This month was challenging for my Booking It Through History: First Lady project. President Martin Van Buren was a long-time widower, but unlike President Thomas Jefferson, he didn’t have a daughter to fill in as his hostess. It wasn’t until one of his bachelor sons married that he had an official White House hostess. Neither his wife nor his daughter-in-law have had any books written about them, so I tried my best to learn about them through other resources.
Each month, I’ll detail the life of the first lady and their legacy. Then I’ll share what I learned while studying them, along with ways you can travel in their footsteps through historical sites and museums. I’ll also share books, podcasts, TV shows, and websites where you can learn even more about that first lady. Read all of the way through the blog post or click on the links below to go straight to those sections.
Hannah Hoes Van Buren
Hannah Hoes was born on March 8, 1783 to Johannes Dircksen Hoes and Maria Quakenbush in a Dutch Quaker community in Kinderhook, New York. Her father was a staunch Loyalist during the American Revolution. She grew up alongside a family friend/cousin once removed, Martin Van Buren, and soon they were in love. After he established his career as a lawyer, they married on February 21, 1807 just across the river at her sister’s home in Catskill, NY (not in their hometown to avoid throwing a big party!). Both Hannah and Martin spoke Dutch as their first language and English as a second language, the only president to do so.
Not much is known about their married life, but it seems to have been a happy one. Hannah is reported to have had “no ambitious desires” but had a strong faith and a warm disposition, devoting herself to charitable works. Martin became involved in politics even before their marriage and moved his family to Hudson, NY to find a better base to begin his political career. Hannah gave birth to their first child, Abraham, in late 1807 while still living in Kinderhook and went on to have three surviving sons while living in Hudson and Albany: John, Martin, Jr., and Smith. A daughter born in 1809 was stillborn and a young son died in 1814.
After the birth of Smith in 1817, Hannah’s health deteriorated due to tuberculosis, and she died on February 5, 1819. She requested that the money usually used to outfit pallbearers with scarves be sent to charity and was remembered in her obituary as “a tender mother and a most affectionate wife.”
A niece later recalled “her loving, gentle disposition” and emphasized “her modest, even timid manner.” That is our only insight into Hannah’s life as Martin didn’t speak of his “Jannetje” (the Dutch form of Hannah) for the rest of his life, leading his son to ask if her name was Anna or Hannah when he wanted to name his child after her decades later. Martin even omitted her from his autobiography out of respect for her and their private life together (which wasn’t that unusual for the time). After their 12 years as husband and wife, he lived another 43 years as a widower with no other romantic connections, always keeping a locket containing a painting of Hannah with him.
Buttre, John Chester, Engraver. Mrs. Martin Van Buren. , None. [Between 1890 and 1920?] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/96525484/.
When he became president in 1837, Van Buren brought his four bachelor sons with him to the White House but did not have an official hostess until his oldest son married Angelica Singleton the following year.
Angelica Singleton Van Buren
Angelica Singleton was born in Wedgefield, South Carolina on February 13, 1816 to Richard Singleton and Rebecca Travis Coles. Her father was a wealthy planter who owned Melrose House along with two other plantations. Angelica was the fourth of six children and grew up at Melrose House while receiving a good education in both South Carolina and Philadelphia. Popular, vivacious, and pretty, Angelica was the quintessential Southern belle.
While visiting Washington, DC, former First Lady Dolley Madison, Angelica’s relative by marriage, introduced her to President Martin Van Buren’s oldest son, Abraham. Her aristocratic manners, excellent education, and handsome face soon won his heart, and they married on November 11, 1839 at her father’s plantation in Sumter County. While President Van Buren didn’t attend, he was thrilled with the match that also helped him politically.
Fenderich, Charles, Artist. Angelica Van Buren. Washington D.C, None. [Between 1838 and 1841] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2003656298/.
Two months after their wedding, Angelica fulfilled her first role as White House hostess in presiding over the annual New Year’s Day reception. At the young age of twenty, she is still the youngest woman to serve as White House hostess. Her elegance and refined manner won over the hearts of the Washington elite, and with her harp playing and beautiful gowns, she was a Washington style maven. Even the picky French ambassador complemented her.
In 1839, Abraham and Angelica took an extended honeymoon in Europe, impressing kings and queens. After meeting the young Queen Victoria in England (who was Angelica’s age), she brought back many of the royal court traditions to the White House. She had a dais constructed for the Blue Room where she and other ladies would greet guests dressed in white gowns with ostrich feathers. While beautiful, this royal manner did not go over well with the less formal Americans, especially during the continuing fallout of the Panic of 1837. Even though the dais was taken down, the political damage had been done.
