Anna Symmes Harrison

Anna Symmes Harrison
First Lady for a Month
By Anne Adams

 

 

Though she was First Lady for only a month, and never actually lived in the White House, Mrs. William Henry Harrison did not derive her position of influence from her marriage alone. As the daughter of Colonel John Cleves Symmes, developer of the Northwest Territories, Anna Symmes Harrison came from a family of power and influence.

Anna was born in July, 1775, and several months later her mother died. Because the Revolution was beginning and the British were a threat to their New Jersey home, Colonel Symmes disguised himself as a British soldier, and smuggled his children through the enemy lines intending to take them to their maternal grandparents on Long Island.  One legend relates how Symmes concealed baby Anna in a sack, and when questioned about the parcel, informed the authorities that the bag contained turnips for the table of the British commander on Long Island, New York. He arrived safely at his destination and there Anna and an older sister grew up and attended school.

Then in late 1794 after Symmes remarried and decided to find a new home in the Northwest Territory in what is now the Ohio and Indiana area, Anna accompanied them. Before they arrived there, they stayed a while at the home of Anna’s now married older sister in Lexington.  Then while there, after a few years Anna met Lt. William Henry Harrison. He had just returned from many months in frontier battles, including serving as an aide to the famous General “Mad” Anthony Wayne at the victory at Fallen Timbers in northwest Ohio. Because of his distinguished military record and prominent Virginia family background, Harrison drew female attention at the many parties and receptions he attended.  However, for his part, he was attracted to the dark-haired, dark eyed, serene young lady named Anna Symmes. Yet while they had time for only a short visit before Harrison had to return to his duties of arranging Indian treaties with area tribes, when he left it was with the assurance that Anna returned his affections.

Then in the spring of 1795, Symmes moved his family to his new home near the Ohio community of North Bend, on the Ohio River, west of Cincinnati.  Since he was stationed nearby, Harrison visited often that year, spending much time with Anna, and by the fall she was ready to be married. However, there was the problem of her father’s objections to her intended groom.

. Symmes had two objections. First, he was not sure Harrison could support Anna “in the style in which she was accustomed” on his military pay, and second, he had heard that Harrison’s unit and possibly Harrison himself were known to be rowdy and prone to drunkenness. Though Harrison had assured Symmes that he was not part of that, Anna’s father still had reservations.

However, while Anna was sure Harrison was not what her father suspected; Col. Symmes did not relent and forbade Anna to see him. Despite this she defied her father and they eloped and were married in November, 1795 and their first child  (eventually they would have ten children) was born the next year at their home near Cincinnati. About this time, Harrison bought land and built a cabin near North Bend.  He had been promoted but still left the army and though he had business interests and government service opportunities in the area, he decided to accept an appointment by President John Adams to be Secretary of the Northwest Territory.

Though Anna had been raised in a privileged genteel atmosphere, she came to prefer life at their North Bend home to army camp with its rough and rowdy atmosphere. For though she loved her husband, she was not fond of military life.

The next year Harrison was elected to Congress and then a year later became Governor of the Indiana Territory and this meant a family move to Vincennes, Indiana.

They found Vincennes to be set in a beautiful countryside but also the scene of unrest among the area Indian tribes. Because of the numerous white settlers, the chiefs feared the loss of land, fewer game animals to hunt and that there was discrimination against tribesmen in criminal prosecutions. Since Harrison was also Superintendent of Indian affairs in the territory there were frequent Indian visitors making official calls at the Harrison home.

However, William encouraged the local tribes to settle down and farm, citing the success of Cherokee and Creeks further south. Even though he asked Washington to provide advisors there was no real progress in persuade them to adapt to a new life. Then President Thomas Jefferson advised Harrison that because the federal government was reserving all land east of the Mississippi for white settlers he was to begin making treaties with the local tribes.

The large Harrison family was now living in a new brick home – the first one in the Vincennes area. In one sense the home was luxurious with black walnut paneling, elegant handcrafted mantelpieces, and imported window glass, yet because of its frontier location it was also a fort. This meant it was built with slits in the walls for rifle barrels, and a ready supply of gunpowder in the basement. There in the home they called Grouseland, Anna was to live eleven years and add more children to their family.

