This is the second to last article in a series on First Ladies’ ancestral identities. Previous articles on Michelle Obama, Jacqueline Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Florence Harding, Pat Nixon, Hillary Clinton can be found by searching at right, in the categories or archives box, or scrolling through the list of articles.
Today, Edith Bolling Wilson remains shadowed by her legend as “the secret woman President,” but during her sunny first days as First Lady, the nation fixated on a more romantic vision of the second wife of Woodrow Wilson.
The tale of her being “a real American Princess of [Native] Indian Lineage,” as one Washington Times headline blared in 1915, “a Descendant, Ninth Generation, of Pocahontas,” was so emphatically repeated, it seemed like she wore a tribal headdress at state dinners.
It was no haphazard tag affixed by hyperactive reporters, however, but an identity Edith Wilson embraced and flaunted. At a glance, her emphasis on being a “Red Bolling” seems perplexing, considering the denigrated status of Native Americans at the time and her own bigotry documented in private letters and remarks but her memoirs, the most permanent public record of her own life.
Seeking to assess what might lay beneath her motives winds through a secretive, elite society with entitlement to privilege and political power, encoded beneath a cloak of gentility which they declared to be exclusive to Virginians. Even wealth or achievement barred the unqualified from breeding into their bloodlines.
They were descended from the English aristocracy who immigrated not for freedom but with land grants to establish tobacco plantations generating astounding wealth with the free labor of African slaves. Royalists, not Revolutionaries, they controlled Virginia from seats of political power inherited by succeeding generations and retained wealth by marrying with their network of families.
Over time, ancestry became just as important a factor as wealth and power in choosing a potential spouse. Certification of descent from the settlers and Virginia Company of London investors who established Jamestown as the first permanent English colony was provided by “The Order of the First Families of Virginia,” begun in 1912.
Who qualifies and by what methods remains secretive, the FFV making clear it “does not enter into correspondence with those inquiring in their own behalf, nor is membership information furnished. Proposals for membership made by members by request of candidates are not acceptable, and requests for membership are considered inappropriate. Membership is strictly by invitation only.”
Among many such Virginians was the belief of English supremacy among Europeans and that by their inter-marriages, their families retained the highest concentration of the most “civilized” race.
Some even discouraged relatives from marrying those with ancestors from other parts of the British Isles or later-arriving English immigrants whose lack of family trees might mean shallow roots in England. When Nancy Langhorne of Danville, Virginia moved to England, married a wealthy American expatriate and served in Parliament as the famous “Lady Astor,” she declared that Virginians of her ilk were more English than the British aristocracy. “We are undiluted,” she boasted. She also told an African-American church group to be grateful for slavery since it had permitted them to become converts to Christianity. “To be a Virginian is a tremendous responsibility. So much is expected of us,” she said.
With an irony unique to the American experience, however, Virginians deemed to be of the “purest” English blood were those who could prove they directly descended from the most famous Native-American Indian woman in history –Pocahontas.
The seventh of eleven children, Edith Bolling was born in 1872 on the top floor of a commercial strip building in the small, rural town of Wytheville, Virginia in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. She, her parents, siblings, two grandmothers, She herself admitted it was “shabby and inadequate.” The Civil War and the end of slavery meant sudden poverty for families like her own. Her grandfather Archibald Bolling had owned a plantation near Lynchburg and over 100 slaves. When he was a child, her father William, a lawyer, had been given a slave boy as a servant. Edith had never experienced any of this, but as the companion of her infirm grandmother Bolling, she was filled with romantic ideas of the family’s privileged plantation life.
After marrying Norman Galt, whose family owned a famous jewelry and silver store in Washington, D.C. she was excluded as “trade” from the city’s social elite, with the status of the merchant class. The one aspect of her identity which held value, however, was as the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Pocahontas.
After Edith’s 1915 marriage to the widowed President Woodrow Wilson, the press and public found racial physical attributes in her to affirm her status.
One respected journalist even recorded that, “it is a fact that the Bolling men were mostly tall and dark with aquiline noses, straight black brows and high cheekbones…”
White House seamstress Maggie Rogers would often “study” the face of Mrs. Wilson “to see how much of the Indian ancestry showed” and attributed Edith’s “firmness of line and straightness of feature” to it. Even sixty years later, New York Timesreporter affirmed that, “Edith’s broad cheekbones, dark shining hair and close-set eyes were her Indian heritage…” Mrs. Wilson herself claimed she “could always spot an Indian in any gathering.” The “Red Bollings” were soon claimed to always be identifiable by “that Indian look.”