While living in the White House, Angelica gave birth to her first child, Rebecca, in March of 1840 but the baby died shortly after birth. Angelica did not resume her hostessing duties as she mourned and became pregnant again later that year. A beautiful portrait of Angelica during her White House years was painted (see it here) and was a favorite of President Truman.
Van Buren lost the election of 1840, not just because of Angelica’s grandiose entertaining but also because of the monetary crisis and the controversies from the Trail of Tears and the increasing tensions between slave and non-slave states. Angelica and Abraham left the White House for her father’s home in South Carolina where she gave birth to a son named Singleton in June of 1841. After she recovered from his birth, they moved their family to Kinderhook to live with the former president, staying five years and having two additional sons, Martin, Jr. and Travis. She also suffered at least one miscarriage while living there.
Fenderich, Charles, Artist, and Peter S Duval. Angelica Van Buren / from life on stone by Chs. Fenderich; P.S. Duval Lith. Phila. Washington D.C, 1844. [Philadelphia: P.S. Duval Lith. Phila] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2003656296/.
In 1848, Angelica and her family moved to New York City where they lived the rest of their lives. Angelica provided a home for her sister, Marion, who escaped an abusive marriage and tried to help Marion retain the property she had brought into the marriage, but Angelica found her actions stymied by growing political tensions. Angelica and Abraham took their children on an extended trip across Europe from 1854-1856, seeing the horrors of abject poverty and social ills. Upon return, Angelica dedicated her time to charitable works, but as the Civil War began, her South Carolina ties weighed heavily on her mind. She sent blankets to Confederate soldiers who were being held in Northern prisons and remained sympathetic to her Southern relatives.
President Van Buren died in 1862, and Abraham Van Buren died in 1873. Angelica died on December 29, 1877 and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
Neither Hannah or Angelica seems to have made a lasting impact on the role of first lady. Hannah’s short life and the dearth of solid information makes her a mystery over two hundred years after her death. She is a forgotten woman in history. Her one claim to fame is that she is the first First Lady to be born an American citizen.
Angelica is more well-known, and we do have her journals to read (see below). Her legacy seems to reside in her beautiful White House portrait which is still revered today. And her entertaining missteps during a national depression influenced the more toned-down style of future first ladies during wars and financial crises.
My Time with the Van Buren Women
With not much information to research, I had a hard time connecting with Hannah Van Buren. Her portrait does make me sad as she seems to be pensive and serious.
I absolutely love Angelica’s White House portrait and her elegant style. What a beautiful young lady who had so much put upon her shoulders at such a young age. I can’t imagine being twenty, newly married, and thrust into the hostessing duties of a first lady! She had to be intelligent and charming to win over the tough Washington society. It’s too bad she didn’t continue to follow her entertaining instincts after the European trip. She should have relied more upon her matchmaker and mentor, Dolley Madison, instead of emulating Queen Victoria!
Travels with the Van Buren Women
I haven’t been to any of these sites (yet!) but would love to see Kinderhook, especially in the fall.
Martin Van Buren National Historic Site, Kinderhook, NY
President Martin Van Buren bought this property in 1839 and lived here after the White House until his death. The house, called Lindenwald, was Angelica Van Buren’s home for five years as well. The site has preserved her bedroom along with her dresses, parasol, and china.
Hannah and Martin Van Buren are buried in the local Dutch Reformed cemetery in the Village of Kinderhook (five minute drive from the historic site). You can also view several highway markers here about President Van Buren (including one of his mother’s ancestral home) and the town statue of him. There is no mention of Hannah in any of the markers or statues.
Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, NY
Angelica Singleton Van Buren is buried here with her husband.
Melrose House Plantation (part of Poinsett State Park), Wedgefield, SC
Angelica’s childhood home and family graveyard is now part of a state park.
To Learn More
Books to Read
Unfortunately, there are no books written about Hannah or Angelica. In fact, there are very few books written about President Van Buren! I read one that was short and barely mentioned the women.
Angelica’s papers and diaries can be found at the University of South Carolina and some of her journals have been digitized. I tried reading through these journals about her extensive trip to Europe with her family in 1854-1856 but the writing is too hard to read on a computer screen.
White House Historical Association
- Hannah Hoes Van Buren
- Angelica Singleton Van Buren
- The Van Buren White House Christmas ornament is inspired by President Van Buren’s renovation of the Blue Room (also the site of Angelica’s doomed dais!). Before his presidency, this room was red. You can purchase it here.
National First Ladies Library (has an extensive article on Angelica)
Both Hannah and Angelica Van Buren are mostly lost to history when we talk about prominent first ladies. If we only knew more about them or had more written documentation, we could flesh out their lives. This is why it’s so important to study women throughout history so we don’t lose these perspectives!