The Tracy Family History
our famous cousins
"I am like a deep ship, I drive best under a strong wind."
This is the family tree of Jessie Benton Fremont; these are the six generations of Jessie Benton Fremont
Michael Woods, Sr., of Blair Park married Lady Mary Campbell of Argyle, from the mighty Campbell clan. They had a daughter…
Magdalene Woods, the great beauty (sister to my 6th great grandmother Martha Woods) whose second marriage to Benjamin Borden, Jr., would make her one of the wealthiest women in America. They had a son…
James McDowell, Sr., who married Elizabeth Cloyd. They had a son…
Capt. James McDowell, Jr., who married Sarah Preston. They had a daughter…
Elizabeth (You will note that the name Elizabeth carries down through the generations.) McDowell, a "lovely" Southern Belle, who married US Senator Thomas Hart Benton. They had a daughter…
Jessie Hart Benton, a Southern Belle, who married Gen. John Charles Fremont, "the Pathfinder."
My mother's definition of a Southern Belle:
Young, vivacious, charming, with many suitors. The most popular girl at a ball. From an upper-class family. Note: A “great beauty” is one class above a “Southern Belle.”
The daughter, Jessie, the most famous and powerful woman of her times.
The husband, John Fremont. There are several photos and engravings of the Pathfinder available today. I have chosen this one because it shows a disturbed mind.
The father, the powerful US Senator from Missouri, Thomas
Our cousin, Jessie Benton Fremont, was even
more than a Southern Belle. She came from a long line of aristocrats with all
the cultural traits that comes with that title. From her mother's side she
learned elegance, sophistication. She was idealistic, with great passion and
energy. Above all, she was… ambitious.
Her mother was spoiled rotten. Elizabeth McDowell was well bred, delicate with gentile manners. She summered at the White Sulphur Springs Resort and wintered in Richmond. Her relations were the governors, senators, and congressmen. As late as the 1880s the family still counted two senators and six congressmen. These were the uncles, cousins, and brothers. That does not include their other nobles.
She traveled in a custom London-built coach with an interior of scarlet leather, accompanied by a footmen and maid. When traveling by coach in Virginia she could stop almost anywhere and visit relatives at their "great estates." Trailing behind the carriage would be a mule drawn wagon loaded with baggage.
“Staunton was also a great thoroughfare for travelers going to and returning from the Virginia springs. During the “spring season,” the town was alive with stagecoaches, besides the private carriages in which many wealthy people traveled. Some of the latter and all of the former were drawn by four horses, and occasionally there was a quite a display of "liveried servants.” (The movies never show these magnificent carriages always being trailed behind with an old mule drawn baggage wagon. I never saw this scene in "Gone With the Wind.")
This was her world. They were our people, also… a long time ago.
Elizabeth and her husband hated slavery. When Elizabeth's father died she freed the 40 family slaves. This hatred of slavery would carry through the family.
The romance between Elizabeth McDowell and Thomas Hart Benton is a classic study in opposites attracting. Benton was a frontier brawler, burly, pugnacious and boisterous. In their earlier days, he and his brother, Jesse (for whom Jessie was named) got into a brawl with Andrew Jackson and his friends. Everyone emerged alive after Jesse put a bullet into Jackson's shoulder. Although the fight took place in a bar room, it was in an elegant hotel. One of the bullets went through the wall and into a room with a mother and her baby. It is not recorded how close the bullet came to the baby. However, no mother likes a bullet fired in anger entering her baby’s room.
Benton pursed the Southern Belle for many years. She finally agreed to marry him when she was at the advanced age of 27. He was older. She agreed to the marriage only after he had attained an acceptable social position and was elected US Senator from Missouri.
Elizabeth did not like the idea of giving up five generations of Virginia aristocracy to live on the wild Missouri frontier. She soon learned to love her adopted country. Such was the wealth that Elizabeth brought to the marriage that the family lived between St. Louis, Virginia, and Washington D.C. They would travel with all the servants money could provide. This shows the immense wealth that flowed from Magdelene.
It was into this family, on their plantation in Lexington, Virginia, that Jessie Benton was born in 1824. This was in the middle of our Woods-Wallace country. Jessie grew up among the powerful in Washington D.C. When her father visited with President Jackson at the White House, Jessie would sit by the president's side. The president would run his hand through her curly hair.
