From the bestselling author of First Ladies, Inside the White House, and America’s First Ladies comes the first look at the women of one of the most influential families in American history: The Roosevelts.
Read an Excerpt
MARTHA "MITTIE" BULLOCH ROOSEVELT
The bride was only eighteen, and her slight figure and girlish face made her seem even younger as she stood in front of the dining room fireplace to take her vows. The bridegroom, at twenty-three, was solidly built, and his girth, combined with a ruddy, bewhiskered face, gave an impression more of protector than lover. As the groom stood close beside the bride, her face practically glowing from the light of the fire, they were both nearly upstaged by their surroundings. With Christmas only three days away, Bulloch Hall, the childhood home that the bride would remember fondly long after she had grown up, had been lavishly decorated with ribbons, candles, and green mistletoe and red holly berries that grew in abundance on the plantation just north of Atlanta. The entire household had worked for days to prepare for the Thursday evening in 1853 when Mittie Bulloch, the youngest daughter in the family, married Theodore Roosevelt of New York City.
At first the bride had wished for a small wedding, one that would not cost her widowed mother too much effort or money. But then, rethinking the matter, she had decided to splurge. A girl married only once, she reasoned, and she ought to make the most of it. When her parents built the house fewer than twenty years earlier, they had insisted on a fireplace in every room, and on this evening Mittie wanted every one of them blazing. And blaze they did.
She might be young, but the bride had already developed a strong will of her own. Before Theodore arrived in Georgia for the ceremony, she taunted him with the fact that she was receiving attention from other men. It was her right, she insisted, even as an engaged woman to dance with whomever she pleased. She even presumed to dictate his behavior, writing him careful instructions to arrive one day before the nuptials "and not a day sooner." Later it would be said that she possessed her own unique way of doing things, but even in her teens she showed a headstrong quality that set her apart from her contemporaries. For this occasion she had boasted to the bridegroom that she meant to show everyone in attendance how such celebrations should be staged.
Mittie's self-confidence showed in her choice of bridesmaids: she selected local women all slightly older than herself. Besides sister Anna, three girlhood friends stood beside the bride that evening: Evelyn King, from the impressive Barrington Hall a half mile down the road, and two others who came from only slightly farther away but from equally stately homes. All of them wore white, but Mittie's sanguine manner left no doubt about which one deserved center stage. It is sometimes said that every woman is beautiful on her wedding day, but Mittie was extraordinary. Barely five feet tall, she had the clear blue eyes and tiny hands and feet of a mannequin. But her most remarkable features were her complexion, described by her granddaughter as "more moonlight white than cream-white," and her mass of shiny black hair.
Definitely the bride's party, this celebration drew guests from all over that part of Georgia but only a remarkably small contingent of Roosevelts. None of Theodore's four brothers or their families had made the trip south for the ceremony; only his parents, the severe Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt, a prosperous New York merchant, and his Philadelphia-born wife, Margaret Barnhill, represented the clan. This marked the first time either Margaret or Cornelius had ventured into the Deep South. Evelyn King sensed some discomfort on their part, and many years later, as the last surviving bridesmaid, she told a young reporter, then known as Peggy Mitchell but later famous as the author of Gone with the Wind, what she thought of the Roosevelts: "Like most northern people of that time, they were very ignorant about the South. Goodness only knows what they expected us to be like."
Immediately following the ceremony, the celebration began. The bride's family had been preparing for weeks, and now tables throughout Bulloch Hall displayed an array of hams, turkeys, and cakes, alongside a huge assortment of salads and pickled vegetables. Most dazzling of all, the "frozen cream" attracted a string of gawkers. Ice cream, known in England since the mid-1600s, had been introduced in the colonies around the time of the Revolution, and Dolley Madison served the delicacy at her husband's second inaugural ball in 1813. But places like Roswell, Georgia, where temperatures rarely fell to freezing, had less acquaintance with the cold, creamy dessert. For Mittie's wedding the ice had to be shipped in from the North, and then, using the newly invented ice cream freezer, servants cranked several gallons of cream, sugar, and flavorings into a luscious concoction in just a few minutes.