Nobody dared point out that, in fact, Pocahontas was merely one of her 512 direct ninth-generation ancestors.
The First Lady never missed a chance to emphasize her “royal” ancestry. She chose the names of a new fleet of naval vessels to be christened after Native American tribes.
The public sent her Indian items like a beaded belt said to have been owned by Pocahontas (it was found to have been made just before being given to Edith). One of her most prized possessions was a statue of the Indian Princess.
Joining the President on his triumphant trip to Paris for the Treaty of Versailles negotiations, she relished meeting the crowned heads of Europe, and was treated as an equal with the queens of England, Italy and Belgium.
For someone who had been treated poorly by provincial Washington society, it was a heady experience. It made the social snub she received from the single most revered member of the French nobility class, the Duchesse deRohan, all the more shocking.
When it was conveyed to the Duchesse that Edith had royal blood and was, in fact, an “American princess,” she ran over to befriend the First Lady immediately. Edith even got the better of her by claiming that her mother still lived in the family castle – which was, in fact, a moderately-priced residential hotel called the Powhatan.
It is difficult to detect whether Edith Wilson saw her non-white ancestry a point of personal pride or an amusing novelty. When a Native American woman wrote to a Cabinet member that the President was in violation of federal law by serving her alcohol, she responded seriously that it “applies only to those of my tribe living on a reservation and is not applicable to us when we are at large.” Her reaction to her brother donning a “splendid war bonnet of feathers” and Navajo blanket, as he “raised a tomahawk” was that their “ancestral heritage from Pocahontas was most apparent.” That indicated she didn’t take it seriously, to say the least.
While she wrote numerous but minor remarks that were naively bigoted about African-Americans and Jews, neither did she ever show a particular interest in the living conditions, legal rights or degrading stereotypes of contemporary Native Americans. An indication of how Native Americans were generally perceived in 1915 was reflected in the remarks of even White House servants who were African-American. As maid Lillian Parks recalled, a number of her black co-workers there, “grumbled that they did not want to work for any Indian, regardless of her status.”
So why would Edith Wilson continue to express pride in being a “red Bolling?”
From the degradation her family had endured in the years immediately after the Civil War, the snobbish attitude of upper-class Washington towards “tradespeople” like herself, and of European nobility towards Americans, Edith Wilson had felt some periods of stigmatization; never near as severe as what racial minorities lived with it still stung enough for her to feel the need to record.
While she chose to link her identity to the romantic legend of Pocahontas rather than developing an empathy for the general condition of Native Americans, she might not be entirely blamed for that.
Despite her travels abroad, she had never been fully educated or encouraged to turn concern to any people outside of those she knew. Furthermore, there was little to no public record yet established which attempted to understand who the real “Indian Princess” might have been.
The 1907 Jamestown Exposition, marking the tricentennial of the first arrival of the English colonists who settled what would become Virginia had thrust the “Indian Princess” into the public imagination, especially the claim of her heroically saving the life of Captain John Smith. The First Lady’s relationship to the historical figure, however remote, spurred a renewed national interest in Pocahontas.
Perhaps the most important manifestation of this was a new “biography” of the Native American, told through an admittedly fictional technique, published a year after the Wilson wedding brought Edith to public attention.
As the imaginative author Virginia Watson, put it in her book, The Princess Pocahontas, “the importance of this Colony to the future United States was so great that we owe to Pocahontas somewhat the same gratitude, though in a lesser degree, that France owes to her Joan of Arc.”
The bare facts about Pocahontas were reshaped into startling propaganda, making her less a brown-skinned human than an American deity. There was no getting around the fact that she a non-white person, but even this was deftly used by appropriating the supernatural nature of Native American creation myths and suggesting that it mystically infused through her veins to birth the first colony of a God-willed nation.
According to the popular Watson book, it was while being held a hostage in Jamestown, that it dawns on Pocahontas how “immeasurably superior” the English were.
The white Jamestown women who help Pocahontas ready for her 1614 wedding to tobacco planter John Rolfe grasp the momentous nature of it all, the narrative reading: “Here was an English gentleman of old lineage who was to wed the daughter of a great heathen ruler, one in whose power it lay to help or hinder the progress of this first permanent English colony in the New World.”
Even the minister is overcome, realizing that “This Indian maiden who was a creature of the woods, shy and proud as a wild animal, was to be married by him to an Englishman with centuries of civilization behind him. What boded it for them both and for their races?”
Not until Pocahontas goes to England, hailed through London as a Princess and brought before the Empire’s Queen who declares her an equal, however, is the apotheosis of a now Anglicized “Rebecca” (the Biblical name for mother of two nations) complete.
