Dolley Payne Todd: Life Before James Madison

Dolley c. 1800 (source)

Dolley c. 1800 (source)

Although Dolley Madison liked to refer to herself as a “Virginian, born and bred”, she was actually born in North Carolina. In 1765, her father, John Payne was admitted to the Cedar Creek meeting, the local Society of Friends, or Quaker, congregation. It was not a quick decision; he had been married to Mary Coles for three years, and marriages with non-Quakers were frowned upon. But, when he did join he pursued it with the zeal of a new convert. Six months later, John and Mary took their young son Walter and moved to the wilds of North Carolina with a number of other Quaker families to begin a new settlement.

John Payne and Mary Coles were from two of the oldest families in Virginia. According to Allgor, they had the three most important things for Virginia gentry, “lineage, land, and the ownership of enslaved peoples.” (At the time, it wasn’t a requirement that Quakers free their slaves. Also, a 1723 law in Virginia required approval of the governor and council to manumit slaves.)

John sold all of his land holdings in Virginia and purchased land in North Carolina. He was referred to as a merchant, but there is no record of what he sold. However, the move must not have been a successful one. In 1769, he sold his North Carolina land at a loss and moved his family back to Virginia, this time with another son, William Temple, and their first daughter Dolley, born on May 20, 1768.

Once again in the Cedar Creek meeting, they were surrounded by friends and extended family. For the next fifteen years, the family farmed and expanded. Five more children followed Dolley: Isaac, Lucy, Anne, Mary Coles, and John Coles. Quakers believed in educating girls as well as boys, and although we don’t know specifics about Dolley’s education her writing indicates that she was well-educated for the time.

After the Revolutionary War and changes in the laws of the new state, John manumitted his slaves. Without them it was impossible to farm at the level he had, so he decided to move the family to Philadelphia in 1783. By this time, Dolley was a vivacious fifteen with black hair, blue eyes, and a winning smile. She made quite an impression on the young men in the Society of Friends in Philadelphia and in nearby Haddonfield, New Jersey, one of the oldest Quaker communities in the country.

John Payne did well initially, too. He became an elder and began to preach in meetings. He was strict and exacting in his faith, but his business skills were not any better than they were in North Carolina. By 1789, his business went under and he was read out of the Pine Street Meeting. Whether this was simply because failure in business indicated a weak character to the other Friends, or because of some shady business deals, I’m not sure. Nevertheless, depressed, John took to his bed.

Mary Payne was a woman of strong character and determination, and Dolley adored her. When she realized she could no longer depend on John to support the family, she opened her home to boarders. In 1791, the fledgeling government moved the capital to Philadelphia and Mary catered to congressmen. She earned a reputation for running a “good house” and by the time John died in Oct of 1792, she had a thriving business.

In spite of his strict religious views, John wasn’t able to completely control his oldest daughter. One of the women in their meeting recalled years later that Dolley was inappropriate in her choice of caps, gowns, and “the shape of her shoes.” However, he did impose his will on her in the choice of a husband.

John Todd was a successful attorney and a Quaker. He was tall and handsome, and apparently had not given up when Dolley originally turned him down. They were married on January 7, 1790, and even though he may not have been her first choice, they appear to have had a happy marriage. But, this happiness didn’t last long.

John Payne Todd c. 1817 by Joseph Wood (source)

John Payne Todd c. 1817 by Joseph Wood (source)

Dolley’s first son, John Payne Todd, was born on February 29,1792. He was healthy and happy and joined by a baby brother, William Temple Todd, in the summer of 1793. Sadly a yellow fever epidemic also reached Philadelphia in the summer of 1793. The symptoms of the disease are terrifying and the cause wouldn’t be known for another 100 years. The entire city was in a panic. (It would kill almost 10 percent of the population before winter came and it ended.)

In August, although Dolley had just given birth, John Todd sent her and the boys out of the city for their protection. Mary Payne went with them to care for them, but John had to return to the city. He had his parents to care for as well as clients, many of whom had legal matters to attend to because of deaths in the family.

