John and Jessie Fremont 
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John and Jessie Fremont
Credit: Courtesy of Historynet.com

Go west, young man, but elope with the Senator’s daughter first

Here in Seattle, we’re familiar with the name Fremont. The neighborhood of that name is, of course, the center of the universe. But do you know where that center got its name?

It came, indirectly, from a man named John C. Frémont, born in 1813 in Savannah, Georgia. His mother had an affair with a tutor hired by her husband. The two ran off together, but couldn’t marry. John rose from illegitimacy and modest circumstances to become a significant national figure, in no small part due to his marriage to a young woman named Jessie Benton.

The couple made a mark on the nation, for better and worse, in the time of Western expansion and the lead-up to the Civil War. John became a renowned explorer and military officer, one of the first two Senators from California and the first Republican nominee for president of the United States. Jessie was a key to his roller-coaster success.

During these turbulent political days, it may do us all well to hearken back to the history of our republic. That seems to be the general inclination of author and NPR host Steve Inskeep. You can tell he loves a good story, and he tells it well. His latest work is “Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War.”

Steve Inskeep is a co-host of NPR’s Morning Edition. He spoke at Third Place Books Lake Forest Park on January 15. KUOW’s Sonya Harris recorded his talk.