Andrew and Thomas were now good friends and allies in politics. They laughed about the feud they had so many years before. It is said that no one could become a friend of Andrew Jackson unless they first had a fight with him.
To show you how history interconnects, this was the same Andy Jackson, who as a teenager helped to nurse the wounded after the Battle of Waxhaws. This was the battle where Jessie's kin, Capt. Adam Wallace, was "hacked to pieces."
Her mother developed poor health. This propelled Jessie, at a very young age, into the social whirl of Washington D.C. Not only did she attend parties but she also acted as the social hostess for the events given for her Senator father. Highly educated, she spoke both French and Spanish fluently. Her features at the age of 15: Her figure was slender. She had an oval face even described as being classic, dark eyes, knockout red hair. She was a classic Southern Belle.
It was at this tender age, for Jessie now an experienced young woman, that she gave a party to which was invited John C. Fremont. He was 11 years older, handsome, and well known for completing several western expeditions. They fell in love at first sight.
The parents were not pleased with the romance. Fremont had no money or social position, and he was of illegitimate birth. Jessie, as you will see, had a mind of her own. Her actions were considered unacceptable for a young lady of her social standing. Southern girls were expected to know their place and stay in that place. At the age of 17, they eloped and had a secret marriage.
The secret marriage was all anyone talked about in Washington. Her father was furious when he found out about it. Jessie, with great dramatics, left her father's house on the arm of her new husband.
Cousin Jessie was an ambitious young woman, now married to an ambitious young man, and she had an ambitious father. She had everything going for her: beauty, intelligence, experience, and all of the right social and political connections. They were now the most sought after couple in Washington for parties, balls, social and political gatherings. They were a "handsome pair."
In the frontier days it seems that all parents objected to their daughter's choice of husbands, and all the daughters eloped. Then the parents would forgive and forget.
When Fremont was on his expeditions, Jessie would stay at her parent's home in St. Louis.
One historian tells us the characteristics of the father that would make him successful: a grasp of mind, power of comprehension, and, most importantly, a tenacious memory. Jessie inherited from her father these same traits, which would make her famous.
When her husband returned from his expeditions she would probe his complex, moody, sensitive, speeding mind and pull out the stories of his adventures.
She put these experiences into exciting, understandable stories, which were grasped by the nation. The stories were best sellers. John C. Fremont was the "man of the hour.” Jessie stayed in the background for now, wisely knowing that her greatness would come only through her husband's reputation, which through her writings she had made famous. She started creating her husband's fame at the tender young age of 18. She made her husband "the Pathfinder."
Each time her husband returned from an expedition, Jessie would make him famous, then more famous, then a hero. Her husband took California from Mexico. It was Fremont who instigated the Bear Flag Revolt. It was under his command that the Bear Flag was raised at the Mexican garrison at Sonoma. The Mexicans surrendered to John C. Fremont. The nation was elated at the news! (A footnote for our Moon cousins: John Fremont stayed on the Peter Lassen ranch for a few days in April of 1846, while preparing to take over California from Mexico. Remember, Lassen was a friend and across-the-river neighbor to Uncle Billy Moon.)
There was one small problem. The United States and Mexico were not yet officially at war. So Fremont, in disgrace and humiliation, was transported 3,000 miles back to Washington D.C. to face a court martial. He was found guilty and cashiered out of the army. This only made the people love him even more.
Fremont spent a great deal of time in California. Jessie and her 6-year-old daughter joined him. They made a harrowing journey across the Isthmus of Panama, but arrived safely.
Fremont, at one time, had left money with a business partner in California for the purpose of buying land. The partner bought the best land for himself and with Fremont's money bought worthless land in the mountains.
All Fremont found on the worthless mountain was gold. He was now famous, wealthy, and became California's first U.S. Senator. It was back to Washington for John C. Fremont and his wife.
By 1856, Jessie had made her husband so famous that he was asked to run for the presidency for the newly formed Republican Party. He accepted.
Jessie was now immensely popular, the most politically powerful, behind-the-scenes woman in America. She was the first woman to be involved in a presidential campaign. At rallies, conventions, and parades, the crowds screamed "Fremont and Jessie!" The vice-president's name was not even mentioned.
