Bill would rename Yosemite peak after 19th century preservationist

A 1856 portrait of Jessie Benton Fremont, wife of "Pathfinder" John C. Fremont. She was instrumental in preserving wilderness in California.
(Southwest Museum)

WASHINGTON — She was called the “the most famous woman in Los Angeles.”

That was how the wife of famed “Pathfinder” John C. Fremont was described in her Los Angeles Times obituary in 1902.

Though she is not as well known today, she could be on the way to gaining a higher profile — one more than 12,100 feet high. Legislation to name a mountain peak in Yosemite National Park as Mt. Jessie Benton Fremont is now before Congress.

Related: The ultimate guide to Yosemite


The measure, a tribute to Jessie Benton Fremont’s efforts to preserve the land that would become the park, comes on this year’s 150th anniversary of President Lincoln signing the bill granting Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove, a stand of some of the world’s largest trees, to the state of California as a public trust. Yosemite became a national park in 1890.

Mammoth Peak, not to be confused with the popular ski attraction Mammoth Mountain, would be renamed under the legislation.

“Women in the 19th century often weren’t recognized for the great deeds that they really did,” Craig MacDonald, a California historian from Orange County who has pushed for the recognition, said in an interview. “I think it’s high time that Jessie gets her due.”

The National Park Service doesn’t agree.

“Though Jessie Benton Fremont was an important figure in the advocacy for and establishment of the Yosemite Grant, there is no direct or long-term association between her work and Mammoth peak,” Victor Knox, the park service’s associate director for park planning, facilities and lands, said at a congressional hearing Wednesday.

Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove), the bill’s author, dismissed the National Park Service position as “absolutely laughable” and “rank partisanship.”

The Mammoth name, he said, was conferred on the peak because it was big. “The park service insists that there should be a strong historical connection in a commemorative naming, and yet it rejects the commemoration in honor of Jesse Benton Fremont, whose influence in creation of the park is well documented ... in favor of maintaining the current name that has absolutely no historic significance whatsoever.”

During Wednesday’s hearing, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House natural resources subcommittee on public lands and environmental regulation, joked that the Obama administration liked the bill until it found out that Jessie Benton Fremont was married to the first Republican presidential nominee. He turned serious and scolded the park service representative for “the dumbest testimony I have ever heard” in opposition to the bill.

The bill awaits action before the full committee, but stands a good chance of making it through the GOP-controlled House, given that McClintock’s district includes Yosemite.

Jessie Benton Fremont was the daughter of powerful Democratic Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. Her husband was one of the first two U.S. senators from California when he was Democrat, and he ran for president as a Republican in 1856.

While living in Bear Valley, she “became enchanted with local giant sequoias and the granite crags of nearby Yosemite Valley,” according to the California Department of Parks and Recreation. “She became concerned that the settlers flooding the new state of California would overrun Yosemite.”

She invited influential figures, such as politician and newspaper editor Horace Greeley, to dinner or tea at her homes in Mariposa County and San Francisco to promote preservation of the land and pressed Lincoln to preserve Yosemite. (Lincoln sneeringly dismissed her as a “female politician,” according to a 1999 Los Angeles Times story.)

Another president visited her in 1901, a year before her death at age 78. William McKinley met with Fremont at her house at 28th and Hoover streets in Los Angeles.