As a child, the daughter of
United States Senator Thomas Hart Benton was among the many
fortunate children invited to attend the grand Christmas party thrown by
Count Alexander de la Bodisco, the Russian minister to the United
States. The night was snowy, and only beacon lights marked the path as
one approached the hill to the Count's large and elegant house, as they
did not yet have gas lights. In front of the house was an empty square
with huge bonfires lit for the drivers of the guests coaches to warm
themselves by. Once inside the house, Jessie Benton and her friends were
treated to what she later described as "fairyland", with every
room up to the third floor full of "wonderful red and gold swings,
tables covered with toys, games, picture books, dolls, and stacks of
little satin bags with 'Bon-Bons' in gilt letters." The dressing
room was full of boxes complete with little white kid gloves, pretty
fans, and bolts of colors of light ribbons. It was every child's dream
of Christmas in the early 1800's.
circa 1835. She was the daughter of U.S. Senator Thomas Hart
A Suitable House
At the age of 17, Jessie
Benton met and fell in love with John C. Fremont,
who became famous as the "Great Pathfinder" who blazed
trails across the North American continent from St. Louis
. Once those trails
were blazed, the couple settled in California, far from the East
Coast where Jessie had experienced the "fairyland" Christmas
of her childhood. Following a summer in a cramped cottage, Jessie turned
down the offer to stay in two story brick housing near San Francisco, while a
"suitable" house would be built near her husband's mining
claims near Mariposa.
It was only two weeks before Christmas, and there was much
to be done to the cottage on twelve fenced in acres with park-like
grounds of native grass and wildflowers, well laid out paths and a carriage driveway. Flowering shrubs,
noble evergreen oaks, and towering pine trees provided a natural
landscape on the property. In the garden and on sunny slopes surrounding
the cottage, the fragrance of pink
rose of Castile
was everywhere. The
one story cottage was roomy, but not enough so for the Fremont
family needs and
The Madam's Christmas-Box
As first order of business, Jessie Benton Fremont oversaw
workmen with ox-teams to move several large one room cabins from
elsewhere on their property, so they could be attached to the main
cottage. Her husband's bookkeeper had picked the men to do the job. A
grizzled man from Maine
who hauled the wood
for the mills looked much like Kriss Kringle with his gray beard and
bunched clothes, as he worked with his long team of oxen. A carpenter
directed where the planks
and shingles should be placed. Men who sewed sacks for the ores were on
hand to make new carpets and curtains once everything was put together.
Jessie busied herself measuring for materials, and shopping
in stores in the nearby
mining towns. She was delighted to find such unexpected luxuries as
French wall-papers, fine carpet and rugs, rolls of woolen and silk
curtain materials. She brought her purchases to the cottage dining room
where the men cheerfully helped "to
get the Madam's Christmas-box ready." Afterwards, she and her young
son Charley watched as Kriss Kringle and his team of oxen.
Marketing in Mariposa
On more errands, 12 miles away to the largest of the mining
towns, Mariposa, a man named Isaac drove Jessie in a light carriage.
Her shopping list included steel bars to sharpen picks, a keg of
gun powder, pretty tea-cups and table glass, ribbons, and colored
fabrics for toilet-tables. As they came back they ran into a hunter.
Isaac and Jessie were able to convince him to sell them half of the fat
doe that he carried on his back.
The best brick-layer in the country-side came to build a
brick chimney, and Jessie's workmen pitched in to help him raise it.
Canvas covered ceilings and wood walls. An artistic young man who had
painted scenes at a theater in New Orleans, helped to put up
the fine wallpapers that were to go over the canvas. Curtains were made
of cretonnes, silk and woolen, all matching the beautiful wallpaper.
Carpets were laid on the floor.
The Tree & Gifts
At last, the bushy top of a long-coned pine tree was chosen
for the walnut and oak papered, rather irregular dining area. Young
Charlie went along to help select it, and watched as it was cut, then
carefully loaded on to a wood sled.
Once in the dining room, the long cones of the tree were covered
with mucilage, then covered with thin gilt paper, for a cluster of
golden cones to each bough. A gold star crowned the top of the tree.
John Fremont employed a fine Prussian baker, who ran a
bakery. The most
beautiful cakes and sugar decorations for the tree were created by this
man. When the original candles that had been sent from the tropics,
showed up all chipped and flaked off, and much too small for the
's tree, the baker
employed his decorating skills to create new ones. Bees-wax tapers were
decorated with colors and gold leaf, looking just like the blessed
wax-lights found at cathedral doors in Europe.
Assorted gifts of fruit, toys, picture books, and games were
tucked away for the children. There were also colored beads for the
neighboring Indian village, brooches and gowns for the women who had
"come from the States", and gifts for Issac and others who
were a part of the
family's daily life.