In the style of the time, the festivities continued for one full week. For guests who had traveled too far to return home each night, the neighboring houses provided sleeping space, although hours for sleeping were short. During the day, luncheons and teas kept the older guests busy while the young people walked and rode horses. In the evening, all ages mingled in dancing and storytelling that filled the houses with song and laughter. Mittie's brother Dan provided the music the day of the ceremony by playing his flute "in perfect time" and thus making an indelible impression on the staid Roosevelts. In the days following the reception, hired musicians joined in, rotating with each other and the guests until it became impossible to distinguish who among them had come to work and who to dance. After seven days of fun, the wedding finally ended. As Evelyn King told Margaret Mitchell many years later: "Everybody packed up and went home for it was all over and we were very tired."
The young Mrs. Roosevelt, who had written her fiance just weeks earlier that he was the "only person who could so suit me and I put every confidence in you," now gamely set out with her new husband for the trip north. During the journey--partly in a carriage and partly by ship, Mittie Bulloch Roosevelt had plenty of time to think about what she was leaving behind. She may have had some doubts about the family she was marrying into, but not because of any feelings of inadequacy about her own family tree. Quite the contrary, she had reason to sense a slight edge on her part, especially if she ignored money and counted up the many achievements of her ancestors. An unbiased observer might have backed her up. Seven generations of Roosevelts had lived in America without achieving much fame, but their star rose quickly after she married into the clan.
By any standard, but certainly in comparison with the stodgy Roosevelts, the Bullochs were a colorful bunch. Family lore always included the story of the dramatic arrival in America of the family of Mittie's great-great-grandmother Jean Stobo. Had it not been for a remarkable chain of events, the Stobos might never have left Scotland or settled in the Carolinas.
The story begins in 1699 with Archibald Stobo. Then a young Presbyterian minister, he decided to join five other clergymen taking religion to a part of the world then known as Darien but later famous as Panama. Fresh out of the University of Edinburgh and newly married, he had enormous enthusiasm for the project, but unlike his fellow ministers, he wanted to take his bride with him, and she apparently wanted to go. Together the young couple sailed with several hundred Scots in early fall 1699. The trip must have seemed like a fairy tale adventure, especially when the travelers got their first glimpse of land--a tropical island.
But a very different picture met them when they reached their destination in late November. Instead of finding the thriving colony they expected, they found a settlement in ruins: the crude huts, built by the previous missionaries, had been burned down, and the surrounding area was overgrown with brush. The new arrivals had too much religious faith to give up immediately, but as they set to work trying to arrange for the minimum comforts, they were quickly weakened by tropical diseases.
As the months passed, the Stobos and their expedition faced a more ominous threat. The Spanish had not yet relinquished the idea of controlling that part of the Western Hemisphere, and the Scottish missionaries feared an attack. By February 1700 the young Mrs. Stobo wanted to leave. But that required official permission from the church hierarchy that had financed the trip in the first place. On March 10, while the Stobos were still waiting for their request to be granted, the Spaniards landed ready for battle. Weakened by months of illness and a meager diet, many of the Scots had already died, and those who survived had little fight left in them. By the end of the month they surrendered. The Spaniards, however, raised no objection to their captives' leaving, and on April 11 the Presbyterians headed home on a ship called the Rising Sun.
On the way, the Rising Sun stopped at Charleston, South Carolina, the most important seaport in the South and home of many transplanted English nobles. During the ship's stay in Charleston harbor, Archibald Stobo, known as a magnetic speaker, agreed to preach to a local congregation. That day, while he and his wife were ashore, a violent storm came up suddenly, completely destroying the Rising Sun and killing everyone who had remained aboard. The Stobos took this as a clear signal that they should remain in Charleston. It was there, one year later, that their daughter, Jean, was born. It was her marriage to a local man, James Bulloch, that began the line that produced Mittie Bulloch and, later, Theodore Roosevelt and his remarkable sisters.
Neither her son Theodore nor her daughters made much of Mittie's early roots, but from the colonial period the Bullochs stood out as leaders and doers. Leaving the Carolinas in 1760 to take advantage of a two-thousand-acre land grant, they moved to Georgia where they quickly made names for themselves. Archibald Bulloch, a lawyer (and son of Jean Stobo Bulloch), served as speaker of the Georgia Royal Assembly, president of the Provincial Congress that took charge of the state in July 1775, and, later, as the state's commander-in-chief and one of its delegates to the First Continental Congress.
