, National Park Service historian and one of its former associate directors, described Jessie’s role as, “that of a catalyst and muse, prodding and encouraging such men as Bret Harte and Thomas Starr King to write and speak as she could not in a period when women were expected to inspire rather than create.”
Jessie got men to act by convincing them, during weekly “salons” that she hosted in the Frémont’s San Francisco home, that Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoia must be saved.
Thomas Starr King, who attended many of those sessions, observed Jessie lobbying the all powerful and wrote, “She is sublime and carries guns enough to be formidable to a whole cabinet… thoroughly sheathed, carrying fire in genuine Benton furnaces.” President Abraham Lincoln gave her the ultimate compliment, for that time, by admitting, “You’re quite a female politician.”
In a letter to Congressman McClintock, Kris Payne, president of the El Dorado County Historical Society wrote, “Jessie made many contributions, including her personal and political connections, to protect Yosemite Valley and what became the Mariposa Grove. One of the most important was to recognize the need to preserve the land that would become Yosemite National Park.”
Indeed, historian, author and Pulitzer Prize nominee Craig McDonald 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 impetus necessary to establish national parks?”
John Bickell of Roll Call went further crediting her contributions to Yosemite and the West as going to the heart of how we understand and appreciate the natural world, which he concluded is, “worth a mountain.” However, Bickell also pointed out that neither Republicans nor Democrats seem capable of restraining themselves from politicizing HR 1192: a Republican saying Democrats wouldn’t support it because Jessie was the wife of the first Republican presidential candidate, and a Democrat saying the bill was a lame attempt by Republicans to curry favor with female voters.
Neither is accurate, and both are deplorable. Jack and Laila Nilles of Los Angeles wrote to Rep. McClintock that, “Jessie Benton Frémont’s own history shows that it’s possible for Democrats and Republicans to work together in the national interest.
In her memory, it’s time to put politics aside and at last recognize what Jessie Benton Frémont did to preserve Yosemite. Please write to U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock and to U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer today, urging them to support HR 1192. It’s time this nation recognizes what she did by naming a mountain peak after her, just as it did for the men she convinced to preserve Yosemite.
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.