It has been well recorded that Virginia was home to eight United States Presidents, but how about the club of First Ladies? Where have they come from and how many can Virginians embrace as our own?
In honor of Presidents’ Day, here is a tidy bit of history and fun facts about these powerful women whom partnered with powerful men.
— MARTHA DANDRIDGE CUSTIS WASHINGTON —
Husband: George Washington, First President of the United States of America
Born: June 2, 1731 at Chestnut Grove Plantation, New Kent County, VA
Died: May 22, 1802 at Mount Vernon, Fairfax County, VA
Sites Associated with President and Mrs. Washington
Martha Dandridge married wealthy plantation owner Daniel Parke Custis in 1749. The two had four children but only two survived past childhood. Custis died in 1757 and Martha inherited his 15,000-acre plantation. Martha wed Colonel George Washington at St. Peter’s Parish on January 6, 1759 and she and her children moved to Mount Vernon. By the time George had been elected president, Martha’s children had passed away and she gave care to her son’s children. During the presidency the Washington’s resided in New York and Philadelphia, not returning to Mount Vernon until 1797. George passed at home in December 1799 and she in 1802. Both are interred at Mount Vernon. More Information
— RACHEL DONELSON ROBARDS JACKSON —
Husband: Andrew Jackson, Seventh President of the United States of America
Born: June, 1767 near Chatham in Pittsylvania County, VA
Died: December 22, 1828 at The Hermitage Plantation, Nashville, TN
Rachel Donelson was born in Virginia but moved with her family at age 12 to a portion of the state that would later become Tennessee. In fact, her father is credited with co-founding the city of Nashville. Rachel’s first marriage occurred in 1785 to Lewis Robards. A twisted love triangle ensued when Robards claimed to find Rachel in an inappropriate relationship with lawyer Andrew Jackson. Rachel claimed physical abuse at Robards’ hand. Regardless of which story you believe, one fact remains: Rachel and Andrew were illegally married in Mississippi and a Robards divorce on the grounds of adultery followed. Later, Andrew and Rachel were legally married in Tennessee. The entire story became political fodder when Jackson pursued the presidency, opening the debate of how an ideal first lady should carry herself. The Jackson’s adopted two children and were legal guardians for eight more. Mrs. Jackson died suddenly on December 22, 1828. A recent near-fatal heart attack may have played a role. Andrew Jackson was sworn into his presidency absent his wife on March 4, 1829. More Information
— LETITIA CHRISTIAN TYLER —
Husband: John Tyler, Tenth President of the United States of America
Born: November 12, 1790 at Cedar Grove Plantation, New Kent County, VA
Died: September 10, 1842 at The White House, Washington, DC
Interred: Cedar Grove Cemetery, New Kent County, VA
Letitia Christian married lawyer and House of Delegates member, John Tyler, in 1813 after five years’ engagement. The two had seven children between 1815 and 1830, keeping her home to raise them and manage their properties and investments while he pursued a political career. Letitia did reside with John while he was Governor of Virginia and she spent a brief period in Washington, D.C. during his time as a U.S. Senator. John moved the family to Williamsburg in 1836; Letitia suffered a stroke in 1839 and was left partially paralyzed. In 1840 John was selected as the vice presidential candidate alongside fellow Virginian and presidential candidate William Henry Harrison. John Tyler was sworn into the office of President of the United States upon Harrison’s death in April 1841. During her time at The White House, Mrs. Tyler suffered a second stroke which ultimately led to her death on September 10, 1842. She was the first First Lady to die in The White House. It was not until after Letitia’s death that President Tyler owned Sherwood Forest in Charles City, VA. More Information
— ELLEN LEWIS HERNDON ARTHUR —
Husband: Chester Arthur, 21st President of the United States of America
Born: August 30, 1837 in Culpeper County, VA
Died: January 12, 1880 in New York, NY
Ellen Lewis Herndon was the only child of of U.S. Navy Commander William Lewis Herndon. As he was promoted, he felt the best place for his family was Washington, D.C. The Herndon’s resided in D.C. from 1842 until 1847. Ellen and her mother moved around a great deal, depending on her father’s mission and port-of-call. She lived in Fredericksburg from 1847 to 1851, D.C. from 1851-1855 and then to New York and other environs. Ellen met Chester Arthur, a lawyer, who proposed to her in 1858. Wed in 1859, the two had three children (one passing before age three) and lived a very affluent lifestyle thanks to the wealth amassed by her parents. Chester Arthur was a successful attorney who befriended the right people in high places. In fact, he did not pursue public office until accepting the Republican nomination for vice presidential candidate in 1880. His vice presidency and eventual succession into the presidency upon President James Garfield’s death are roles Mrs. Arthur did not live to see, as she fell ill with pneumonia and died January 12, 1880. More Information
— EDITH BOLLING GALT WILSON —
Husband: Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States of America
Born: October 15, 1872 in Wytheville, VA
Died: December 1961 in Washington, D.C.
Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace
Bolling Wilson Hotel
Born to a judge in rural southwest Virginia, Edith Bolling was the seventh of 11 children living a not-so-lavish lifestyle, but with ancestral links to the likes of Thomas Jefferson and even Pocahontas. Edith married jeweler Norman Galt in 1896 and by his death in 1908, she inherited the family business in Washington, D.C. The Galt’s had one son whom died in infancy. Through mutual friends, Edith came to meet recently widowed President Woodrow Wilson. The two were smitten in short order, and Edith Galt became First Lady Edith Wilson on December 19, 1915. The couple honeymooned at The Homestead in Hot Springs, Virginia. Mrs. Wilson was the first First Lady to travel to Europe and did so with the President for a war-time visit with troops and for the signing of the Treaty of Versailles (1918 and 1919). When President Wilson suffered a stroke in 1919, Mrs. Wilson concealed and down-played his incapacity to lead by intercepting all correspondence, choosing which matters were important enough to trouble him, and replying on his behalf. She was devoted to her husband until his death in 1924, and she worked for the rest of her life to mold the way history would view him, including saving his Staunton birthplace in 1938. More Information
Learn more about Virginia’s presidents, the places they lived, worshiped and visited, and about these ladies who found themselves supporting the most powerful men in the world.
The Edith Bolling Wilson Museum in Wytheville, VA is one of my favorite places to visit. It is just across the street from the new historic Bolling Wilson Hotel. In addition, there is Skeeters Hot Dogs!