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First Lady Biography: Anna Harrison


Solitude Farm, near Morristown, Sussex County, New Jersey
25 July, 1775

John Cleves Symmes, born 21 July, 1742, Colonel of the Continental Army during American Revolution, associate justice on the New Jersey Superior Court (1778-1785), delegate from Delaware to the Continental Congress (1785-1786), Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court (1787), died 26 February, 1814 in Cincinnati, Ohio.
*In 1787 John Symmes was appointed judge of the Northwest Territory. In 1788 he obtained from the government a grant; of 1,000,000 acres, bounded south by the Ohio, and west by the Miami, and was the founder of the settlements of North Bend, and Cincinnati thereon.

*After the death of his first wife, Anna Tuthill, Judge John Symmes married secondly to a Mrs. Halsey, and thirdly to Susan Livingston, daughter of New York Governor William Livingston.


Anna Tuthill Symmes, born 17 June, 1749; married 30 October, 1760 in Southhold, Long Island, New York; died 25 July, 1776


English; the last of Anna Harrison's ancestors to emigrate from England was one of her paternal great-great grandparents Anthony Collamore, who died at sea on 16 December, 1693.

Birth Order and Siblings:

Second of two; one sister; Maria Symmes Short (1762-?)

Physical Appearance:

small in height, dark brown hair, dark brown eyes

Religious Affiliation:



Clinton Academy, 1781-?, East Hampton, New York: taught the classics and English; Boarding School of Isabella Marshal Graham,1787-1791, New York City, New York, Anna Harrison was a classmate of incumbent First Lady Martha Washington's granddaughter Nellie Custis for one year, from 1789 to 1790. While there is no record of whether she may have been invited to the presidential mansion by her schoolmate, it is unlikely she would have attended formal events, still being too young to circulate in adult society.

*Anna Harrison was the first First Lady to receive a formal education

Occupation before Marriage:

For the first three years after the death of her mother, Anna Symmes was raised by her father but as an officer in the Continental Army, he was unable to fully care for her. He put on the uniform of a British soldier and rode by horseback from New Jersey through British-occupied New York to take the four year old to her maternal grandparents Henry and Phoebe Tuthill in Southhold, Suffolk County, on Long Island. They supervised her excellent education and raised her through late adolescence.

Ignored by her previous biographers, however, is the potential influence young Anna Symmes may have experienced from the age of twelve until she was fifteen years old by living as a boarding student in the household of her teacher Isabella Marshal Graham. A Scottish immigrant and widow, Graham was a feminist who believed in a woman’s right to equal education and a social activist, becoming perhaps the first woman in America to form a charitable organization, one which helped to provide housing, food, education and employment to indigent widows and orphans. At one point, some of her young women students also began to teach the orphaned children. There is no record of Anna Harrison doing this, although there is also no record of her life for the three years following her completion of studies at the Graham school. In 1794, she rejoined her father and her second stepmother Susan Livingston Symmes at a temporary home on his extensive land holdings in the Northwest Territory along the Ohio River near Cincinnati.

While the home of Judge Symmes was being built in North Bend, Ohio, she and her stepmother lived with Anna Harrison's elder sister Maria and her husband Peyton Short in Lexington, Kentucky. There she met and fell in love with the young Army officer, Acting Captain William Henry Harrison, who had fought in Indian wars in the Northwest Territory.


20 years old, to William Henry Harrison (born 09 Feb 1773, Berkeley Plantation, Charles City County, Virginia), on 22 November 1795, at North Bend, Hamilton County, Ohio; it is not clear whether Anna Symmes and William Henry Harrison eloped or married in her father's home. It is known that Judge Symmes initially opposed the marriage on the basis that a military career was not stable enough to support a wife and family but relented once he came to know and admire the character and strength of his new son-in-law.


six sons, four daughters; Elizabeth Bassett Harrison Short (1796-1846); John Cleves Symmes Harrison (1798-1830); Lucy Singleton Harrison Estes (1800-1826); William Henry Harrison II (1802-1838); John Scott Harrison (1804-1878); Benjamin Harrison (1806-1840); Mary Symmes Harrison Thornton (1809-1842); Carter Bassett Harrison (1811 – 1839); Anna Tuthill Harrison Taylor (1813-1845); James Findlay Harrison (1814 –1817)

*Anna Harrison bore the largest number of children by a First Lady yet outlived all but one.