The Roosevelt women in Mittie's line never had any trouble establishing their credentials for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution. On her father's side, Mittie was descended from James Bulloch, and on her mother's side, from Daniel Stewart. Both served courageously in the War for Independence, and Stewart also made a name for himself in the War of 1812.
The Bullochs' move to Georgia before the Revolution proved fortuitous. Savannah still struggled to survive when they first settled there, but it quickly grew in importance as cotton became the region's biggest crop. In 1793 the introduction of one simple machine, the cotton gin, changed the picture for cotton since the short staple variety, once deemed unusable because of its many seeds, could now be cheaply "combed out." As thousands of acres of cotton were planted across the South, Savannah became one of the central points for collection and shipment, and it was in this side of the business that the Bullochs prospered. By the time Mittie was born there in 1835, Savannah ranked among the top few cities in the amount of cotton it handled, and her father was one of the shippers.
By that time the Bulloch story had taken on elements of an Italian opera, with as many unlikely marriages as a farcical story line. Mittie was the child of one of these curious matches. Her parents, the handsome and charming James Bulloch (great-grandson of the original James Bulloch) and the beautiful Martha Stewart, grew up together in Savannah and courted each other, but for reasons never clear, they did not marry. Martha had other suitors, which may have irritated the self-confident James. One of the most ardent of her admirers was a widower, John Elliott, who came from a distinguished moneyed family and seemed headed for the U.S. Senate. The prospect of accompanying him to Washington, D.C., added glamour to his marriage offer and partly offset the fact that he was old enough to be her father. Still, Martha put him off, and while she dallied, weighing her options, James Bulloch married John Elliott's daughter, who at nineteen was just two years older than Martha. Within a week Martha had consented to marry the prospective senator, thus becoming, in 1818, the step-mother-in-law of her former suitor. Although the timing is curious, the motivation remains unclear. Her granddaughter Bamie later recalled hearing that Martha Stewart's hasty marriage to John Elliott occurred because her father was moving to Florida, a part of the frontier where he felt he could safely take his six sons but hesitated to take his only daughter.
The same year she married him, John Elliott did indeed win election to the U.S. Senate, and his young wife--on her first trip out of the Deep South--accompanied him to the capital. She did not go unnoticed. Extremely beautiful and very young for a legislator's wife, she called attention to herself by stylish clothing, often featuring an ostrich feather that "hung down to her belt." When she went on her husband's arm to church services at St. John's, just across Lafayette Park from the President's House, she caused heads to turn, and when she held court at home, she attracted comment on her style and verve. John Elliott served only one term in the capital, and then he and his young wife moved back to Georgia. But a century later their great-granddaughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, attracted the same kind of attention as had the senator's wife.
The glamorous, young Mrs. Elliott might have anticipated returning to Washington, D.C., if her husband ever ran for and won a second term, but she never got the chance. Ten years after Martha married him, the senator died, and then, within a few months, his married daughter also died. Martha Elliott, now almost thirty years old, and her former suitor, James Bulloch, once again found themselves free to wed. They waited five years, perhaps concerned that some of the family found it strange that "Brother James" would marry "Mother Martha," and then they married in the Elliott house in Savannah on May 8, 1832. Americans, especially those of substantial wealth, frequently chose their mates from within the family circle in order to safeguard their property, but this union--involving not blood relatives but relatives by marriage--raised a few eyebrows.
More important to the story is the apparently joyful mixing of the several families, which was even more complicated than the proverbial "his," "hers," and "theirs." Martha brought two daughters and one son from her union with the senator; James Bulloch brought one son, who was already Martha's step-grandson by virtue of her previous marriage to the senator but now became her stepson as well. Martha and James Bulloch would eventually have four children of their own, but neither parent nor any of the children played favorites among the several batches. Mittie later recalled that she "never knew the difference" between her Bulloch half-brother and her own siblings. The next generation, more removed from the scene, had trouble getting everyone straight; and Mittie's daughter Corinne once wrote in a description of her first trip abroad, "My grandmother Roosevelt's family has always been most confusing in its relationships."