For the Todd family, October was the fateful month. John nursed both of his parents and his law clerk, but to no avail. They all three died and Dolley was frantic for John’s safety. He finally agreed to close his law firm and join her. When he did, he stayed in another part of the house to avoid bringing the infection to the family. (Not knowing yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitoes, they believed it was contagious.)

Ironically, after surviving his time in the city, John came down with the fever after spending the evening hunting in the marsh. In an effort to protect the family, he returned to the city. There he died on October 14, 1793, the same day the baby, William, died.

Dolley was bereft, but she was also out of money. Mary Payne had to write to Philadelphia to get money for William’s funeral and for the move home. Once they were back, she should have been fine, but there were complications. John had designated Dolley his executrix as well as leaving her “all his worldly goods.” Since John’s parents died before he did, she was also due his portion of their estate.

In a city with over 5000 deaths, the courts were overloaded, and even though John’s will was clear, his brother James, a bank clerk, wouldn’t hand over any of the money to Dolley. He wouldn’t even turn over copies of both of the wills or any of John’s other papers. When she pressed him, he suggested that she sell items from the house that were in her possession. She steadfastly refused to sell the library books! Finally, after numerous requests and demands, James settled out of court, but only after she got a lawyer.

Dolley was now a wealthy widow. At 25, she was tall, beautiful, and very eligible. Supposedly, men stood at the end of her street to get a glimpse of her. But this eligibility wouldn’t last. It wasn’t long before she caught the eye of, and was formally introduced to, in her words, the “great little Madison.”

Dolley Madison c. 1804 by Gilbert Stuart (source)

Dolley Madison c. 1804 by Gilbert Stuart (source)

Resources
A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation by Catherine Allgor
The History Chicks podcast on Dolley Madison
CSPAN First Ladies Influence and Image

Eleanor and Franklin by Joseph P Nash – A Book Review

Eleanor and Franklin book coverEleanor and Franklin: The Story of Their Relationship Based on Eleanor Roosevelt’s Private Papers by Joseph P. Nash chronicles the evolution of Eleanor Roosevelt from an insecure girl and young woman into a woman who would impact the lives of many, many people. When visiting US installations during WWII, more than once she heard soldiers cry out “Hey, there’s Eleanor!” She radiated warmth and compassion with a down-to-earth style that made people feel like she belonged to them in some way. In many ways she did belong to them. She lived her life in service of others because she truly cared about the condition of human beings and wanted to make their lives better.

Very few people if any will argue that Eleanor Roosevelt was a remarkable person. However, it is easy to think that remarkable people are born that way. That plucked down in history at any time, they would have lived a similar life of accomplishment. This might be true, but I think often the difficulties in life are what bring out the best qualities in people. Mr. Lash takes the time to show us the circumstances in Eleanor’s life that shaped and formed her into the remarkable woman she was.

Lash takes considerable time explaining the dynamics of Eleanor’s childhood. Her father Elliot was the brother of president Theodore Roosevelt. Her mother Anne Hall was decended from the prestigious Ludlow and Livingston families. They were the darlings of society when Society was small and intimate. Anne along with her sisters were celebrated beauties and Elliot had a vibrant and out-going personality. Eleanor, a serious child, was not a beauty and was made aware of this by her mother and her aunts. She worshipped her father who was fun-loving and the light of her life. But her childhood was short-lived. Her father was an alcoholic and unstable emotionally. It eventually became necessary for Anne to leave him and take Eleanor and her brother Hall. As difficult as this was, it was compounded when both of her parents died leaving Eleanor and Hall in the custody of Anne’s mother. Here she grew up in the shadow of aunts and uncles who had their own problems.

When Eleanor married Franklin, she was an insecure young woman eager to please. Although Franklin loved Eleanor, she always longed for a depth of intimacy that he was unable to meet. Her mother-in-law Sara Delano Roosevelt was very domineering, and although she was always very nice to Eleanor, she was determined to have her way and direct the course of her only son’s life if at all possible. She would be a constant presence in their lives, always in the background criticizing and trying to direct until the day she died. Eleanor gradually broke free of this, but it wasn’t until they were in the White House that she really started blossoming.

