Taylor Zachary

Zachary Taylor (1784 –1850), 3rd cousin 8x removed

In addition to being my 3rd cousin, 8x removed through Richard Lee (1617-1664) on his father’s side, Zachary Taylor is also my 4th cousin, 6x removed through Cornelius Dabney (1640-1694) on his mother’s side.

Zachary Taylor, 12th President of the United States

Zachary Taylor was the 12th President of the United States (1849-1850) and an American military leader.  Initially uninterested in politics, Taylor nonetheless ran as a Whig in the 1848 presidential election, defeating Lewis Cass.  He was a planter and slaveholder based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  Known as “Old Rough and Ready,” Taylor had a forty-year military career in the United States Army, serving in the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War, and the Second Seminole War.  He achieved fame leading American troops to victory in the Battle of Palo Alto and the Battle of Monterrey during the Mexican–American War.  As president, Taylor angered many Southerners by taking a moderate stance on the issue of slavery.  He urged settlers in New Mexico and California to bypass the territorial stage and draft constitutions for statehood, setting the stage for the Compromise of 1850.  Taylor died just 16 months into his term.  Only Presidents William Henry Harrison and James Garfield served less time.  He is thought to have died of gastroenteritis. President Taylor was succeeded by his Vice President, Millard Fillmore (1800 –1874), my 7th cousin 5x removed.

Taylor was the last President to own slaves while in office.  He was the second of three Whig presidents, the last being Fillmore.  Taylor was also the second president to die in office, preceded by William Henry Harrison who died while serving as President nine years earlier, as well as the only President elected from Louisiana.


Military career

On 3 May 1808, Taylor joined the U.S. Army, receiving a commission as a first lieutenant of the Seventh Infantry Regiment.  He was promoted to captain in November 1810.  His army duties were limited at this time, and he attended to his personal finances.  Over the next several years, he would begin to purchase slaves and a good deal of bank stock in Louisville.  In July 1811 he was called to the Indiana Territory, where he assumed control of Fort Knox after the commandant fled.  In only a few weeks, he was able to restore order in the garrison, for which he was lauded by Governor William Henry Harrison.  During the War of 1812, Taylor successfully defended Fort Harrison in Indiana Territory from an attack by Indians under the command of the Shawnee chief Tecumseh.  Taylor gained recognition and received a brevet (temporary) promotion to the rank of major.  Later that year he joined General Samuel Hopkins as an aide on two expeditions: the first into the Illinois Territory, and the second to the Tippecanoe battle site, where they were forced to retreat in the Battle of Wild Cat Creek.  Taylor moved his growing family to Fort Knox after the violence subsided.  In spring 1814, he was called back into action under Brigadier General Benjamin Howard.  That October he supervised the construction of Fort Johnson under his command, the last toehold of the U.S. Army in the upper Mississippi River Valley.  Upon Howard’s death a few weeks later, Taylor was ordered to abandon the fort and retreat to Saint Louis.  Reduced to the rank of captain when the war ended in 1814, he resigned from the army.  He re-entered it a year later after gaining a commission as a major. 

For two years, Taylor commanded Fort Howard at the Green Bay settlement.  In April 1819 he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel.  In late 1821, Taylor took the 7th Infantry to Natchitoches, Louisiana, on the Red River.  On the orders of General Edmund P. Gaines, they set out to locate a new post more convenient to the Sabine River frontier.  By the following March, Taylor had established Fort Jesup, at the Shield’s Spring site southwest of Natchitoches.  That November he was transferred to Fort Robertson at Baton Rouge, where he remained until February 1824.  He spent the next few years on recruiting duty.  In late 1826 he was called to Washington, D.C., to work on an Army committee to consolidate and improve military organization.  In the meantime he acquired his first Louisiana plantation and decided to move with his family to Baton Rouge as their home.  In May 1828 Taylor was called back to action, commanding Fort Snelling in Minnesota on the northern Mississippi River for a year, and nearby Fort Crawford for a year.  After some time on furlough, when he expanded his landholdings, Taylor was promoted to colonel of the 1st Infantry Regiment in April 1832.  At that time, the Black Hawk War was beginning in the West. Taylor campaigned under General Henry Atkinson to pursue and later, defend against Chief Black Hawk’s forces throughout the summer.  The end of the war in August 1832 signaled the end of Indian resistance to U.S. expansion in the area, and the following years were relatively quiet.  

