First Lady Biography: Margaret Taylor
MARGARET "PEGGY" MACKALL SMITH TAYLOR
21 September, 1788
Major Walter Smith, born 12 August, 1747, Calvert County, Maryland; tobacco planter, major in the Continental Army during the American Revolution; died, 1804, Calvert County, Maryland
Ann Hance Mackall, born 12 May, 1755, Calvert County, Maryland; married sometime after 1772 as her father, in his will, dated and probated in 1772, states that she was single at that time; died 20 May, 1789, Calvert County, Maryland.
English, Scottish; Margaret Taylor's paternal great-great grandfather Captain Richard Smith was born in England and immigrated to the American colonies in 1649 with his brother Walter, who settled in Baltimore County. Richard Smith settled in Calvert County and held the appointment of attorney-general of Maryland from Oliver Cromwell in 1655. Margaret Taylor's maternal great-grandfather was James Mackall (1630- 1693), who immigrated from Scotland as an indentured servant to Calvert County, Maryland and had bought his freedom by 1668, although he remained illiterate.
Birth Order and Siblings:
Youngest of seven; three brothers, three sisters: Elizabeth Smith (?-?), Joseph Smith (?-?), Mary Anne Smith Chew (?-1825), Richard Smith (?-?), Sarah Smith Hellen (?-?), Walter Smith (?-?)
*Margaret Taylor's sister Sarah married into the maternal family of First Lady Louisa Catherine Adams, whose father was also from Maryland.
Medium height, brown hair, brown eyes
Nothing is known of Margaret Smith's early life. It can be assumed, based on the status of her family and the era in which she lived, however, that she received an education that was traditional for young daughters of plantation owners - sewing, embroidery, music, dancing, management of servants. There was a marked difference of what was proper to teach young woman by the early 19th century, in contrast to latter 18th century plantation, and it is also likely that she received training in grammar and basic mathematics. In consideration of her later managing of her and her husband's itinerant life would suggest that she may have had something beyond the traditional training.
Occupation Before Marriage:
Outside of the basic facts that Margaret "Peggy" Taylor was born and raised in a large brick plantation house (destroyed by fire in the early 20th century) to a wealthy and prosperous tobacco plantation family, no other documentation regarding her early life is extant. She was known to be a childhood acquaintance of Nelly Custis, the granddaughter of Martha Washington, who was raised on the Virginia plantation Mount Vernon, thus suggesting that Peggy Taylor socialized with other prominent Virginia and Maryland tobacco-plantation families. She almost certainly was familiar with Georgetown, then a major international tobacco port in present-day Washington, D.C., relatively close to her home.
Peggy Taylor was only 10 years old when her mother died, and her own sisters were said to be considerably older. She was thus often at the nearby estate of her maternal grandparents, "God's Graces." Her mother and aunts had been celebrated in the colony of Maryland as the "the eight beautiful daughters of General Mackall" and through their marriages and their children, Peggy Taylor was related to the most politically powerful families in the state. Her aunt Priscilla married into a prominent family, to Robert Bowie, who was three times Governor of Maryland. Two other aunts - Susanna and Mary - married members of the Maryland Convention of 1774, to Thomas Gantt, Jr. and Edward Reynolds, respectively. Yet another, Barbara, married General Wilkerson. Priscilla Mackall had eloped by climbing over the family estate's renowned moss-covered brick wall by means of a rope ladder, furnished by her sweetheart. Tradition claims that all of Peggy Taylor's maternal aunts followed likewise, something of a humorous ritual.
With the death of her father in 1804, when she was 16 years old, Peggy Taylor moved to Louisville, Kentucky to live with her next oldest sibling, her sister Mary Anne, who was married to Samuel Chew - whose own family was also a prominent one in Maryland. Five years later, in Louisville, she was introduced to Zachary Taylor by Dr. Alexander Duke, an old Smith family friend, also originally of Calvert County, Maryland.
21 years old to Zachary Taylor, Lieutenant , U.S. Army, (born 24 November, 1784, "Montebello", Orange County, Virginia, died 9 July, 1850, The White House, Washington, D.C.) on 21 June, 1810 at the double log-house home of her sister and brother-in-law, Mary Anne and Samuel Chew.
