Julia Boggs Dent was the fifth of seven children born to “Colonel” Frederick and Ellen Wrenshall Dent. Raised on the White Haven plantation approximately 12 miles from St. Louis, Missouri, she enjoyed outdoor activities such as fishing and riding horses. The future first lady was well educated, attending the Mauro Boarding School for seven years and taking a liking to literature. She painted an idyllic picture of her upbringing in her memoirs, depicting the plantation as a place where even the slaves were fully content.
A classmate of Julia’s older brother Fred at West Point, Ulysses Grant met his bride-to-be at White Haven early in 1844 and proposed a few months later. However, the two kept the engagement hidden from Colonel Dent, who was unhappy with Grant’s meager pay as a soldier. Grant finally asked Dent for permission to marry Julia in 1845 and received approval, but the outbreak of the Mexican-American War delayed the wedding until August 1848.
Given 80 acres of land by her father as a wedding gift, Julia embraced the role of farmer’s wife in the 1850s. However, the process of turning the farm into a profitable venture proved difficult from the early stages, and was rendered virtually impossible following the Panic of 1857. By 1860, the family was forced to move to Galena, Illinois, where Grant worked in his father’s leather goods store. The outbreak of the Civil War changed their fortunes, as Grant’s success as Union commander eventually provided a Julia with a more comfortable lifestyle.
Well liked for her spirit and charm, Julia was not considered a traditional beauty. Described in some circles as “plain,” she was also slightly cross-eyed and squinted a lot. Julia wanted surgery to correct the condition before her husband convinced her it wasn’t necessary. Regardless, the first lady reportedly always insisted on being photographed in profile so her eyes wouldn’t draw so much attention.
Despite all the success and fame they enjoyed as the first family in the 1870s, the Grants again faced monetary difficulties after failed business investments. Seeking to provide a cushion for his wife, Grant worked on his memoirs despite suffering from throat cancer, completing a mere week before his death in 1885. Published by Mark Twain, the erstwhile president’s book was a huge hit, and Julia lived out her final years in comfort in Washington, D.C., surrounded by friends and family.