Anna Tuthill Symmes was just 1 when her mother died, and her father, John Cleve Symmes, was too busy as a Continental Army officer and then associate justice on the New Jersey Superior Court to properly care for her. When Anna was 4, Judge Symmes dressed up as a British solider and brought his daughter on horseback through British-occupied New York to the Long Island home of her maternal grandparents, Henry and Phoebe Tuthill. Anna later returned to live with her father as an adolescent.
Following her wedding to army captain William Henry Harrison in 1795, Anna moved several times to accommodate her husband’s various government positions. His appointment as territorial governor of Indiana in the early 1800s brought them to the former French trading post of Vincennes, where they built an elegant mansion named Grouseland. The Harrisons hosted such notable political figures as Vice President Aaron Burr at that home, but the combination of Harrison’s responsibilities and Grouseland’s locale also produced more eclectic guests, such as powerful Shawnee Indian chief Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa.
Following a lengthy career of government service, Harrison returned to a quiet life at the family farm in North Bend, Ohio, in the 1830s. As such, Anna was opposed to his selection as a Whig Party candidate for U.S. president in 1836 and 1840. The 1836 candidacy fizzled, but the subsequent one caught momentum behind the famous “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” campaign. Despite her reservations, Anna played a gracious host for visiting supporters. After Harrison’s landslide victory, she grumbled, “I wish that my husband’s friends had left him where he is, happy and contented in retirement.”
Her husband’s death was just one of many personal losses she endured. She also dealt with the deaths of son William Henry Jr. (1838), son Carter Bassett (1839), son Benjamin (1840), daughter Mary Symmes (1842), daughter Anna Tuthill (1845) and daughter Elizabeth Bassett (1846). Altogether, she outlived nine of her 10 children.
The passing of President Harrison before Anna was able to join him in Washington, D.C. gave her the dubious distinction of being the only incumbent first lady to not set foot in the White House. Afterward, she was the first presidential widow to be awarded a pension by Congress, which consisted of a $25,000 lump sum. With the election of Benjamin Harrison to the White House in 1889, she became the first woman to be both wife of a president and grandmother of another one.
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