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Flowers of Life and Living

Elizabeth Benton Frémont, known as Lily, became an intrepid traveler from a young age. She was born in Washington, D.C., on November 15, 1842, just days after her father, the explorer John C. Frémont, had returned from his first expedition to the American West. 

Lily’s mother, Jessie Benton Frémont, was the daughter of Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. Jessie had been well-educated by a series of tutors and served as her father’s secretary during her teens. Following John Frémont’s three expeditions west in the 1840s, John and Jessie together wrote the expedition reports which followed his trips, sharing his enthusiasm for western exploration with lively prose and useful information for potential emigrants to the Oregon Territory. 

In 1847, John Frémont purchased a large tract of land called Rancho Las Mariposas (renamed Bear Valley), in the southern Sierra Nevada foothills. Although initially regarded as worthless land due to its isolated location, it quickly became highly valuable after the discovery of gold in California in 1848. The Frémonts traveled to California to oversee mining operations and manage his new ranch. 

Lily was six years old when she embarked upon her first voyage in 1849, a difficult cross-country journey from Washington to California by way of the Isthmus of Panama. Before the creation of the Panama Canal, crossing the Isthmus was a wearisome trek lasting six days. To Lily, this was a trip to be remembered fondly, in which “each hour was filled with thrilling interest and novelty.” Throughout her life, Lily was drawn to flowers, often describing them in her writings. In her first crossing of the Isthmus of Panama, she vividly recalled her first sighting of “the white and scarlet varieties of the passion-flower, as well as other flowers both brilliant and fragrant, for which I know no name.”

Lily Fremont Pressed Flowers

For an adventurous young girl, pressing flowers memorialized in a lasting way the beauty of the landscapes through which she traveled. Writing of her recovery from a dangerous fever, Lily mused, “When life is young . . . and the warm blood courses through the veins, it is not so easy to die. The world was waiting with its arms filled with roses . . . and I was not averse to staying yet a little while, to gather a few of the flowers of life and living.”

Her mother Jessie remembered the voyage differently. As a young, sheltered woman leaving home for the first time, crossing the continent alone with her young daughter presented many challenges. In A Year of American Travel (1878), she wrote: “I had never been obliged to think for or take care of myself, and now I was to be launched literally on an unknown sea, travel towards an unknown country, everything absolutely new and strange about me, and undefined for the future.” About six months after reuniting in California, the Frémonts returned to Washington because John had been elected a California senator. 

Lily soon became an international traveler as well. After John had served as Senator from September 1850 to March 1851, the Frémonts decided to travel abroad for a year. They visited England and then rented a house in Paris for over a year. In 1853, they returned to Washington, and soon after John embarked on his last western expedition. After John Frémont’s failed presidential bid in 1856, the Frémonts returned to Paris for a brief stay before journeying back to California in 1858 to settle on their property in Bear Valley. 

In Recollections of Elizabeth Benton Frémont (1912), Lily wrote: “Nowhere else did the wild flowers ever seem so beautiful as at Bear Valley, and I rode afar into the mountains in search of them. The Indian men often brought me long withes [willow branches] wound round with flowers, from places inaccessible to me, and the white men of the neighborhood were astounded at this attention of the Indians to a mere girl.”

It may have been these gifts of wildflowers that inspired Lily to create a pressed flower album, now housed at the Clements Library. She started the album in 1859 when she was sixteen years old. The first two pages of the album hold drawings depicting the Frémont home in Bear Valley and a small group of buildings and a smokestack, possibly one of the Frémont mines. The rest of the album contains about eighty pressed flowers and other plants, most of them numbered and annotated with descriptions. 

Lily shared her love of flowers with both parents. In published works by all three family members, flowers are often vividly described, even in John’s official expedition reports. In her album, Lily noted two specimens that were her father’s particular favorites, wild heliotrope and another unnamed bloom. Jessie likely taught her daughter how to press the flowers to include in the album. In Far-West Sketches (1890), Jessie recalled that she enclosed “rose-leaves and violets and such-like sweet vouchers” in her letters back home to Washington, which “in their own dear silent way carried messages of comforting and hope.”

