A proposal by California Republican Rep. Tom McClintock to rename Yosemite’s Mammoth Peak after Jessie Benton Fremont might not be the most important legislation Congress will consider this year. But it could be the most enlightened.
Critics of the legislation who deride Fremont’s contributions to the creation of Yosemite National Park and minimize her association with Mammoth Peak minimize the overall historical perspective.
Fortunately, John and Jessie Fremont have already provided one.
Sen. John Charles Fremont of California was an ambitious, over-compensating bastard son. Jessie was the favorite daughter of powerful Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri.
The blustery Benton, a strong supporter of westward expansion, was none too thrilled with the John and Jessie match when his headstrong 19-year-old daughter announced it. But he quickly became a patron for his new son-in-law, a young Army officer in the Corps of Topographical Engineers.
Jessie was a partner in John’s endeavors in the fullest sense of the term. And their talents complemented each other.
If he was the missionary for Manifest Destiny, she was the publicist, shaping her husband’s keen first-hand observations into prose that subtly preached the gospel of expansion.
Their words inspired people to load up their wagons and light out for the territories. But they did more than that.
John and Jessie Fremont changed the way we see the West.
Andrew Menard, author of “Sight Unseen: How Fremont’s First Expedition Changed the American Landscape,” wrote that the report of the first expedition, which Jessie had a large hand in crafting, “seems to be the first official document of the Far West written by someone who had been trained to see that landscape beforehand and who liked what he saw.”
Before the Fremonts, the West was the “Great American Desert,” a wasteland to be crossed on the way to California. Even Charles Preuss, Fremont’s dyspeptic mapmaker, couldn’t understand the attraction. “This morning we started out on our monotonous journey through the prairie” was how he began his journal of the second expedition of 1843-44.
Fremont’s expedition reports — and Jessie’s own writings, such as “Far-West Sketches” — gave skeptical Easterners a new way to look at the “monotonous journey.”
Their disciples have continued the tradition.
More than a century after Fremont’s explorations, another evangelist of the West, Edward Abbey, urged Americans to “get over the color green” — in effect, to stop applying Eastern values to Western landscapes — and to appreciate those stark, dry and barren vistas for their own rugged beauty.
In this case, Congress will need to get over the colors red and blue, as well. Rep. Rob Bishop, the Utah Republican who chairs the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, joked that Democrats might oppose the bill because Fremont was the first Republican presidential candidate, in 1856. Some Democrats have suggested the proposal is a lame attempt to curry favor with female voters.
The fact is, motivations hardly matter. History does, but not in the pinched — and inconsistent — manner defined by the measure’s foes.
Victor Knox, associate director for park planning, facilities and lands at the National Park Service, argued at a Feb. 26 hearing that “there is no direct or long-term association between [Jessie Benton Fremont’s] work and Mammoth Peak.”
That’s a standard not applied to Mount Washington, Mount McKinley and a host of other notable peaks. But that’s a minor aside compared with the larger problem, which is that Knox’s narrow construction misses the point entirely.
Jessie Benton Fremont’s contributions to Yosemite and to the West writ large go far beyond fundraising and advocacy, although she did those too. They go to the heart of how we understand and appreciate the natural world. That’s worth a mountain.
John Bicknell is a former editor at CQ Roll Call and author of “America 1844: Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion and the Presidential Election That Transformed the Nation,” to be published next winter by Chicago Review Press. Connect with him on Twitter @johnbick1960.