Five daughters, one son: Sarah Knox Taylor Davis (1813-15 September, 1835); Anne Margaret Mackall Taylor Wood ( 9 April, 1811- 2 December, 1875); Octavia Pannel Taylor (15 August, 1816 - September, 1820); Margaret Smith Taylor (17 July, 1819 - October, 1820); Mary Elizabeth "Betty" Taylor Bliss Dandridge (20 April, 1824 - 25, July, 1909); Richard Taylor (27 January, 1826 - 17 April, 1879)
Occupation After Marriage:
For almost forty years, Peggy Taylor had an itinerant life, traveling around the frontier regions of the United States with her husband, directed by his U.S. Army assignments. Zachary Taylor rose to Major (1812-1814), Colonel during the Black Hawk War in 1832, Brigadier General during the Seminole War, 1836-1837, and Major General of the Mexican War, 1845-1847. She would live in forts, tents, log cabins, from the Florida Everglades, to the northern garrisons at Fort, Crawford in present-day Wisconsin to Jefferson Barracks in Missouri.
There is evidence that she began her marriage and made her intentions to always be with her husband, regardless of the deprivation, while she was in excellent health. One of Margaret Taylor's early trips to rejoin her husband was by horse back, after visiting her mother's family, from Calvert County, Maryland to Kentucky. In 1820, however, while at Bayou Sara, Louisiana, she lost two of her five daughters, three-year old Octavia, and one-year old Margaret. Peggy Taylor also fell deathly ill and the scant descriptions of her in her husband's correspondence to family members from that point on often refer to her "delicate" health.
Although she would give birth to two more children, Betty and Dick, Peggy Taylor insisted on having them sent out of the frontier once they were older, to be raised with relatives in the more civilized town of Louisville, Kentucky, where they were born, and to then receive the finest educations available: Anne went to a women's academy in Lexington, Kentucky, Sarah to Louisville and Cincinnati, Betty to Philadelphia and Dick to Yale, in New Haven, Connecticut. She did not want to expose them to the disease and other hardships more readily encountered in the frontier forts and camps where she continued to live with her husband.
Settled for four years at Fort Crawford (1832-1836), Peggy Taylor lived with her husband and four children in a two-story wood frame house. In the basement at the home, she made dairy products for her family and other residents of the fort, and also had an impressive wine cellar of fine vintage, served to various officials and guests who came to meet with Taylor there. On the property, she raised chickens, and planted a flourishing vegetable garden. By the end of the tour of duty there, however, all of the children had left.
On 17 June, 1835, Sarah Taylor married Lieutenant Jefferson Davis at the Louisville, Kentucky home of her father's sister, and in the presence of his two other sisters and brother, as well as her sister Betty. The marriage was in no way an elopement, although not sanctioned by the father. Letters to Peggy Taylor, however, indicate that Sarah had the direction of her mother, who was disappointed not to be at the ceremony. The young couple moved to the groom's property on his brother's plantation. On a visit to his sister While on a visit to Locust Grove plantation, the home of his sister Mrs. Luther Smith, Sarah Taylor Davis and Jefferson Davis both contracted malaria. He survived, but Sarah Taylor Davis died on 15 September. A strange coincidence of her death was that it took place just near Bayou Sara, Louisiana - where Peggy Taylor's two other children had died fifteen years earlier. Peggy Taylor was broken in spirit by the loss. Taylor, previously on friendly terms with Davis, refused to acknowledge him for many years. Her husband recorded on several occasions that Peggy Taylor suffered greatly from a deep loneliness during her long years with him at the frontier forts.
At one time, during their being stationed at Fort Knox in Vincennes, Indiana, she was often even isolated from other women, being the only wife or female relative among a population of forty-six men. In 1837, Taylor was finally requested leave, so he and Peggy could visit Ann in Kentucky and Betty in Philadelphia. However, with the Seminole Indian battles in Florida, he was ordered to Fort Brooke in Tampa.
Once hostilities seemed quelled, Peggy Taylor made her way, via New Orleans, to Tampa. Here she served as a nurse in the army hospital, tending to the sick and wounded. Even when her husband then left the fort to lead other maneuvers, Peggy Taylor stayed at the fort and kept him apprised of military and other activity within the fort community. He relied on her reports and from them informed others of life at Fort Brooke.
