Anna Harrison, this month’s focus of my Booking It Through History: First Ladies project, held the title in name only as she didn’t get the chance to even step foot in the White House before her husband, President William Henry Harrison, passed away. She holds the record as the first first lady to be widowed while in office, but she also has the distinction of being the only first lady to be both the wife and the grandmother of a president.
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.
Anna Tuthill Symmes was born July 25, 1775 in Morristown, New Jersey. Her mother, for whom she was named, died when she was one year old, so she was raised by her father, John Cleves Symmes, a New Jersey Supreme Court justice. When Anna was just four years old, her father, now a colonel in the American Continental Army, smuggled Anna through a burned-out New York City and the British lines to her maternal grandparents on Long Island. He donned a British soldier’s coat and put tiny Anna feet first into a saddlebag, filling the other saddlebag with turnips. When British soldiers questioned his presence, he told them he was taking Sir Henry Clinton turnips, avoiding capture and seeing Anna to safety. Years later, Anna was by his side as they watched the British warships leave the city.
After the Revolutionary War ended, her father became the chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. Despite his high position, he also had a hunger for adventure and moved to the Northwest Territory where he became a land speculator and frontier justice near what is now Cincinnati. Anna didn’t see her father for about a decade while she was in school back east, living with her grandparents. Her grandmother (also named Anna) ensured she received a fine education, first at a girls’ boarding school in the Hamptons and then at the famous Isabella Marshall Graham school in Manhattan where Anna was taught about philanthropic pursuits along with receiving a stellar education (Graham also founded an orphan society with Eliza Hamilton!). Anna ended up being the first first lady to have public education.
When she was 19, Anna moved to North Bend, Ohio to live with her father. She visited her sister at her home in Lexington, Kentucky where she met a dashing Virginia soldier, William Henry Harrison. He was smitten with Anna, and they quickly decided to marry. Even though William Henry came from one of the founding families of Virginia, her father objected to the match since he didn’t want his daughter living the hard life of a military spouse on the frontier. Anna and William Henry couldn’t be broken apart, and they married in North Bend on November 25, 1795 while father was gone. After a rocky start, her father grew to accept William Henry into the family and actually lived with them in his old age.
The newlyweds lived at Fort Washington in Cincinnati where their first child, Elizabeth, was born in 1796. In 1798, William Henry resigned from the military and moved Anna, Elizabeth, and their new baby into a log cabin in North Bend. He served as secretary for the Northwest Territory for a year until he was named the territorial representative to Congress meeting in the nation’s temporary capital of Philadelphia. Anna and their growing family traveled east with him, and their third child was born on a visit to William Henry’s childhood home near Richmond, Berkeley.
Anna and William Henry moved to a new home in Vincennes, Indiana when he was named the territorial governor in January of 1801. William Henry moved first, building a large home on the Wabash River that also served as a fortress against the anticipated Native American incursions. Called Grouseland, this home reminded him of the plantation homes he grew up with in Virginia and also provided Anna the means to live a more stable life. No longer constantly on the move, she made this house a home for their growing family, with seven additional children born over the next 14 years.
The home had a graceful staircase based on Mount Vernon with touches of architectural details from Berkeley and Monticello. Anna picked a bright yellow paint for the parlor and blue paint for the dining room that included silver flecks. In this land of rugged frontier living, Grouseland shined as a beacon of eastern civility and culture. It also was a protected refuge with a fortified cellar and walls with gun ports and a lookout platform. It later included a tunnel to allow easy escape from any attack as well. You can see pictures of Grouseland here.
Anna settled into life as the wife of the territorial governor, encouraging William Henry to write to Washington about the rough conditions of the Native Americans. Her intentions were good, but with President Jefferson and William Henry both land-hungry, their welfare was the least of their concerns. With the Louisiana Purchase and further land grabs, her husband now administered most of the continent, acquiring 29.2 million total acres from 1802-1805.