Eleanor and FDR with Anna and James c. 1908 (source)

Eleanor and FDR with Anna and James c. 1908 (source)

Eleanor and Franklin covers Eleanor’s childhood, her life as a young wife and mother, her role as Franklin emerged as a leader in politics, and their life together at the White House. Lash uses Eleanor’s correspondence and published writings to show how she dealt with becoming a public personality, raising her children with her mother-in-law constantly in the background, Franklin’s infidelity, and finally the difficult years in the White House where she made the “office” of First Lady something it had never been before.

She was criticized as much as she was loved. She often felt that it was her duty to tell Franklin things that others around him would not say, in a way to be his conscience. Many thought she was butting in where she didn’t belong. By the time Franklin was president, they no longer had the traditional marriage. She said to intimate friends that she was no longer in love with him, but she served him in love. It was a role that many women couldn’t have tolerated. There were other women in his life that gave him space to relax and laugh. Eleanor couldn’t give him that, but she gave what she could, a view to the world that he didn’t have. She was an advocate for women, African-Americans, youth, soldiers, anyone who asked. There were times when she was taken advantage of. She knew this, but had to help if she could.

The book is dense. It is filled with details but is very readable. Expect to give it some time. It is a must read if you want to understand Eleanor Roosevelt, but also gives you a different perspective of FDR’s presidency. Eleanor and Franklin ends with Franklin’s death in the spring of 1945. Mr. Lash has written a sequel Eleanor: The Years Alone. I haven’t read it yet, but you can be sure I will.

(Originally published on SSS News & Notes.)

Not Quite First Lady – Rachel Jackson

Rachel Jackson c. 1830 by Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl (source)

Rachel Jackson c. 1830 by Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl (source)

The Presidential campaign of 1828 was brutal. Andrew Jackson felt that the election of 1824 had been stolen from him (he won the popular vote) and John Quincy Adams was defending his position as incumbent. Although it was considered undignified for the candidate to campaign, their supporters pulled out all the stops even attacking the wives. Louisa Catherine Adams was considered by many a foreigner who brought unwelcome influence to Washington, (she was born and raised in England, although her parents were Americans), but the worst criticism was reserved for Rachel Jackson. Called a whore, a bigamist, and an unsophisticated westerner (my goodness she smoked a pipe!), many considered her unqualified to inhabit the White House.

When Rachel Donelson was 12 years old, her family left Virginia to travel to the frontier of Tennessee. The trip was arduous and the situation with the Indians unsettled, but eventually they established themselves as one of the most prominent families in the area. They built a palisade which surrounded the family home and several cabins where boarders lived. This is where Rachel and Andrew met and fell in love. Rachel was a beautiful young woman and Andrew was tall and handsome with an instinct to protect women. Rachel may have seemed like she needed protecting – from her husband, her first husband.

A few years earlier, when the situation with the Indians was very dangerous, the family briefly moved to Kentucky. There Rachel met and married Lewis Robards. The Donelsons and Robards were of similar social standing and circumstances. Lewis was from a large family who welcomed and liked Rachel. It seemed like a good match. And it was for a while, but the vivacious and friendly nature of Rachel that attracted Lewis became a problem. She was raised with seven brothers and quite innocently enjoyed the company of men, but Lewis was of a jealous nature. By 1788, the situation had become unbearable and Rachel’s brother came to get her, bringing her home to her family in Tennessee. It is unsure whether Rachel intended the move to be permanent or not, but later in the year Lewis followed her to Nashville and moved in with her and her family.

Andrew Jackson c. 1824 by Thomas Sully (source)

Andrew Jackson c. 1824 by Thomas Sully (source)

It was during this time that Andrew Jackson moved to Nashville. Rachel and Andrew were attracted to each other, but there is no evidence that their relationship was inappropriate. However, Lewis couldn’t accept this; he forbid her to talk to Jackson and interrogated her about the few interactions they had. Finally, during the summer of 1789, Lewis made the mistake of telling other men that Jackson was too intimate with his wife. Lewis was not well-liked, but Jackson and the Donelson family were. Word got back to Jackson and he confronted Lewis and threatened to cut off his ears.