Finally, in 1838, Peggy Taylor was able to have a break from army life when her husband was promoted and given his leave. They sailed to Pensacola, Florida, then to New Orleans, proceeding to Baton Rouge and then Louisville, to spend time with their relatives there. They then proceeded to Washington, D.C. where it was highly likely that Taylor, if not also Peggy Taylor, made their first visit to the White House, to consult with President MartinVan Buren. From the capital, they went to Philadelphia where they were finally rejoined with their daughter Betty, whom they had not seen for several years. The trio then made a relaxing excursion to Niagara Falls, in western New York.
Finally, they returned to Louisville. Despite her many personal losses, this period began what was to be a relatively brief time of peace for Peggy Taylor, especially with the company of her daughter Betty. Two years later, Taylor was posted to Baton Rouge. Here she decided to turn down the commodious quarters that were provided for her as the wife of the post commander and decided instead to restore a dilapidated four-room square cottage with a wide veranda surrounding it. A relatively old building remaining from the Spanish commandant there, it sat overlooking the Mississippi River and was shaded by moss trees. It became her first permanent home that she shared with her husband.
Although she would make two brief forays to join Taylor while was he was stationed at Fort Gibson and Fort Smith in Arkansas, she now preferred living at her Baton Rouge cottage, even if separated from her husband. She also planted a thriving and healthy vegetable garden, began a dairy to provide fresh butter and milk, and taught other military wives to do likewise.
In 1845, Taylor was called to command the Army and secure U.S. positioning near the Rio Grande in what would become known as the Mexican War. For their first time in their marriage Peggy Taylor decided not to join him at the front. Despite the distraction provided by visits from her daughter Ann, now married to a U.S. Army surgeon, Robert Wood (who served with Taylor) and her four grandchildren, Peggy Taylor lived in terror that her husband would be killed during his most famous and final command.
Legend claims that she prayed to God for his safe return and vowed that she would give up all pretenses to re-entering fashionable society in Louisville or anywhere else. The story is highly likely, for during this period of her life, Peggy Taylor became deeply religious. At the Baton Rouge command, she took a room in the garrison and turned it into a quiet chapel.
On occasion, she was able to influence a minister who lived some distance from there to conduct Sunday services there. Realizing that there was no permanent Protestant church of any kind in the region, Peggy Taylor used her considerable status as the wife of the great Mexican War general, now legendary as "Old Rough and Ready," to rally area citizens in helping to establish the Episcopalian parish and church of St. James. All that said, Peggy Taylor was at the side of her husband when the city of New Orleans celebrated him with parades and tributes as the great hero of the Mexican War.
Campaign and Inauguration:
Several anecdotes, including two told by her husband, indicate that Peggy Taylor vigorously protested his nomination as the Whig candidate for president in 1848. He enjoyed telling people that she was praying that his opponent would win the presidency. Taylor also told the story of his meeting a man on a steamboat who did not know his identity. He asked the man what candidate he supported. The man said "Taylor," then asked the actual candidate if he was voting for the general as well. No, said Taylor, because he knew for a fact that the general's wife was against it. He may have been seeking to make light of her darker statement that the election was a plot to deprive her of his company in their retirement and further, to shorten his life. Certainly ever since the close of the Mexican War, Peggy Taylor found herself besieged by curious and well-intended strangers who had debarked river boats on the Mississippi just to stop at her Baton Rouge cottage, hoping to get a glimpse of the famous general.
Contradictory to what some chroniclers have asserted, Peggy Taylor was in attendance at the 1849 Inauguration ceremony of her husband, surrounded by her tightly-knit and supportive family circle. She turned down an invitation from the outgoing presidential couple, the Polks, to join her husband, family members and other Whig supporters at a White House dinner the night before the ceremony. She also did not appear at the two Inaugural Balls, remaining instead in her Willard Hotel suite with her grandchildren as she had done during the Polk White House dinner the previous evening.
4 March, 1849 - 9 July, 1850
Peggy Taylor's husband, two daughters, two sons-in-law, and four grandchildren were the primary focus of her brief tenure as a president's wife living in the White House. There seems to have been some sort of estrangement between her son Dick and the President, and the young man was not encouraged to visit the White House, making only one brief attempt to do so. Instead, he remained in Louisiana, overseeing the family's cotton investments. Her daughter Ann and grandchildren John, Bob, Sarah and Anna, lived in nearby Baltimore and visited the White House often. Her daughter Betty had wed Colonel William Wallace Bliss, General Taylor's aide, and they lived in the mansion with her parents, he continuing his work but now as the president's aide.
