Presidential Mothers: Hayes, Garfield raised by widows

Published 10:00 am Sunday, February 19, 2023

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By  Betty Etchison West

For the Enterprise

Sophia Birchard, the mother of the 19th President of the United States, Rutherford Birchard Hayes, was born in Wilmington, Del. on April 15, 1792.  She was the daughter of Roger Cornwall Birchard and Drusilla Birchard.  Sophia married Rutherford Ezekiel Hayes Jr. on Sept. 13, 1813.   

The Hayes family moved to Ohio, which at that time was the frontier.  Mr. Hayes got sick and died of a fever a few month before his son was born.  That son, Rutherford Birchard Hayes, was raised by his mother with the help, particularly the financial help, of her brother, Sardis Birchard.

Because Rutherford was a rather sickly boy, and probably because his brother was killed in a drowning accident, Mrs. Hayes gave Rutherford a great deal of attention which sometimes caused some resentment in the family. Sophia Hayes was evidently not bothered by the resentment: she just did what she felt she should do for each of her children.

Sardis Birchard, Sophia Birchard Hayes’ bachelor brother, was a successful pioneer merchant and a fur trader in Ohio. Money never seemed to be a problem as fatherless Rutherford was growing up because of the help they received from Uncle Saris. He sent his nephew to good boarding schools and finally to Kenyon College. The uncle wanted Rutherford to go to Yale, but his mother wanted him to go to Kenyon College in Ohio.  His mother won that battle so his uncle paid for Rutherford to go Kenyon College where he excelled and was made a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Uncle Sardis helped Rutherford continue his education by becoming a student at Harvard Law School.

Sophia Birchard Hayes was evidently a strong women who met the trials and hardships that she endured with great courage.  Just having a baby several months after the death of her husband and having a son drown would have stopped some women in their tracks, but not Mrs. Hayes.

Rutherford was believed to have received his strength and his pride in his Yankee or New England heritage from his mother.   The fact that Mrs. Hayes did not seem to have to worry about finances because she had a generous brother who provided for the financial needs of the family certainly helped, but Sophia still needed the mental capacity to carry on in the face of hardships.

Sophia Birchard Hayes died on Oct. 30, 1866, when she was 74 years old.  That lady, who was born in Delaware and finally settled with her husband before his death in Ohio, lived a full life devoted to her family. Even though she did not have to face the dire poverty that the mother of Andrew Johnson faced, she did face troubles and all sources indicate that she faced them with great courage.  Mrs. Hayes is buried in Oak Grove Cemetery in Delaware, Ohio, about 75 miles from where her son, President Rutherford Birchard Hayes, is buried at his estate, Spiegel Grove, in Fremont, Ohio, which he actually inherited from his uncle, Sardis Birchard.

The Presidents of the United States have been raised in all kinds of conditions. Some grew up in households that were stricken by poverty and others in households where money was not a problem.

The families of Andrew Jackson, Millard Fillmore, and James Garfield were certainly poverty-stricken while life seemed much easier for others. That seemed to be true for James Madison, James Buchanan, and the 19th president, Rutherford Birchard Hayes.  This seems to indicate that it is not the situation into which a person was born that determined success, but rather some inter drive possessed by the individual; maybe that drive is just pure determination.

The mother of the 20th President, James A. Garfield, was Eliza Ballou, born Sept. 21, 1801, and who married Abram Garfield on Feb. 3, 1820.  There seems to be many adjectives which described Eliza.  Some of those found in information about Eliza were: intelligent, petite, industrious, tireless, strong, and determined.

Eliza’s family, the Ballous, had moved to Ohio, which seemed to be the place to settle in the late 1700s and 1800s. Eliza meet and finally married Abram Garfield in Perry Township, Ohio. Abram farmed, and, then, when construction started on the Ohio and Erie Canal, Abram obtained a contract to build a section of that waterway.  Eliza even prepared meals for the construction workers.

The Garfields had four children between 1821 and 1826. The child born in 1826 was a boy, who was named James Ballou. That child died when he was 2. Eliza found comfort in her religion, the Disciples of Christ. Eliza then had another baby boy in 1831, who she decided to name James in honor of the baby that had died, and she gave him the middle name of Abram in honor of his father. At that point, Eliza felt that her last son was destined to do great things.

Abram Garfield died when he took chills after fighting a fire and died.  Eliza faced her situation bravely. She sold part of their farm to pay off the debts and then somehow managed to keep the family together.  It is not known for sure, but she may have made some money using her talent as a seamstress.  She guided her family and gave them all the affection that they needed to thrive.  James decided that he wanted to be a sailor.  He ended up taking the lowest job that a sailor could have—the driver of a team of mules that pulled a barge along the canal.  James evidently wasn’t a good driver because he fell into the canal 14 times during his career as a driver. James got sick from all that dunking into the canal and his mother nursed him back to health and encouraged him to go school instead of being a mule driver.  He did what his mother wanted and the rest is history.

James A. Garfield got his education and was successful enough that he was nominated and was finally elected President of the United States.

Eliza Garfield was the first mother to see her son inaugurated as President.  His first act the 20th president was to lean over and give his aged mother a kiss. He never failed to honor his mother. Eliza lived with her son’s family in the White House, and she loved it. While living at the White House, Eliza received word that two relatives in Ohio had been killed in an accident. She went to Ohio to attend the funerals. While she was in Ohio, she received the message that her son had been shot by an assassin. The one letter that Garfield wrote as he lay wounded was to his mother who was in Ohio.   James’ mother was just devastated by the death of her son.  She continued to live with James’ family at their home in Mentor, Ohio, until her death on Jan. 21, 1888.  She was buried beside her husband in Solon, Guyahoga County, Ohio.