Rather than challenge Jackson to a duel, which he undoubtedly would have accepted, Lewis had a warrant issued against him. While traveling to see the magistrate, under armed guard, the looks that Jackson gave Lewis terrified him so much that he ran off. Of course the fact that the guards allowed Jackson to carry a knife and to chase after Lewis, may have had something to do with the fact that Lewis didn’t show up at the magistrate’s office. Without a complainant, the charges were dismissed. This was the last straw for Lewis, he left Tennessee and returned to Kentucky swearing to have nothing more to do with Rachel and her family.

By this time, Rachel and Andrew knew that they were in love and wanted to marry. While attitudes toward marriage and divorce were more relaxed in the west, including self-marriage and self-divorce determined by the families rather than a bureaucrat from across the mountains, the Donelsons liked to abide by the legal niceties when possible. This was particularly important with regard to property rights. Rachel’s father had died in 1885 and although his will had yet to be settled, anything that came to Rachel would legally belong to Lewis Robards.

Women had no legal right to divorce (at least none that would be acceptable to a southern judge), so the hope was that Lewis meant what he said and would file. In the meantime, the only option Rachel and Andrew had to live as husband and wife was to elope to an area beyond American Law. The closest place whether Andrew could hope to earn a living was Natchez (now in Mississippi) which was then still Spanish territory.  In the summer of 1789, Andrew began to establish connections there.

Approximate location of Natchez Trace between Nashville, TN and Natchez, MS (source)

Approximate location of Natchez Trace between Nashville, TN and Natchez, MS (source)

That fall, they heard rumors that Lewis was angry and preparing to come get Rachel and force her to return to Kentucky with him. He was within his legal rights to do so and Rachel and Andrew made a decision. In December of 1789, they boarded a flat boat and headed down the river. There is no documentary evidence that they married in Natchez, but there is evidence that they presented themselves as Mr. and Mrs. Jackson. They made connections with family friends and entertained, making no effort to hide who they were. Neither purchased land; presumably they rented with the intent of returning to Nashville when they could.

By July 1790, Lewis had not returned to Nashville and Rachel and Andrew decided to go home. The journey up Natchez Trace with an armed party was uneventful with one exception. One of their traveling companions knew Lewis Robards and later reported to him that Rachel and Andrew were living as husband and wife. This testimony was the tangible evidence he had been waiting for and he made a petition to the Virginia legislature for an action of divorce. This gave Lewis permission to sue Rachel for divorce in Kentucky supreme court. (Kentucky was still part of Virginia at the time.)

There were other requirements that had to be met: notice in the Kentucky Gazette, filing a writ in Kentucky, and taking depositions from witnesses. But, Lewis put off doing these things. Maybe because of anger toward Rachel or because of lingering hopes of receiving her inheritance, nevertheless, the divorce wasn’t finalized until three years later in September of 1793. The charge was adultery, but neither Rachel nor Andrew appeared in court. After all, they weren’t going to fight something they had been hoping for all along.

Rachel and Andrew had been living in Nashville as husband and wife since 1790, so they quietly married (remarried?) on January 17, 1794. They enjoyed their lives together and the events of the previous years receded into memory until the election of 1828.

In spite of the ugliness of the campaign, Jackson won the election by a landslide. Briefly, Rachel considered not going to Washington with Andrew, but they decided that that would be admitting they were wrong, which they didn’t believe. So Rachel prepared to become First Lady of the land. Sadly, it wasn’t to be. On December 22, 1828, Rachel Donelson Jackson died, leaving Andrew a deeply sad and embittered man. He would always blame those who attacked Rachel for her death. Two days later, Rachel was buried in the white satin gown she had planned to wear to the inaugural ball.

The tomb of Rachel and Andrew Jackson (source)

The tomb of Rachel and Andrew Jackson (source)

Resources
A Being So Gentle: The Frontier Love Story of Rachel and Andrew Jackson by Patricia Brady
C-SPAN: First Ladies Influence and Image – Rachel Jackson

Florence Harding – Wild Child

Young Florence Harding

In 1920, when Warren G. Harding was running for President of the United States, he had secrets to hide, many secrets; and they all had female names. In fact, one of his mistresses is the only person, that we know of, to successfully blackmail a presidential nominee. But, he wasn’t the only one with a past that they wanted to keep hidden. His wife Florence had a few indiscretions of her own.