During this period Taylor resisted the courtship of his 17-year-old daughter Sarah Knox Taylor and Lieutenant Jefferson Davis.  He respected Davis but did not approve of his daughter’s becoming a military wife, as he knew it was a hard life for families.  Davis and Sarah Taylor married in June 1835, but she died three months later of malaria contracted on a summer visit to Davis’ sister in St. Francisville, Louisiana. 

By 1837, the Second Seminole War was underway when Taylor was directed to Florida.  He defeated the Seminole Indians in the Christmas Day Battle of Lake Okeechobee, which was among the largest U.S.–Indian battles of the nineteenth century.  He was promoted to brigadier general in recognition of his success.  In May 1838, Brig. Gen. Thomas Jesup stepped down and placed Taylor in command of all American troops in Florida, a position he held for two years.  His reputation as a military leader was growing, and with it, he began to be known as “Old Rough and Ready.  After his long-requested relief was granted, Taylor spent a comfortable year touring the nation with his family and meeting with military leaders.  During this period, he began to be interested in politics and corresponded with President William Henry Harrison.  He was made commander of the Second Department of the Army’s Western Division in May 1841.  The sizable territory ran from the Mississippi River westward, south of the 37th parallel north.  Stationed in Arkansas, Taylor enjoyed several uneventful years, spending as much time attending to his land speculation as to military matters.

In anticipation of the annexation of the Republic of Texas, which had established independence in 1836, Taylor was sent in April 1844 to Fort Jesup in Louisiana.  He was ordered to guard against any attempts by Mexico to reclaim the territory.  He served there until July 1845, when annexation became imminent, and President James K. Polk directed him to deploy into disputed territory in Texas, “on or near the Rio Grande” near Mexico.  Taylor chose a spot at Corpus Christi, and his Army of Occupation encamped there until the following spring in anticipation of a Mexican attack.  Taylor’s men advanced to the Rio Grande in March 1846.  Polk’s attempts to negotiate with Mexico had failed, and war appeared imminent.  Violence broke out several weeks later, when some of Captain Seth B. Thornton’s men were attacked by Mexican forces near the river.  Polk, learning of the Thornton Affair, told Congress in May that a war between Mexico and the United States had begun.  That same month, Taylor commanded American forces at the Battle of Palo Alto and the nearby Battle of Resaca de la Palma, defeating the Mexican forces, which greatly outnumbered his own.  These victories made him a popular hero, and within weeks he received a brevet promotion to major general and a formal commendation from Congress.  The national press compared him to George Washington and Andrew Jackson, both generals who had ascended to the presidency, although Taylor denied any interest in running for office.  “Such an idea never entered my head,” he remarked in a letter, “nor is it likely to enter the head of any sane person.” 

The Battle of Buena Vista occured on 23 Feb 1847. The slaughter on both the Mexican and American sides was fearful. Near sunset, the Mexican leader, performing the pitiful trick of displaying a flag of truce to throw Taylor off his guard, made a desperate assault on the American center. The batteries of Bragg, Washington, and Sherman resisted the assault, and before long the Mexican line began to waver. Taylor, standing near one of the batteries, seeing this sign of weakness, said memorably, “Give ’em a little more grape, Captain (later General) Bragg “. It was done, and just at twilight the Mexicans gave way and fled in considerable confusion. Night closed the battle. Expecting it would be resumed in the morning, the Americans slept on their arms, but when the day dawned no enemy was to be seen.

In September, Taylor inflicted heavy casualties upon the Mexican defenders at the Battle of Monterrey.  The city of Monterrey had been considered “impregnable”, but was captured in three days, forcing Mexican forces to retreat.  Taylor was criticized for signing a “liberal” truce, rather than pressing for a large-scale surrender.  Afterwards, half of Taylor’s army was ordered to join General Winfield Scott’s soldiers as they besieged Veracruz.  Mexican General Antonio López de Santa Anna discovered, through an intercepted letter from Scott, that Taylor had contributed all but 6,000 of his men to the effort.  His remaining force included only a few hundred regular army soldiers, and Santa Anna resolved to take advantage of the situation.  Santa Anna attacked Taylor with 20,000 men at the Battle of Buena Vista in February 1847, inflicting around 600 American casualties at a cost of over 1,800 Mexican.  Outmatched, the Mexican forces retreated, ensuring a victory for the Americans.  Taylor remained at Monterrey until late November 1847, when he set sail for home.  While he would spend the following year in command of the Army’s entire western division, his active military career was over.  In December he received a hero’s welcome in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and his popular legacy set the stage for the 1848 presidential election.


