Pat Nixon: First-Generation German-American & Her Lincoln Assassination Link

Pat Ryan Nixon, the only first-generation First Lady.

There was irony to a small storyline running beneath the more important issues of the 1960 presidential race between Democratic candidate, U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy and Republican candidate, Vice President Richard Nixon, involving some half-truths and hidden facts about the way in which their wives were presented to the public.

Jackie Kennedy.

As a previous article on this website detailed ( , the maiden name of the Democrat’s wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, identified her as being “French,” when in truth, that national origin represented only one-eighth of her ancestry. Never disclosed was the fact that half of her ancestry was Irish Catholic, as her husband’s was fully. In their effort to gain the widest range of support, JFK campaign managers operated with the belief that there was still a sizable percentage of voters who mistrusted a potential Catholic president and held onto bigoted views against those of Irish background. It found no value and potentially some harm in revealing the truth about jackie Kennedy’s parentage and let the perception of her as having some sort of inherent sense of style based on her French blood remain in place.

Richard and Pat Nixon during his 1952 televised Checkers speech, conducted from the El Captain Theater in Hollywood, California.

In contrast was Pat Nixon. The candidate himself was a Quaker, a Protestant sect. In 1952, when he delivered his famous “Checkers speech” with Pat Nixon seated near him, visible to the live television audience of 60 million, he explicitly identified her as being “Irish,” although at no point in their public life was it revealed whether she was a Protestant or a Catholic.

The revelation that she was Irish was more a matter of pointing out the obvious, since her maiden name was “Ryan,” rather than an attempt to appeal to Catholic voters by suggesting she might be of that faith.

Pat Nixon and Jackie Kennedy each had an Irish-American parent.

Yet like Jackie Kennedy, what neither the campaigns nor the media covering them ever disclosed  her maternal ancestry. In fact, when her husband was elected President in 1968, Pat Nixon became the first child of an immigrant to become First Lady. Despite this unprecedented detail might have served as a political appeal to immigrant or first-generation voters when Nixon ran for his second term, in 1973, a time when a previously unknown movement of  pride in “roots,” was emerging in the national culture, the Nixon White House never exploited the story of the First Lady’s immigrant mother, nor even made the facts of it forthcoming. There was no dark secret which led to it being withheld;  it was simply that Pat Nixon had very little about her personal life that she could keep private – and that she knew almost nothing about her own mother’s background.

Kate Ryan kept her German origin a secret when World War I broke out and asked her children to keep the secret as well.

The bigotry unleashed in earlier generations against various ethnic groups of all races may have begun to rapidly faded by the time Pat Nixon’s husband first ran for President in 1960, but it had also left lingering emotional scars about which most of those wounded by them remained silent.

In the case of Pat Nixon, her mother Kate Halberstadt had immigrated to the U.S. at the age of ten years old in 1888, coming from Ober Rosbach in Germany, not far from Frankfort. There, her family had been farmers for some two centuries, harvesting fruit trees.

Will Ryan’s parents had immigrated from County Mayo, Ireland.

She married a fellow German-American by the name of Bender who found work in South Dakota and by him had two children, Matthew and Neva. After a flash flood killed her husband, she remarried in 1908 to William Martin Ryan, the fifth of ten children, whose parents had been immigrants from County Mayo in Ireland.

Financial strain led to her son Matthew being raised by the parents of her first husband. By Will Ryan, she then gave birth to three children, two sons named Tom and Bill and a daughter she called Thelma Catherine.

A German immigrant, Kate Halberstadt Ryan holds her daughter who would some day become America’s First Lady.

Born March 16, 1912 just hours before it was St. Patrick’s Day, her Irish father nicknamed her his “St. Patrick’s babe in the morning.” She would always celebrate her birthday on the holiday and, after his 1930 dath, change her name to Pat.

Pat Ryan was only five years old when the U.S. entered World War I.

Pat Ryan had only just celebrated her fifth birthday, however, when the U.S. went to war against Germany and a new tension arose in the working-class household of her parents. As detailed in a previous article here about Florence Harding’s ancestry, a virulent anti-German movement swept the United States, including acts of violence ( Even Will Ryan felt a resentment towards Germans, though it was never expressed in any way towards his beloved wife.