Anna established a homeschool for her growing family, allowing the girls to participate in academic studies much like she had as a child. She was always unsettled, however, by the constant unrest. William Henry believed the British were stirring up trouble with the Native Americans, encouraging them to fight against the encroaching Americans. His childhood fear of the British burning his household goods like they did at Berkeley during the Revolution haunted him.
In August of 1810, Anna and her children hunkered down in the house as William Henry met with the Native American leader, Tecumseh, on their lawn. What must she have thought when the talks dissolved and weapons were drawn? When they came back the following day, Anna now had 100 soldiers keeping her company in the house.
Despite the constant threat of attack, William Henry had to leave Anna and the children home alone quite frequently as he rode thousands of miles to oversee the territory. In September of 1811, he set out to confront the Native Americans at Prophetstown, leaving a pregnant Anna home alone. Upon arriving, he panicked, sending a militia back to protect her while he conducted the Battle of Tippecanoe, the battle that would make him famous. Just one month after the battle, Anna had wounded soldiers recuperating in her home when a large earthquake struck, leaving cracks in her plaster ceiling that are still there today.
As war with the British threatened in the summer of 1812, Anna and the children moved to the safer locale of the North Bend farm. They lived there with her father while William Henry became the Commander in Chief of the Army of the Northwest after the Battle of Thames in Canada where Tecumseh was killed. He visited her during the war, receiving a hero’s welcome in North Bend.
After the war, they made North Bend their permanent home, raising a family that included ten children (nine lived to adulthood). Anna was busy with the large family and was a devout, pious woman of faith, which helped as her children succumbed to a variety of illnesses as adults (only one child outlived Anna). As William Henry became involved in politics, serving as congressman, senator, and minister to Colombia, Anna liked reading political magazines but wasn’t political herself. As his political career stalled after his run for president in 1836 failed, she was happy that he was finally home for an extended period, even though his job as a county clerk didn’t bring in much money.
When he won the presidency in 1840, beating Martin Van Buren who had beat him four years before, Anna was heartbroken. He was the oldest person elected president (a record kept until Ronald Reagan), and she was ready for him to retire with their large family that now included many grandchildren. She was quoted as saying, “I wish my husband’s friends had left him where he is; happy and contented in retirement.” As he took the train to Washington to be inaugurated, Anna stayed home, nursing an illness and dragging her feet to pack for a trip she didn’t want to take. Her daughter-in-law, Jane Irwin Harrison, widow of William Henry Harrison, Jr., served as the new president’s hostess with some help from her aunt and Dolley Madison.
William Henry Harrison died just one month into his presidency, just as Anna was packing to come to Washington. She is the only first lady to never come to the White House (except Martha Washington). The president’s body was taken back to North Bend via boat where he was laid to rest on a hill above the river. Congress voted to give Anna $25,000 ($1 million today) and franking privileges, making her the first first lady to receive a pension. Even with this help, Anna still lived in near poverty from William Henry’s debts. Ever the proper East Coast-educated woman, she published a thank you note to Congress and the public in the nation’s newspapers.
After William Henry’s death, Anna lived the rest of her life in North Bend, doting on grandchildren that included future president Benjamin Harrison and telling them stories of her childhood. She was known to say, “Connections with US presidents mean very little to a girl who went into New York in a saddlebag, disguised as a sack of turnips.” She asked the subsequent presidents to give her family members government jobs and became active in abolitionist politics. She encouraged her grandchildren to support the Union in the Civil War, eagerly following their exploits in the battles.
After a fire that burned down her home in 1858, she moved in with her only surviving child, John Scott, and died at his home on February 25, 1864. She was the last first lady to be born a British subject and the oldest first lady until Jill Biden.
Portrait of Anna, the only one known to exist
Mrs. William Henry Harrison, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left. , None. [Between 1910 and 1960] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/96525570/.
