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essie Ann Benton was the daughter of Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, but in his mind, and perhaps in hers too, she was the son the senator wanted. She was born into a family of status and privilege, two things she would strive her whole life to attain in her own right, with mixed success. Her life was crowded and exciting; she traveled to, and lived in, exotic places that most people never visited, let alone a proper nineteenth-century woman. She met important people from all walks of life, including several presidents of the United States, one of whom she passionately argued with—something people of any century rarely do. At times her situation bordered on near poverty, and she ended her years living quietly—not in Missouri, but in the soonto -be megalopolis of Los Angeles, California—writing about and defending the memory of the husband to whom she devoted her life. Her ashes are buried in upstate New York in a family plot overlooking the Hudson River, the final resting place after a remarkable life journey. It all began on May 31, 1824, when Jessie was born on her mother’s family estate, Cherry Grove, which is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia in Rockbridge County, near Lexington. Her mother, Elizabeth Preston McDowell, had married Thomas Hart Benton in 1821 at the age of twenty-six, after a long courtship. Elizabeth, the youngest of three children, came from a long line of famous Virginians that included senators, congressmen, governors, and other state officeholders. According to Pamela 1 J CHAPTER 1 The Bentons m Herr, author of Jessie Benton Frémont: A Biography, Elizabeth’s “upbringing combined the ease and grace of upper-class southern life” with a religious background rooted in Presbyterianism. Jessie once wrote that her mother was spoiled “in every way.” Elizabeth’s days were typical of a sheltered southern belle: there were winter residences, summer homes, galas, concerts, dinners, and balls. Her education was characteristic of women of her era and standing; in addition to reading and writing, she learned the social skills necessary to meet the obligations of her position in southern society. Jessie wrote in Souvenirs of My Time that her mother had a “genius for home comfort” that allowed her to guide her household with ease. Thomas Hart Benton was already a U.S. senator from Missouri when he married Elizabeth. Fearful of his affinity for the American West, she accepted his marriage proposal only after a six-year delay, waiting until his election to national office made his life appear more stable. He was almost forty when he and Elizabeth wed at Cherry Grove in March 1821. The newlyweds honeymooned in St. Louis, where he busied himself with political affairs and she became acquainted with the city that was the gateway to the American West. Elizabeth never really accepted the rough-and-tumble of frontier Missouri and always considered Cherry Grove her proper home. Benton was born on March 14, 1782, in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His father’s name was Jesse and he later chose that name for his second daughter. When Benton was eight, his father died, falling victim to the family nemesis of tuberculosis. He left behind eight children, including his third child and first son, Thomas. If his father had lived, Thomas Hart Benton would have been a member of the gentry class, but he found himself instead in different circumstances. His widowed mother, Ann, found ways to provide for her family, even saving enough money to send Thomas to the new college at Chapel Hill in North Carolina. Financial problems arose, though, and after allegations of theft, the university expelled him. Humiliated, but a proud man, Benton from that time on dedicated himself to 2 / JESSIE BENTON FRÉMONT achieving a reputation for honest integrity. He went to seek his future in Tennessee, where his mother and siblings had already settled. Not wanting a farm life, Benton studied law and before long entered Tennessee politics. He met Andrew Jackson and the two became allies, drawn together by their common vision of westward expansion, which they believed was the key to America’s future. After some time, the two men had a serious disagreement and shared some heated exchanges over Jackson’s insults of Benton’s brother, Jesse. The animosity led to a famous brawl in 1813, which included a duel. No one was killed, but Benton wounded Jackson. Two years later, at the age of...


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