Occupation after Marriage:

Anna Harrison had no ambitions socially or politically; rather she derived her sense of purpose from the traditional roles of wife and mother and as a devoted member of her church community. Through Harrison's early military career, she remained at the small log home that they built on 169 acres in North Bend.

In 1799, when Harrison was elected to Congress as Territorial Representative, Anna Harrison joined him in the capital city of Philadelphia and made an extensive visit to his relatives in Richmond, Virginia. It would be her only trip back to the eastern seaboard for the rest of her life.

When Harrison was named Territorial Governor of Indiana in 1801, Anna Harrison moved with her children to the former French trading post of Vincennes, Indiana where her husband built the family a sturdy brick mansion they called Grouseland. While it was located on what was still very much the frontier, the rooms were as elegantly furnished as would be found in the homes of the couples’ native states of Virginia and New Jersey, respectively.


Although the Harrisons did have a number of servants, it was necessary for Anna Harrison to take a direct role in the full management of the site. This not only included the traditional responsibilities of motherhood for her growing family that would eventually include ten children, but the unusual task of financial management of her and her husband's property, other assets and debts. She confessed to doing poorly at the last responsibility. Her excellent education, however, may be the primary characteristic which led Anna Harrison to stand out from many of the other women of the working-class who did venture west with their fathers, husbands and brothers to pioneer a new life in undeveloped territories. She not only instructed her children in the primary skills of reading, writing and religious studies from the Bible, but also introduced them to the classics, including Greek philosophy and Shakespeare.

In addition, Anna Harrison had the unusual task of assuming a public role, in line with her husband’s political and military responsibilities in the region. Their home essentially functioned as the territory’s headquarters. As wife of the territorial governor she also made her family home a public space for entertaining those political and military figures who came to consult with Harrison, including Vice President Aaron Burr.

The vulnerability of Anna Harrison and her children to potential raids and attacks by Native American Indians who resisted the federal government’s seizing and encroachment of their home lands required some form of protection of Grouseland, and a fortress-like wall around it. During Governor Harrison’s various negotiations and treaty-signings with Native American leaders, Anna Harrison also welcomed and entertained not only Shawnee Chief Tecumseh into her home without fear, but his brother, the spiritual and political leader Tenskwatawa, who believed in the necessity of widespread war and slaughter against the white settlers.

With the War of 1812, Anna Harrison took her children back to North Bend, Ohio where there was less chance of danger. Upon her father's death in 1814, she and her husband inherited Judge Symmes' substantial land holdings - but also his great debts. They enlarged their cabin into a 22-room house. Despite Harrison's subsequent election to the U.S. House and then Senate, and his appointment as Minister to Columbia, Anna Harrison remained in Ohio while he was away in Washington and then Bogotá.

Despite her remaining in Ohio, Anna Harrison was well-read and actively interested in the political world in which her husband now moved, avidly consuming all the political journals and newspapers she was able to obtain on the frontier. What most engaged her outside of her family, however, were her Presbyterian Church activities. So involved was she with her religious community that she even was known to invite her entire congregation back to the Harrison home after Sunday service for an open house supper.

In light of the dearth of primary source materials, conclusions about the balance of power within the marital relationship of William Henry and Anna Harrison are difficult to make. Mrs. Harrison apparently accepted the course her husband chose as his career, regardless of the ramifications on her family. On the other hand, Harrison shared an interest and responsibility in the food preparations for family and guest, all of it coming from the cattle and produce raised on their farm.