To what degree, if any, Peggy Taylor influenced the President on matters is unknown. Although it is unlikely that she took any interest in public affairs, it was clear that President Taylor highly respected her. At an 1849 White House dinner, Varina Davis (the second wife of Jefferson Davis with whom the Taylors had by then reconciled) records that Taylor told her husband, "You know my wife was as much of a soldier as I was."
Peggy Taylor was especially close with her first cousin, Mary Bowie, who had married the prominent attorney and U.S. Senator from Maryland, Reverdy Johnson, also of the Whig Party. Family lore contends that it was upon the persistent influence of Peggy Taylor that her husband appointed Johnson as Attorney General, thus making his wife's kin part of his official family.
As a Cabinet wife, Mary Reverdy was frequently at the White House for family dinners and official events, a comforting and familiar friend for the First Lady. By the spring of 1850, it was noted that Peggy Taylor and her daughter began to show a marked preference for Whig Senator Daniel Webster, who visited frequently and that she joined a conscious effort on the part of the Administration to recognize and entertain those Whig leaders who had first pushed for Taylor's candidacy and felt initially ignored or treated with ingratitude.
For almost her first full year as First Lady, Peggy Taylor focused her attention on the maintenance of the executive household - ordering food for family meals and most likely public entertaining as well, overseeing the slaves and servants duties, supervising the gardens, the dairy and the kitchen. Most of all, she took charge of the well-being of Zachary Taylor as she always had, looking after his diet, health and apparently an increasingly appropriate wardrobe, he having earned a reputation as something of a sloppy dresser.
The one element of her role as First Lady that Peggy Taylor refused to engage herself in was presiding over any public functions as hostess. That was a task she gladly passed to her popular and young daughter, known to the general public and the press by the nickname "Miss Betty."
On a daily basis, Peggy Taylor left the White House and attended morning services at St. John's Episcopal Church across Lafayette Square from the mansion. Special guests, important Whig Party leaders, relatives and old friends from Maryland and Virginia were brought upstairs to be received by the First Lady in her private sitting room in the family quarters. She was well-versed enough in her husband's policies to always take "every opportunity to drop a good word in company that might help her husband," according to Varina Davis, and it was recorded that she was the only woman guest at a private dinner hosted by Vice President Millard Fillmore for political figures in his residential hotel suite. She was at the President's side to welcome a Baptist Sunday school group in the East Room on July 4, 1849 and at a ceremony where she accepted honorary lifetime membership in the American Sunday School Union in November of that year. She was also among the women members of the Taylor family to appear at the large public reception in the White House on March 4, 1850 to mark the one-year anniversary of Taylor's Inauguration, dressed in beautiful gowns and diamonds.
Despite the fact that she was not entirely cloistered on the second floor of the mansion and did attend numerous public events in the state rooms, she was nevertheless rarely recognized or acknowledged by the general public. Standing among a larger group of visiting women relatives who clustered near the President, the presence of the First Lady could often go unnoticed while permitting her the pleasure of seeing how reverently the public responded to her beloved husband. Nevertheless, false rumors began to circulate among the capital society leaders that Mrs. Taylor was something of a crude recluse from the frontier who smoked a corncob pipe and was kept hidden by her mortified family in the attic. Ironically, any sort of smoke made her "actively ill," her grandson recalled.
In many respects, it was Peggy Taylor's daughter, Mary Elizabeth "Betty" Taylor Bliss Dandridge (1824-1909) who assumed responsibility for the family's primary interaction with the general public. She married her father's aide, Colonel William Wallace Bliss on 5 December 1846. He was the son of Captain John Bliss of the U.S. Army and his wife Olive Limonds, both of Connecticut.
Educated in Philadelphia, and spending much of her adolescent years in Kentucky and Virginia with relatives and away from her parents, Betty Bliss was once dubbed a "rustic belle" but contemporary accounts suggest that she was intelligent and sophisticated. She had been acting as something of a spokesperson for her more reclusive mother once her father had achieved national acclaim and the family attracted unwanted curiosity.
