Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Daniel Feller

Committee Members

Luke Harlow, Michael Woods, Amy S. Greenberg


This dissertation focuses on the life of Jessie Benton Frémont (1824-1902) and the ways in which she performed the role of a “public wife” through her marriage to John C. Frémont. This re-examination of a woman immensely popular in the nineteenth century offers a new way of thinking about the wives of famous men and the steps they took to both participate in, and direct the narrative of, American history.

Jessie Benton was the daughter of Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton. At sixteen, Jessie met a young man from the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers who came to meet with her father regarding explorations in the trans-Mississippi west. Jessie, at age seventeen, eloped with the man, John C. Frémont (1813-1890), who would come to play a significant role in the western expansion endorsed by her father.

John Frémont’s expeditions across the west in the 1840s and his role in the “conquest of California” in 1846 earned him national recognition. Jessie popularized John’s accomplishments through her work on his expedition reports, securing the fame which led him to the office of U.S. senator and a presidential nomination in 1856. As she created John’s fame, Jessie used the opportunity to create a reputation of her own, that of the spirited mate to a dashing man, and thus became an integral component in her husband’s public career. Without Jessie’s lionizing of her husband and her efforts to shape a positive public image of both Frémonts, John C. Frémont would not, could not, have been as widely recognized and admired as he was during the nineteenth century.

As an essential component of her role as a “public wife,” it was Jessie, not John, who shaped his experiences into the heroic narrative that lingers today. Jessie’s idealization of her wifely duties let her develop her own narrative of the Frémonts’ history so that her version of the tale secured John’s reputation and the couple’s social standing while overwhelming any voices raised in opposition. Well into the twentieth century, Jessie’s account of her husband and his exploits continued the heroic narrative into textbooks and memorials.

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