The Harrison Family: Vincennes to the White House

By Shirley Hunter Smith, Ph.D | Second Vice President-General, DSDI

The contributions and sacrifices made by the Signers of the Declaration of Independence are, of course, well-known, but less familiar are stories of descendants who carried on the founders’ legacy.  A great example is found in the family of Virginia Signer Benjamin Harrison.  Also of significance to the final outcome of the Revolutionary War were frontier battles fought in little known river outposts such as Vincennes, Indiana.  The town would become an important location in the development of the country and for the Harrison family after the war.

Vincennes was founded in 1732 by French Military Officer Francois Marie Bissot–Sieur de Vincennes.  The city was a French fur trading post situated on the Wabash River in what is now southwest Indiana.  The area was part of New France at the time, and a fort was erected to protect the abundant fur trade they had with the local Indian tribes from the BritishAfter the French and Indian War, the British took control of the post and the lucrative trade.  The fort became known as Fort Sackville or Fort Vincennes.

Forty-seven years later on February 25, 1779 George Rogers Clark and 170 militia from the Illinois Country, Virginia and a few sympatric Canadians seized Fort Sackville from the British and their Indian allies. The British force at the fort greatly outnumbered Clark’s volunteers, but excellent maneuvering by Clark’s men convinced the British they must surrender or the fort would be stormed by a much larger force.  Most of the citizens of Vincennes supported the Americans and aided them by providing dry gun powder for Clark’s troops.  Having marched 180 miles across Illinois in water that was as high as their shoulders in places, the militia’s powder was unusable.  The significance of the siege and surrender was a turning point in the Revolution.  The British were shown that a few American militia men could defeat British regulars even on the frontier.  The surrender gave the Americans the largest land grab of the war, securing what would become Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois.  A memorial was raised in Clark’s honor and an annual Spirit of Vincennes Rendezvous commemorates the victory to this day held over Memorial Day weekend.

Virginia laid claim to the entire land area their native son secured, and in 1781 gave it to the central government and it became the Northwest Territory.  Later the area was designated the Indiana Territory.  William Henry Harrison was appointed the first governor of the territory by President John Adams in 1800.  Harrison, born at Berkeley Plantation in Charles City, Virginia was the son of Signer Benjamin Harrison and his wife Elizabeth Bassett Harrison.  Harrison had a distinguished military career already, and his familiarity with the territory made him a solid choice.  Reminiscent of Berkeley, Harrison had a beautiful home constructed in the new territorial capitol of Vincennes that he named Grouseland, due to the abundance of the delicious bird in the area.

Harrison and his wife, Anna Tuthill Symmes Harrison, had several children, three of which were born at Grouseland.  William Henry Harrison became the ninth president of the United States in 1841, and the oldest President to take office prior to Ronald Reagan.  Anna was the oldest first lady to assume the role until our current first lady, Jill Biden.  Harrison’s March 4th Presidential inaugural address on a cold and inclement day, was the longest in history, lasting nearly two hours, and his tenure in office was the shortest in history, lasting only 30 days.  At the time it was thought Harrison died of pneumonia, but a 2014 study by Jane McHugh and Philip A. Mackowiak published in Clinical Infectious Diseases concluded he likely died due to septic shock from typhoid or paratyphoid fever.  It was found that the public sewage was upstream from the White House drinking water.   Harrison was also the first President to die in office.

John Scott Harrison was one of the children born at Grouseland to William Henry and Anna Harrison.  In 1812, the family moved to West Bend, Ohio where John represented Ohio in the House of Representatives during the mid-1850s.  His mother, Anna, also lived with John following William Henry’s death.  John married Elizabeth Ramsey Irwin.

To John and Elizabeth a son, Benjamin, was born in West Bend, Ohio, namesake of his great-grandfather.  He became a lawyer, Presbyterian Church leader, and politician and set-up his law practice in Indianapolis.  Harrison served first as a Colonel for the Union during the Civil War and was appointed Brevet Brigadier General of Volunteers in 1865 by the U.S. Senate.  He later served in the U.S. Senate for six years and became our twenty-third President in 1889.  When Harrison become President, his father John, now had the distinction of being the son and father of a U.S. President.  Benjamin Harrison married Caroline Lavinia Scott and had a son and daughter during their life together.  Caroline helped found the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) in 1890 and served as its first President General; the largest DAR Chapter in the state of Indiana bears her name.  Caroline died in 1892 of tuberculosis while Harrison was still in office.

Against his children’s wishes, Benjamin Harrison remarried four years after Caroline’s death.  He married Caroline’s widowed niece and secretary, Mary Scott Lord Dimmick, who was thirty-seven years younger than he.  They had one child together.  Benjamin Harrison died of pneumonia in 1901 and is buried at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis by his two wives.

The Signers of the Declaration of Independence left us a free country for which they endured great sacrifice, and what we see with the Harrisons is a family legacy of service to the United States generation after generation.  Ideals that began at a plantation in Charles City, Virginia in 1776 traveled to a frontier river town by the Wabash River named Vincennes and back east to the White House, onward to southern Ohio, returning west to Indiana, to the battlefields of the Civil War, and again back to the White House.  Vincennes, Indiana played a significant role in the outcome of the American Revolution, to the development of the Harrison family, and to the furthering of American ideals began by Benjamin Harrison and his fellow Signers.