Jessie was prepared for a "true home Christmas."
Jessie's good friend from New York
was to arrive as a
special gift for her, bringing not only her good temperament, but her
gift of song. The piano had not been used in a long time and was quite
out of tune. The nearest tuner was 80 miles away in Stockton, however. Someone
came up with some new strings, and the mill blacksmith wound them to the
piano with a winch until Jessie told him to stop. In addition to his new
found piano tuning skills, Manuel also presented Jessie with a fender
made from the sieve iron that was used to screen the gold washings, and
hammered ironed into medieval looking fire-dogs.
The Tenth Day of Christmas
By the tenth day, of hard work, the new cottage was ready
for the Christmas holiday. A first fire was lit in the new hearth, and
the bricklayer announced that "it was a good job, if it was so
hurried." The walls and ceilings inside the house were elegant with
red Brussels carpet throughout all of the rooms. New overlapping narrow
wood planks completed the outside, with the painter quickly following
the man who nailed them up. As many small paned sash windows as would
fit, were placed side by side around the outside walls of the rooms, and
glorious views could be seen when the full straight, deep topped frill
curtains were opened.
In addition to the smell of fresh paint, the wood burning
in the fire, and cedar pastills burning in each room, helped to
fragrance the Fremont
wreaths with wild-rose-haws were hung everywhere, and the Christmas
Cross was placed in the windows. The supper table was decorated with
sparkling spun-sugar pyramids, frosted sugar delights, and bright
jellies. The helping hands
all exchanged congratulations on their job well done & good
Christmas wishes, as they enjoyed the Christmas cake and tea.
Jessie's bookkeeper announced that they had only spent one fifth of the
money they had allotted on the cottage expansion and decorating project.
"Kreesmas Haze Koom!"
Christmas eve came in dark and misty just before
Jessie Fremont's weary traveling guests arrived. The
thick-falling mist on the mountains had delayed them, as they traveled
the winding road bordered with shelving rocks and deep gorges. Men came
on horses carrying torches to light their way to the Fremont's brightly lit
cottage. All were amazed by what Jessie had done!
The Calhouns, whom Jessie described as the "poor
whites" of the South, a simple family content to mine for gold and
hunt for the little comforts they needed to survive, were invited to
experience a holiday that was basically unknown to them. The local
Indians were also encouraged to bring baskets that they could fill with
food and clothes. At the
sight of the cross in the window, memories from the old Missions came to
some of the older Indian women, and they signed themselves on the
forehead and breast. Mrs. Calhoun, had vague memories of a "season
of feasting", but was clueless to any religious significance.
The young Calhoun children were shy about coming in to see
the beautiful Christmas tree. They clustered outside the windows and
stared at the bright candle lights. When they at last were brave enough
to come inside, they "hung together like bees", around the
tallest of them, silent and open-mouthed. The Fremont
handing out animals of pine-wood to each of them. The largest boy
received a wooden hyena, and declared "A Hog!"
Of all of the gifts he received this day, this appeared to be the
finest, and pleased him the most. The Calhoun's couldn't wait to go back
to their "mam" with not only their wooden animals, but a huge
basket of more toys, & sweets, and several packages of useful
things, as well.
For the youngest Fremont
child, all of three,
it was his first Christmas as well. He had heard so much of the holiday,
and his investigative, doubting mind had his own ideas of what it was.
As he was called into the room with the gilded coned candle lit tree
full of fruits and toys, he was speechless. He cocked his head to the
side, locked his hands behind his back, and walked around the tree, then
ran to his father, John C. Fremont, the great pathfinder himself.
In his French-English, he cried, "Kom see.
Kreesmas haze koom!"
Brings Peace & Good Will to All
Memories of all past
holidays filled the minds of everyone who attended the Fremont
that year. Several weeks
after Christmas, the talk in all of the surrounding mining camps, even
those deep in the mountains, was of the Fremont
Three women road a day over rugged country to deliver to Jessie Fremont
a hand embroidered collar one of them had made herself. All three women
spoke the feelings of home that had been aroused in them just by hearing
of the beautiful Christmas tree, and the peace and good-will that Jessie
& her husband John had brought in to their lives.
Jessie's had successfully re-created a little bit of fairyland
for the Mariposa mining communities, just as Count Bodisco had for her
so many Christmases before in Georgetown.
|Jesse Benton Fremont near the
end of her life in 1902.
Mariposa Grant Stories
Jessie Benton Fremont
by Shirley Sargent
Jessie: A biography of the Girl Who Married John Charles Fremont Famous
Explorer of the West
Ruth Painter Randall
Brown & Company
: A Biography
Fremont: Explorer for
a Restless Nation