Kate Halberstadt Ryan’s Bible in German. (Nixon Presidential Library and Museum)

Although she wasn’t known to speak with a thick or identifiable German accent, Kate Ryan was terrified of being victimized or having her young children harmed simply because she was a German immigrant. As her granddaughter Julie later wrote, Kate made little Pat “promise that she would not tell anyone she was German-born…No longer did Kate converse in her native tongue…”

Only thirteen years old when her mother died, Pat Ryan knew nothing about her mother’s German origins.

Furthermore, as Pat Ryan matured, her mother never told her anything about her German heritage or even the fact that she had siblings, uncles, aunts and first cousins still living in Germany. She barely told her children about the experience of crossing the sea to come to America.

With her family in Germany, like all citizens there, barely surviving the high inflation of the post-war period, what very little money Kate  could afford to put aside to help support them was sent in great secrecy.

Pat Nixon speaking with a German official at the Frankfort airport in 1964.

Most astounding of all, Kate never even told Pat and her brothers her own German maiden name. She died when Pat was only thirteen years old. Not for another half a century would the woman who would become First Lady learn any details about her German ancestry.

The program for the 1970 Nixon trip to Ireland.

In the early 21st century, with the Internet and other methods making genealogical and other family records so instantly accessible it may seem odd that children had no idea what their mother’s original surname might have been. Yet a century ago, so many children of the working-class were struggling to simply find a way to subsist on meager amounts of food and keep living under the same roof as a family due to financial burden or a parent’s death, that spending time to research one’s family origin was a luxury of the privileged.

A letter Pat Ryan wrote to Richard Nixon on clover stationery, reflecting her Irish heritage.

The result of this left Pat Nixon with little sentimental affinity for either Germany or Ireland, having no knowledge of  her parents’ relatives still living in those countries.

In fact, during a trip to Germany with her husband and daughters in the mid-1960s, Pat Nixon made no effort to either tell them how closely located they were to the place where her mother had come from or attempt to locate Kate’s exact hometown.

A candle with the image of Pat Nixon made for tourists at the time of her visit to Ireland with her father’s family, during a presidential trip there.

As First Lady in 1970, when she was scheduled to make a tour of Europe with the President, Mrs. Nixon felt “discomfort” when she learned that her husband’s aides had arranged a “family reunion” with her second and third cousins in Ballinrobe, Ireland, in county Mayo.

She’s always felt proud of her better-known Irish heritage, but she feared the “artificiality” of being thrust into a sudden familial intimacy with strangers.

Pat Nixon in Hollybrook Cemetery with Ryan relatives, visiting the graves of her great-grandparents.

As it turned out, the Ryan family luncheon held in Ashford Castle on October 4, 1970 was a happy occasion during which she connected naturally with those whose roots she shared, following a trip to the old cemetery where her great-grandparents were buried.

Although it received far less media attention in the United States, Pat Nixon’s visit to Ireland gave its people a great sense of pride, many referring to her at the time as the “Queen of America.” As she stepped off a helicopter which landed in a lush stretch of green valley on a blustery day, she was greeted by a girl with flowers and a boys’ brass band which played Irish music, followed by a demonstration of traditional dance. She proceeded to the cottages of several distant relatives, and visited the starkly modest sod house and farm of her great-grandparents, where her grandfather had been born and raised.

Named Patrick Sarsfield Ryan, he was born in 1834 in Hollymount, between Ballinrobe and Claremorris, in Kilvindoney, and immigrated to the U.S. in 1855, coming through  Savannah, Georgia.  He became a naturalized citizen a year later. While it is purely speculation, it may be that Mrs. Nixon’s father Will Ryan had not declared her by the feminine name “Patricia,” but rather the nickname “Pat” as a way to quietly remember his own father.

On November 27, 1857, Patrick Ryan married Catherine McHugh, in Danbury, Connecticut, where other Irish immigrants from his town like his new wife had settled. He found regular work in a local haberdashery factory.

Pat Nixon with her Ryan relatives in Count Mayo, Ireland.

While John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and her own husband all visited the towns in Ireland from which their ancestors had come during their presidencies, no First Lady except Pat Nixon has made such a trip.