There is little in the way of documentation regarding any influence she may have exercised over her husband's decisions except for the fact that she demanded that he never bring political guests nor conduct any business on Sunday; this was evidently the context in which the often-quoted remark of one observer that Anna Harrison "rules the General" was made.

Presidential Campaign and Inauguration:

Anna Harrison voiced her opposition to the drafting of her husband as the Whig candidate for President in both 1836 and 1840.

Although she opposed his candidacy, Anna Harrison was a visible presence at the Harrison home at North Bend during the colorful "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" campaign of 1840 where supporters, Whig organizers and reporters came to see the candidate. Harrison was 68 years old when he became President. Until the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, Harrison was the oldest man to assume the office. In the winter of 1841, as an entourage consisting of her husband and family members were leaving Ohio by a caravan of horse-drawn carriages to Virginia to visit one of her daughters and then to Washington, D.C. to attend President-elect Harrison's Inauguration, Anna Harrison was ill and too weak to join them.

Considering that she would live another 22 years in often robust health suggests that whatever illness she was suffering from in 1841 was temporary. It may have also been a relatively severe depression: she was still mourning the 12 August 1839 death of her son Carter, and the 9 June 1840 death of her son Benjamin.

First Lady:

4 March, 1841 - 4 April, 1841
65 years old

In sending her daughter-in-law Jane Harrison in her stead, it is not clear whether Anna Harrison did so to at least ensure that there would be a female presence and companion for the new President at the Inauguration as they anticipated his greeting thousands of well-wishers for him - the first chief executive elected from the Whig Party - or to serve at all White House functions.

By education and experience, Anna Harrison was well-qualified to serve as hostess herself. No primary sources indicate her intentions. She was in good health and preparing to leave by stagecoach from Ohio to Washington when a courier arrived at the Harrison farm with the shocking news that the President had died. Anna Harrison remained in Ohio since she would not have arrived in time for the funeral services and temporary interment in the Congressional Vault of her late husband in Washington, D.C. had she attempted the arduous and lengthy trip there. Harrison's body was later buried in North Bend, Ohio.

*Anna Harrison is the only incumbent First Lady who never entered the White House.

White House Hostess:

Jane Irwin Harrison
Jane Irwin Findlay

During the brief four weeks of the Harrison Administration, Jane Irwin Harrison (1804-1846) served as hostess. Her father Archibald Irwin inherited the homestead and mill that his own father and namesake had built in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. He married for his first wife Mary Ramsey, daughter of Major James Ramsey, who also built and ran a mill, near Mercersburg. Archibald and Mary Ramsey Irwin had two daughters, Jane and Elizabeth, both of whom were born in the family's limestone mansion.

Mary Ramsey Irwin's sister, Nancy married an Englishman John Sutherland, and moved with him to his home in North Bend, Ohio, near the home of William Henry and Anna Harrison. Jane and Elizabeth Irwin were visiting their aunt Nancy Sutherland when they met two of the Harrison sons, William Henry and John Scott. Jane Irwin married the future President's son and namesake, then twenty-two year old William Henry Harrison, Jr. on 18 February, 1824 in her hometown. He was a struggling lawyer at the time of their marriage and also suffered from alcoholism. He died on 6 February, 1838 in North Bend, Ohio.

In 1832, eight years after her sister Jane married William Henry Harrison, Jr., Elizabeth Irwin married his brother, John Scott Harrison. It was one of their sons, Benjamin Harrison, who would go on to be elected the 23rd President of the United States. Another Harrison brother, Carter Bassett Harrison, married Mary Anne Sutherland, the first cousin of Jane and Nancy Irwin.

A thirty-six year old widow of three years at the time she served as White House hostess, Jane Irwin Harrison brought her two young sons, James and William along with her to live in the mansion with their grandfather and other relatives. It is also certain that the new President’s married daughter Anna Taylor was in residence, at least initially; just prior to his inauguration, the president-elect had been visiting her in Virginia and she accompanied him to Washington, D.C. for his inaugural ceremony and move into the White House. The identification of individuals in the “President’s family” posed together in a silhouette seems to suggest that the new President’s son John Scott, and his son Benjamin, a future U.S. President, were also present; however, there is no documentation supporting this, nor did Benjamin Harrison ever recollect or suggest this as happening.

