Pat Nixon: First-Generation German-American & Her Lincoln Assassination Link

There was irony to a small storyline running beneath the more important issues of the 1960 presidential race between Democratic candidate, U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy and Republican candidate, Vice President Richard Nixon, involving some half-truths and hidden facts about the way in which their wives were presented to the public.

As a previous article on this website detailed the maiden name of the Democrat’s wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, identified her as being “French,” when in truth, that national origin represented only one-eighth of her ancestry. Never disclosed was the fact that half of her ancestry was Irish Catholic, as her husband’s was fully. In their effort to gain the widest range of support, JFK campaign managers operated with the belief that there was still a sizable percentage of voters who mistrusted a potential Catholic president and held onto bigoted views against those of Irish background. It found no value and potentially some harm in revealing the truth about jackie Kennedy’s parentage and let the perception of her as having some sort of inherent sense of style based on her French blood remain in place.


In contrast was Pat Nixon. The candidate himself was a Quaker, a Protestant sect. In 1952, when he delivered his famous “Checkers speech” with Pat Nixon seated near him, visible to the live television audience of 60 million, he explicitly identified her as being “Irish,” although at no point in their public life was it revealed whether she was a Protestant or a Catholic.

The revelation that she was Irish was more a matter of pointing out the obvious, since her maiden name was “Ryan,” rather than an attempt to appeal to Catholic voters by suggesting she might be of that faith.


Yet like Jackie Kennedy, what neither the campaigns nor the media covering them ever disclosed  her maternal ancestry. In fact, when her husband was elected President in 1968, Pat Nixon became the first child of an immigrant to become First Lady.

The bigotry unleashed in earlier generations against various ethnic groups of all races may have begun to rapidly faded by the time Pat Nixon’s husband first ran for President in 1960, but it had also left lingering emotional scars about which most of those wounded by them remained silent.Lady. Despite this unprecedented detail might have served as a political appeal to immigrant or first-generation voters when Nixon ran for his second term, in 1973, a time when a previously unknown movement of  pride in “roots,” was emerging in the national culture, the Nixon White House never exploited the story of the First Lady’s immigrant mother, nor even made the facts of it forthcoming. There was no dark secret which led to it being withheld;  it was simply that Pat Nixon had very little about her personal life that she could keep private – and that she knew almost nothing about her own mother’s background.

In the case of Pat Nixon, her mother Kate Halberstadt had immigrated to the U.S. at the age of ten years old in 1888, coming from Ober Rosbach in Germany, not far from Frankfort. There, her family had been farmers for some two centuries, harvesting fruit trees.

She married a fellow German-American by the name of Bender who found work in South Dakota and by him had two children, Matthew and Neva. After a flash flood killed her husband, she remarried in 1908 to William Martin Ryan, the fifth of ten children, whose parents had been immigrants from County Mayo in Ireland.

Financial strain led to her son Matthew being raised by the parents of her first husband. 

Born March 16, 1912 just hours before it was St. Patrick’s Day, her Irish father nicknamed her his “St. Patrick’s babe in the morning.” She would always celebrate her birthday on the holiday and, after his 1930 dath, change her name to Pat.By Will Ryan, she then gave birth to three children, two sons named Tom and Bill and a daughter she called Thelma Catherine.

Pat Ryan had only just celebrated her fifth birthday, however, when the U.S. went to war against Germany and a new tension arose in the working-class household of her parents. As detailed in a previous article here about Florence Harding’s ancestry, a virulent anti-German movement swept the United States, including acts of violence. Even Will Ryan felt a resentment towards Germans, though it was never expressed in any way towards his beloved wife.

Although she wasn’t known to speak with a thick or identifiable German accent, Kate Ryan was terrified of being victimized or having her young children harmed simply because she was a German immigrant. As her granddaughter Julie later wrote, Kate made little Pat “promise that she would not tell anyone she was German-born…No longer did Kate converse in her native tongue…”

Furthermore, as Pat Ryan matured, her mother never told her anything about her German heritage or even the fact that she had siblings, uncles, aunts and first cousins still living in Germany. She barely told her children about the experience of crossing the sea to come to America.

With her family in Germany, like all citizens there, barely surviving the high inflation of the post-war period, what very little money Kate  could afford to put aside to help support them was sent in great secrecy.

Most astounding of all, Kate never even told Pat and her brothers her own German maiden name. She died when Pat was only thirteen years old. Not for another half a century would the woman who would become First Lady learn any details about her German ancestry.

In the early 21st century, with the Internet and other methods making genealogical and other family records so instantly accessible it may seem odd that children had no idea what their mother’s original surname might have been. Yet a century ago, so many children of the working-class were struggling to simply find a way to subsist on meager amounts of food and keep living under the same roof as a family due to financial burden or a parent’s death, that spending time to research one’s family origin was a luxury of the privileged.

