By Henry John Steiner
Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York
Years ago, I got tired of writing about prominent nineteenth century males. The women were out there somewhere, but they often operated behind the scenes. How do you write about nineteenth century women if they are required to live in the shadows of men? Jessie Benton Fremont provided an unheard of solution; she wrote about herself and her life.
This woman led a momentous, varied, and courageous life in which her finances swung between wealth and poverty. In the end, she was forced to support herself and her family by writing. Jessie spent some of her happiest years and most stressful days in Sleepy Hollow.
She was the favorite child of powerful U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton. As a child she lived a privileged life between family homes in St. Louis, Washington, and Lexington, Virginia. Jessie was frequently at the White House and familiar with the most influential figures in American politics. She had the run of the Library of Congress where the librarian often asked her for advice on new acquisitions.
Her father, Senator Benton, was very attentive to Jessie, sharing with her his dreams for the American West. By 1840, at the age of sixteen, Jessie had thoroughly adopted her father’s great political, expansionist aspirations and passions. In 1841, she made a love-match with the man who would become a prime instrument of America’s “manifest destiny,” a young army second lieutenant of little means and illegitimate birth, John C. Fremont.
Jessie was smart, pretty, determined, and madly in love with this army engineer. The lieutenant was a geographer who, when they met, had just returned to the nation’s capitol from explorations in the West. Through the influence of Jessie and her father, Fremont was to be placed in charge of his own groundbreaking western expeditions. As important as the expeditions were the reports that Jessie and Fremont produced—Fremont dictating and Jessie editing and refining. She encouraged her husband to inject his personality and feelings into these reports, rather than fashion them as dry scientific documents. The reports were widely distributed and extremely influential. Jessie’s work was uncredited.
At the outset of Fremont’s first California expedition, Jessie remained in St. Louis to relay essential correspondence to her husband’s forward, departure base. On receiving a recall ordering Fremont back to Washington, she sent a special messenger to her husband urging him to depart immediately. Fremont departed, and, as a result, he made the important survey of the Pacific coast that facilitated his conquest of California in 1846. Later, when gold was discovered in California, hoards of Americans and Europeans used the reports created by Jessie and Fremont to find their routes into the West.
Two of their children died in infancy. When Fremont was court-marshaled and resigned from the army in 1848, Jessie became one of the first U.S. women to settle in California. In 1856, Fremont ran for president and according to his biographer, ”Jessie played only a [slightly smaller] part in the campaign than her husband; ‘Fremont and Jessie’ seemed to constitute the Republican ticket…”
At the outbreak of the Civil War, President Lincoln appointed Fremont Commander of the West. Jessie was the “gatekeeper” of her husband’s headquarters at St. Louis and, later, at Wheeling, West Virginia, which earned her the derisive nickname of “General Jessie.” Lincoln referred to her unpleasantly as “a woman politician.”
Toward the end of the war, the Fremonts bought a townhouse in New York City and a country house in Sleepy Hollow. (Some dramatic modifications were made to the once stately house in the twentieth century. The photo above — taken in the 1980s — is not indicative of either its original condition or its current condition.) The estate was already named Pokahoe, a large stone house on 100 acres. It is still standing — but substantially modified— in Sleepy Hollow Manor. John Fremont first saw the estate in 1856 while visiting newspaperman James Watson Webb for the purpose of discussing Fremont’s presidential bid.
The Fremonts resided at Pokahoe from October of 1865 until early 1875. In her letters Jessie writes, “We are exactly in Sleepy Hollow….” “My visiting list for the summer is just twenty-five miles long for the Hudson is a great street and people dine and visit by rail when they are past driving limits.”
She tried to entice one visitor by writing, “We have a peaceful empty country house here—only an hour from New York, and the four in hand [carriage] I spoke of has been on duty for me and is in full train for you if you would come. This is one of the most healthy of places—an old pine and hemlock forest growth, on sandy soil, facing north towards the Catskills and having the salt water of the Hudson (here three miles wide)… We have our morning paper by 8 a.m. and our evening paper 6 p.m. and we can shut out all this represents as easily as we can get at it.” She wrote to her “dear old friend” Kit Carson, when he was dying, urging him to stay with them.
They were millionaires at the time, but their life at Pokahoe was affluent, not lavish. There was a large, well-stocked library, and above the mantle was Bierstadt’s, “The Golden Gate at Sunset,” also fine portraits of Jessie and John. They had servants, a gardener and a French chef. There was a Steinway piano, dogs, horses, and boats. When they first arrived in Sleepy Hollow, the Fremonts had three children—a grown daughter and two sons, eleven and fourteen. The family enjoyed ice-skating on the pond, sailing, and croquet.
As time went on and John Fremont embarked on a large, ill-fated railroad venture, Jessie worried about their economic future and their children’s security. When Fremont’s wealth vanished in the Panic of 1873, Jessie wrote to a friend “This place is worth three hundred thousand, but for want of six thousand I shall lose it.” The Fremonts were forced to sell most of their possessions to pay their business debts. The auctioneer came to Pokahoe, and before long Ambrose Kingsland had added it to his wide domain.
Jessie became a professional writer to support the family; she wrote articles for magazines and her memoirs. Fremont had a brief stint as Territorial Governor of Arizona, but before, and after that time, the family was force by their poverty from one home to another. In 1890, Jessie ended up in Los Angeles for—health reasons—while Fremont traveled to New York, chasing fleeting business opportunities. There he died suddenly at a boarding house.
Jessie Benton Fremont survived her husband by twelve years, living modestly in a cottage provided by the “women of Los Angeles.” Her home was called “a Mecca” for notable visitors, and, in 1901, President McKinley went there to call on her. She died on December 27, 1902 and was buried beside her husband at Piermont, New York. The plot was donated by an admirer from that village.
©1999-2016 Henry John Steiner