Jesse Root Grant

Part 2 (1873-1934)

In 1873 Jessie made his first trip west to California, with Willoughby Cole, the son of United States Senator Cornelius Cole. In San Francisco Mrs. Cole told him several children's parties were arranged. The prospect of parties frightened Jesse, a regular trait. Mrs. Cole, apparently sensitive to this, canceled and declined invitations on his behalf. When he got back to Washington, however, parties intruded on his life in another way.

Nellie and Jesse Grant c. 1870

His sister Ellen - "Nellie" - just two years older than Jessie, was a party girl. Mother Julie indulged Nellie's partying, but being of Southern stock, Julia had strict notions about chivalry. It was "unthinkable" for Nellie to go out in the evening, no matter where or with whom, unless accompanied by a male family member. Both older brothers Frederick and Ulysses Jr. being away at West Point and Harvard, respectively, the only available male family was Jesse. Nellie had to party with her younger brother as escort. Both disliked it, besides which Jesse was afraid of girls.

Jesse's and Nellie's formal educations lurched along. Nellie was sent to a good girls' boarding school in Connecticut. In just one hour she sent her parents three telegrams saying she would die if she had to stay there. A White House aide brought her back. About a year later Jesse was sent to boarding school in Cheltenham, near Philadelphia. After a few months he also wrote that he wanted to come back to the White House. Grant had him return immediately.

Jessie made another trip to California in 1874. In the Midwest he linked up with his oldest brother Frederick Dent Grant. Frederick married shortly afterwards, but the marriage that really got attention was Nellie's. At age 17 she met an aristocratic Englishman, Algernon Sartoris. When it became obvious that the two were considering marriage, President Grant worried that Nellie was too young, and he knew nothing about Sartoris. Nonetheless in 1874 Nellie and Algernon were married in an elaborate ceremony in the White House East Room. Grant was seen afterwards on his bed crying. Nellie was going to England and he would miss her terribly. "Nellie was gone," said Jesse, "the White House strangely empty."

In spite of Jesse's erratic education, he entered Cornell University in the autumn of 1874, aged under 17. Two years later, 1876, there was talk of nominating President Grant for a third term. Grant refused to have his name presented at the Republican Convention. The campaign that followed resulted in the most bitterly contested presidential election in history, with Republican candidate Rutherford Hayes being declared the winner by the House of Representatives even though his Democratic opponent had outpolled him by 250,000 popular votes.

Jesse Root Grant in his early twenties

Hayes's accession to the presidency, and one undistinguished term, brought relief to Grant. He had saved $15,000 on which to take a trip around the world as long as the money lasted. Jesse dropped out of Cornell, and on May 17, 1877 sailed with his parents on the Indiana. After a rough but uneventful voyage they arrived in Liverpool.

Expecting only local American representatives to receive them, the three Grants found the harbor bedecked with flags and the Lord Mayor and prominent citizens at the dock. The pattern continued through the British Isles and afterwards. Crowds and honors greeted Grant in Manchester, Sheffield, and Leicester; workmen got a half-holiday on his arrival.

There was a month in London of almost continuous entertainment. Try as Jesse would, he could not escape all the dinners and receptions. They saw Nellie at her home in Southampton, went back to London, where Jesse's remark about attending so many events got him unfavorable mention in the newspapers, and were about to leave when they got the ultimate invitation to see Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle.

Victoria had been withdrawn ever since the untimely death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861. The Grants were met at Windsor by Master of the Household Sir John Cowell, who explained that Her Majesty was out driving and would receive them later. As Jesse was dressing for dinner, Sir John appeared. Her Majesty was indisposed, he said. "Large gatherings, particularly at dinner, bring on a most distressing vertigo. As a consequence of this deplorable condition it has been decided that only those who must be present are to dine with Her Majesty." Jesse would dine with the household and would be presented to Her Majesty afterwards. The newspapers would suggest that he had dined with the Queen.

Jesse was not amused. "It would appear that I can have all the honor by report, and avoid even the tedium of dining with the Household, by quickly leaving for London." His reaction practically provoked a diplomatic crisis. "A tremendous scandal would result," said Sir John, if the newspapers heard of it. Jesse said he wouldn't tell them the Queen decided he was only fit to eat with the help. "You do not understand," gasped Sir John. "Queen's Household are nobility." Assured he could not leave, Jesse said "Just watch me," and began packing. Sir John pleaded with Jesse to understand the foibles of an old lady - Victoria - in ill health, which only convinced Jesse that Victoria herself objected to his presence.