Lily Fremont's Home in Bear Valley

Bear Valley, Lily Frémont’s beloved home during the 1850s, from the front of an album holding her pressed flower specimens from 1859.

Lily’s album of pressed flowers began with a buttercup found on January 20th, 1859, and continued through May of that year. Several following pages of specimens are undated, and the final date to appear in the album is January 29th, presumably 1860. The last annotations indicate specimens gathered in San Francisco near the family’s new home at Black Point, to which they moved in early 1860.

As Lily added specimens to her album, she usually noted the date and location, sometimes identified the name of the plant, and often observed its growing conditions, soil, and other notes. She rode far and wide with her father, visiting their mills and mines and gathering plants along the way. Her notes indicate that she gathered specimens in locations as varied as Bear Valley, the Burkhalter hills, Mt. Bullion, Mt. Oso, Lone Mountain, Hell’s Hollow, Mt. Ophir, and Black Point. For specimens she did not personally gather, she recorded whatever information was available. Specimen no. 56 “was given to me so I don’t know about it much. I think it is a bush flower & came from Hell’s Hollow.” No. 75 simply received this brief note: “I remember nothing about.”

A capable horsewoman, Lily favored two horses for these frequent trips with her father. Ayah was a mountain-bred horse; Chiquita was cream-colored with silver mane and tail. Another horse gifted to her by a cattle ranger, the aptly-named Becky Sharp, turned out to be a little too lively for safety and was swiftly retired after she attempted to buck Lily off three times and then stranded her two miles from home. After moving to San Francisco, Lily was unfortunately not able to gather as many flowers, partly due to her horse: “Chiquita was more restive than Ayah, so I did not care to dismount as I used to in Bear Valley, besides there were always herds of Spanish Cattle around. So I missed many lovely flowers.”

While traveling, Lily observed changes in the landscape caused by mining and other human activities. Wild jasmine grew in the “mining holes” and another unnamed plant in the “small stony hollows and washed out placer ditches.” She reported that wild clover had originally covered Bear Valley and far up the mountainsides, “but some teamsters set fire to it ‒ about two years before we came out ‒ & burned most of it so badly that it has only grown again in especially moist places.”

Lily Fremont on Chiquita

Lily Frémont on Chiquita.

Lily recorded second-hand information from her father regarding indigenous use of plants, including the “quinine vine” or wild cucumber (“Father says the Indians use its root as medicine in fevers”), the wild sunflower (“I am told that the Indians use the seed”), and an unidentified leaf “which the Indians use as a salad.”

Livestock interactions with native plants were also of interest, such as the wild larkspur, which was “poisonous to cattle, who do not like to eat even the grass near it.” There were large fields of wild larkspur along one road, and she noted “the cattle avoided these plains from the time it began to flower till it passed.” The wild pea-vine, by contrast, was favored by cattle and horses and “gives good nourishment.”

Lily sometimes commented on her own process of pressing and drying the plants. White mariposas blossoms were “rather hard to press well & almost impossible to glue, for the instant the glue touches them, they roll right up, & then it [is] very hard to unroll them.” She was particularly concerned with the effect of drying on the color of the flowers, which she was anxious to describe accurately. For a number of specimens, she noted the original color of a flower that had “faded in pressing.”

In addition to wildflowers, Lily was interested in the more domesticated plants growing around their house, including a live oak and wild clover inside their enclosure, and an unnamed specimen pulled from just outside the fence. Another “tame flower” came from the neighboring “Italian’s garden.”

After the Frémonts moved from Bear Valley to San Francisco in 1860, Lily’s specimen gathering seems to have slowed and then stopped entirely. On her last page of text, she wrote, “Though we had so many many beautiful flowers at Black Point I had never thought of pressing any, & these are only some I pressed ‒ or rather put in this book, for the geranium leaf had been my book mark for weeks ‒ the day before we left home. The mignonette had grown from seeds of my own planting.”

In 1861, following the outbreak of the Civil War, Jessie and her three children left San Francisco for St. Louis while John served in the Union Army. After the war, Lily remained single and continued to travel and live an adventurous life. She eventually settled in Long Beach in 1905, where she remained until her death in 1919.

Emiko Hastings
Curator of Books