Anna Symmes Harrison
Frontier Mother and First Lady: Anna Symmes Harrison – born on July 25, 1775, she married William Henry Harrison
She had 10 children their names; Elizabeth Bassett, John Cleves, Lucy Singleton, William Henry Junior, John Scott, Benjamin, Mary, Carter Bassett, Anna Tuthill, and James Findlay.
Anna was very close to all of her children there is one quote from a book that reads, “I hope my dear, you will always bear upon your mind that you are born to die and we know not how soon death may overtake us, it will be little consequence if we are rightly prepared for the event.” Note: sent to son William.
Anna Harrison was not only a first lady but a mother of 10 children. She was born in Sussex County New York, the second daughter to John Cleves Symmes and Anna Tuthill Symmes.
Anna, born during what was known as the frontier time, lost her own mother at one year of age. Her father, John, brought Anna to be raised by her maternal grandparents, on Long Island. Her father was now fighting the British during the Revolutionary war.
Why Anna Harrison believed in frontier women came from a move to the Northwest Territory where, at 19, and following the best education, she joined her father and his third wife. During those days of stagecoach trains, women were married at 13 or at least by 16.
Anna seemed to lag behind the rest of the women on the train, not finding a suitable suitor until she reached Lexington, Kentucky. It happened quickly, laying eyes on a handsome army captain named William Henry Harrison.
Anna’s father disliked Harrison, he believed he could not afford to take good care of his daughter, but this did not stop the couple. One day when John, her father, was away, they were married. Marriage happened in strange places during the frontier era.
When her father returned he stopped communicating for a few weeks with his daughter’s husband. It would take William to prove to his father-in-law, exactly the type of man he was, and suitable for Anna.
Anna remained home on the frontier tending to her house, and raising children, which she had been known to do a great deal of, caring for children. She believed, and had said, “It all came from a proper education.” As her family grew larger the home seemed too small and Anna’s father was telling his daughter that he was right that this man will not be able to take care of her in a proper way, not to mention all the children.
Anna insisted that she was living a good life and being well cared for she also mentioned the education her children received was far beyond that of any others. Anna knew her training as a young girl helped train her own children teaching them as much as she knew, and she was known as a great scholar.
Finally, William was wealthy enough to move his growing family to Grouseland, into a mansion, in Vincennes, Indiana. Anna called it a fort instead of a mansion since she knew out there in the wilderness were wild Indians. She said, “Not all Indians were hostile but I have to be sure the children were cared for, watched out for some would attack for daily needs.” Yes, Anna knew the countryside, was Indian Territory, it was the great frontier.
Often, you would find Anna toting a rifle and all her children following behind her as they went into the fields to pick berries or settled on a patch of ground for formal education. Although Anna kept a close eye on all 10 children, by the year 1840, six of the ten had died from what she named frontier life.
While Anna was tending to all the children, it was in 1836, when William wanted to run for President of the United States, and when he lost in 1836, she was quite pleased. She never thought he would run for the second time in 1840, and win. Now, Anna had to picture herself as a first lady living in the White House.
Anna warned her husband not to travel to Washington DC since the weather was odd, cold for April, and she told him, “I will be staying behind with the children until we are prepared to move.” All the time without her husband, she feared something horrible would happen to her husband. Anna knew he wasn’t any spring chicken; her husband was 68 years old, but in good health.
The day he took the oath of office, the wind blew open overcoats and hats flew into the air for so cold even those who stood to listen to William speak left they began to drift away just to find a warm place. The new president spoke for one hour and 45 minutes, and it had been said without a hat work gloves as the wind whipped against his face and body. It was Anna who told her husband to stay in Indiana, she was right, the cold weather brought on pneumonia and the new president died on April 4, 1841.
Before her husband’s death, Anna had been preparing to leave for the White House in May, with the remaining children. At the time her sister-in-law had taken over the duties of first lady. Anna would be known as the only first lady who never crossed the threshold in the White House.
She often reminded her children as they grew older that she was the second First Lady because Martha Washington had no White House to enter.
Anna’s father John and his worries about his daughter being poor became a fact. If it were not for Congress who voted in favor of a pension to be given to Anna, totaling $25,000 a year, the title of poor would have stuck. She used the money to pay huge debts made by William.
The feeling of gratitude toward Congress would remain in her heart forever, and she reminded her children how they were able to survive during rough times all because of thoughtful men.
Imagine in this day and age the Congress would be fighting over the amount of money to give to Anna, in honesty, William was the president of the United States, and he did win the office, so he deserved some compensation for his family.
People often said he was ignorant to stand for one hour and forty-five minutes and speak to people who felt the cold, knew the circumstances and began to dwindle away. All around Washington DC William was talked about as people mentioned his long inaugural speech killed him.
