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Old Rough and Ready, Zachary Taylor, in Beaver County

By Jack Goddard

Milestones Vol 34 No. 3

This year marks the 160th Anniversary of probably the only "social call" made by a sitting American President to Beaver County. Zachary Taylor, nicknamed "Old Rough and Ready" for his adventures as a soldier, made his tour here in August, 1849. Less than 12 months later he would be dead.

"Zack", who survived battle-after-battle in the Indian and Mexican Wars, became the second president to die in office up to that time. (William Harrison was the first) after only one year and 127 days. He was buried in Kentucky which he adopted as his home state after his parents moved there when he was less than a year old. He was born in Montebello, Orange County Virginia, on November 24, 1784. He was one of seven presidents born in Virginia.

His first stop in his 1849 visit to Beaver County was at Harmony (Ambridge). Diane Hayes, in the June/July issue of The Western Advertiser writes: "Hot steam and delicious odors filtered through the air from the overcrowded kitchen of the banquet hall. The Harmonites, men, women and children, each busy with their assigned tasks, were concentrative on preparations for a grand feast."

Following a brief announcement, a group of distinguished men entered, each finding their designated spot at the main table. All eyes, however, shifted to the man in dead center; a small man in plain clothes sat down. His nose would rival that of Jimmy Durante and he had a leathery tan complexion as he'd spent many hours under the sun as both a farmer and soldier.

Taylor could easily pass for an ordinary man-on-the-street kind of guy. One can just hear him telling of his "war stories" over a board of checkers down at the local general store. Again, we go back and quote Diane Hayes. "He did not have the 'air' of a president. In fact he has gone down in history as one of the least ostentatious propelled to the power of presidency in America." (This writer can sure attest to that. I could find very little written about him--even trivia which I'm so fond of.)

I did manage to come up with some Cliff Caven-type ("Cheers") stuff. The first was that he was so short he needed his aides' help in getting up on his horse. Talking about horses, his favorite mount, Whitey, was given "the freedom of the White House lawn" to pasture according to Facts about the Presidents.

Another interesting tidbit: Did we have an unsung and little known president in David Rice Atchison? James Polk's term was up on Saturday, March 3, 1849. Atchison took over until Taylor took his oath on Monday, March 5. Taylor voted for the first time when he was 62 years old.

He was a "Nature Lover" and established the Home Department which would become the Department of Interior as one of his first acts. This president's daughter married another president. Finally, Taylor unwittingly turned down his letter of nomination by the Whig Party at first as it arrived "Postage Due." And, the next time you view a safety pin, think back to April 1849, as they were invented under his watch.

Okay, now back to the man. He really didn't look or act like your stereotypical Indian fighter and war hero. His manners were frank, simple and overwhelmingly humble. His eyes, although somewhat slanted, were sharp and always on alert. His cheeks were deeply lined due to his professions. He also had a help-mate who didn't help him at all. The book, First Ladies acknowledges that, "She did little more than knit in her room and smoke her corncob pipe." That same source tells us that, "she was so obscure, no painting or photograph survives. The obituary in The New York Times did not even give her first name--- referring to her simply as 'Mrs. General Taylor.'

She let her daughters and/or daughters-in-law preside at social functions. Zachary and Margaret Taylor's daughter, twenty-two year old Bettie Taylor Bliss, was her main substitute. Margaret's vague explanations were her "delicate health" and an "invalid" which forced her to stay upstairs. Her low visibility prompted many rumors including the lacking of sophistication.

Meanwhile, back to Zachary and that 1849 excursion he made in Beaver Valley. After his regale at Ambridge, a Major Joshua Logan gave the VIP group the grand tour. The impressive entourage went through Baden, Freedom and at Rochester, went across the bridge. They then went to Bridgewater and to The Shepherd's Point Hotel. It was here that important men from all over the county were waiting to honor this, the National Executive and 12th President of the United States. After a standing ovation and much fanfare, "the man who shot from the hip" so to speak, and a straight talker, stood up and gave a speech:

"I cannot find words adequate to express my heartfelt gratitude for the kind and cordial reception given to me by the citizens of Beaver County. I have come here to meet the people in a plain and social way, without ostentation, as befits the president of this great republic."

He then continued in what now sounds a little ominous, for northern and southern states were already under a deep, dark cloud. His next phrase, "and to examine and become acquainted, in detail, with their agricultural, commercial and manufacturing resources." Is it just me being paranoid? Daniel Webster, himself said he believed; "only Taylor's death prevented the Civil War from happening in 1850." It's pure conjecture on my part, but, I seriously wonder if he was only making a social visit. Was he checking the county's vast resources out for a reason? We'll never know for sure.

He had been in the military for 40 years so I'm sure he had a "gut feeling" of what lay in the future. In closing the only State of the Union Address, later that year, he warned those who would disrupt the union:

"For more than half a century during which kingdoms and empires have fallen, this Union has stood unshaken. The patriots who formed it have long since descended to the grave; yet still it remains, the proudest monument to their memory and the object of affection and admiration worthy to bear the American name."

He then emphasized,

"In my judgment its dissolution would be the greatest of calamities, and to avert that should be the study of every American. Upon its preservation must depend on our own happiness and that of countless generation to come. Whatever dangers may threaten it, I shall stand by it and maintain it in its integrity to the full extent of the obligations imposed and the powers conferred upon me by the Constitution."

Taylor, in early 1850, declared, "I will command the army in person and hang any man taken in treason."

It was, ironically, on July 4, 1850, at the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument, that he first caught a fever. He would die five days later. Millard Fillmore, his successor, reported that his final words were, "I have always done my duty. I am ready to die."

Oh, about his daughter marrying a president; she eloped with a young lieutenant named Jefferson Davis. I didn't say U.S. president. She, however, died three months later.


American Presidents by David C. Whitney
Bartlett's Familiar Quotations by John Bartlett
Don't Know Much about History by K. C. Davis
Facts about the Presidents by J. Nathan Kane
That's Not In My History Book by T. Ayres
Pocket History of the U. S. by Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commage
The Leading Facts of American History by Montgomery
The First Ladies by Betty Boyd Caroli
Which President Killed a Man by James Humes