Privileged, headstrong, and in love with an “unsuitable” man, Jessie Benton—the daughter of powerful U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton—defied her parents to elope with John Charles Fremont in October, 1841, when she was 17. Jessie had grown up close to her father; under his tutelage she became well versed in social structure, politics, history, literature and languages, unusual for young ladies of the period. At first enraged by Jessie’s marriage to an obscure junior Army officer, Senator Benton finally accepted the match. Later, he used his considerable influence to promote his son-in-law’s career as an explorer in the American West, arranging official expeditions that brought Fremont national fame. Jessie willingly took on the role as her husband’s recorder, editing his field notes into best-selling stories of his adventures. When Fremont ran for President in 1856, Jessie was the first presidential candidate’s wife to play a part in a political campaign, inspiring the slogan “Fremont and Jessie too” at rallies. Later, with the gold mined from their Mariposa County ranchlands, the couple held a prominent place in San Francisco society for a time. At the start of the Civil War, when John was awarded a military command by President Lincoln, they moved to his new headquarters in St. Louis. Jessie was active in the Western Sanitary Commission, which provided nursing and medicines to injured soldiers; but due to his unauthorized actions, John was soon relieved of his command. Hard times followed: John Fremont lost most of the family’s wealth in failed investments, and the rest of it in the Panic of 1873. On the edge of financial ruin in 1878, John secured an appointment as governor of Arizona Territory, at a salary of $2,000 a year. He served from June 12, 1878, until March 8, 1882. (Although the Fremonts were initially graciously received in Prescott, John’s neglect of his duties made him so unpopular that he was finally asked to resign.) Through it all, Jessie’s devotion to him never wavered. Instead she wrote books, articles, and children’s stories to help support the family. Jessie died at the family home in Los Angeles on December 27, 1902, surviving her husband by 13 years. March is National Women’s History Month.
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