Martha's stepson, also called James, helped insert an interesting twist in the story. At the age of ten he was sent to boarding school in Connecticut, providing Martha with an excellent reason to make a trip north to visit him in the spring of 1835. Although several months pregnant, she made the journey from Savannah to Hartford accompanied by a female entourage that included her thirteen-year-old daughter from her first marriage and several slaves. Traveling in style, Martha settled in at Miss Oakes' Boarding House on Hartford's Main Street, a place so selective that the other guests had to preapprove all new lodgers. Once endorsed, Martha made friendships that lasted a lifetime, and after her death, her children and grandchildren sustained those friendships through generations. Nine decades after Martha left Connecticut, her granddaughter Bamie mused over the fact that an old friend of the family had died: "the one in whose grandmother's pew our grandmother always sat when at church during those months she spent in Hartford."
As summer temperatures rose in 1835, the pregnant Martha Bulloch deferred returning to Georgia, and on July 8 she gave birth to a baby girl. Whether the new mother had already conferred with her husband on a name or simply took it upon herself to choose one remains unclear. She already had two daughters (Susan and Georgia) by the senator and one (Anna) by James Bulloch, but now, several hundred miles away from the new baby's father, Martha named this child for herself. Dubbed "Mittie" from the start, the baby was introduced by that name to relatives and friends when she arrived in Georgia that fall. On the return trip, Martha had one less slave in her entourage, having granted freedom to a woman who requested it. According to family legend, Martha Bulloch even agreed to support the woman until she found work, thus showing a concern for others, whether slave or free, that her descendants liked to emphasize.
In 1838, while Mittie was still a toddler, her parents moved the family westward, away from the coast and into the hinterland. With six youngsters and two slave couples, the Bullochs followed an old Savannah friend to a place on the Chattahoochee River where a new settlement was under way at Roswell, thirteen miles north of Atlanta. High enough to be free of swampy patches, Roswell boasted a waterfall, which the settlers saw as furnishing power for the cotton mill they hoped to build.
In pioneer fashion the Bullochs lived in makeshift quarters (later transformed to slave dwellings) while construction began for the mansion that became Bulloch Hall. Mimosa Hall across the road and Barrington King's home, less than a mile away, were both far grander, but Bulloch Hall reflected its owners' wish for something elegant, yet practical and relatively unostentatious. Behind the tall Doric columns it featured a main hall with a grand staircase leading up to the second floor. Planned more with an eye to the region's oppressive summer heat than to the short but occasionally extremely cold winters, the house had huge windows to take advantage of the slightest breeze. The most whimsical feature of this stately house, visible not to the casual visitor but only to someone with the right vantage point, was the driveway. Shaped to form a valentine, it led from the road up to the wide front verandah (situated squarely at the top of the heart) and then, after another loop, back out to the road.
Every nook and cranny of Bulloch Hall remained imprinted in Mittie's mind long after she had left it, and she passed on that love and knowledge of the place to her children. In 1912, three decades after Mittie's death, her younger daughter, Corinne, went back to see Bulloch Hall as a grown woman. She could hardly believe that a place she had visited only briefly at age seven could remain so accurately recorded in her mind. Mittie's descriptions were so vivid and affectionate, her accounts of the Bulloch family so rich and complete, that Corinne felt "everything was just as I thought it would be--lovely old fireplace, splendid proportions and a beautiful view from the same back porch." In her mind's eye, Corinne saw them as clearly as though they stood before her, "and when I picked a piece of ivy from the same tree where my mother had gathered wet leaves for her lovely hair," she wrote, "my heart felt tender beyond words."
During the time that Mittie's family occupied Bulloch Hall, maintenance of the house and grounds depended on slave labor, a fact that her Roosevelt descendants would find "incredible" and, for the most part, avoid discussing. The evidence, however, is clear. Federal census takers in 1850 listed nineteen slaves at Bulloch Hall, including thirteen adults and six children.
It appears that each Bulloch child was assigned a personal slave, or "shadow," to act as companion. Mittie's "Lavinia," for example, went everywhere with her, stopping outside the classroom when Mittie went inside, and sleeping on a mat by her side at night. For the family, the stress was on the pleasure of the companionship rather than on the hostage implications in the arrangement or the grimmer side of slavery.