"Our Jessie," was shouted as much as her husbands name. After the nomination, the jubilant crowds refused to leave the street until she came to the balcony. There were songs of Jessie. Women started wearing her color, violet. New-born girls were named Jessie Ann.
Politics is a dirty business, campaigns are even dirtier. When it comes close to election time, it becomes vicious. The opposition raised the issue of Fremont's illegitimate birth. Then they attacked Jessie's reputation. Her father exploded at the charges, and turned his back on his son-in-law. Jessie was forced to chose between her husband and her father. She chose her husband. Some say the loss of support by her father cost John C. Fremont the election, for Thomas Hart Benton was a powerful senator.
Fremont lost the election to Buchanan. If he had taken the state of Pennsylvania he would have won. It seems that our people always come in a close second when running for the presidency.
At the beginning of the Civil War, Fremont was made a Major General and given command of the Department of the West.
After the war, he lost all of his wealth, which was not unusual for wealthy men of those times. Jessie supported the family with her writings which, she told her husband and readers, was merely a hobby.
Fremont would be appointed Territorial Governor of Arizona, which would provide a living for a few years. He died in 1890.
Jessie died in California in 1902. Her remains were cremated.
The famous portrait of Jessie was done in 1856 when she was in her early 30s. By this time she had put on a little weight and had children. I believe the painter used a little artistic liberty, going back in time a few years to portray Jessie the way she once was. For this I am grateful to the artists.
What does the famed genealogists/historian, Neander Woods, say of our mutual Cousin Jessie? What does he record for history of the most famous and powerful woman of her time, who almost transcended to the presidency through her husband?
What record does he leave of this part of the family who fought bitterly all of their lives to abolish slavery, the very institution that Neander Woods fought for on the Confederate side?
“Elizabeth McDowell; married Hon. Thomas H. Benton, the great Missouri Statesman, who was in the U.S. Senate a long time. Their children:
1. Miss Benton; married General John C. Fremont.
2. Miss Benton; married Colonel Richard T. Jacob of Ky.”
When researching a story, sometimes the story finds you;
At the California State Library, there is a secured research room behind a locked door. Entranced is by permission, and typical of research rooms, you are only allowed to use a pencil. (Ink can not be erased from a valuable document.) In this room I examined several photos and images of Jessie and John Fremont. I came across this famous period post card, and passed over it as I wanted a photo which showed Jessie as a young, pretty, vivacious woman.
When going through my Aunt Beulah’s estate documents a little while ago, mother and I found this post card. It was significant enough for the family to keep nearly 100 years. I do not believe Grandmother Tracy knew she was related to Jessie Fremont. But, why did she keep the post card?
This is the famous Fremont Tree in California with John, Jessie, and I believe another kin. Dated 8 Jan 1910, from a friend to Granddad Tracy.
Dorothy Kelly MacDowell (Dot)
As we have seen, the McDowells were a powerful family in American history. Fortunately, there is a living McDowell genealogists who has published a massive masterpiece of research on the McDowell line. Her name is Dorothy Kelly MacDowell, and her 609 page book is titled McDowells in America, a Genealogy. It is almost impossible to read a single page without finding someone listed with a government title, from a lowly sheriff to US Senators and Congressmen. In between are the untold numbers of military officers from Lieutenants to Generals. It was published in 1981. Anyone interested in the McDowell line can purchase the book through the McDowell House (museum) at 125 S. Second Street, Danville, KY 40422
This is not a history or story book about the McDowells. It is strictly genealogy.
You remember the story of Thomas Hart Benton fighting it out with Andrew Jackson in that hotel? That is where a bullet went through the wall of a room with a mother and her baby. The baby’s name was John Fremont.
The stories of these three people are quite complex. There are several books on the lives of Thomas Hart Benton and John C. Fremont. A very good book on Cousin Jessie is Jessie Benton Fremont, by Pamela Herr.
Jessie Benton Fremont's writings are still available in the libraries today: The Letters of Jessie Benton Fremont, edited by Pamela Herr and Mary Spence.
Because these three people are so famous there are many sources of information on this branch of our family.
My family history web site has 79 chapters. If you would like to
know more about the other chapters then go to my Home Page