Sir John brought the American minister, who said he would tell Jesse's father about his conduct. Jesse agreed to do whatever Grant Sr. wanted. Grant said that in Jesse's place he would do as he did. The crisis was finally averted when Sir John appeared as Jesse was about to walk back to the train station and announced that Her Gracious Majesty would be pleased to have Jesse at dinner. After dinner and billiards Jesse returned to his quarters to find Sir John with a bottle of brandy. Sir John told him about life at Windsor. It seemed Victoria was always indisposed when a visitor arrived, but the newspapers were always told things had proceeded as planned. The brandy bottle was almost empty by morning.

Receptions and honors for General Grant and family continued on the Continent, when they went to Scotland, and on the Continent again. The Grants were at the Paris Exposition in May, 1878, when oldest son Fred joined them. Jesse crossed the Atlantic back home, to enter Columbia Law School in the fall. General and Mrs. Grant continued east, through Suez, India, China, and Japan.

After yet another round of receptions and dinners in Japan, and meeting the emperor, General and Mrs. Grant boarded the steamer City of Tokio in September 1879 to cross the Pacific.

Grant in China, 1879


When the Grants arrived in San Francisco on September 20th, their reception surpassed anything ever given an American anywhere in the United States. Jesse had crossed the continent to meet them, linking up with older brother Ulysses Jr. ("Buck"), out from New York. They took ship through the Golden Gate with a reception committee and boarded the Tokio.

It passed into San Francisco Bay seen, it seemed, by every citizen in and around the city. "Telegraph Hill was a living mass of human bodies," wrote a biographer, "and the heights beyond…and every pier head were covered with spectators." After the vessel docked, spectators packed Market to see the Grants and their party drive to the Palace Hotel. Snatching a moment alone with Jesse, Julia asked him not to notice if Grant's speech seemed strange; a servant on board ship had accidentally thrown his dental plate with two front teeth overboard, and he frequently whistled.

The Grants journeyed inland to Yosemite and returned to San Francisco for another round of receptions and banquets. During their stay it was rumored that Buck had become enamored of Jennie Flood, daughter of silver millionaire James Flood. If so, nothing came of it. In November 1880 Buck married Fannie Chaffee, daughter of Colorado Senator Jerome Chaffee, in New York City.

Jesse, however, seems to have formed a connection in San Francisco in 1879. He never gave details, but it is probable that at that time he met Elizabeth Chapman, daughter of San Francisco real estate figure William S. Chapman. They were married in San Francisco in September 1880.

Julia had tired of traveling and was ready to return home in 1879. Grant would have liked to see Australia, which would have meant traveling another six months and returning in spring, 1880. His political associates would also have preferred that. They were planning to get nominate Grant for a third term as president, and the timing of his return would have been better.

In San Francisco Jesse discussed the third term with Grant, who dreaded it, but would accept it. He made no efforts on his own behalf. His supporters, called "stalwarts" for their opposition to Civil Service reform, entered him at the 1880 Republican National Convention in Chicago. After multiple ballots the party nominated reform candidate James Garfield. Garfield won election narrowly, but six months after his inauguration he was shot by a disaffected stalwart. After lingering months, he died and was succeeded by Vice-President Chester A. Arthur.

Grant had spent most of his money in his world trip, but a lucky investment in Nevada Silver mines yielded several thousand dollars. Buck had a profitable law practice in New York City, and had met a Wall Street investor named Ferdinand Ward, with whom he went into partnership. General Grant and Buck invested practically all they had in the firm, which paid handsome dividends - too handsome. In spring 1884 the firm was besieged by unpaid creditors. Ferdinand Ward was the 1880's equivalent of Bernard Madoff, and had run what would nowadays be called a Ponzi scheme. The firm collapsed and Ward went to prison. General Grant at 62 was without income and had only a few hundred dollars.

About the same time Grant had unpleasant sensations in his throat. Reluctantly seeing a doctor, he learned that he had epithelial cancer, a death sentence. A professional soldier who saw thousand of men die, Grant was less concerned for himself than for Julia, who would be left destitute. Mark Twain, whom he had known for several years, urged Grant to write his memoirs and Twain would publish them.

