Part of the American History & Genealogy Project

Harriet Lane Johnston 1830 ~ 1904


Harriet Lane Johnston

Harriet Lane, the niece of James Buchanan, was one of the most attractive, intelligent and gracious women who ever presided over the White House. She had accompanied her uncle and directed his establishment when he was American minister to St. James. Her grandfather, James Buchanan, emigrated from Ireland in the year 1783 and settled in Mercersburg, Franklin County, Pennsylvania, where he married, in 1788, Elizabeth Speer of Scotch-Irish ancestry. James Buchanan, ex-President of the United States, was the eldest son of this marriage. Miss Lane's mother, Jane Buchanan, was the second child. The two children, so near of an age, were boon companions. Jane, this favorite sister, married Elliot T. Lane and Harriet was their youngest child. The mother died when Harriet was but seven years old; her father died two years later, consequently she was at once adopted by her bachelor uncle, James, and was never separated from him for any length of time afterward.

When Mr. Buchanan was a member of Congress he brought Harriet Lane from the Pennsylvania home and placed her in the Georgetown Convent, from which she graduated with the highest honors of that institution, and was so beloved by the nuns that they kept in touch with her as long as she lived. She was a beautiful blonde with a wealth of Titian hair and eyes as soft as those of a gazelle. All her features were cast in a noble mold. She was full of gay spirits and restless activity; always bright and cheerful. She was an 'omnivorous reader, whiling away many an hour for her lonely uncle reading aloud to him in her sweet and pure voice. Her administration of her uncle's household in England won for her the admiration and respect of royalty, and the people of England considered her an unusually fine specimen of American womanhood. Having spent so much of her life in the society of the distinguished people with whom her uncle was intimate, she was eminently fitted to become mistress of the White House.

The gathering of the war clouds during Mr. Buchanan's administration was not accelerated in any way by Miss Lane, whose cordial greeting, cheerful manner and welcome to the White House were extended alike to war representatives of all sections of the country. There are people living to-day who cannot forget her fascinating manners and genuine hospitality in the historic White House. It was said that it was hard to "decide between uncle and niece as to which looked the proudest and greatest, the man or the woman, the earlier or the later born," as they stood together at the first reception on the first New Year's Day after Mr. Buchanan's inauguration. One can readily imagine Miss Lane's difficult position, when each day there passed into the White House alternately the bitterest secessionists and the strongest unionists before the ultimate clash of arms. It required almost superhuman tact and diplomacy to show no distinction, but Miss Lane was equal to the task.

In 1860, when the Prince of Wales, the late Edward VII, paid a visit to the United States, and was the guest of the President and Miss Lane in the White House, Miss Lane made an indelible impression upon her royal guest by her fascinating manner, sincere cordiality and faultless hospitality. Queen Victoria sent her acknowledgment of appreciation of the courtesy extended to the Prince in an autograph letter couched in the strongest expressions of friendship for Miss Lane personally, as well as for the people of the United States, who had received the Prince of Wales with so much honor, and later sent autograph pictures of the royal family, with Miss Lane's name written upon them.

After the close of Mr. Buchanan's administration Miss Lane accompanied her uncle to his beloved "Wheatland," where she remained with him until his death. After that event she spent part of her time in Baltimore, when not visiting friends in other cities. She was married by the Reverend Edward Y. Buchanan in January, 1866, to Henry Elliott Johnston. They went to Cuba and spent a month or two, after which Mr. and Mrs. Johnston took up their residence in Baltimore in the beautiful home which Mr. Johnston had provided with great thoughtfulness, taste and liberality for his bride.

Mrs. Johnston regained some of her former cheerfulness and brightness. She seemed very happy as a wife and mother. She had two sons and it seemed that her life was destined to be a happy one. But, alas, for human hope, on the 25th of March, 1881, her son, James Buchanan Johnston, died, and she was again overwhelmed with grief. A few years subsequently the second son died, and also Mr. Johnston, and Harriet Lane Johnston, widowed and childless came back to Washington to spend the remaining years of her life.

She was the recipient of distinguished honors by the people of Washington, by whom she was greatly beloved. After her death in 1904 it was found that she had willed her residence in Washington, and endowed it, as a home for dependent women. She also left means to build and endow the National Cathedral School for Boys, at Washington, D. C

Women of America

Source: The Part Taken by Women in American History, By Mrs. John A. Logan, Published by The Perry-Nalle Publishing Company, Wilmington, Delaware, 1912.


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