Election of 1848 and Presidency

In his capacity as a career officer, Taylor had never reportedly revealed his political beliefs before 1848, nor voted before that time.  He thought of himself as an independent, believing in a strong and sound banking system for the country, and thought that Andrew Jackson should not have allowed the Second Bank of the United States to collapse in 1836.  He believed it was impractical to talk about expanding slavery into the western areas of the United States, as he concluded that neither cotton nor sugar (both were produced in great quantities as a result of slavery) could be easily grown there through a plantation economy.  He was also a firm nationalist, and due to his experience of seeing many people die as a result of warfare, he believed that secession was not a good way to resolve national problems.  Taylor, although he did not agree with their stand on protective tariffs and expensive internal improvements, aligned himself with Whig Party governing policies, i.e. the President should not be able to veto a law, unless that law was against the Constitution of the United States; the office should not interfere with Congress, and that the power of collective decision-making, as well as the Cabinet, should be strong.

Well before the American victory at Buena Vista, political clubs were formed which supported Taylor for President.  His support was drawn from an unusually broad assortment of political bands, including Whigs and Democrats, Northerners and Southerners, allies and opponents of national leaders such as Henry Clay and James K. Polk.  By late 1846 Taylor’s opposition to a presidential run began to weaken, and it became clear that his principles more closely resembled Whig orthodoxy.  Still, he maintained that he would only accept election as a national, independent figure, rather than a partisan loyalist.  Taylor declared, as the 1848 Whig Party convention approached, that he had always been a Whig in principle, but he did consider himself a Jeffersonian-Democrat.  Many southerners believed that Taylor supported slavery and its expansion into the new territory absorbed from Mexico, and some were angered when Taylor suggested that if he were elected President he would not veto the Wilmot Proviso, which proposed against such an expansion.  This position did not enhance his support from activist antislavery elements in the Northern United States, as these wanted Taylor to speak out strongly in support of the Proviso, not simply fail to veto it.  Most abolitionists did not support Taylor, since he was a slave-owner.  Many southerners also knew that Taylor supported states’ rights, and was opposed to protective tariffs and government spending for internal improvements.  The Whigs hoped that he put the federal union of the United States above all else.

Taylor/Fillmore campaign poster from the Presidential election of 1848

Taylor received the Whig nomination for President in 1848.  Millard Fillmore of Cayuga County, New York was chosen as the Vice Presidential nominee.  His homespun ways and his status as a war hero were political assets.  Taylor defeated Lewis Cass, the Democratic candidate, and Martin Van Buren, the Free Soil candidate.  Taylor was the last Southerner to be elected president until Woodrow Wilson 64 years later in 1912.

Although Taylor had subscribed to Whig principles of legislative leadership, as President he was not inclined to be a puppet of Whig leaders in Congress.  He ran his administration in the same rule-of-thumb fashion with which he had fought Native Americans.  Under Taylor’s administration, the United States Department of the Interior was organized, although the legislation authorizing the Department had been approved on President Polk’s last day in office.  He appointed former Treasury Secretary Thomas Ewing the first Secretary of the Interior.

The dominant issue of American politics in the 1840s was whether slavery would be permitted in the western territories of the United States.  By the time Taylor took office as President, debate between extreme pro and antislavery viewpoints had become very pronounced.   In 1849, Taylor advised the inhabitants of California, among whom he wanted to include the Mormons near Salt Lake City and the inhabitants of New Mexico, to establish constitutions and apply for statehood, correctly predicting that these constitutions would outlaw slavery.  Taylor urged Congress to admit the two states when they presented their constitutions, rather than first establishing them as territories, as he expected the latter approach would cause a debate in Congress that would revive the dangerous conflict between pro and antislavery sections of the country.

