Who’s That Girl? A Visit To Whitehaven

Nestled among the orange, red, and yellow carpet of fallen autumn leaves, there stands a green clapboard house. Though nearly two hundred years old, it could still be considered ‘nouveau’ as it resides in a city that claims Spanish and French heritage and bloodlines. But this is no ordinary abode, especially when viewed within the entire panorama. There is the lawn, which is lush and verdant in the spring, the white fence that runs an impressive length around the property, and of course, the famous ‘neigh’bors: the stately and majestic Clydesdales, known for their visceral half-time and Christmas commercials.

But the most telling sign that this is not just any home would be the National Park sign in front of the gate. Whose feet must have trod over the threshold? Who slept upon the crisp, cool linen sheets? Who dined in the simple, smiling graces of sunbeams that poured through the thick paned windows? What was so special about this diminutive and petted brunette, besides being the first daughter born after a huddle of brothers? A girl who was shy and self-conscious about her looks, but captured the heart of a young officer because of them. All this fuss for maybe just an ordinary girl?

But Julia Boggs Dent Grant was not just an ordinary girl.

Welcome to White Haven, the familial home of one of America’s first ladies.

Sharing the same nomenclature as the Memphis, Tennessee suburb where Elvis Presley reigned over Graceland, White Haven was a country home located in present day St. Louis, Missouri and was purchased in late 1825 by Frederick Dent. Dent, his wife Ellen, and four rollicking sons had lived in St. Louis for ten years, after moving from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Dent, a Maryland native, had met his wife Ellen, a daughter of England in Pittsburgh, where he was a land surveyor. They married and joined the rest of their generation in moving westward. Dent acquired a good fortune over the years and was soon able to purchase White Haven, which he ran as a plantation. Dent was a southerner and owned a reported thirty slaves. He was, by all accounts a prosperous farmer. On January 26 , 1826 as the chill wind rocked the tree limbs and froze the Gravois Creek that wound around the house, Ellen was safely delivered of a daughter.

Three more daughters joined the family, with one dying in infancy. As she grew, Julia enjoyed perhaps a better education than most girls of her time, beginning with studies in a one-room school house. She later matriculated into the Mauro Academy for Young Ladies, formerly located at Fifth and Market Streets, which is currently a hub of activity in downtown St. Louis. Julia was enrolled there for eight years and boarded with a family in town due to the distance between White Haven and the school. By Julia’s account, she enjoyed history, philosophy, and mythology and showed a great fondness for reading literature and poetry. She especially liked Shakespeare and Byron, which was introduced to her by her brother, Louis. Ironically, she did not like grammar, nor did she care for mathematics. Like many girls of her time, she played piano, and was also reported to be a good artist in the medium of pencil sketches.

Julia was also quite the eligible young lady and had the opportunity to be courted by many young enlisted men at Jefferson Barracks. But Julia had insecurities about her appearance, and may have had what is referred to as “lazy eye”. What she considered an impediment was what attracted a young officer who was visiting her brother one cold February in 1844. Ulysses Grant had been her brother Fred’s roommate at West Point and was stationed at Jefferson Barracks. Fred invited him for a home cooked dinner and conversation. On that day, Julia arrived home from school and met Ulysses. He proposed three months later. It was said that her father opposed the union and suggested Grant marry her younger sister Ellen instead. Four years later, in the stifling heat of August, Julia and Ulysses were wed. Grant’s family, who were from Ohio, did not attend the ceremony, as they were anti-slavery.

This was just the beginning of social and personal challenges for Julia, who would see her husband lead an entire nation on the battlefield and later in the White House. She was witness to whispers and roars about her husband’s drunken behavior. In the midst she raised four children, all who lived to adulthood, and celebrated the country’s centennial. She attempted to have her eye corrected twice and was stopped both times by her husband who told her he loved her the way she was and may not feel the same if she changed. Julia also examined the way she felt about slavery, pointing out that the children of slaves had been her playmates and that she considered them all her family.

According to Pamela Sanfillipo, a park historian at the Ulysses S. Grant National Site,  “Julia Grant would have said that her legacy was that she was a devoted and loving wife, mother to their children; but, more than that, she tried to represent what her husband was trying to achieve: peace and reconciliation in the nation, and in her role as first lady, she was able to accomplish that.” (First Ladies by Susan Swain, pg. 149).

The Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site is open all year round, with the exceptions of Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. It is free and offers a tour of White Haven and the grounds, along with a video about the life and times of President Grant. It is also located next to Grant’s Farm, which is owned by the Busch family and is a great way to spend an afternoon in St, Louis. For more information on the National Historic Site, go to http://www.nps.gov. To learn more about Grant’s Farm, go to http://www.grantsfarm.com. Finally, a special thank you to http://www.firstladies.org for providing a wealth of knowledge about Julia; a site definitely worth checking out.

*Travel Tip: Since the National Historic Site is a National Park, there is a fun Junior Rangers program for children. They receive a free coloring book with lots of great information and a badge. Also, St. Louis is a fun place to visit, but it is best seen in the fall, when the leaves are turning and the humidity is lower.

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