As a young child, Mittie's brother Irvine (always the "little brother" because he was seven years her junior) developed a close and mutually dependent relationship with his personal slave, Sarah. The two became nearly inseparable for the very practical reason that they depended on each other for comfort and protection. Since she feared the darkness outside the house as much as he was terrified of the darkness inside, they huddled together on the back porch after the sun set, speculating on how the moon "crawled" and how thousands of fantastic creatures swarmed and swirled in the void just beyond what either of them could see or touch.
The sinister aspect to the slave system lay only slightly below the surface, even in the Bullochs' paternalistic accounts. One of Mittie's brothers shot and killed a slave in a fit of temper, and then in a not unusual rendering of "justice," he took a short vacation abroad rather than face the repercussions.
Mittie's children and grandchildren repeated her accounts of what it was like to grow up in the South. Since the "master" family had stressed the colorful personalities and individual strength of "the people" who worked the place, generations of Roosevelts passed on stories about "Daddy Luke," the accomplished and reliable coachman, and "Mom Charlotte," his handsome, elegant wife who left no doubt but that it was she who supervised the house. Much less was said about the murder of the young slave.
James and Martha Bulloch no doubt anticipated an easier, more relaxed life when they completed their spacious mansion, but it seemed tainted with bad luck almost from the beginning. Their first son, born at Bulloch Hall in 1837, died before his third birthday. In 1849 tragedy struck twice. First, daughter Georgia died at age twenty-seven, and then, less than five months later, James dropped dead while teaching a Sunday School class. Only fifty-five, he had enjoyed his new home for less than a decade. In his will he left his wife a considerable estate, including the plantation, a house in Savannah, and stock in a company that sent the first steamship across the Atlantic. Having served as president of the Savannah branch of the United States Bank, he had helped fund a textile factory that was still under construction at the time of his death but could be expected to produce income in the future.
Widowed at forty-nine, Martha Bulloch soon found that her life was being shaped more and more around her adult children. Daughter Susan's marriage to a Philadelphia physician, Hillbourne West, meant that she had moved north, but this union provided an important link in the Roosevelt story. To entertain her guests in Philadelphia, Susan would tell enchanting stories about growing up in the rural South. And because wealthy families of that era tended to socialize primarily with other family members, rather than neighbors or friends, among the frequent visitors to her home in Philadelphia were her sister-in-law from New York, Mary West, and Mary's husband, Silas Weir Roosevelt, occasionally accompanied by Silas's younger brother, Theodore Roosevelt. Here the plot thickens.
Theodore, it seems, was smitten enough by Susan West's tales to want to see Bulloch Hall for himself, or at least that was how his family remembered the story. Susan may have harbored other thoughts when she described her loving family life and, in particular, her younger, extraordinarily beautiful sister, Mittie. Whether Theodore's thoughts ran in the same direction, family letters do not reveal. What is clear is that in 1850 the Wests invited nineteen-year-old Theodore to join them on their next trip home, and he accepted.
Love at first sight it was not--at least for the fifteen-year-old Mittie. For one thing, Theodore appeared so determinedly serious that she found him boring. He insisted on referring to plants by their Latin names and showed little appreciation of the frivolous activity and witty remarks so prized by the fun-loving Bullochs. Perhaps he was merely compensating for the insecurities of his childhood. As the fifth son of Cornelius Van Schaack and Margaret Roosevelt, he may have felt a bit neglected. Later he regaled his own children with stories of what it felt like to be the "fifth wheel to the coach" and unwilling recipient of his brothers' cast-off clothes. His mother evidently had her hands too full to give more than a distracted nod to her youngest, and she was routinely described around New York as "that lovely Mrs. Roosevelt" with "those five horrid boys."
One story, perhaps apocryphal, described Cornelius and Margaret Roosevelt, dressed in their Sunday best, walking out of church services one Sunday morning to face the spectacle of their youngest sons astride a pig and riding through the mud holes down the middle of Canal Street. Unfortunately, none of that mischievousness appears to have survived in the Theodore who visited the Bullochs in 1850.
But Mittie clearly made a permanent impression on him. With that creamy complexion that is so notable in person but cannot translate into words or pictures, she struck her contemporaries as "fascinating looking." She was relatively untutored, but Theodore apparently liked what he saw. According to family lore, he sent her a gold thimble after returning to New York.
