First Ladies: Anna Tuthill Symmes Harrison

posted in: First Ladies, First Lady | 0

Anna Harrison became the first wife of a sitting President, to become his widow. She was also the grandmother of a future president, Benjamin Harrison.

young Anna Tuthill Symmes Harrison

Anna Elizabeth Symmes was born on July 25, 1775 in Morristown, New Jersey. She was the daughter of Judge John Cleves and Anna Tuthill Symmes. Her father served as Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court.

In 1776, Anna’s mother died. Her father is said to “ father disguised himself as a British soldier to carry her on horseback through the British lines to her grandparents on Long Island, who cared for her during the war.”

She spent her early years in Long Island with her maternal grandparents. She had an unusually broad education for the women of her time. She attended Clinton Academy and the private school of Isabella Graham in New York City.

At the age of 13, she traveled with her father and stepmother to North Bend, Ohio where they settled.

In the spring of 1795, Anna was visiting with relatives in Lexington, Kentucky when she met Lieutenant William Henry Harrison. Anna’s father disapproved of Harrison, fearing the hardships of army camp life and fearing Harrison would be unable to provide for his daughter.

However, this did not thwart Harrison from pursuing and courting Anna Symmes behind her father’s back. The couple eloped on November 22, 1795 while Judge Symmes was away on business. Two weeks later, “Symmes demanded to know how he intended to support a family with Anna. Harrison responded “by my sword, and my own right arm, sir.”

It is said that Judge Symmes did not accept his son-in-law for a long time until he had “achieved fame on the battlefield”.

Anna would go on to have ten children during the course of her marriage. Only her youngest, James Findlay Harrison, died during childhood, a month before turning

Anna Tuthill Symmes Harrison

three years old.

Their children were:

  • Elizabeth Bassett Harrison on September 29, 1796
  • John Cleves Symmes Harrison on October 28, 1798
  • Lucy Singleton Harrison on September 5, 1800
  • William Henry Harrison, Jr. on September 3, 1802
  • John Scott Harrison on October 4, 1804
  • Benjamin Harrison on May 5, 1806
  • Mary Symmes Harrison on January 28, 1809
  • Carter Bassett Harrison on October 26, 1811
  • Anna Tuthill Harrison on October 28, 1813
  • James Findlay Harrison on May 15, 1814
Anna Tuthill Symmes Harrison

William Henry Harrison won fame as an Indian fighter and hero of the War of 1812, but his time as governor of Indiana Territory allowed him to build a home, Grouseland, in Vincennes, Indiana.

During the War of 1812, Anna and the children moved to their farm in North Bend, Indiana. James Findlay Harrison died on April 5, 1817.

Anna was the wife of a man who held a variety of offices and a well known army career. She would have had the choice of accompanying her husband or staying home. One can imagine, the long absences were not always easy. Anna was often left to raise her young children while her husband served his country.



Anna and William Henry Harrison would experience a number of personal heartaches in the coming years.

ANNA HARRISON (1775-1864).
Wife of William Henry Harrison, ninth president of the United States. Oil, 1843, by Cornelia Stuart Cassady.
  • On April 7, 1826 their daughter, Lucy Singleton Harrison Este died.
  • On October 30, 1830 their son, John Cleves Symmes Harrison died.
  • On September 6, 1838, their son William Henry Harrison, Jr. Died.
  • On August 12, 1839, their son Carter Bassett Harrison died.
  • On June 9, 1840, their son Benjamin Harrison died.

When Anna heard of her husband’s victory in 1840 for the Presidency, she is said to have said  “I wish that my husband’s friends had left him where he is, happy and contented in retirement.”

Anna was detained by illness and unable to accompany her husband for his inauguration. Harrison asked his daughter-in-law, Jane Irwin Harrison, to accompany him to Washington, D.C. and act as hostess until Anna was able to arrive, which she hoped would be in May.

Anna was packing to move to the White House when she heard of her husband’s death. She did not make the trip to Washington, D.C. for her husband’s funeral. Instead, she had a monument built for her husband and later had his body brought home for burial.

In June 1841, President John Tyler signed into law the first pension granting Anna a widow’s pension of $25,000.

Anna would go on to outlive all but one of her children. John Scott Harrison was the only child to outlive her.

  • Her daughter, Mary Symmes Harrison Thornton died on November 16, 1842.
  • Her daughter, Anna Tuthill Harrison Taylor died on July 5, 1845.
  • Her daughter-in-law, Jane Irwin Harrison died on May 11, 1846.
  • Her daughter, Elizabeth Bassett Harrison Short died on September 27, 1846.
Anna Tuthill Symmes Harrison

Anna “ felt a sense of duty to uphold the memory of her late husband, welcoming the public who visited or inquired about him by mail. “ She maintained a heavy amount of correspondence. She also established one room in her home as a museum to her husband.

On July 25, 1858 a fire occurred at North Bend, completely destroying the home and it’s contents. She went to live at Point Farm with her son, John Scott Harrison. She lived there for the remainder of her life.

Anna Harrison died on February 25, 1864 and was buried beside her husband in North Bend. In her funeral eulogy, she is mentioned as often quoting the passage  “Be still, and know that I am God.”  To help her remain calm and restore balance through so much loss.

Anna Harrison holds several distinctions during her short time as First Lady. She was the last first lady to be born in British America, bore the largest number of children by a First Lady, outlived all but one child, she held the title of First Lady for the shortest length of time, she never actively served as First Lady and she is the oldest woman to ever become first lady.


Tomorrow: the daughter-in-law and daughter that served as hostess in the White House.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.