In journeying to Washington to assume the public role of White House hostess, Jane Harrison also asked her father's elderly sister, Jane Irwin Findlay to accompany and advise her, the elderly woman having once lived in the capital city herself.

Although her aunt has often been mistakenly identified as the official hostess of the brief Harrison Administration, or confused with her namesake niece, it was the younger Mrs. Harrison who presided at the President's table, while the older Mrs. Findlay acted as her social guide and supported and occupied a seat of honor at the few recorded family gatherings. Jane Irwin Harrison died just four years later, in 1845, at age 41 years old.

Like her husband, General James Findlay (also from Mercersburg, Franklin County, Pennsylvania) Jane Irwin Findlay was the youngest in her family. She was born about 1770, married in 1792 and a year later joined her husband in helping to establish the small Ohio River settlement of Cincinnati. They were among the early entrepreneurs and land speculators who both fueled and profited from young Cincinnati's rapid growth from a population of 1,000 in 1802 when it was incorporated to a population of more than 46,000 in 1840.

Jane Findlay was a widow for six years when she came with General Harrison to Washington for his March 4, 1841 Inauguration. Her late husband had made substantial land investments in southern Ohio with Harrison and had also fought during the War of 1812. As Major General of the Ohio Militia's First Division, he commanded a regiment near Detroit, built a fort near what later became Findlay, Ohio, and was taken prisoner by British troops. An enormously successful retail businessman and two non-consecutive terms as mayor of Cincinnati, he and Jane Findlay had no children and put their time and resources into their burgeoning city, helping found its first library.

Jane Findlay was familiar with the social world of Washington, living there as a Congressional wife throughout the John Quincy Adams Administration and the first term of Andrew Jackson.

After her brief return to the capital city to live with her niece in the Harrison White House for one month, Jane Findlay returned to Cincinnati where she died in 1851. She is buried with her husband in Spring Grove Cemetery.

Post-Presidential Life:

Absent from the White House during the briefest of all presidencies, Anna Harrison’s life as a national figure took place during the quarter of a century she lived as a presidential widow. She was the first presidential widow to be awarded a pension by Congress– a lump sum of $25,000. They also granted her right to free postage on all her outgoing correspondence.

After a state funeral in Washington, her late husband was interred in Congressional Cemetery in the capital. However, Anna Harrison selected a site on a knoll near Congress Green Cemetery in North Bend, where her father was buried, and began construction of a final burial place there for her late husband. A few years later, the late President's remains were re-interred there, following a service in a nearby chapel, where he laid in state for the family's viewing.

The succession of her adult family members who died in a period of just eight years was staggering: a son (1838), a son (1839), a son (1840), her husband (1841), a daughter (1842), a daughter (1845) and a daughter (1846). Throughout her unusually long life, struggling to overcome the emotional toll of living in relative isolation for many years and the loss of her husband, children and even grandchildren, Anna Harrison frequently quoted a line from the Bible to restore her calm and balance: “Be still, and know that I am God.” It was a fact mentioned in her funeral eulogy.

Through her extensive correspondence, Anna Harrison also maintained close ties to her relatives in New York and New Jersey. Her primary focus, however, remained her local Presbyterian Church. Despite having to subsist on a small income, she was generous with the poor members of her church and community.

Anna Harrison’s life as a former First Lady was thus within a largely masculine world, her life dominated and reliant upon three men in her family: her son John Harrison, who lived nearby with his family; her widowed son-in-law William Taylor, who came to live with her and manage the planting, harvesting and sale of the Harrison farm; and her widowed son-in-law John Cleves Short, who was also her nephew, the son of her sister Maria.

