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Zachary Taylor: His Life and Homes

 By John T. Marck

         Colonel Richard and Sarah Dabney Taylor were very prominent and wealthy landowners who lived at Hare Forest, a plantation in Orange County, Virginia, near Culpepper.  In 1784, Colonel Taylor sold the property and set out to find a new home with his family and slaves. On their journey, members of their party contracted measles, so they all had to be quarantined immediately.  In their hurry to secure a place to live, they acquired temporary lodging on a plantation called Montebello, near Barboursville, still in Orange County, Virginia.

At Montebello, Zachary Taylor was born on November 24, 1784, their third son. Although these original buildings no longer exist, it is believed that Zachary was born in a log cabin. Colonel Taylor then traveled to Kentucky with his slaves, leaving his family and sons at Montebello, to establish a new home at Springfield, near Louisville.

 Zachary's Boyhood Home

When Zachary was still an infant, in late fall 1784, he moved with his family to their new home at Springfield.  Zachary's father purchased this 400-acre farm in the Beargrass Creek region, in Jefferson County, just east of the city limits of Louisville. The Taylor's, being well established and prominent in Virginia, continued to be regarded as such in Kentucky.  Within a short time, the farm had expanded to 700 acres, and soon thereafter, Colonel Taylor owned more than 10,000 acres in seven Kentucky counties. At Springfield, Colonel and Mrs. Taylor would have six more children, for a total family of nine, of which eight survived into adulthood.


Life in Springfield

            It would be here that Zachary would spend his first twenty-three years. The original house in which he first lived was built by his father, Colonel Taylor and his slaves, and was a log home.  This house was later moved to the back of their property for slave quarters, being replaced by the current structure. This house is a large two and one-half story Georgia Colonial red brick, Flemish bond house that was constructed in a style similar to a Virginia plantation house and all the bricks used were fired on the property. The home had two rooms on each floor and featured walnut wood and ash flooring.  

Between the years 1810 and 1820, a second side of the house was built, that also had two rooms on each floor and featured the same ash flooring. The only difference between the sides was this addition had wider mantels and larger fireplaces, and the wood was painted, rather than walnut stain as was done in the older sections.  

Military Career and Marriage

In 1808, Zachary left Springfield to pursue his military career, receiving his first commission as an officer, becoming commander of the garrison at Fort Pickering, which is today the site of Memphis, Tennessee. Taylor=s military career would span 40 years, which expanded his professional reputation, but having to move from one frontier post to another, made his personal life difficult. 

Margaret Smith was born at St. Leonard's in Calvert County, Maryland, the daughter of Richard and Ann Mackall Smith. When Margaret was twenty-one, she visited her sister Mary Chew at her plantation in Kentucky, near Louisville. It was here that she met a young Lieutenant named Zachary Taylor, who was stationed there in the Army. They married on June 21, 1810, and lived on the plantation his father built on Beargrass Creek. For many years they traveled back and forth between their home and military outposts. Finally, they were stationed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and there they settled into what would be their permanent home, on the army post, in a house previously owned by the former commandant. 

During Zachary's military career, he won fame as an "Indian Fighter," in the present-day states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Kansas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Florida and Texas. Although known for fighting Native Americans, Taylor also fought on their behalf against invading white settlers. It was his belief that for settlers and Native Americans to coexist, a strong military presence was needed to keep them apart.  

In 1845, the Mexican War began, whereby Texas was granted statehood. Mexico disputed the lands along the border and President Polk ordered Taylor and his troops into the contested area. This deployment began the Mexican-American War. Taylor's military abilities were brilliant, winning two decisive battles, and then facing overwhelming odds, defeated General Santa Anna at Buena Vista. In the end, Taylor's forces of 6,000 had defeated the Mexican force of 20,000. Zachary Taylor, known as "Old Rough and Ready," was now a national hero. 

Following his military victories, many were still not sure of his political preference. Being a wealthy slave owner, those in the South hoped he would support states' rights and the expansion of slavery into the new areas won from Mexico.  Those in the North were comfortable in his service in the military on the nation's behalf, and thus hoped he was a Union man. 

In truth, Zachary thought himself to be more of an independent.  He had differences with Democrats over the concept of a strong national bank and opposed the extension of slavery into areas where either cotton or sugar could be grown. He also differed with the Whigs' support of strong protective tariffs, and he passionately opposed secession as a means of resolving problems that faced the nation. Ultimately, he finally announced that he was a Whig. Consequently, at their 1848 convention, the Whigs named Taylor for President, adding Millard Fillmore to the ticket.  This was done to appease those who opposed the nomination of a slave owner, or who were doubtful of Taylor's total commitment to the Whig Party.  

For the first time in our history, the entire nation voted on the same day, November 7, 1848. Taylor and Fillmore were elected, although narrowly, defeating the Democratic nominations headed by Michigan's Lewis Cass, and the ticket of the Free-Soil Party, led by former President Martin Van Buren.  

Taylor's foremost agenda was the issue of slavery.  The nation was consumed over the question whether to extend slavery to the new western territories. Taylor believed that the people in California, and New Mexico, as well as the Mormon population around Salt Lake, should be permitted to decide themselves, whether to allow slavery or not. He felt that they should write their own constitutions and apply for statehood. By doing so, the sectional debate over congressional prohibition of slavery in any of these territories could be avoided. Those in the South feared that the addition of two new Free states would upset the already delicate North-South balance in the Senate.

The Southern Democrats responded by calling for a secession convention, of which Taylor replied by saying he would hang anyone who tried to disrupt the Union by force or by any conspiracy action. Because of this, the atmosphere became very heated, and Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and others began to side together toward a compromise in the Senate.  To pacify the South, they proposed the Fugitive Slave Law that would mandate the return of escaped slaves that were apprehended anywhere in the country. This effort became the Compromise of 1850. 

However, the compromise legislation did not permit slavery in California, which was admitted as a free state, as well as it allowed for the organization of Utah and New Mexico as formal territories, rather than states, with no federal restrictions of slavery.  By doing this, the window was left open for these territories to adopt slavery if they desired, and future Congresses to admit them as slave states. Northerners were outraged by that concession made for the South and it only heightened their opposition to the further extension of slavery. It would be this issue that was pushing the nation closer and closer to Civil War. 

During this time, strong leadership was needed, and Taylor refused to participate directly with Congress, believing that a President should stand above party politics, which probably damaged his cause. 

On July 4, 1850, at the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument, Taylor remained in the hot sun for many hours, and became ill from the heat. He returned to the White House, with a fever, very fatigued. Within five days the President was dead, dying on July 9. More than 100,000 people lined the streets to view the funeral procession. Still, he left a country divided, and a vice president in Millard Fillmore who supported the Compromise of 1850.   

Unfortunately, Taylor had a very limited impact as President, and he did little to slow down or prevent the greatest national tragedy to come, that of the Civil War. 

Margaret Taylor as First Lady

When Zachary was elected President, and they moved into the White House, Margaret, or Peggy as she was called, lived very privately there, acting as though it was her own home. When visitors came to the White House, she assumed they were only there to see the President, so she never displayed herself. Instead, she would entertain her own friends and guests to private dinner parties.  Not being interested in the duties of an official hostess, Peggy appointed her daughter Betty to this position, who handled the responsibility well. Peggy had endured many hardships throughout her life, but her final grief came from her husband's unexpected death in 1850, after just sixteen months as President. Her husband's death broke her spirit and her will to live. Peggy died on August 18, 1852 at the home of her daughter Betty, in Pascagoula, Mississippi. 