As time shortly proved, there may have been another reason for Mrs. Wilson’s Princess complex.
Often left out of every narrative about Pocahontas is the deeply sad tone of her meeting John Smith again, who she’d been told had died. He had been trusted as a brother to her, as a son to her father. Yet in his record of what she implied when they again met, she was bewildered that he had left this “family” and that his people, the English, were now engaged in skirmishes and battles based on a mistrust which had developed; that she had believed the two peoples would live as one, helping each other.
It was the very fear of different races living at one human race that was at the root of a new edict in one of her beloved Virginia’s more sinister chapters. Coming in March of 1924, one month after former President Wilson died, it threatened not only his widow’s cherished Pocahontas identity but, paradoxically, her racial classification as a white person.
Racial identity was an especially sensitive issue in slave states. Obviously African-American peoples whose fate would have kept their descendants legally in slavery with each succeeding generation might find escape by having children with those people who had discernible European or Native American physicality and could thus eventually “pass.”
All that began to change the year Woodrow Wilson had been elected President. In 1912, Virginia created the Bureau of Vital Statistics to register all births with certificates stating the child’s race.
The man appointed as registrar of the bureau was an avowed white supremacist, physician Walter A. Plecker.
A native Virginian, born in 1861, educated at a military academy in Staunton, where Woodrow Wilson was born, and then the University of Virginia, where Wilson also went, Plecker viewed human as being of only one of two racial classifications – white or “non-white.” He believed that any intermarriage would lead to the genetic “destruction of the white or higher civilization.” He found his justification in the flawed but emerging ‘science” of eugenics.
By law, since the late 1600s, white Virginians had been prevented from marrying “non-white” Virginians, but the marriages of African-Americans and Native-Americans was not as strictly regulated. Plecker used this to now draw a strict line between white Virginians and all others. He made the emphatic argument that by the early 2oth century there were no longer any pure Native Americans in Virginia but that all of them had some African American ancestry or, as he categorized them, “native-born people in Virginia calling themselves Indians.” By the early 1920s, he set himself on the task of ferreting out them out so the state could legally deny them the rights granted to whites As he explained in a later letter, “They have been using the advantage thus gained as an aid to intermarriage into the white race and to attend white schools and now for some time they have been refusing to register with the war draft board as negroes…” He would begin to systematically assemble a list of surnames within each county of Virginia which, often without documented evidence, he used to label families as “Striving to Pass as ‘Indian’ or ‘White.'” Among those families were “proud” descendants of the tribe of Pocahontas, the Powhatan. People like Edith Wilson.
It’s unlikely Edith Wilson knew Plecker, but she did know John Henry Powell, whose father had run the Richmond Female Seminary. Edith had received a year of formal education there and it was in the city where she also had her first exposure to a societal caste system based on race, wealth and education. She later wrote a nostalgic essay about her time there for Powell. The famous composer and pianist had also founded the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America. He determined to save Virginia’s “racial purity” not by the terrorist tactics of the Ku Klux Klan but the civilized method of convincing his chums in the Virginia General Assembly to enact a stringent ban on inter-racial marriage.
Simultaneously, Plecker obsessed over how to strictly determine the race of Virginians.
He did not intend to simply deny the right of self-identity of those calling themselves “Indian.” Using the old excuse to keep enslaved anyone known to have “one-drop” of African blood, Plecker began drafting the strictest regulation in American history defining a “white” person as only those people who did not have “one-drop” of non-white blood. It was called the Racial Integrity Act of 1924.
It would mean that Edith Wilson and those like her would now be legally considered “colored,” no matter how much or how little Native American ancestry they claimed to have. When the former First Lady first learned of this or how she reacted is unknown, but it very well could mean that during her frequent trips into Virginia, to languish at hot springs resorts, attend horse races, visit relatives, or direct the preservation of her husband’s birthplace, she might very well find herself restricted by the same laws applicable to her African-American servants.
The evident lack of any public protest by Edith Wilson to the Racial Integrity Act only confirms her consistent policy of never committing to anything other than projects honoring her husband and the Democratic Party, out of loyalty to his memory. Yet in being loyal to her husband’s principals it also put her on the side of racial segregation and even the sterilization of “”undesirable” people who had allegedly digressive genes leading to criminality or other societal problems.
She could be haughty, vindictive and formidable, refusing to perceive a wrong done to her as part of a larger, societal problem also affecting the masses below her social status.