The President left his motorcade to greet some Irish citizens on horses during the 1970 Nixon Ireland trip.

While in Ireland, she was given information about the origins of some of her ancestors.  There were even reports that she was distantly related to the then-famous television variety-show host Ed Sullivan.

Nevertheless, fear of bigotry led many immigrant and first-generation Americans in earlier times to withhold information from their children and grandchildren even about their early experiences in their new country.

This meant that Pat Nixon, who died in 1993, never learned her own fascinating connection to the most beloved of American Presidents, Abraham Lincoln.

Will Ryan stands in front of his southern California farm house with his children Bill, Tom and Pat.

Not until about ten years ago did details about Pat Ryan’s immigrant grandparents emerge from new genealogical research.  Patrick Ryan was one of eight children, several others of whom also immigrated to the U.S., including his sister Julia Ryan who married his wife’s brother, John McHugh.

During the Civil War, both men  served in Connecticut’s 17th Volunteer Regiment, the ranks of which were thinned on the very first day of battle at Gettysburg. They had also fought at Chancellorville.

Mary Surratt.

After the Civil War, the First Lady’s grandfather Patrick served in the Veterans Reserve Corps and was based in Washington, D.C.  With his tour of duty there occurring at the time of the trials of the conspirators in the Lincoln assassination, he found himself routinely assigned to guarding the imprisoned Mary Surratt, who ran the Maryland boardinghouse which served as their meeting place.

Dr. Samuel Mudd.

Other sources also include Patrick Ryan serving as guard of another alleged conspirator, Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set the broken leg of assassin John Wilkes Booth.

Historian Phil Gallagher examins Patrick Ryan’s gravesite at St. Peter Cemetery in Danbury where Irish immigrants were buried. (Danbury Legal-Times)

Patrick Ryan’s assignment ended, of course, when Mrs. Surratt was found guilty and hung.  Mudd was pardoned on the fact that he’d only been carrying out his medical duty, unaware that his patient was Lincoln’s assassin. Patrick Ryan returned to Connecticut, settling in Danbury, where he died in 1915.

Three years after the death of this immigrant with a connection to one President, the granddaughter he never knew, with a connection to another President, was born.

This article is part of an ongoing series about the racial, religious and ethnic identity of First Ladies, beginning with the recent discoveries about First Lady Michelle Obama and her ancestry from both an Irish immigrant family of Georgia slave-owners and African slaves emerging from Rachel Swarns new book on the subject, American Tapestry. That story can be read at:

Past articles considered Jacqueline Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Florence Harding, and a look at candidate’s spouse Ann Davis Romney’s Atheist and Welsh immigrant father. Forthcoming are articles on Edith Wilson, Eliza Johnson and Mamie Eisenhower. The series is not a definitive guide to genealogy, nor from the perspective of the professional genealogists but rather to illustrate the uniquely American issues of “identity,” the choices made by individuals with various ethnic origins who, by personal choice for various reasons, associate themselves with one part of their background over others. More importantly, the series focuses on how such choices of identity by spouses have served the political and campaign purposes of Presidential candidates and Presidents.

Categories: Diversity, First Families, First Ladies, First Ladies & Ancestral Identity, History, The Nixons

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6 replies »

  1. For what it’s worth, I believe that this is one of your very best articles–absolutely fascinating. I am a big Pat Nixon fan and it’s good to know that she experienced such happy times in the White House as the trip to Ireland. The picture of her with her Irish kin suggests that she was deeply moved. And the picture of her mother holding the young Pat is beautiful. Mrs. Ryan had such a kindly face. What a sad turn of fate that she died so young. One can imagine that Pat Ryan would have had a much easier life as a young adult if she had had her mother’s help. I was wondering if the Nixon daughters know about the results of your research. I hope one day you might want to write an article about your contacts with President Nixon. I still hold out the hope that history will treat him better than he has been since August 1974. But certainly Pat Nixon should be remembered as one of the best First Ladies ever.

    PS: Perhaps, it would have been a dangerous thing for any politician or his wife so soon after WW II to probe too deeply in identifying distant German relations. There would always be a chance that the relatives had (willingly or not) fought against us in the war). As the Lincoln connections shows, one never knows what ties one may have in the past to the famous or infamous!