Although she had no interest in leaving North Bend, Anna Harrison was not a private person and felt a sense of duty to uphold the memory of her late husband, welcoming the public who visited or inquired about him by mail. Anna Harrison maintained an unusually heavy correspondence, not only with her large network of family but also with the public, which often wrote her for information about the late President or for one of his autographs. She complied with these requests, clipping his signature from documents and papers which were archived in the library, until there were no more.

She also established one room in the rambling 22-room house as a museum of sorts to William Henry Harrison, keeping on permanent display various objects that had been used during his 1840 presidential campaign that had been given to him or brought to the house during rallies, which she pointed out to visitors. At seventy years old, Anna Harrison was recalled by a visitor, Henry Howe, as being “of rather slender, delicate figure, with dark eyes and modest, quiet manner.” He also found her memory remarkable, the presidential widow able to recall for him the famous incident, when she was four years old, of her father disguising himself in the uniform of a British officer in order to pass through enemy lines and bring her to the safety of her grandparents’ home on Long Island. During the day, Mrs. Harrison worked on her correspondence and did needlework, mending the household fabrics and family clothing, from her large square room, located at the far right side of the house. She emerged to join family at dinner time and dressed formally if there were guests present.

Despite the emotional devastation she endured after losing so many family members, Anna Harrison maintained a vital interest in the larger world outside her frontier farm life. The presidential widow kept abreast of political intricacies and had strong objections to policies of both the Tyler and Polk Administrations. She nevertheless made good use of her status as a presidential widow to press both of these presidents into awarding her numerous nephews and grandsons either commissions to federal or military positions. Although she had initially supported the Jacksonian Democratic Party, she became a rabid supporter of the emerging Republican Party because of its pro-abolition stand.

Although she missed the presence of her sole surviving son John Scott Harrison when he left Ohio for Washington, to serve in Congress as the elected U.S. Representative from 1853 to 1857, she vigorously supported his campaign and election as a candidate of the Whig Party, as his father had been. While it is only speculative, Anna Harrison may have been a political supporter of both Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore, since both were elected in 1848 as members of the Whig Party, which ostensibly encouraged the abolition of slavery. There is no record of her opinions of the two successive Democratic presidents, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. While no documentation has yet emerged to support the theory that she supported the election of former Whig and now Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln in 1860, her vigorously encouraging her grandsons to enlist in the Union Army at the start of the Civil War might suggest this. She died nine months before his re-election victory.

Although only one portrait of her is extant, others may have been made. However, every item she owned, from the room full of 1840 campaign objects, to her clothing, the former President’s library of books, all the furniture, were completely destroyed in a sudden and violent fire which engulfed and rapidly destroyed the entire Harrison home on 25 July 1858. A disgruntled former maid was accused of setting the fire and tried for arson, but acquitted. Anna Harrison and those many family members still living there survived unharmed but, awoken in their sleep, escaped only with the night clothes they were wearing.

Surviving with only the clothes she was literally wearing, the presidential widow went to live in the nearby estate "Point Farm," home of her one remaining child, John Scott Harrison, a widower and by then retired from Congress. From 1858 until her death in 1864, Anna Harrison lived at Point Farm.

Although she knew well her son’s son Benjamin Harrison and this grandson grew up in the vicinity of and visited her own home, the future 23rd President of the United States and the widow of the 9th President of the United States never lived together, contrary to popular myth. He had left in 1847 to attend Farmer’s College in Cincinnati, Ohio, and then transferred to Miami College in Oxford, Ohio in 1850. Although he returned to North Bend for two years to study law, he left to apprentice as an attorney in Cincinnati and married in 1853. In 1854, he relocated to Indianapolis, Indiana, four years before Anna Harrison moved in.

*Anna Harrison is the only woman who was the wife of a president and grandmother to another, Benjamin Harrison.


88 years old
25 February, 1864
North Bend, Ohio


Congress Green Cemetery
North Bend, Ohio