When Wilson had his stroke and some called for his resignation, she was insulted by the suggestion on the grounds that it would impede his recovery – never thinking of his duty to the people. She called suffragists “disgusting creatures” not because she cared about their argument that women should not be denied the right to vote but because they rudely protested outside the White House. But single or widowed, whatever race she truly perceived herself to be, Mrs. Wilson was nobody’s victim.
And while she did make bigoted observations, she never hated or avoided people based on race or faith or their progressive racial views. Arthur Link, later editor of Wilson’s papers, detected anti-Semitic sentiment in some of her remarks about the wealthy Jewish financier Bernard Baruch but she remained personally close to him sought his advice and followed his guidance. His daughter Belle was one of her closest confidantes, lifelong friends and constant travel companion around the world. She never took to Al Smith when he ran for President in 1928 but it was attributed to his brassy New York style and not his Catholicism. She maintained a lifelong friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt and frequently accepted invitations to appear beside her when she was First Lady even during periods when her public advocacy of civil rights created public controversy.
Edith Wilson’s racial views may have been complex and often contradictory, but she was absolute about one thing: he had no intention of renouncing her Native-American ancestry, remote as it truly was.
As the native-born widow of a native-born U.S. President, Edith Wilson was held high in Virginia. By assembling “a group of prominent Virginians” in 1938, for example, she managed to save and preserve her husband’s Staunton birthplace.
A glimpse into what might have been her views can possibly be suggested by the view of three Virginian politicians with whom she was especially close, two successive Virginia governors at the time, one who shared her loyalty to the late President, Lee Trinkle, the other, a “Red Bolling” who shared her Pocahontas ancestry, Harry F. Byrd, Sr., later a powerful U.S. Senator, and one she considered an especially close friend, the Wilson Administration’s second Treasury Secretary and then U.S. Senator, Carter Glass.
Edith was a childhood friend of the state’s most powerful man, Governor Elbert Lee Trinkle, who was also born in Wyethville four years after her. Months after she married President Wilson, he made Trinkle chairman of the Democratic Party and as a party elector, Trinkle helped him win a second term. Later, as a convention delegate for Virginia, he joined Mrs. Wilson in Houston at the 1928 Democratic National Convention.
Byrd, a state senator at the time of the Racial Integrity Act was proposed and elected Governor a year after it passed, was also devoted to the memory of Woodrow Wilson and frequently joined Edith Wilson at various events, like University of Virginia football games, and those involving historic state sites. Byrd built his powerful political machine, in part, on a strict segregationist policy of segregation – between whites and blacks.
Trinkle wrote future U.S. Senator A.W. Robertson (father of the televangelist Pat Robertson, he later refused to greet First Lady Lady Bird Johnson when she whistle-stopped through Virginia advocating support for the Civil Rights Act), that the Racial Integrity Act was of “vital importance.” He elaborated that, “There are a great many of our real substantial white people who fought hard for the Bill and are doing all they can to help out in this situation over the State. I know that you will be more than reasonable because you, like the rest of us, are interested in this movement.”
Carter Glass earned his fame by pursuing his ultimately successful goal of denying the right to vote to as many black Virginia as possible. As he told one reporter, “Discrimination! Why that is exactly what we propose. To remove every negro voter who can be gotten rid of, legally, without materially impairing the numerical strength of the white electorate.” He also considered Edith Wilson to be “bordering on the divine.”
If the views of Trinkle and Byrd can offer a suggestion to Edith Wilson’s views, she may have shared their view on the strict separation between black and white Virginians. Yet Trinkle drew a curious distinction in a letter to Plecker, warning him to “be conservative and reasonable and not create any ill feeling if it can be avoided between the Indians and the State government. From reports that come to me…you are too hard on these people and pushing matters too fast.” Like Trinkle, when it came to Native Americans, Byrd dissuaded any overt discrimination. Then again, like Edith Wilson, he was a descendant of Pocahontas.
It is difficult to pinpoint which among the numerous Pocahontas descendants of political influence forced an important clause into the Racial Integrity Act, but it was created to specifically protect the racial status of “white” for all of them. It would come to be called the “Pocahontas Clause.”
It was carefully written to define as white those who had one-sixteenth Native American ancestry or less, and further who had “no other non-Caucasic blood.” This made them the sole exception to those considered “pure white” who were allowed to marry other whites. If, or to whom among these three Virginians – or any other legislators – she expressed her attitude on the proposed Racial Integrity Act is unknown. One source, in a 2010 Discover Magazine commentary does claim that, “A strong supporter of the legislation was Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, who was a descendant of Pocahontas, of course.” Perhaps the only silver lining to the incident is that it applied to all Native Americans and not just those of the “royal” line. The clause reads:
“It shall hereafter be unlawful for any white person in this State to marry any save a white person, or a person with no other admixture of blood than white and American Indian. For the purpose of this act, the term “white person” shall apply only to the person who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian; but persons who have one-sixteenth or less of the blood of the American Indian and have no other non-Caucasic blood shall be deemed to be white persons.
