Susan Jacob Clay: Ashland as a Place of Joy and Sorrow

YOU ARE HERE -> 1843-1866

Susan (Susannah) Maria Jacob Clay is one of the most important figures in Ashland’s history.  As Henry Clay’s daughter-in-law, she had lived with and was very close to Clay, and after his death served as family historian and Ashland’s mistress.  Ashland became a place of both great joys and great sorrows for her.

Susan Jacob, highly-educated daughter of wealthy Louisville banker John I. Jacob and Lucy Donald Robertson, married Henry Clay’s son James on October 12, 1843.   Susan had attended school in New York and had studied harp, pianoforte, guitar, and languages.

After Susan and James married, they lived with Henry and Lucretia for three years at Ashland while their new Lexington home was completed: Clay Villa.

Clay Villa. From Vestiges of the Venerable City, 1978; Clay Lancaster.
1941 photograph of Clay Villa. Clay Lancaster.

Susan brought great intelligence, stability, and order to James’s life.  Susan was also a favorite of Henry Clay’s; he admired her mind and attentiveness.  She acted as amanuensis for Clay in his later years, writing speeches, letters, and documents dictated by him. At Ashland today, one can see her letter box.  After Henry Clay died, Susan took on the role of family historian, shielding Henry Clay’s memory from occasional posthumous attack, and promoting his legacy.

When James was appointed  Charge’ d’Affaires to Portugal, Susan accompanied him there (1849-51), rubbing beautifully-dressed elbows with dignitaries and royalty and enjoying the art and culture of Europe.  Susan returned to Ashland to give birth to their fifth child, Lucretia, in the summer of 1851.

They had purchased property in Missouri  in 1851 and had intended to live at their estate outside of St. Louis, Oak Hall, for the long term, but Henry Clay’s death in the summer of 1852, brought them back to Lexington.  James purchased Ashland when his mother put it up for sale, but they lived in the mansion with Lucretia until John’s home at Ashland-on-Tate’s-Creek was ready for her.

Susan, James, and their children moved out of Ashland while it was razed and rebuilt (1854-57).   Early in 1857, they moved into the brand new mansion.  Susan had been an integral part of Ashland’s reincarnation and now would open the mansion to the public, giving tours to visitors, speaking eloquently of her father-in-law.

Ashland c1857. Susan is thought to be woman in white dress.

Susan bore ten children over twenty years of marriage.   Although half of the children were born at Ashland, all ten of them lived there: Lucy (1844), James “Jimmy” (1846), John (1848), Henry “Harry” (1849), Lucretia “TeeTee” (1851), Thomas “Tommy” (1853), Susan “Sukie” (1855), Charles (1857), George (1858) and Nathaniel (1861).

Their first child and last four children were born at Ashland.  And Lucy, Sukie, and Nathaniel also died at Ashland: Nathaniel as a one-year-old in 1862 and Lucy and Sukie both of diphtheria in 1863.

James, Susan, and some of their children on front porch at Ashland, c1860. From left to right: Susan, probably Tommy, family dog, James, probably Charles, probably Susan (Sukie), and probably Lucretia (TeeTee).

The Civil War was a time of great tragedy for Susan.  As Dr. Lindsey Apple observes, “The war cast deep shadows over Susan’s antebellum dreams.”  Not only did three of her children die during that time, her husband fled to avoid capture by Union forces and she dealt with his absence for well over a year before joining him at his deathbed in Montreal.   In the fall of 1862, with James gone, she had dealt with the skirmish on the Ashland grounds, keeping her children safe within the house and tending to the wounded.  See Civil War at Ashland’s Door.

At the end of the war and recently widowed, Susan could no longer afford and maintain Ashland and, with great regret, was forced to sell the estate in 1866.  Due to cash-flow problems, she also had to sell many of the furnishings – and to add to her sorrows, some family heirlooms were auctioned off by mistake.

Balgowen, was located near today's Calumet Farms entrance. From Cautious Rebel: A Biography of Susan Clay Sawitzky, 1997; Lindsey Apple.

After living with relatives and in rented quarters for years, she was able to buy a farm four miles west of Lexington, which she called Balgowen, and lived out the rest of her life there.  But she would always pine for Ashland.

All of the trials she had faced, as well as a strong religious faith, had made Susan Jacob Clay the strong matriarch of her family.  She died in 1905 at the age of 82.

Susan Jacob Clay (1823-1905)

For more about Susan, see The Family Legacy of Henry Clay: In The Shadow of  Kentucky Patriarch by Lindsey Apple.

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