The pains in his throat made dictating impossible for Grant, but he wrote at a pace that would be remarkable for anyone and is amazing for someone with a terminal illness. Grant had written a few articles for the Century magazine, but no one had ever considered him a literary man. His style was direct and vastly more readable than the overblown writings of most public figures in the Victorian era. His memoirs would rank among the best accounts by a military man since the Commentaries of Julius Caesar.

Grant, very ill, writes his memoirs.





The family moved Grant to a house at Mount McGregor in the Adirondacks Mountains of New York State. Jesse, his wife Elizabeth, and their daughter Nellie came, along with the other sons, their families, and Grant's daughter Nellie. Grant's misgivings about her marriage had been born out. Algernon Sartoris was a heavy drinker and philanderer, and died after the birth of their fourth child. Nellie returned to the United States, but being the wife of a British subject she had lost her citizenship and had to petition Congress to restore it.

With his family gathered around him, Grant wrote in the mornings. Jesse's wife Elizabeth would read back to him in the afternoons, while Grant made notes and corrections. The memoirs were finished in June, 1885. On July 23rd, Ulysses S. Grant died. His funeral was the largest in New York City's history. The memoirs would give Julia over $400,000 in royalties.

Jesse had dropped out of Columbia Law School after only a year, in fact he apparently never took a degree from any higher learning institution. Having somehow learned about mining, he became a free-lance mining engineer and was apparently successful. In 1888 he was in Mexico, leaving Elizabeth, daughter Nellie, and son Chapman settled in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 1889 they lived in Alameda. By 1893 they had leased a house in Piedmont, the upscale East Bay suburb, but did not stay long.

Buck's wife in New York had health problems, and he moved his family to San Diego for its congenial climate.

Buck Grant, Jesse's older brother, in California c. 1900

In October, 1893 Jesse and his family also moved to San Diego, where they rented a cottage on First Street. They bought a lot at Sixth and Quince streets and built a two-story colonial-style home for between five and six thousand dollars. Julia would come out during the winters, and stay either with Jesse, Buck, or Nellie, who had moved to Santa Barbara.



A huge crowd at the dedication of Grant's Tomb.

In 1897 the Grant family reunited for the dedication of General Grant's tomb on Riverside Drive, New York City. General Grant's remains were moved from a temporary vault to a massive neoclassical structure that was and is one of the most conspicuous on the city's west side. A huge crowd heard speeches by former President Grover Cleveland and President William McKinley.




The family sat on the front row of the speaker's stand. Jesse is at far left, unfortunately obscured by somebody's umbrella, wife Elizabeth next to him. Nellie is next to her mother Julia. The bearded man is probably the oldest son Frederick Dent Grant, although he may be Ulysses Jr.

Julia died in 1902 and was entombed next to her husband.
In San Diego, Jesse's and Buck's real estate ventures were profitable. Buck made one attempt at politics, running for the United States Senate in 1904 and losing. Jesse was rootless, never staying in one place long, leaving his wife and children.

In 1907 he tried politics himself, making a tour through Texas, Louisiana and the southwest, sounding out support for a candidacy for President of the United States on the Democratic ticket. On March 5, 1908 the New York Times reported that Jesse would challenge two-time candidate William Jennings Bryan for the Democratic nomination. You may ask, what were Jesse Grant's qualifications for the presidency? Good question! The Times reporter was plainly unimpressed with Jesse's chances, and his candidacy was practically ignored.

Bryan was nominated for the third time, and lost for the third time, to Theodore Roosevelt's successor William Howard Taft. Jesse ventured into politics indirectly in 1912 by endorsing Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson. Speaking from his home in New York in October, he compared the issues facing the country with those in 1860 when the country split over the slavery issue and made his father's career.

"As a son of the soldier who fought to uphold the principles for which Abraham Lincoln stood and as a son of a Republican president, I can see only one duty for myself - to give heartily my influence and my vote for principle and not for the name of a party long since divorced from its sympathy for the common man. Verily, I believe that the principles for which Woodrow Wilson is fighting are the principles for which my father fought, and that he (Wilson) alone among the presidential candidates measures up to the standards of courage, conscience and capacity of the leader whose hand my father helped to uphold."