With most of Anna’s correspondence burning in the house fire, little is known about this first lady who never made it to Washington. How did an East Coast highly educated woman feel about living in the rough conditions of the American frontier? I am sure it wasn’t easy, but it seems she was happy and content. Maybe her experience as a child during the rough and tumble war years prepared her for this lifestyle.
As the wife and grandmother of two presidents, there had to be something in Anna’s personality that enabled her to bring out the best in those she was around. A steely determination, an intelligence that wanted to help others and to bring glory to her family and country.
Anna’s legacy as first lady barely exists. Having never stepped foot in the White House, she doesn’t have any china at the Smithsonian or didn’t take up a charitable cause. Her name is known only as linked to the unfortunate death of her husband, his own legacy as president an afterthought to his military exploits. Anna should be known as a dutiful military spouse, one that endured months alone on the very edges of civilization. This nature plus her devotion to charitable causes would have served her well in the White House.
William Henry Harrison’s legacy on slavery is mixed with his childhood in Virginia’s plantation culture and his bringing enslaved people with him to the territories (even though it wasn’t permitted). We don’t know what Anna thought during her marriage, but in her later years, she was a committed abolitionist and supporter of the Union.
Even though the records are scarce, Anna’s legacy is still worthy to be remembered.
My Time with Anna
With the lack of facts, it was hard to relate to Anna’s life until I read a narrative nonfiction book (listed below) that detailed her actions. As the author brought to life the precariousness of frontier life, I put myself in Anna’s shoes, cowering in a room at Grouselands while her husband met with the Native Americans outside. Her heart must have been in her throat as she pulled her babies close to her while hearing the raised voices outside. I think any mother can understand Anna’s desire later in life to just live in peace with her husband after such a stressful time.
Learning about her unwillingness to come to Washington with her husband also made me wonder if this was a regret she carried for the rest of her life. Did she ever think of what would have happened if she had been with him? Would she have let him work himself to death, literally, as he tried to create his administration? Would she have insisted that he wear a coat on the fateful walk in the rain that some think took his life? I know I would think about that decision and regret it for the rest of my life.
Learning just this much about Anna left me wanting to learn more, particularly about her time in New York. Hopefully more will come out about her life!
Travels with Anna
Anna’s life took her from the East Coast to the wild west of the early 19th century.
- Anna and William Henry’s home (also the site of Benjamin Harrison’s birth) – historical marker at Miami Avenue and Woodruff Avenue
- Home of John Scott where Anna died (Benjamin Harrison’s childhood home) – historical marker at Symmes and Washington avenues
- William Henry Harrison Tomb Historic Site – where both Anna and William Henry are buried; includes several historic markers on the William Henry Harrison Memorial Trail. Across the street is her father’s grave.
- Harrison-Symmes Museum – museum with artifacts from both William Henry, Anna, and Anna’s father
- Site of Fort Washington – where Anna and William Henry started their married life; historical marker located at 421 East 4th Street across from Lytle Park
- House rented during War of 1812 at 4th and Broadway
- William Henry Harrison statue
Grouseland – Anna and William Henry’s fortified home on the frontier. I really want to go here!
Abraham Barton House – Lexington home where Anna met William Henry at 200 North Upper Street (not open to the public)
Morristown – Historical marker near childhood home with father
Walpack Township – Anna’s mother’s grave
Berkeley – William Henry’s childhood home where Anna gave birth to third child
To Learn More
Books to Read
There are no books written specifically about Anna and very few about William Henry. There is one new narrative nonfiction that I read and recommend.
This book details Harrison’s dealings with the Native Americans, specifically Tecumseh. It’s a sad tale full of betrayal and broken promises, but it has many good details about Anna (who he calls Nancy) and her life at Grouselands.
White House Historical Association
- Anna Harrison
- Jane Irwin Harrison
- The Harrison White House Christmas ornament is inspired by the president’s military service. You can purchase it here.
Anna Harrison is a footnote in history as the shortest serving first lady, but she was so much more than that. With her education and fortitude, she blazed her own path on the frontier that epitomizes the American spirit.