Taylor and his Secretary of State, John M. Clayton, lacked experience in foreign affairs.  His administration attempted to stop a filibustering expedition against Cuba, argued with France and Portugal over reparation disputes owed to the United States, supported German liberals during the revolutions of 1848, confronted Spain – which had arrested several Americans on the charge of piracy – and assisted the United Kingdom’s search for a team of British explorers who had gotten lost in the Arctic.  The United States met British opposition to its plans to construct a canal across Nicaragua, with the British argued they held a special status in neighboring Honduras.  In what has been described as Taylor’s “most important foreign policy move”, negotiations were held with Britain that resulted in a “landmark agreement”: the Clayton–Bulwer Treaty.  Both nations agreed not to claim control of any canal that might be built in Nicaragua.  The treaty promoted development of an Anglo-American alliance, and its completion was Taylor’s last act of state.  Due in part to the length of his presidency, he is one of only four presidents who did not have an opportunity to nominate a judge to serve on the Supreme Court.


Compromise of 1850

The slavery issue dominated Taylor’s short time in office.  Although a major slaveholder in Louisiana, he took a moderate stance on the territorial expansion of slavery.  This angered fellow Southerners.  He said that, if necessary to enforce the laws, he personally would lead the Army.  Persons “taken in rebellion against the Union, he would hang… with less reluctance than he had hanged deserters and spies in Mexico.”  He never wavered.  Henry Clay proposed a complex Compromise of 1850, but Taylor died as it was being debated.  The Clay version failed but another version passed under the new president, Millard Fillmore.


Taylor’s mausoleum at the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky

Death and Legacy

The cause of Zachary Taylor’s death has not been fully established.  On 4 Jul 1850, Taylor was known to have consumed copious amounts of iced water, cold milk, green apples and cherries after attending holiday celebrations and the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument.  Within several days, he became severely ill with an unknown digestive ailment, and he died on 9 Jul 1850.  Contemporary reports listed the cause of death as “bilious diarrhea, or a bilious cholera”.  Scholars now believe it was a kind of severe gastroenteritis.  In the late 1980s, Clara Rising, a former professor at University of Florida, hypothesized that Taylor was murdered by poison.  She persuaded Taylor’s closest living relative, who was also the coroner of Jefferson County, Kentucky, to order an exhumation so that his remains could be tested.  The remains were exhumed and transported to the Office of the Kentucky Chief Medical Examiner on 17 Jun 1991.  Samples of hair, fingernail and other tissues were removed, and radiological studies were conducted.  The remains were later reinterred with appropriate honors.  Analysis conducted at Oak Ridge National Laboratory revealed no evidence of poisoning, as arsenic levels were too low.  The analysis concluded he had contracted “cholera morbus, or acute gastroenteritis”, as Washington had open sewers, and his food or drink may have been contaminated.  Any potential for recovery was overwhelmed by his doctors, who treated him with “ipecac, calomel, opium and quinine (at 40 grains a whack), and bled and blistered him too.”  Despite the 1991 forensic findings, some writers promote assassination theories, but they do not represent academic consensus.

Because of his short tenure, Taylor is not considered to have strongly influenced the office of the Presidency or the United States.

Zachary Taylor (1784 – 1850), 4th cousin 6x removed – Sarah Dabney Strother (1760 – 1822) – William Dabney Strother (1726 – 1808) – Susannah Dabney (1698 – 1752) – John Dabney (1665 – 1699) – Cornelius Dabney (1631 – 1694) – Cornelius Dabney (1675 – 1765) – John Cornelius Dabney (1724 – 1773) – Sarah Ann Dabney (1740 – 1822) – Dabney Waller (1772 – 1849) – Elizabeth Dabney Waller (1808 – 1881) – Jacintha Ann Pollard (1833 – ) – Elizabeth Minor Hancock (1850 – 1928) – Seddie Gunnell (1875 – 1946) – Elizabeth Gunnell Hamlin (1901 – 1982) – Tor Martin Hylbom (1939 – 2009) – Tor Martin (Majerus) Hylbom

Zachary  Taylor (1784 – 1850), 3rd cousin 8x removed – Richard Taylor (1744 – 1829) – Elizabeth Lee (1709 – 1750) – Hancock Lee (1653 – 1709) –  Richard Lee I (1617 – 1664) – Anne Lee (1654 – 1701) – Penelope Ann Youell (1670 – 1703) – Patrick Spence (1693 – 1740) – Jemima Spence (1730 – 1786) – John Suggett (1751 – 1834) – Elizabeth Betsey Suggett (1782 – 1857) – Marion Wallace Thomson (1821 – 1896) – Allen Thomson Gunnell (1848 – 1907) – Seddie Gunnell (1875 – 1946) – and continuing as above through – Tor Martin (Majerus) Hylbom



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