Twelve months later, while traveling through Europe, he wrote a letter home in which he admitted he was seriously looking for a wife but did not mean to settle for less than the best. To his mind there were still plenty of fish in the sea "as were ever caught," and he wrote his aunt Lizzie that he had his eye on a young woman from Philadelphia by the name of "Stuart." As soon as he returned to the United States, he meant to look her up again. Although he had both her name and hometown incorrect, he surely meant Mittie Bulloch, daughter of Martha Stewart Bulloch of Roswell, Georgia, and half-sister of Susan West of Philadelphia. Perhaps he erred on purpose, aware that many of his family would be disappointed to hear that he had fallen for a southern girl.
Theodore's failure to court Mittie immediately (other than sending the thimble) is understandable in light of her age. Since she was only fifteen when he met her, he thought he had plenty of time to travel on his own, something that his four older brothers, who were married with families, rarely did. After a trip through the Midwest to look at family real estate, he sailed for Europe in June 1851. In London he saw the usual sights and then proceeded to hit all the cities traditionally part of the Grand Tour, including Paris, Florence, and Avignon. After eighteen months on the continent, he headed home, accompanied by a fellow bachelor from New York, John Carow. The two young men, very different in personality and goals, would cross paths many times, but only one of them would live long enough to see their children married to each other.
While Theodore was traveling in Europe, Mittie did what most wealthy young southern women did, and there is no evidence she gave much thought to him. Her mother had decided to send Mittie, along with her sister Anna, who was two years older, to a young ladies' academy in South Carolina. It is a remarkable decision because it meant that of all her children, only Irvine remained at home. After two years of studying at the academy, the sisters made their way to Philadelphia to visit Susan and Hillbourne West. As soon as Theodore learned that Mittie was a guest in the West household, he wasted no time in arranging an invitation to Philadelphia for himself. This time Mittie took more notice of him, if subsequent events are any indication, and the acquaintance of the two young people, renewed on neutral territory, quickly blossomed into romance. He invited her to New York City, where she stayed with Silas and Mary West Roosevelt, and had her first introduction to Theodore's parents.
Once in New York, Mittie evidently caught a glimpse of a special quality in Theodore that his children would later relish--a combination of spirit and goodness, of vitality and charity. They would call him the best man they ever knew, and they singled out the times with him as the most cherished of all their childhood memories. As Mittie got to know him better on that New York visit, she kept postponing her return to Georgia. Finally, sister Anna, who had gone on ahead, wrote back, inquiring into the causes for the delay, and the young couple, still in New York, had to decide what to do.
Mittie returned to Georgia, and days later, on May 15, 1853, Theodore wrote a letter asking her mother for permission to marry Mittie. Martha Bulloch must have had some misgivings about a second daughter marrying a northerner, but she kept them to herself. Replying immediately to "Mr Roosevelt Dear Sir," she recalled his previous visit with "much pleasure" but left the matter of marriage up to the principals: "I have never interfered with the matrimonial designs of my children and never will when the object chosen is a worthy one. Therefore I refer the matter back to Mittie and yourself." Theodore quickly arranged a trip to Georgia, and by the time he left Bulloch Hall a few weeks later, the engagement was official.
Now the tables turned a bit. The prospective bridegroom was nearly twenty-three, a typical age for men to marry at that time, but he may have had second thoughts once his fate seemed assured. In his correspondence with a friend, he jokingly referred to marriage as a "trap." Mittie, on the other hand, could hardly control her girlish exuberance. After her "Dearest Thee" left Georgia to attend to some business in New York, she wrote him that she loved him "tenderly." Try as she would, she could not help but cry when she saw him ride away. Tears came to her eyes with such force that she had to "rush away and be alone with myself. Everything now seems associated with you."
Mittie's tiny, regular script bespeaks a cautious, precise woman, and her vocabulary of carefully chosen, long words signals unusual intelligence. But she would soon have a chance to test how far that intelligence and self-confidence would take her. It was not a good time for a southern woman to marry a northerner, just when their respective regions of the nation moved toward civil war. Other eighteen-year-olds might have hesitated to move so far away from home, but it had already been demonstrated that Mittie did not do things like other people.
[CHAPTER ONE CONTINUES ...]
What People are saying about this
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >