Broke at Christmas

Let’s face it – many of us stress over holiday spending, whether it’s for gifts, airline tickets, party clothes, special foods, or even supplies for house guests.  So it might be comforting to know that some of America’s most famous historical figures also faced money woes during the Christmas season.  Take Ulysses S. Grant, who found himself in tough times at the holidays while living at White Haven.

Credit: NPS

In the mid-1850s, Grant was working hard to make a living as a farmer while he and his wife Julia were raising their young children at his in-laws’ 850-acre plantation near St. Louis.  He intended to plant potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, and other vegetables – enough “to keep a wagon going to market every day.”  He was optimistic that the venture would be successful, writing his father that “Every day I like farming better and I do not doubt that money is to be made of it.” 

However, unseasonably bad weather, poor health, and an unstable economy hampered Grant, and he was forced on several occasions to ask his father for a loan to purchase farm equipment and seeds.  By late 1857 he became despondent and predicted financial ruin if his father didn’t come through (there is no evidence he ever received his much-needed loan). 

Credit: Library of Congress

To make matters worse, America was undergoing a severe recession known as the Panic of 1857 caused by both the declining international economy and the over-expansion of the U.S. economy in previous years.  The Grant family was in a precarious financial state.  Just two days before Christmas, Grant was forced to pawn off a valuable gold watch and chain.  Even with this cash infusion, Ulysses, Julia, and their three children no doubt endured a bleak holiday season, as did many other American families that year.

A Painting of White Haven before the American Civil War. Credit: NPS

Eventually, Grant made plans to sell his farming equipment and by the fall of 1858 he and his family moved to St. Louis to find a new line of work.  Within a few years, the family moved to Galena, Illinois, and never again lived in Missouri.

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