Notably remembered for being the daughter of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton and the wife of military officer, explorer and politician, John C. Frémont, she wrote many stories that were printed in popular magazines of the time as well as several books of historical value. Her writings, which helped support her family during times of financial difficulty, were memoirs of her husband's, and her own, time in the American West—back when the West was an exotic frontier.
A great supporter of her husband, who was one of the first two Senators of the new U.S. state of California and a Governor of the Territory of Arizona, she was outspoken on political issues and a determined opponent of slavery, which was excluded from the formation of California. By maintaining a high level of political involvement during a period that was extremely unfavorable for women, Jessie Benton Frémont proved herself to be years ahead of her time.
Jessie was raised in Washington, D.C., more in the manner of a 19th century son than daughter, with her father, who was renowned as the "Great Expansionist," seeing to her early education and introducing her to the leading politicians of the day, an unusual thing for the period. Jessie was very close to her father and stuck by his side. He shared with her the many books and maps in the valise that always accompanied him on their trips to and from Missouri and Virginia. She began, too, to share his dream of a nation stretching from ocean to ocean. In this manner, she became well educated in the ways of social structure and the disciplines of politics, history, literature and languages.
At age 17, while studying and living at Georgetown Seminary, she met Lieutenant John C. Frémont. Later that year, despite the disapproval of her father, they eloped and were married on October 19, 1841.
A reconciliation occurred between Jessie and her father when he promoted Frémont's famous explorations of the West. Senator Benton had been persuaded by his ailing wife to accept the marriage, and the couple moved into the Benton home. Frémont left his pregnant wife behind in the spring of 1842 to lead his first expedition to mark the trails West. He returned, however, days before the birth of their eldest child, Elizabeth Benton "Lily" Frémont, who was born November 15, 1842, in Washington D.C. He then headed off again and Jessie and the baby remained behind.
Frémont became known as the "Pathfinder to the West." Jessie, intensely interested in the details of his expedition, became his recorder, making notes as he described his experiences. Adding human-interest touches to these printed reports, she wrote and edited best-selling stories of the adventures Frémont had while exploring the West with his scout, Kit Carson. Thus, she involved herself in her most happy life's work, interpreting her husband and his actions for a public eager for information about the opening of the West. Written during a time when the concept of Manifest Destiny was becoming increasingly popular, these narratives were received with great enthusiasm.
Her husband was instrumental in the conquest of California, successfully taking it from Mexico as a Territory of the United States. He served as the 3rd Military Governor, in 1847. At the time of the court-martial of Frémont, during which he attempted to defend his actions in the Bear Flag Revolt, Jessie gave birth to a son, Benton Frémont, on July 24, 1848, in Washington, D.C. The baby's death, within the year in St. Louis, she blamed on her husband's accuser, General Kearny.
In 1849, Jessie and Lily made a harrowing and treacherous journey aboard ship to join Frémont in California. After disembarking and crossing the Isthmus of Panama, they boarded another vessel to San Francisco. With income from their gold mines, the Frémonts established a home and settled into San Francisco society. As a politically informed woman, Jessie was known to get involved in city politics and discuss with the men any issues that were of importance at the time.
In 1856, Frémont's antislavery position was instrumental in his being chosen as the first-ever Republican candidate for President. Jessie played an extremely active role in the campaign, rallying support for her husband. One particular campaign slogan read, "Frémont and Jessie too." Her father, however, a lifelong Democrat, refused to endorse her husband's bid for the presidency.
Frémont garnered many Northern votes, but ultimately lost the election to James Buchanan, though he did surpass the American Party candidate, Millard Fillmore. Frémont was unable to carry the state of California. If he had taken the state of Pennsylvania he would have won.
In the years following, the couple moved around a lot, living in California, St. Louis and New York. When President Lincoln appointed Frémont as the Commander of the Department of the West in 1861, they returned to St. Louis.
Jessie served as her husband's unofficial aide and closest adviser. They shared the belief that St. Louis was unprepared for war and needed reinforcements and supplies, and both pressured Washington, to send more supplies and troops. She threw herself into the war effort, helping to organize a Soldier's Relief Society in St. Louis, and becoming very active in the Western Sanitary Commission, which provided medicine and nursing to soldiers injured in the war.
One of the most impressive feats of her political career came shortly after Frémont lost his position during the Civil War for issuing his own edict of emancipation, summarily freeing all of the slaves in Missouri, which antedated Lincoln's own Emancipation Proclamation. Jessie actually traveled to Washington, and pleaded with Lincoln on behalf of her husband, but to no avail.
After the death of her husband, the Congress, in recognition of his valued services, granted Jessie a widow's pension of $2,000 a year. In 1891, she moved into a home at the corner of 28th and Hoover Streets in Los Angeles, that was presented to her by a committee of ladies of the city as a token of their great regard. She remained in good health until about two and a half years before her death when an accident made her an invalid, but she was able to use a wheelchair and enjoy the outdoors.
Jessie Benton Frémont died at age 78 at her home in Los Angeles. A huge box of fragrant and beautiful roses were sent on December 29, 1902, by Mrs. James A. Garfield. The rites of the Episcopal Church were conducted at 10:30 a.m. on December 30, at Christ Church, on the corner of Pico and Flower Streets. She was cremated and her ashes interred in Rosedale Cemetery.