If Taylor Had Completed His Term

There has always been much debate over what may have occurred if Taylor had finished his term in office, and perhaps had been elected to a second term. President Taylor had just revamped his cabinet of the eve of his death. This brought in men of national prominence that would have given the President one of the strongest cabinets ever assembled in history. Had Taylor lived, there might not have been the Compromise of 1850, or even the Civil War.  In 1850, the South was too disorganized to form a feasible secession movement, and Taylor's support for the direct admission to the Union of the western territories might have changed the course of history. Being the great military leader he was, and surprising many when he defeated Santa Anna at Buena Vista, the debated question was if he had survived, would he have been able to stamp out the burning issue in 1850, that of the expansion of slavery westward.  Sadly, we will never know. 


Over the years since his death, there was speculation by historians that he may have died from arsenic poisoning. In 1901, one such person convinced his descendants that he might have been poisoned. Consequently, Taylor's remains were exhumed from the cemetery in Louisville, and the Kentucky medical examiner took samples of hair and fingernail tissue to the Oak Ridge Laboratory for study. In the Chemical and Analytical Sciences Division they used a neutron activation analysis to measure the amount of arsenic in the samples. While most human bodies contain traces of arsenic, the issue was whether the samples contained more arsenic than was normal, after 141 years in the crypt. 

Arsenic levels were calculated and then sent back to the Kentucky medical examiner for a decision. After review, it was determined that the arsenic levels found were several hundred times less than they should have been had he been poisoned. This finding acquitted several of Taylor's contemporaries of suspicion of murder and proved finally that he was indeed not poisoned. 

            President Taylor held the opportunity to possibly have the nation avoid the Civil War.  After his death, the forces of compromise triumphed, and the war Taylor may have faced came eleven years later. In it, his only son, Richard, served as a general in the Confederate Army. In a broad sense, Taylor was sort of an anomaly. He owned slaves yet supported the ban of the expansion of slavery into the western territories. He was the victorious military winner of Mexico, who saw no need for Manifest Destiny. He was an army general who avoided war as an instrument, a stern military commander, but one who avoided decisive actions as president. One thing was clear concerning him though; he was committed to preserving the Union, even if this meant using force against those who desired to secede.  

Quick Biographical Facts:


12th President

Term- March 4, 1849 to July 9, 1850

Whig Party

Birth: "Montebello” in Orange County, Virginia, November 24, 1784.

Ancestry: English

Marriage: Jefferson County, Kentucky, June 21, 1810 to Margaret Mackall Smith, who was born in Calvert County, Maryland, September 21, 1788. Margaret died near Pascagoula, Mississippi, August 18, 1852 and is buried in Zachary Taylor National Cemetery, Louisville, Kentucky.

Children: Anna Mackall (1811-1875); Sarah Knox (1814-1835); (Sarah Knox married Jefferson Davis, June 17, 1835 in Lexington, Kentucky, who became President of the Confederate States of America, in 1861. Octavia Pannill (1816-1820); Margaret Smith (1819-1820); Maly Elizabeth (1824-1909); Richard (1826-1879).

Home: "Springfield," Louisville, Kentucky

Education: Limited tutorial

Religion: Episcopalian

Occupation before Presidency: Soldier, farmer.

Military Service: Volunteer in Kentucky Militia (1803); Major General U.S. Army (1808-1849).

Age at Inauguration: 64

Taylor Administration: Vice President: Millard Fillmore of New York.

Inauguration: March 4, 1849, The Capitol, Washington, D.C.

Death: Washington, D.C., July 9, 1850.

Cause of Death: After many hours in the hot sun on July 4, he became fatigued and returned to the White House with a fever. He died five days later. Possible causes were fever and fatigue, pneumonia, or coronary thrombosis, at the age of 65.

Place of Burial: Zachary Taylor National Cemetery, Louisville, Kentucky.

Interesting Fact:

Taylor's death came after only 16 months in office. During his 40 years as a soldier, he fought the British, the Sauk, Fox, and Seminole Indian tribes, and the Mexicans. His men called him "Old Rough and Ready" because he scorned fine, neat military uniforms. 

 Copyright © 1992-2022 by John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Information in part from The Presidents of the United States, by John T. Marck.        


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