When, in 1824, Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri saw his newborn daughter for the first time, he was a bit disappointed. She wasn't the boy he was hoping for. However his disappointment soon abated. Dubbed Jessie, in honor of Benton's father, the two developed a special bond. Raised more like a son than a 19th century daughter, Jessie was well educated in history, literature and languages. As the daughter of a prominent Senator, she knew many of the leading political figures of the day and often accompanied her father to meetings at the White house. And like her father, she possessed an unbounded enthusiasm for the West.
While living in St. Louis, father and daughter made the acquaintance of John C. Frémont, a young lieutenant in the Topographical Bureau of the Corp of Engineers, who was just returning from an expedition in the West. It was a meeting that would forever change their lives.
Two years earlier, the US government had employed French scientist, Joseph N. Nicollet to explore and map the area between the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, with Frémont as his assistant. Over the course of several months in 1839, Nicollet and Frémont travelled up the Missouri to Fort Pierre before making their way north to Devils Lake; concluding their journey in southern Minnesota. After their return, the two men spent the next year reducing their field notes into usable material and preparing a map.
It was while thus occupied, Frémont was first introduced to Senator Benton and his 15-year-old daughter, Jessie. It was love at first site. Although her parents did not approve, Frémont immediately began courting the young girl. One year later, Jessie and John married in a secret ceremony.
Jessie's parents eventually accepted the marriage and the two lovers embarked on an adventure few men or women of the era could have imagined. While Frémont continued to explore portions of the west, it was Jessie who assumed the task of drawing his travel notes into an exciting and accurate account, ensuring their widespread popularity. When John determined to move to California during the gold rush, Jessie followed, making the treacherous journey across the Isthmus of Panama. She later campaigned for her husband in his unsuccessful presidential bid as the Republican Party's first nominee and she authored several books before her death in 1902.
Today a small reminder of their romance is still visible on a map of North Dakota. Located near Binford in Griggs County stands a small lake; a one-time campsite of the Nicollet- Frémont expedition of 1839. In recognition of his blossoming romance with the young Miss Benton, John Frémont dubbed it Lake Jessie. Today, the Lake Jessie campsite belongs to the State Historical Society of North Dakota, acquired on this date in 1955.
Dakota Datebook written by Christina Sunwall
Grenz, Ilene Stone and Suzanna M. Jessie Benton Frémont: Missouri's Trailblazer Missouri Heritage Readers Series. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2005.
Jackson, Donald, ed. The Expeditions of John Charles Frémont: Map Portfolio. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970.
Smucker, Samuel M. The Life of Col. John Charles Fremont and His Narrative of Explorations and Adventures in Kansas, Nebraska, Oregon and California. New York: Miller, Orton &Mulligan, 1856.
Snortland, J. Signe, ed. A Traveler's Companion to North Dakota State Historic Sites. Bismarck, ND: State Historical Society of North Dakota, 2002.