Anna Tuthill Symmes was born in New Jersey almost a year before members of the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence. Her father, Judge John Cleves Symmes, became a colonel in the Continental Army. Anna’s mother died on her baby girl’s first birthday. Anna’s father cared for her until she was four years old. Then, he bravely impersonated a British officer and carried Anna on horseback through New York (then under British occupation) to her maternal grandparents’ home on Long Island. Anna remained under her grandparents’ care through her teens. They sent her to boarding schools. For one year, she was in the same class as George and Martha Washington’s granddaughter Nelly Custis.
When Anna was 19, she moved to the Northwest Territory with her father and her stepmother. There she met young Army officer, William Henry Harrison. The two fell in love, but Anna’s father did not approve. He didn’t want Anna to live the rough frontier life of an Army officer’s wife in the Northwest Territory. They married secretly. Judge Symmes eventually accepted his son-in-law.
Harrison served in the government of Indiana Territory. He became a national hero after fighting native people in the Battle of Tippecanoe. He also served as an officer in the War of 1812. At the beginning of the war, he moved his family near Anna’s father in the Cincinnati, Ohio, area. After the war, he represented Ohioans in the U.S. House of Representatives and in the U.S. Senate. He served in the Ohio state senate and as an ambassador to Colombia in South America.
William and Anna Harrison had ten children. Anna homeschooled them in reading, writing, Bible, Shakespeare, and Greek philosophy. Anna was a woman of great faith. She was active in her church and enjoyed inviting the entire church to her home on some Sundays for an open house and supper.
Early in 1840, Martin Van Buren was serving as president and preparing to seek a second term in office. The Whig Party chose Harrison to run against him. Harrison was victorious over Van Buren. When Anna learned of her husband’s victory, she said: “I wish that my husband’s friends had left him where he is, happy and contented in retirement.”
William Harrison was 68 years old when he left Ohio to travel to Washington, D.C., for the inauguration. Anna was ill at the time, so they decided that she would come in May when the weather was better. Andrew Jackson was the first president to travel on a train, but Harrison became the first president to travel to Washington by train for his inauguration. He took along about a half dozen family members.
Harrison was inaugurated in a grand celebration on March 4, 1841. He soon became ill and developed pneumonia. He died on his 32nd day in office. Anna had begun to pack for her trip to Washington when she learned that her husband had died.
Congress gave Anna Harrison a lump sum pension and free postage for life. She lived as a widow for 22 years. She stayed interested in politics and strongly supported her son John Scott Harrison when he ran for Congress. She continued to serve in her church. She wrote and received many letters and visitors.
Anna Harrison was healthy in her later years, but she suffered much heartache. By the time she died, only one of her children was still living. She spent her last six years at the home of John Scott Harrison. His son Benjamin Harrison would become president in 1889.
Anna Harrison is the only First Lady to be both the wife of a president and the grandmother of a president. She is the First Lady who gave birth to the most children and the only First Lady who never went to the White House.
Anna Harrison’s faith sustained her through her many troubles. She often quoted this verse from the King James Bible:
Be still and know that I am God.