December 2004 Issue Explore Historic California - Magazine for Enthusiasts



Jessie Benton Fremont 's Christmas Fairyland

by Cecile Page Vargo

       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.

Jesse Benton, circa 1835. She was the daughter of U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton.

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 to California . 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 wants.

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 first class Vienna 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 Fremont '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 Fremont 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 cottage. Groundpine 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 children began 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!"

Jessie's Fairyland Brings Peace & Good Will to All

Memories of all  past holidays filled the minds of everyone who attended the Fremont family Christmas 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 family holiday. 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.




Mother Lode Narratives,The Mariposa Grant Stories

By Jessie Benton Fremont

Edited by Shirley Sargent

Mariposa Heritage Press



I Jessie: A biography of the Girl Who Married John Charles Fremont Famous Explorer of the West

By Ruth Painter Randall

Little, Brown & Company


Jessie Benton Fremont

By Marguerite Higgins

Houghton Mifflin Company Boston



Jessie Benton Fremont : A Biography

By Pamela Herr

University of Oklahoma Press


Fremont: Explorer for a Restless Nation

By Ferol Egan

University of Nevada Press

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