Florence Kling Harding was supposed to be a boy, at least in the mind of her father. When Amos Kling and his wife, Louisa, were expecting their first child, he told everyone around town in Marion, Ohio, that the child would be a boy. Aside from just wanting a boy, Amos owned a successful hardware store which required much of his time; a son could work along side him and eventually take over the business. So on August 15, 1860 when Florence Mabel, Flossie, was born, although Amos resented the fact that she wasn’t a boy, he had a practical solution. He would raise her as if she were a boy.

From the time Flossie could walk, Amos took her with him to the store. It became an environment that she would always be comfortable in, the sights, smells, sounds, and the company of men. As she grew, Amos trained her in the running of the store and his other businesses as they came about. By the time Flossie was a teenager, Amos had expanded into banking, real estate, and land/tenant management. He had also become a very wealthy man.

Florence with her horse Billy in Marion, OH

Florence with her horse Billy in Marion, OH

Florence’s education was extensive, including subjects not always studied by women such as math, rhetoric, logic, Greek, and Latin. She was also very active physically, running and playing with the neighborhood boys. Her favorite outdoor activity was horseback riding. Many of her Marian neighbors commented that she was the best horsewoman they had ever seen. (I suspect she was better than many of the men as well.)

All of this continued in spite of the fact that Florence had two younger brothers. Amos never switched his training to the boys. He was a tyrant in the home and it seems that Louisa and the two boys were more submissive, and thus less like Amos in personality than Florence. She was just as competitive and driven as he was and perhaps that’s why he seemed to favor her, but as is the case with many strong-willed children of overbearing parents, there came a time when Florence rebelled against Amos’ demands.

Florence also showed a talent for music. She spent hours practicing the piano, one time for eight hours, until her fingers bled. Music for the sake of art didn’t mean anything to Amos, but he was a firm believer that a woman should be able to provide for herself if necessary. For this reason, he allowed Florence to enroll at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, so that she would have a means to support herself by giving piano lessons. Her ambition, however, was to become a concert pianist.

Amos Kling

Amos Kling

Cincinnati was the country’s center of culture in the west and it opened up a new world to Florence. A world that she reveled in, a world with new people and experiences, but more importantly, a world of independence. After only a year, Amos called Florence home. Whether it was to take care of things at home while her mother was ill, as he said, or because he wanted to reign in his newly liberated daughter, I don’t know. But whatever the reason, he released a tiger that he couldn’t put back in the cage.

Amos tried to impose his own standards on Florence once again and their arguments were long and loud, sometimes lasting all night and heard in the street outside their home. More than once he locked her out of the house when she didn’t return before curfew. Sometimes she crawled into the window of her best friend Carrie Phillips, but other times who knows. Amos particularly disliked the fact that she was *gasp* hanging around the new roller rink in town.

Roller skating was a new fad that was sweeping the country. It gave young men and women a chance to socialize and listen to music, and if a few proprieties were breached well, you had to keep your balance, right? In fact the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1885 passed on a minister’s warning that roller skating rinks “corrupt the morals of all who associate with them.” As might be expected, it wasn’t long before Florence became interested in a young man, Henry De Wolfe, Pete to his friends. Amos was livid, which of course made Pete that much more attractive.

Couple roller skatingFor young women who feel trapped at home, there is one way of escape which has often been used, although it can sometimes have dire consequences. Florence had never expressed a desire to marry or have children and a family like her mother. She had been greatly inspired by Clara Baur, the unmarried founder of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music who was a proponent of careers for women. But at the end of 1879, she found herself in trouble. Trouble that could provide a way out of her father’s house.

Kathleen Lawler, Florence’s long-time assistant said that Florence became pregnant to get away from Amos. Florence herself didn’t admit it, but in her diary early in 1880, she makes a cryptic statement: “Vice often comes in at the door of necessity, not at the door of inclination.”

