My life has now come full circle. When I was a child, biographies were my favorite type of reading. And no one captured my imagination more than Jessie Benton Fremont. “Jessie who?” you ask. Jessie Benton Fremont — wife, mother, adventuress, writer and, in the words of Yosemite's much more famous Galen Clark, probably the one person most responsible for the Yosemite Land Grant — the piece of legislation that saved Yosemite from development and was the seed from which the national park system grew.
So why have most people never heard of Jessie when her cohorts — John Muir, Galen Clark, Frederick Law Olmstead and her very famous husband, John C. Fremont — fill the history books? Beats me. Her life reads like a novel — a good one.
Born to wealth and influence, Jessie was the daughter of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, the father of America's policy of Manifest Destiny. It was another kind of manifest destiny that brought John Fremont into her life. Younger than him by eleven years, Jessie was only fifteen when she met the dashing Fremont through her father. When she eloped at 16, her parents were horrified and refused to have anything to do with her.
For John Fremont, it would be the best decision of his life. He would become, as the comedian Danny Kaye once said of himself, a wife-made man. Brave and adventurous with a scientific mind and an aptitude for mapmaking, Fremont led five expeditions through America's western wilderness in the 1830s and 40s (some of them paid for by his father-in-law with whom he and Jessie had reconciled). Over the course of his lifetime, he was a Gold Rush millionaire, one of California's first senators and the first Republican presidential candidate ever, preceding Abraham Lincoln by four years and paving the way for Lincoln's anti-slavery leanings. But as much success as Fremont saw flow his way, he experienced just as many failures.
He was court-martialed by the army (for declaring himself the first governor of California), exonerated but later removed from command as a general in the Union Army after only 100 days (when he began freeing slaves long before Lincoln decided it was a good idea). Railroad schemes led to the loss of all his money and although he was governor of the Arizona Territories when he died, he was also a pauper. Through it all, Jessie was his most steadfast supporter; anything John lacked the talent for became Jessie’s area of expertise.
When John struggled to chronicle his Western explorations for Congress, Jessie did it for him, causing one wit to note that Fremont was one of those writers who “acquired by marriage a very attractive literary style.” When his schemes resulted in the loss of all their money, Jessie supported the family through her writings. One of her favorite topics was Yosemite. Her popular essays helped to put it into the national consciousness, although she referred to her stories as “harmless puddings.” What was not harmless pudding was Jessie’s flagrant use of connections (most notably her father) to change people’s perceptions of her husband and of the Yosemite region.
Living in the area of San Francisco now known as Fort Mason, Jessie held a weekly salon, attended by everyone from Herman Melville to Bret Harte. Regular guests included the Yosemite photographer Carlton Watkins, Starr King, Frederick Law Olmstead and Israel Ward Raymond and it was these men, along with Jessie, who began America’s first serious conservation effort, lobbying Congress and President Lincoln in hopes of preserving Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees. As with so much in her life, Jessie prevailed and then took little, if any, personal credit.
This spring, my daughter and 30 other fifth through eighth graders will take part in a recreation of history at Yosemite's Pioneer Village in Wawona. Part of the program includes taking on the persona of an individual who influenced the history of Yosemite. At the parents' training last September, I was assigned to be — you guessed it — Jessie Benton Fremont. Maybe it was chance or maybe the training leaders thought, “You're a writer, she was a writer. Good fit.” Whichever way it happened, I felt honored. If my writings about Yosemite find an audience, it's because Jessie is my secret muse. As her husband hopefully said countless times, “Thanks, Jessie.”
-- Jamie Simons/Photos credit: Kenny Karst for Delaware North Companies, Inc.
In May 2009, while hiking in Yosemite National Park, long-time Los Angeles resident Jamie Simons turned to her husband and said, "I want to live here." Jamie and her family have since lived in the park. Check out all of her blog articles by clicking here.