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Anna Elizabeth Harrison (née Symmes; July 25, 1775 – February 25, 1864), wife of President William Henry Harrison and grandmother of President Benjamin Harrison, was nominally First Lady of the United States during her husband's one-month term in 1841, but she never entered the White House. At the age of 65 years during her husband's presidential term, she is the oldest woman ever to become First Lady, as well as having the distinction of holding the title for the shortest length of time, and the first person to be widowed while holding the title. She was the last First Lady to have been born in British America.
March 4, 1841 – April 4, 1841
Serving with Jane Harrison (Acting)
|Preceded by||Angelica Van Buren (Acting)|
|Succeeded by||Letitia Tyler|
Anna Elizabeth Symmes
July 25, 1775
Morristown, New Jersey, British America
|Died||February 25, 1864 (aged 88)|
North Bend, Ohio, U.S.
|Resting place||Harrison Tomb State Memorial|
North Bend, Ohio, U.S.
William Henry Harrison
(m. 1795; died 1841)
|Children||10, including John Scott and Carter Bassett|
|Parents||John Cleves Symmes|
Early life and marriageEdit
Anna was born at her father's estate Solitude, just outside Morristown, New Jersey (present day Wheatsheaf Farms subdivision off Sussex Avenue in Morris Township, New Jersey) on July 25, 1775, to Judge John Cleves Symmes and Anna Tuthill Symmes of Long Island. Her father was a Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court and later became a prominent landowner in southwestern Ohio. When her mother died in 1776 her father disguised himself as a British soldier to carry Anna on horseback through the British lines to her grandparents on Long Island, who cared for her during the war. Her father was also deputy to the Provincial Congress of New Jersey (1775-1776), the Chairman of the Sussex County Committee of Safety during the Revolution, and a New Jersey delegate to the Continental Congress (1785-1786).
She grew up on Long Island, receiving an unusually broad education for a woman of the times. She attended Clinton Academy in East Hampton on Long Island, and the private school of Isabella Graham in New York City.
In 1794, Anna went with her father and new stepmother, Susannah Livingston, daughter of the Governor of New Jersey William Livingston, into the Ohio wilderness, where they settled at North Bend, Ohio. While visiting relatives in Lexington, Kentucky in the spring of 1795, she met Lieutenant William Henry Harrison, in town on military business. Harrison was stationed at nearby Fort Washington. Anna's father thoroughly disapproved of Harrison, largely because he wanted to spare his daughter the hardships of army camp life. Despite his decree that the two stop seeing each other, the courtship flourished behind his back.
While her father was away on business in Cincinnati, the couple eloped and married on November 22, 1795 at the home of Dr. Stephen Wood, treasurer of the Northwest Territory, at North Bend. The couple honeymooned at Fort Washington, as Harrison was still on duty. Two weeks later, at a farewell dinner for General "Mad" Anthony Wayne, Symmes confronted his new son-in-law for the first time since their wedding. Addressing Harrison sternly, Symmes demanded to know how he intended to support a family with Anna. Harrison responded "by my sword, and my own right arm, sir." Not until his son-in-law had achieved fame on the battlefield did Symmes come to accept him.
The couple apparently had a happy marriage, or at least a fruitful one, having had 10 children and 40 grandchildren. Tragically, most of their children died young, one in infancy, and seven in their 20s or 30s. Only two lived beyond age 35, and only one beyond 50. Nine of their 10 children preceded her in death, and six of the 10 preceded him:
|Name||Birth||Death||Age at death||Marriage and children|
|Elizabeth Bassett Harrison||29 September 1796||27 September 1846||49||Married John Cleves Short, 1 child|
|John Cleves Symmes Harrison||28 October 1798||30 October 1830||32||Married Clarissa Pike, 6 children|
|Lucy Singleton Harrison||5 September 1800||7 April 1826||25||Married David K. Este, 4 children|
|William Henry Harrison Jr||3 September 1802||6 February 1838||35||Married Jane Irwin Harrison, 2 children|
|John Scott Harrison||4 October 1804||25 May 1878||73||Married Lucretia Knapp Johnson, 3 children; married Elizabeth Ramsey Irwin, 10 children (2nd child, Benjamin, became 23rd president)|
|Benjamin Harrison||5 May 1806||9 June 1840||34||Married Louisa Smith Bonner, 3 children; married Mary Raney, 2 children|
|Mary Symmes Harrison||28 January 1809||16 November 1842||33||Married John Henry Fitzhugh Thornton, 1 child|
|Carter Bassett Harrison||26 October 1811||12 August 1839||27||Married Mary Anne Sutherland, 1 child|
|Anna Tuthill Harrison||28 October 1813||5 July 1845||31||Married William Henry Harrison Taylor, 7 children|
|James Findlay Harrison||15 May 1814||6 April 1817||2||Did not marry; died in infancy of unknown causes|
Husband's rise to fameEdit
Harrison won fame as an Indian fighter and hero of the War of 1812, but he spent much of his life in a civilian career. His service in Congress as territorial delegate from Ohio gave Anna and their children a chance to visit his family at Berkeley, their plantation on the James River. Her third child was born on that trip, at Richmond in September 1800. Harrison's appointment as governor of Indiana Territory took them even farther into the wilderness; he built a handsome house at Vincennes, Indiana that blended fortress and plantation mansion.
Facing war in 1812, the family moved to the farm at North Bend. There, upon hearing news of her husband's landslide electoral victory in 1840, home-loving Anna said simply: "I wish that my husband's friends had left him where he is, happy and contented in retirement."
First Lady of the United StatesEdit
|America's First Ladies, Anna Harrison, Letitia Tyler & Julia Tyler, 2013, C-SPAN|
When William was inaugurated in 1841, Anna was detained by illness at their home in North Bend. She decided not to accompany him to Washington. President-elect Harrison asked his daughter-in-law Jane Irwin Harrison, widow of his namesake son, to accompany him and act as hostess until Anna's proposed arrival in May. Half a dozen other relatives happily went with them. On April 4, exactly one month after his inauguration, President Harrison died. Anna was packing for the move to the White House when she learned of William's death in Washington, so she never made the journey.
Later life and deathEdit
Following William's death she lived with her son John Scott in North Bend, and helped raise his children, including eight-year-old Benjamin who later became President of the United States. In June 1841, President John Tyler signed into law the first pension for a president's widow, a grant of $25,000 for Mrs. Harrison.
- Original text based on White House biography