By Murray Smolens

Governor John Charles Frémont and Territorial Secretary John Jay Gosper were the two top officials of Arizona Territory from 1878 to 1881.  They got off to a poor start, and then things got worse.  Letters from Frémont’s stalwart wife, Jessie, sent their relationship and their careers in Arizona Territory off the proverbial cliff.

Frémont was 65 and well past the height of his popularity as the “Pathfinder,” whose best-selling travelogues of his adventures through the uncharted west vaulted him into the national spotlight.  Frémont was involved in the Bear Flag rebellion during the Mexican War that led to California’s admission to the Union in 1850, and he was one of the state’s first two U.S. Senators.  Gold was discovered on property he owned there, making him an instant millionaire, but mining difficulties, a series of bad investments, and finally the Panic of 1873 left him and his family on the brink of poverty and searching to reclaim a lost fortune when President Rutherford Hayes nominated him to be Arizona Territory’s fifth governor in 1878.

Gosper was more obscure.  A veteran of the Civil War, he lost his left leg during the siege of Petersburg.  He went to Lincoln, Nebraska from his native Ohio after the war, serving on the city council, and then was elected secretary of state for Nebraska as a Republican.  After dabbling in some failed businesses, he moved first to California and then to Arizona in 1877, leaving behind a wife and a son who chose to stay in Nebraska.   Gosper must have made some friends quickly, because he was appointed territorial secretary in April by President Hayes, taking the oath of office on May 24.

Their relationship got off to a rocky start, with the ambitious Gosper maneuvering through friends in Washington to succeed John Hoyt as governor of Arizona Territory before Frémont was chosen.  However, the old Pathfinder’s connections trumped Gosper’s.

Jessie Benton Frémont, the governor’s indomitable wife, was the catalyst for the war between the two top territorial officials.  She was the favorite daughter of legendary Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton.  Jessie was a bright and strong-willed champion of her husband.  She had her own Washington connections, and had no fear of challenging a mere Frémont subordinate.

Jessie came to the territorial capital of Prescott with her husband but left a year later complaining of health problems to become her husband’s eyes and ears back in New York and Washington.  She discovered that Gosper was backstabbing her precious John Charles so he could become governor.  A good friend of William K. Rogers, President Hayes’ friend and private secretary, she wrote him often to defend her husband’s reputation (Gosper wasn’t Frémont’s only enemy; John Clum, editor of the Arizona Citizen, later to achieve fame as editor of the Tombstone Epitaph, wrote that Frémont was “ignorant as the Ameer of Afghanistan of Arizona affairs”).

Jessie wrote a detailed letter to Rogers in September 1879 about Gosper’s shortcomings.  In December, she sent another that divulged details of a plot hatched by Gosper and his friends to “block the Genl’s work” as governor, going so far as to travel to Washington himself to undermine Frémont’s reputation.  In a follow-up letter in January 1880, Jessie reveals that Gosper was successful in undermining one of John’s investment schemes.

A change in administration from Hayes to James Garfield and then Chester Arthur upon Garfield’s assassination left Gosper the opening he sought to counter the Frémonts’ campaign against him.  While Frémont was back east, Gosper wrote a stream of letters to various officials in Washington blaming the governor for everything from the Tombstone troubles (the “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” occurred in late October 1881, only two weeks after Frémont resigned) to Indian raids.

Frémont, frustrated with all the infighting, always sensitive to criticism and unsuccessful in his efforts to rebuild his fortune, addressed a letter of resignation to President Arthur dated October 11, 1881.  He subsequently returned to New York and his beloved Jessie.  He died in 1890, broke and all but forgotten.

Gosper never did catch his elusive dream of becoming governor.  Frémont was replaced by Frederick Tritle in 1882.  Gosper drifted to California, invested unsuccessfully in various ventures, became president of the Los Angeles School Board, and died in poverty in May 1913, just like his old rival, Frémont.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit ideas for articles to dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com for information.