Meanwhile, Harrison began his negotiations with the local tribes, seeking a settlement of land trades. Many agreed to the benefits offered, but Shawnee leader Tecumseh was not willing to do so. In fact he and his brother, who was regarded as a spiritual leader among their people, began to encourage other local tribes to break the treaties they had already signed.

Because Washington did not provide the troops thought necessary so when Harrison led U.S. forces at the battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 Harrison had to rely on local volunteers and reserve troops. However, Harrison’s victory that year persuaded the tribes to let the treaties stand.  Meanwhile back at Grouseland, Anna and the children managed despite rumors of enemy raids. Though they were never bothered, there was the ongoing fear they might be attacked.

Then when the War of 1812 began soon after Harrison was appointed Supreme Commander in the Northwest Territory and in October, 1813 with Harrison leading his forces against the British in the Great Lakes area, Anna gave birth to her ninth child.  He had great influence and respect because of his military successes, but when political authorities began to countermand his orders he decided to resign his position. Anna was relieved, gratified that her husband would be coming home to stay, especially since she had just given birth to a tenth child who did not long survive.

With Harrison’s retirement from military life, the family moved back to the North Bend area where they remodeled and expanded their log house into a spacious but sprawling residence. It was not as elegant as Grouseland but it was the home Anna would occupy for many years to come. Because of its location on the Ohio River, the Harrison home became a frequent stop for visitors who wanted to pay their respects to the war hero Harrison had become.

Harrison entered politics as he was elected to Congress in 1816 and then in 1819 to the Ohio State Senate. Meanwhile, the Harrison children were becoming adults and as they pursued their education the expenses meant such a heavy financial burden to their parents Harrison had to mortgage some of his property.

In 1825 Harrison was elected to the. U.S. Senate, where his popularity and his attempts to introduce legislation benefiting the military irritated some colleagues. They were concerned that he might seek the Vice Presidency in the next election so to remove him from this possibility they assigned him to a foreign diplomatic post in South America.  However, after difficulties with the local government officials there, he was recalled.

Anna remained at home, and now had become worried about two of her sons – one had become an alcoholic and could no longer support his family and the other was deeply in debt. Besides these concerns there was also an ever-present Harrison family debt. However, just when they were about to sell some of their lands, Anna’s father died and her inheritance eased their situation.

Now age 60, Harrison’s health was declining and he was occasionally ill, so Anna was shocked and puzzled when he was named as the Whig candidate for president in 1836. However, she said little since her husband was flattered and pleased at the honor, but to her relief Martin Van Buren defeated him.

For the next few years the Harrisons enjoyed a peaceful life surrounded by children, grandchildren and many visitors.  Anna continued to practice her Presbyterian faith, complete with strict Sunday observation, and expected others in the family to do so. Harrison even learned not to discuss politics on that day.

In 1840 the Whigs approached Harrison to run for president. Despite Anna’s pleas that he decline, he began to campaign even though he was almost 68 and his health was not good. His record as a war hero as well as his political views appeared to please the voters and he was elected. . “I wish my husband’s friends had left him where he is,” Anna noted, “happy and contented in retirement.”

At news of her husband’s victory, Anna was reported to have openly wept   One writer described her as: “terrified that the demands of the White House would rob her of the least years of her husband’s life.” (“Secret Lives of the First Ladies”, Cormac O’Brien, p. 48). Unfortunately, she was correct.

When Harrison left for Washington to take office in March, 1841, Anna was ill and grieving for a son’s recent death and thus could not immediately accompany him. However, their daughter in law, Jane Findlay Harrison went along to be official hostess until Anna could come to Washington.

A cold wind was blowing at the inaugural on March 4 and Harrison spoke nearly two hours, wearing no gloves or hat. Because of his advanced age and with his resistance lowered because of hard work and many visitors, he developed pneumonia. He died exactly a month after assuming office, on April 4, 1841 and when she received the news, Anna was still packing for the trip to Washington.

Anna remained at her home at North Bend, with her children nearby to see to her needs. However, if her father had been concerned about her husband’s inability to provide for her in her final years, then he had been proved correct. Harrison had left debts that were paid partially by a congressionally granted pension, but Anna spent her final years in “genteel poverty” and assisted by her family and her church.

Also, in her final years she became particularly close to her grandson Benjamin. Their relationship was devoted and affectionate, and she often admonished him to remember to conduct himself in such a way as to bring honor to the family name. She died in February, 1863, and did not know that her beloved grandson would become the president himself.