Pete was fun-loving and handsome, and he drank to excess. Just a year older than Florence, they grew up across the street from each other. Pete’s father, Simon, was one of the few men in town who wasn’t afraid of Amos Kling and there was no love lost between the two, so when Pete and Florence took up with each other people held their breath waiting for the explosion which was sure to occur. Neither family approved, but Simon was a different kind of man than Amos and when Pete told him that he had gotten Florence pregnant, Simon told him to take her up to “Columbus, and get married as soon as possible.” So in March 1880, Florence and Pete eloped to Columbus to get married. But, they didn’t.

Carl Anthony, Florence’s biographer, states in his book that there is no record of a marriage between a Kling and a DeWolfe for 10 years before or after 1880 in Franklin County (Columbus), Marion County, or in Crawford County, where they soon set up housekeeping. Florence may or may not have wanted it that way, but Amos had to believe that they were married to prevent him trying to force her back home. And it worked. Not only did Amos leave Florence to her “marriage”, he cut her off and refused to talk to her.

Life with Pete was difficult. They tried to run a roller skating rink, but failed, and Pete didn’t adjust well to the responsibility of a family. He would be gone for days at a time and finally, before their son Marshall was two years old, he deserted them. Florence had no choice except to return to Marion. A friend’s father was kind enough to allow her to stay at their house as she began to teach piano lessons, until she finally was able to raise enough to get a small apartment of her own.

Kling home in Marion, Ohio

Kling home in Marion, Ohio

Even though Florence’s marriage was from all appearances a common law marriage, she did finally get a divorce from Pete in 1886. At that time there was some communication between Amos and Florence and he offered to provide for Marshall. The conditions were that Marshall would live in the Kling home and take the Kling name. Florence agreed.

Amos may have hated losing control of Florence, and hated the choices she made, but he had given her the tools to make them. She was now on her own, independent, free of responsibility for anyone but herself, and she set out to start over. She also set her sights on the dashing young publisher of The Marion Star, Warren G. Harding.

Young Warren Harding

Warren Harding

Resources
First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama by Betty Caroli
Florence Harding: The First Lady, The Jazz Age, and the Death of America’s Most Scandalous President by Carl Sferrazza Anthony
Presidential Wives: An Anecdotal History by Paul F. Boller Jr.
The Library Company of Philadelphia: “Roller Skating Fun

Nellie Taft, Eliza Scidmore, and Japanese Cherry Trees

386px-Washington_C_D.C._Tidal_Basin_cherry_treesHelen Herron Taft, Nellie, was the most well-traveled First Lady that the United States had seen when she entered the White House with her husband President William Howard Taft in 1909. She had seen more of the world than most Presidents much less First Ladies. So after settling in to the routines at the White House and hosting her first few events, Nellie was bored. For so many years, her husband and his career had been her purpose and now that her ultimate goal had been achieved, she needed a project.

Nellie had heard of plans to beautify the city during the time she was a Cabinet wife. She loved the idea and decided to look for a place that she could develop. She had in mind something like Luneta Park in Manila, her favorite place in the Philippines. Luneta Park was a large open space with two bandstands at opposite ends of the park overlooking the bay. Concerts were held there and it was frequented by people of all races and classes. She wanted to do something similar for the people of Washington, so at the beginning of April she went driving alone and found the perfect place along the Tidal Basin with a “road” leading to it that people had begun to race their cars on. She imagined the “Speedway” as it was called lined with beautiful Japanese Cherry trees leading down to the bandstand.

The original idea of planting cherry trees in the nation’s capitol belongs to Eliza Scidmore, an author whose brother, George Hawthorne Scidmore, was a diplomat in the Far East. Her brother’s career allowed Eliza the opportunity to travel that many women didn’t have during the 19th century. She published numerous books based on her travels and joined the National Geographic Society in 1890. She became a regular correspondent and later the Society’s first female trustee.

Eliza_Ruhamah_Scidmore

Eliza Scidmore

On Eliza’s return from the Far East in 1885, she proposed the idea of the cherry trees to Washington officials, but there was little interest at the time. Her proposal was to the US Army Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds. After the first rejection, she continued to propose the idea to each new Superintendent over the next 24 years.