Jesse's vote may have counted, but his influence would not: the Republican Party had split between incumbent Taft and third-party candidate Theodore Roosevelt, and Wilson won easily.

Jesse made headlines again in 1913. On July 23rd, in Goldfield, Nevada, where he had lived over six months, he filed for divorce against his wife of 33 years on grounds of desertion. The suit came as a surprise to Elizabeth, then living in San Francisco with her son Chapman and mother at 3701 Washington Street in Pacific Heights.

"This is the first information I have received regarding the divorce action taken by my husband. I am surprised that he should have charged me with desertion. I have never left my children nor my home, except to go with him. If there has been any desertion it is then on his part.
"You might say that the separation dates almost from the time of our marriage…since which time he has been away on mining business in many parts of the world. I have gone with him to Mexico, to New York and to many different places where he has had business interests, leading a nomadic existence…
"Mr. Grant has known that I was here. He has not seen fit to come here. It has been two years since have seen him."
Jesse's case rested on a letter written him by Elizabeth from San Diego in 1910. "I shall always treat you with respect as long as you never come nearer me than you are at this minute (Jesse was in New York)… The world is much more beautiful to me seen without the black veil of misery and hopelessness in which I last lived for a greater part of the last twenty-eight years. Through all the years we had a home in San Diego you spent the greater part in New York and my mother…has come to live with me in a tiny apartment.
"Four years ago, when I went East, you had an opportunity to reform, but did not choose to take advantage of it… I am no more to you than any of the other women you have thrown over, so please drop the subject and try to live without scandal on your father's account."

The suit failed in March, 1914 when a Goldfield, Nevada judge ruled against Jesse. Under the ruling Elizabeth continued to share in a $5,000 annuity and community property. The following June, 1914 Jesse asked Elizabeth to return to him in New York. She refused. In 1915 the supreme court of New York State granted Elizabeth's application for alimony, to continue until either party's death or divorce. Jesse tried divorce again.

In August, 1918 he got a Nevada divorce, uncontested by Elizabeth. One week later in New York, 60-year-old Jesse married 41-year-old Mrs. Lillian Burns Wilkins, a widow of Inwood, New York. The couple's residence may have been in the east, but in 1924 Lillian died.

Jesse took up the final residence of his peripatetic life, probably just after Lillian's death. For unclear reasons, possibly the cheap land and the climate, he came to Los Altos. The 1930 census and 1926 voter registration list show his address at P.O. Box 296, Fremont Road. Apparently wanting to leave memoirs like his father, Jesse wrote a biography Days of My Father General Grant, co-written by Henry Granger. Days covers Jesse's memories of the Vicksburg campaign, to 1880 when Grant failed re-nomination for the presidency. It was published in 1925 by Harper and Brothers.

The lists also show Kathryn Nielsen, born Pennsylvania 1888, occupation "housekeeper," P.O. Box 296, Fremont Road. Kathryn Nielsen was more than Jesse's housekeeper. In 1930 they bought a hillside lot and built a home at a cost of $5,663.00. A deed of trust confirms joint ownership by Jesse and Ms. Nielsen.The house, like so many others on the Peninsula, is in Mission Revival style, rambling and livable


Jesse Grant's, Los Altos Hills

Grant house, right side

Somehow it got the name Five Oaks, although there are now only four oaks and a stump on the property. Jesse Grant lived there only four years.

On June 8, 1934 he died. In death as in life, he was "General Grant's son."

The Palo Alto Times reported "U.S. GRANT'S SON DIES AT LOS ALTOS." The Chronicle reported "Grant's Last Child Expires." His three siblings had predeceased him.

Oakland Tribune, June 9, 1934, reports "Pres. Grant's Son Stricken."

Other papers had similar accounts, always U.S. Grant's son. Jesse's status regarding General Grant being "dependent," he was interred at the National Cemetery at the Presidio of San Francisco.

Kathryn married a local realtor, Lawrence Whitham. After her death in 1944 the house was sold and has had had three owners since. It has been modified, but the house and grounds retain the peacefulness that must have appealed to the restless man who spent the last years of his life there.






Jesse Grant's grave, National Cemetery, Presidio of San Francisco.

Photos of the house and grave by John & Lana Ralston








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