    • Thank you for that – I had more time to edit this article carefully so perhaps that shows. And I couldn’t agree with you more about a) the need to assess Nixon’s achievements as President dispassionately. The problem is, in part, the need of the media to craft a story with individuals who are either all good or all bad, the heroes and villains. Its far more time-consuming and ends with less absolutism and resolution to depict a public figure as having both attributes and deficiencies. You know Jackie Kennedy Onassis once said that he was one of the most “intelligent statesmen” of that period – and yet, the old human hubris did do him in. I find there is more in common among JFK, LBJ and Nixon that perhaps their loyalest admirers always wish to acknowledge, yet it represented views of the mid-century white male in power that are in evidence all through that era. And also b) the need for immediate post-World War II era German-Americans to avoid pursuing information on any relatives still living there during the 3rd Reich. It’s an important point which I failed to consider yet may be relevant.

    • I think it’s difficult to understand how deeply private and guarded Mrs. Nixon was. I think she was a painfully shy extreme introvert. I’m sure she was convivial with those around her whom she knew well. But she strikes me as having been thrust into so much responsibility so early in life, I think that her heritage was in fact painful. If we look at the picture of her with her relatives we can’t know what was going on at that exact moment unless someone alive tells us. But look at the picture of Pat Nixon. She appears to be uncomfortable, as if she wants to crawl under a rock, her face is contorted into a position that approaches a frown. As her cousin attempts to touch her shoulder one can tell she didn’t like being touched. And she hated this stranger touching her – without a doubt. I think it was so windy that her hair was thrown into a shambles and I believe she was very careful about her appearance. The scarf was an attempt I think to try to keep it under control. J. B. West saw her as being a very shy, lonely and sometimes cold woman. But consider that she had to raise brothers and sisters – I think her father was probably depressed, I believe he was an alcoholic. She didn’t want to open up her life just as Bess Truman didn’t. The past for many of these Presidents was not only unpleasant and painful but very embarrassing. It’s not as if her peers didn’t have equally embarrassing lives – they simply wouldn’t admit it. Today Presidential wives must be much more personable, much quicker on their feet, we expect that they understand a great deal. Today we want a politician’s spouse to be so many things – and women unfortunately have it worse than men. Pat Nixon grew up in an age where she was assured of far greater privacy than today. I think she would have divorced Dick Nixon if he ran for President today – because I don’t think she would have been able to tolerate the press and the constant 24 hour news cycle. Somehow Michelle Obama insulates herself, Ann Romney behaves like a bull in a china shop just as Cindy McCain did -Thelma Patricia Ryan Nixon would have been a whole different situation were her husband running today. I think he’d be doing it without her.

      • Thank you Kevin for the time and effort of your analysis. In my two-volume history on the evolving role of First Ladies, I did as intense a look as any other person ever can into the inner thinking, etc. of the First Ladies. Pat Nixon was remarkable for the many examples of reaching out and physically touching and hugging and showing affection and connection with the public, being the very first FLOTUS to do so since perhaps Mrs. Harding and, during World War II with US serviceman – Eleanor Roosevelt. Mamie Eisenhower was also quite physically expressive but only with women, drawing a strict gender line with propriety. I agree about her wearing a scarf because it was quite windy. I also had the chance to develop a friendship with J.B. West while in college and conducted many interviews with him and met his wonderful, warm wife Zella – I remember her so well. He only knew Mrs. Nixon when she first came into the White House for he left about a month into the Administration but I don’t recall his ever feeling she was anything but a warm woman – but very reserved and skeptical about politics, generally, and this new world she had to survive in, specifically. He did say she took a lot of deep breathes as things arose that were unanticipated – and that she smoked heavily. I think you hit on a terribly sad great truth however – all of these spouses have had to seriously sacrifice so much to their husbands’ ambitions, even egotism, to fight their way to election as president.

  2. I enjoyed this article so much, Carl. While I had a somewhat dim recollection that Mrs. Nixon’s mother was German from reading Julie Eisenhower’s biography of her mother a long time ago, the “Saint Patrick’s Babe in the Morning” and her Irish heritage is what I think most Americans who know much of anything about Pat Nixon would remember. Illuminating and enlightening. Thank you!


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