Anna would sit and tell stories about her life to her children, especially when her father fought the enemies. If you recall after her own mother’s death her father fought the enemies but the story was about his daughter and how he managed to get her across enemy lines.
As they crossed into Long Island to be with her mother’s mother her father traveled in a wagon filled with bags of vegetables and one was filled with the likes of his daughter, and he drove straight through the enemy line and safely made it to his mothers-in-law’s home.
Anna laughed when she told the story remembering quite well crouching into this bad and crossing her fingers praying they would make it through. Anna told many stories about the Indians and how hostile they were to the white man although she made many friends with many Indians knowing the front tier was her home.
Anna would outlive all but one child, and she had a total of 48 grandchildren. One thing Anna would have been very proud of happened when her grandson, born to her son John, would become president of the United States.
Now people talked about Anna as the first lady and the president’s wife, but they added the grandmother of a president. Some of the stories she did tell the children concerned those long hard battles William fought for and eventually he would be elected president even if it were for only 30 days. Anna continued to say her husband would’ve made a fantastic president but the party felt differently they thought it was a false statement and referred to William as a figurehead.
Politics will never change, there’s always someone higher up telling you what to do even if you are the president.
When Anna talked about her husband’s trip to Washington DC, to her children’s children, and their grandfather, they never fussed, so with open ears paid close attention to all the words their grandmother spoke.
She told her children’s children that their grandfather arrived by train at DC on February 8, 1841, and when he left Indiana, he looked exhausted. She would stare at the children and shake her head and continue, telling them it took William two weeks to arrive in DC and all during the trip his hat he held in his hands as he continued to greet those lined on the platform or in the streets to see the president.
People from every community cheered and waved him on he did not want to ignore even one person. Everyone wanted to look at the new president who was traveling to DC to take the oath of office, the same people once called him too old and feeble; now he walked from car to car straight and red-cheeked, chilled by the air.
This was his last trip, Anna told her grandchildren and it began in Cincinnati, Ohio, on a steamboat to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and then switched to travel on the national railroad at Brownsville, Pennsylvania, along the Atlantic Coast.
Then he would be in the lead stagecoach traveling with a group of others; they called the wagon train, The President.
The train was met in Baltimore, Maryland, and the stagecoach especially for the president brought him to Washington DC and onto the capital. all of the grandchildren continue to listen, as she mentioned it was a two week trip and it consisted of not just traveling but speeches, children singing to him, handshaking, talks with local leaderships from other communities, and people who had food for him; from home cook soup to strawberry preserves.
As quoted from one book Anna said, “When you are grandfather stopped to sleep a young girl came to hand him a cake and it looked like a log.” Perhaps that was the first cake that was ever made to look like the frontier.
It never mattered once he was elected if you voted or not because he was pleased by such a large turnout, it felt like the voting would never end. On March 4th he rode to the capital with crowds equal to those who came to listen to Pres. George Washington, and he was proud. Anna continued to tell the children that their grandfather had an Irish doorman who loved the opportunity to say yes or no to visitors who came to the front door of the White House.
Oh yes, Anna told stories, because as she told them, no one much cared except for her family because she never stepped foot into the White House, and no one could ever talk about her.
It finally came out the reason why Anna remained in Indiana, telling the children it was ill-health that kept her home. Perhaps the unhealthy was one of her children and not herself. One thing she got a kick out of was telling her children and grandchildren that she was born one year before the signing of the declaration of independence.
And she proudly said until she closed her eyes, peacefully, telling those same grandchildren, “I was 65 when your grandfather died.” People believed Anna was frail, and to frail for a long ride to Washington, over two weeks, and that was why she never went. On inauguration day his son’s wife, the wife of the late son John Harrison, went in her mother-in-law’s place.
It would be William who would call a doctor for himself on March 26, and when the doctor arrived his main complaint was exhaustion. At first the doctor recommended rest, but he began to shake during the next day or two so the doctor returned and gave him mustard packs then told him to use heat packs and drink a lot of hot drinks. He remained in bed for several more days but he became a man in pain, and finally, the doctor gave him Opium for the pain along with shots of warm whiskey.
The president lay above the oval office, in the oval room on the second floor. Those who were in Washington DC from his family would never leave his side. The press made a heyday out of his illness and death before dying they printed the president would never make it. It was 30 minutes after midnight on April 4 when the doctor announced to his grandson, John, your grandfather had died. (John would one day end up the President of the United States.)
Out of all the first ladies up until this point, Anna was known as the quiet, frail, educated, and the mother of 10 children. No one will really know what kept her home instead of traveling with her husband for the big day when he took the oath of office.