John and Jessie went hand in hand with Western expansion.
Sally Denton focuses on an early American power couple in her latest book, switching gears from writing about the Mormons to address the story of Manifest Destiny. Passion and Principle: John and Jessie Frémont, the Couple Whose Power, Politics and Love Shaped Nineteenth-Century America (Bloomsbury USA, New York, 2007, $32.50) makes for good reading anytime, but particularly in a presidential election year.
John C. Frémont, born out of a steamy love affair between French émigré Jean Charles Fremon (who would later accent the E and add a T) and a very married Anne Beverley Whiting, nevertheless became a protégé of both Joel Poinsett, who served as minister to Mexico under President John Quincy Adams and later became secretary of war, and Joseph Nicolas Nicollet, a respected French astronomer. With their assistance, Frémont joined the cadre of topographical engineers who would explore and map the United States. Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri came to champion John and Western expansion, although he at first made every effort to keep the 27-year-old explorer away from his beautiful 15-year-old daughter. John and Jessie’s married life began in defiance and was marked by that trait over the next 50 years. He moved into explorations, the midst of the Bear Flag Revolt and national politics as a candidate for U.S. president in 1856. She supported him, taking on presidents in her effort to realize their passion for an extended country and opposition to slavery.
Denton is also the author of Faith and Betrayal: A Pioneer Woman’s Passage in the American West, about her great-great-grandmother Jean Rio’s emigration to America as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; and American Massacre, an award-winning book about the infamous September 1857 massacre of the Fancher wagon train at Mountain Meadows, Utah Territory. Denton recently spoke with Wild West about her work.
What drew you to the story of Jean Rio?
When I was a little girl, I heard stories about how my great-great-grandmother brought the first piano into the intermountain American West by wagon train in 1851. The piano had been crated, the crate dipped in tar to make it waterproof for the ocean and river crossings. I was always intrigued by the story and the fact that Jean Rio had left a remarkable diary. I suppose I always intended to write her story at some point in my life.
Is her story illustrative of other Mormon women?
Jean Rio’s story is less representative than those of most Mormon women emigrants, in that she was a 40-year-old widow and mother of six when she decided to leave England and make her way to Utah. Also, she was extremely wealthy, which set her apart. Further, because she had already been “sealed for eternity” to her first husband before he died in London, she was not pressured to take a new husband in Utah. Most women immigrating to “Zion” in the mid-19th century were young, unmarried and from poor Scandinavian and English families.
Did Jessie Frémont and Jean Rio share common experiences?
I’ve never really thought about this before, but it’s a very interesting question. Though they were only 14 years apart in age, they seem worlds apart in experiences…but in actuality, maybe they weren’t that different. Jean Rio was raised in aristocratic English society, which was staid and stifling, and she was drawn to Mormonism and America because it seemed exciting and promising and intellectually stimulating. Jessie was raised in upper-crust American “society,” such as it was, in the world of raucous Washington and Missouri politics combined with the Victorian gentility of Virginia. Both women were highly intelligent, far more educated than their peers and possessed a keen curiosity and commitment to intellectual pursuits. And, especially, both found ways to pursue meaningful lives while operating within the restricted spheres dictated by 19th-century society, politics and culture.
Were they too progressive for the times in which they lived?
I don’t think so. I think they each figured out how to maneuver relatively successfully in a man’s world. Each was faced with larger-than-life tragedies and obstacles, and each dug deep within herself to find the fortitude and tenacity to not just endure, but thrive. They are both great examples for women and men today.
Did their independent attitudes set them apart from other women?
Actually, neither Jessie nor Jean Rio could be described as traditional feminists. There is no indication that Jean Rio actually stood up to the Mormon patriarchy she found in Utah; rather, she fulfilled her role as mother, and as soon as the first opportunity arose, she seized it and moved out of Zion and away from the church. Jessie, too, was careful to wield her personal power from behind the scenes, in support of her husband and father, and in fact was severely criticized by contemporary feminists for her refusal to support women’s rights. Both women found that they were better able to exert influence and live independent lives by operating within their designated spheres.
Did their attitudes play well within their families?
Jean Rio and Jessie Benton Frémont were each adored by their families, who were stunned by their intellectual capacity, emotional strength and physical courage.
Was Jessie able to juggle her many roles?
Like many women, she seemed to have the ability to juggle her many roles effortlessly. She had a very keen mind and was exceedingly affectionate and loving. She adored motherhood, was absolutely crazy about her husband, thoroughly devoted to her father and eager to have the intellectual outlet as collaborator with John.
To what do you attribute her tenacity?
Breeding, breeding, breeding. Her father, Senator Thomas Hart Benton, was a solid, brilliant, demanding, disciplined and expansive character. He raised her to be president, apparently forgetting that she would not even be able to vote in her lifetime.
Whose story—Jessie’s or John’s—first drew you to the Frémonts?
Initially, I was attracted to Jessie. I had read Irving Stone’s wonderful novel about her when I was a child, and I always thought she was the most fascinating woman. Especially all of her adventures back and forth between the East and West coasts. As a little girl growing up in Nevada, I idolized the pluck and courage she showed.
Why deal with them as a power couple rather than individuals?
Once I began researching her life, it became clear to me that she and John were really inseparable. It also became clear that John had been terribly mistreated as a historical subject, and I found myself drawn more to him as a character than I had expected. They had clearly found a way to have an equal partnership in their marriage that was highly unusual for their era—or any era for that matter.
How did John Frémont manage to lead a fifth expedition into the West, even though his men became stranded in Colorado on the fourth expedition?
Still determined to find a transcontinental route along the 38th parallel—which he had been passionately promoting for years—Senator Benton arranged for financing from several of his political cronies for a fifth and final expedition for Frémont. It would be the only time in American history when an explorer had undertaken a major expedition without government funding.
What accounts for John Frémont’s perseverance and drive?
While John Frémont was a man of great emotional depth, intellectual prowess and physical dexterity, he could not possibly have survived all the failures and disappointments without the support of his wife and his father-in-law. Indeed, without the encouragement and political passion of Jessie and Benton, John Frémont would probably have lived a quiet scientist’s or artist’s life of exploration and outdoor enjoyment. He was sensitive and contemplative and loved the simple pleasures of horseback riding, hiking, gathering mushrooms and charting the night sky. John was certainly a passionate abolitionist, but the political drive and ambition that marked his life was wholly driven by Jessie and Senator Benton.
Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.