The result of this left Pat Nixon with little sentimental affinity for either Germany or Ireland, having no knowledge of  her parents’ relatives still living in those countries.

In fact, during a trip to Germany with her husband and daughters in the mid-1960s, Pat Nixon made no effort to either tell them how closely located they were to the place where her mother had come from or attempt to locate Kate’s exact hometown.

As First Lady in 1970, when she was scheduled to make a tour of Europe with the President, Mrs. Nixon felt “discomfort” when she learned that her husband’s aides had arranged a “family reunion” with her second and third cousins in Ballinrobe, Ireland, in county Mayo.

She’s always felt proud of her better-known Irish heritage, but she feared the “artificiality” of being thrust into a sudden familial intimacy with strangers.

As it turned out, the Ryan family luncheon held in Ashford Castle on October 4, 1970 was a happy occasion during which she connected naturally with those whose roots she shared, following a trip to the old cemetery where her great-grandparents were buried.

Although it received far less media attention in the United States, Pat Nixon’s visit to Ireland gave its people a great sense of pride, many referring to her at the time as the “Queen of America.” As she stepped off a helicopter which landed in a lush stretch of green valley on a blustery day, she was greeted by a girl with flowers and a boys’ brass band which played Irish music, followed by a demonstration of traditional dance. She proceeded to the cottages of several distant relatives, and visited the starkly modest sod house and farm of her great-grandparents, where her grandfather had been born and raised.

Named Patrick Sarsfield Ryan, he was born in 1834 in Hollymount, between Ballinrobe and Claremorris, in Kilvindoney, and immigrated to the U.S. in 1855, coming through  Savannah, Georgia.  He became a naturalized citizen a year later. While it is purely speculation, it may be that Mrs. Nixon’s father Will Ryan had not declared her by the feminine name “Patricia,” but rather the nickname “Pat” as a way to quietly remember his own father.

On November 27, 1857, Patrick Ryan married Catherine McHugh, in Danbury, Connecticut, where other Irish immigrants from his town like his new wife had settled. He found regular work in a local haberdashery factory.

While John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and her own husband all visited the towns in Ireland from which their ancestors had come during their presidencies, no First Lady except Pat Nixon has made such a trip.

While in Ireland, she was given information about the origins of some of her ancestors.  There were even reports that she was distantly related to the then-famous television variety-show host Ed Sullivan.

Nevertheless, fear of bigotry led many immigrant and first-generation Americans in earlier times to withhold information from their children and grandchildren even about their early experiences in their new country.

This meant that Pat Nixon, who died in 1993, never learned her own fascinating connection to the most beloved of American Presidents, Abraham Lincoln.

Not until about ten years ago did details about Pat Ryan’s immigrant grandparents emerge from new genealogical research.  Patrick Ryan was one of eight children, several others of whom also immigrated to the U.S., including his sister Julia Ryan who married his wife’s brother, John McHugh.

During the Civil War, both men  served in Connecticut’s 17th Volunteer Regiment, the ranks of which were thinned on the very first day of battle at Gettysburg. They had also fought at Chancellorville.

After the Civil War, the First Lady’s grandfather Patrick served in the Veterans Reserve Corps and was based in Washington, D.C.  With his tour of duty there occurring at the time of the trials of the conspirators in the Lincoln assassination, he found himself routinely assigned to guarding the imprisoned Mary Surratt, who ran the Maryland boardinghouse which served as their meeting place.

Other sources also include Patrick Ryan serving as guard of another alleged conspirator, Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set the broken leg of assassin John Wilkes Booth.

Patrick Ryan’s assignment ended, of course, when Mrs. Surratt was found guilty and hung.  Mudd was pardoned on the fact that he’d only been carrying out his medical duty, unaware that his patient was Lincoln’s assassin. Patrick Ryan returned to Connecticut, settling in Danbury, where he died in 1915.

Three years after the death of this immigrant with a connection to one President, the granddaughter he never knew, with a connection to another President, was born.

This article is part of an ongoing series about the racial, religious and ethnic identity of First Ladies, beginning with the recent discoveries about First Lady Michelle Obama and her ancestry from both an Irish immigrant family of Georgia slave-owners and African slaves emerging from Rachel Swarns new book on the subject, American Tapestry. That story can be read here.

Past articles considered Jacqueline Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Florence Harding, and a look at candidate’s spouse Ann Davis Romney’s Atheist and Welsh immigrant father. Forthcoming are articles on Edith Wilson, Eliza Johnson and Mamie Eisenhower. The series is not a definitive guide to genealogy, nor from the perspective of the professional genealogists but rather to illustrate the uniquely American issues of “identity,” the choices made by individuals with various ethnic origins who, by personal choice for various reasons, associate themselves with one part of their background over others. More importantly, the series focuses on how such choices of identity by spouses have served the political and campaign purposes of Presidential candidates and Presidents.

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