Around 1906, another person became interested in the trees. Dr. David Fairchild, an official at the US Department of Agriculture, imported close to 100 trees to plant on his property to test their hardiness for the region. They did very well and in 1908 he gave trees to each District of Columbia school to plant for Arbor Day. During his speech he expressed a wish that the Tidal Basin could be transformed into a “Field of Cherries.”

Eliza Scidmore was in the audience that day and decided to try to raise the money herself to plant the trees. Either as a courtesy, or because she knew a First Lady could get things done, she sent a note to Nellie Taft to tell her about her plans for a field of cherry trees. This was just what Nellie was looking for and she quickly responded.

April 7, 1909

Thank you very much for your suggestion about the cherry trees. I have taken the matter up and am promised the trees, but I thought perhaps it would be best to make an avenue of them, extending down to the turn in the road, as the other part is still too rough to do any planting. Of course, they could not reflect in the water, but the effect would be very lovely of the long avenue. Let me know what you think about this.

Sincerely yours,
Helen H. Taft

First Lady Helen Taft

First Lady Helen Taft

Never shy about taking charge, Nellie took it upon herself. As soon as the First Lady made the request, the Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, Colonel Spencer Cosby, initiated the purchase of the first Japanese Cherry trees. Around the same time, Dr. Jokichi Takamine, a Japanese chemist, was visiting Washington with the Japanese consul, Mr. Midzuno. The good doctor asked if Nellie would accept a gift of another 2000 trees, given in the name of the City of Tokyo and she accepted them.

Unfortunately, the 95 trees ordered by the Superintendent of Grounds turned out to be the wrong variety, but the worst blow was to come. The next January when the 2000 trees arrived from Japan it was discovered that they were diseased. Infested with insects and nematodes, they had to be burned to protect American growers.

Because of the nature of the gift, President Taft had to give approval for the destruction of the trees and the State Department expressed regret to the Japanese Ambassador. They understood the problem, in fact the mayor of Tokyo, Mr. Yukio Ozaki, suggested that another gift be sent. The Tokyo City Counsel approved the donation of 3020 more trees and the scions to be grafted were taken from the famous collection along the bank of the Arakawa River in Adachi Ward, a suburb of Tokyo.

The Mayor of Tokyo Mr. Yukio Ozaki and his wife Viscountess Chinda

The Mayor of Tokyo Mr. Yukio Ozaki and his wife

After grafting and preparing the trees, on March 27, 1912, Washington DC’s first Cherry Tree celebration was held when First Lady Helen Taft and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese Ambassador, planted two cherry trees on the banks of the Tidal Basin. These original trees still stand with a plaque located near by to commemorate the occasion.

Over the next seven years the Cherry trees were planted around the Tidal Basin and in East Potomac Park. Over the next two decades, the first official Cherry Blossom Festival was held, a pageant was started, and they came to symbolize something important to the citizens of Washington. In 1938, a group of women chained themselves to some of the trees to prevent their destruction for the building of the Jefferson Memorial. A compromise was reached and the trees were moved and more were planted to frame the memorial.

Cherry Blossom Grove on the National Mall

Cherry Blossom Grove on the National Mall

The trees have continued to connect the Japanese and American people. During WWII, a few were vandalized and the trees were referred to as Oriental Cherry trees instead of Japanese Cherry trees. But after the war Japan’s trees needed help. The trees along the bank of the Arakawa River in Adachi Ward, where the Washington stock originally came from, were badly damaged during the war. The city of Washington DC was able to give new stock to the city of Tokyo to replace the very trees from which they had come.

In 1965, there was another First Lady who would be known for her beautification projects. The Japanese Government gave another gift of 3,800 trees and Lady Bird Johnson with Mrs. Ryuji Takeuchi, wife of Japan’s Ambassador, reenacted the original planting ceremony of 1912.

Lady Bird Johnson planting a cherry tree in 1965

Lady Bird Johnson planting a cherry tree in 1965

The National Cherry Blossom Festival is held for two weeks each year beginning on the last Saturday of March.

Resources
Nellie Taft: The Unconventional First Lady of the Ragtime Era by Carl Sferrazza Anthony
History of the Cherry Trees