Plecker was not happy. Himself lacking the qualifications for membership in the First Families of Virginia, it was with sarcasm that he wrote in August of 1942 about those like Edith Wilson who only had “about 1/4000th of 1 percent of Pocahontas blood now in their veins, though they seem to be quite proud of that.”
It didn’t stop Plecker’s reign of terror. He sent investigators to homes, relied on neighborhood gossip, and threatened county registrars who defied him. He had multiracial children physically removed from white classrooms and had bodies of those with “questionable ancestry” removed from white cemeteries. His destruction of records prevented members of some native tribes from having the necessary proof for federal recognition.
Even more sinister is the suggestion that some cases of involuntary sterilization in Virginia were performed on non-white women under the category of judged “Mentally Ill” and “Mentally Deficient.”
In 1935, he corresponded with Walter Gross, Hitler’s Bureau of Human Betterment and Eugenics director, asking to be kept abreast of their actions. In mentioning the Nazi sterilization of children born to white German mothers and black French fathers, he added, “I hope this work is complete and not one has been missed. I sometimes regret that we have not the authority to put some measures in practice in Virginia.”
Not until the Supreme Court’s 1967 decision on Loving v. Virginia make the state law restricting inter-racial marriage illegal.
By then, Plecker had been dead twenty years, killed by a car in Richmond when he failed to look at the traffic. He had no children.
There is one less obvious reason for Edith Wilson’s pride in her Pocahontas blood.
It indicated her descent not only from the Native American’s husband, the rugged adventurer settler John Rolfe of Jamestown but perhaps more importantly from the later generation of the wealthy and powerful British aristocrat Robert Bolling.
Leaving his family’s grand estate in England, he married the granddaughter of Pocahontas, Jane Rolfe. Their descendants became known as the “Red Bollings,” while those he had by his second, white wife were called the “White Bollings.”
Yet being a “Red Bolling” also threatened Edith Wilson again in 1943, some twenty years after the Racial Integrity Act had assured her the status of “white.”
When Plecker began receiving reports of “Bolin” families with several generations of mixed blood from the state’s southwestern counties, he sought to identify them by what he seemed to believe was the original common surname of “Bolling.” Whether he decided not to antagonize powerful political figures who were “Red Bollings” is unclear, but he decided to alter the Lee and Smyth county names to “Bolden.”
Of course, also easily overlooked is the fact that since the unfolding generations of Pocahontas descendants tended to marry among themselves, Edith Wilson likely had far more than the obvious 1/512th Indian blood from her known direct line. Further, there is always the possibility that one of the males in that direct line off Native/European ancestors might have married, knowingly or not, a woman whose own ancestors included one who had married an African before Virginia outlawed inter-racial unions.
There were also numerous self-identified African-Americans with the surname of Bolling who achieved great prominence in American life, the most famous of which is perhaps Booker T. Washington.
And too, there is a record of both slaves and free African Americans with the name. Ultimately, the effort to untangle centuries of genealogy to detect one among tens of thousands of ancestors to prove a point of inferiority or superiority or some extremely distant and vague relationship to famous people can reach a point of futility.
Further, some Virginia historians now suggest there may be no Pocahontas descendants who can be traced, since no record was made of the names of Thomas Rolfe’s children until the 1820s. Even the often-heard expression of reverence that one is from an “old family” has the ring of ridiculousness to it.
What family isn’t old?
As for the 1916 book Princess Pocahontas by Virginia Watson, it was not only reprinted for sale again in 2006, but an audio version has come out as well, narrated by reader Vanessa Benjamin. Notably, according to one review, the romanticized take on the young Native American woman benefits from being told in a “British accent.”
- Native American Indian Dog (dogster.com)
- Social Media & the Medical Needs of American Indians (youthhealth20.com)
- The Pocahontas Myth (thatrebloggingthing.wordpress.com)
- Pocahontas: The Real Story Behind the Costume (costumediscounters.com)
- A Centennial Gallery of Lady Bird Johnson & her “First Ladies Sorority” (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Bomb Threats, Suffragists & A Broken Campaign Pledge: The 1917 Sunday Inauguration, Part 5 (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Christmas at the White House: First Families at Home for the Holiday, Part 4 (carlanthonyonline.com)