At the Inaugural Ball, following the Russian Minister's wife in red silk and diamonds, "Miss Betty" appeared in a simple white dress with a white flower in her hair and her naturalness became her trademark. She presided over all public functions in the White House as the official hostess of the Taylor Administration. The public face of the Taylor women duo, Betty Bliss even had a popular dance song written in her honor.
By the time the fall 1849 social season began, however, there was a marked difference in the style of the family. There is a suggestion that her mother's health had briefly deteriorated since she then relinquished all the domestic management to Betty Bliss, who also seemed to observers to now "appreciate the importance of her social elevation." The change was visibly apparent at the March 4, 1850 White House reception when Betty Bliss led the conversations with men, balancing humor with sensibility and her poise was highly praised in the next day's newspapers.
Betty Bliss was with her mother, husband, sister and brother-in-law at the bedside of the President when, after a sudden gastric illness of five days, he died on 9 July, 1850. Peggy Taylor could not accept the reality of his demise as it became inevitable within a matter of hours. She became hysterical and repeated that he had survived worse threats to his life on the battlefield and in the primitive forts where they had lived.
Peggy Taylor begged him not to leave her and upon his death insisted that the ice preserving his body be removed on three occasions just so she could look upon his face one more time. She was unable to attend his funeral in the East Room. Instead, according to Varina Davis, she listened to the funeral dirges and drum marches lying upstairs on her bed, shaking and sobbing in shock.
Six years after her first husband's death on 4 August, 1852 (just ten days before her mother's death) Betty Bliss remarried to Philip Pendleton Dandridge on February 11, 1858. While her sister Ann and her two sons moved to Germany during the Civil War, Betty remained loyal to the Confederacy and took responsibility for Ann's daughter and namesake, living in Winchester, Virginia. She herself had no children, but until her death at age 85, "Miss Betty" sought to maintain the public's fading memory of her father. She died on 25 July, 1909 in Winchester.
It had long been believed that there existed no extant picture of Peggy Taylor and in the years after her death, her daughter Betty stated that her mother had not sat for a portrait, suggesting a painting.
However, in the early 20th century an engraving appeared that was claimed to be of her; it was drawn by an artist who did a series of such engravings of earlier First Ladies based on other images loaned to him for that purpose from descendants. In 1998, an early photograph that appears to be the original image from which the engraving was copied was purchased by a private collector in Washington, D.C. The photograph of Peggy Taylor was part of a group of carte-de-visite, daugerotype, ferrotype, ambrotype and other images of former Mexican War era figures that originated from a Winchester, Virginia collection once belonging to a collateral descendant of Betty Taylor Bliss's second husband's family. The last surviving Taylor child, Betty Bliss had no descendants, thus suggesting the image of her mother once belonged to her and was inherited by her second husband's relatives.
Based on what appears to be the faulty information provided by a Taylor great-grandson, a Smithsonian political curator in the late 1940s perpetuated the claim that there was no "portrait," which may have been a misunderstanding of the belief there was no painting, and further mis-identified a photograph of Betty Bliss which was actually that of her sister Ann Wood.
Life After the White House:
Peggy Taylor left the White House with her daughter AnnWood and her family, and lived with them for three months in Baltimore, more composed than she had been in her husband's final days. She then proceeded with her two daughters to New Orleans, where they met up with her son Dick for the legal division of Taylor's estate. Peggy Taylor lived a more comfortable life as a widow than she had for her four decades on the frontier, her husband leaving an ample estate, including five slaves for her. Although she was voted the franking privilege by Congress as a presidential widow, Peggy Taylor made no public appearances or remarks in retirement. She initially returned to live with the Blisses in Kentucky but found the constant expressions of sympathy for the late president that her presence always provoked to be too oppressive.
She then moved to live with her son Dick In 1849 he had begun an extensive sugar plantation operation in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana and she may have joined him for his inspection trips there on occasion.
Peggy Taylor's only known public appearance as a widow was at his wedding in 1851 to Myrthé Bringierde Lacadière. She also had the chance to enjoy the company of his first child, a daughter. One source claims that she taught Sunday school as a widow, but there is no further documentation provided. All of the Taylor family's personal correspondence was stored at her last home which was burned by Union troops during the Civil War.
During a visit to her daughter Betty, who had by then relocated to East Pascagoula, Mississippi, the former First Lady died suddenly.
63 years old
East Pascagoula , Mississippi
14 August, 1852
Zachary Taylor National Cemetery
Louisville , Kentucky