Chevy Chaser History: Those Clay Women

This day in history, March 18, Lucretia Hart Clay was born. To honor the birth of Lucretia Hart Clay, here is the Women’s History month article for the Chevy Chaser written by Jamie Millard and Joan Grever. Not only does it feature Lucretia, but other very important Clay women.

Those Clay Women
by Jamie Millard & Joan Grever
Originally printed in the Chevy Chaser magazine
March 04, 2010

Lexington, KY – As we begin the run up to the War of 1812 bicentennial, a lot of attention will be given to Lexington’s Henry Clay, leader of the War Hawks who embarked on the flawed adventure. Every bit as fascinating as the patriarch of the fabled family are three Clay women: a wife, a granddaughter cum daughter-in-law and a second cousin once removed.

Spanning three generation across 160 years, each Clay woman in her own way made significant contributions, not only to Lexington, but to the nation as well.

Lucretia Hart Clay (1781 – 1864), the daughter of a Continental Army Colonel, was born in Hagerstown, Md. Her father, Thomas Hart of North Carolina, was a principal in the Transylvania Company, which drove the settlement of Kentucky. The family moved to Lexington in 1795, residing in a fine house on the southwest corner of Mill and Short Streets (the structure was torn down in 1955 – an event that sparked the founding of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation).

Lucretia was considered one of Lexington’s most attractive young women. The Hart home was a social center of town, where Lucretia played the first piano in Lexington. She drew the eye of young Henry Clay, a very eligible bachelor who arrived in Lexington from Virginia in 1797 penniless, but intent on building a law practice in the growing city.

Married at age 18, Lucretia and her husband established their home, “Ashland,” just six years later. By all rights, Lucretia was very much the woman of the house, organizing the kitchen gardens and overseeing the entertainment of the leading lights of the day. Such famous visitors as the Marquis de Lafayette, President Chester A. Arthur, Vice President John C. Breckinridge, Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln, and many others either visited or stayed at the house.

Along the way, Lucretia became the mother of 11 children who, along with their tutor and 10 house slaves, comprised a small village east of Lexington. Over the years, that community suffered great sorrow. By the time of her death on April 7, 1864, at the home of her youngest child, Lucretia had buried all but four of her children.

Josephine Russell Erwin Clay (1835 – 1920) was the widow of Lucretia’s grandson Andrew Eugene Erwin, a Confederate Colonel killed during the Siege of Vicksburg. She returned to her late husband’s hometown from her family farm near Independence, Mo., in 1864. Lucretia had invited Jo, her three daughters and her mother, Zaenett Freeland Russell, to supervise the household of her youngest son, and eccentric bachelor, John Morrison Clay – a move that scandalized Lexington society. The two were married the following year, by which time Lucretia was dead and unable to witness her granddaughter-in-law becoming her daughter-in-law (perhaps an outcome she intended).

When Henry Clay died in 1852, John had inherited 200 acres of Ashland property along the Tates Creek Pike. Having managed his father’s Thoroughbred breeding program, John established Ashland Stock Farm and built “Ashland on Tates Creek Pike,” designed by famous architect Thomas Lewinski. A Union man, John fended off several attempts by Confederate John Hunt Morgan to raid his fine stock.

Upon the marriage, Jo put a stop to John’s carousing, although letters written while he was out of town document his wild streak was not entirely tamed. Jo was a Catholic, and her husband frequently attended Mass with her, having been disallowed from joining Christ Church because he “ran” horses; John noted the discrepancy that trotters were admitted, but runners denied.

Jo became a partner in the farm, having grown up around horses in Missouri. Together, they bred Day Star, Ashland’s first Kentucky Derby winner in 1878. As John aged (he was 14 years her senior), Jo took on more and more of the farm operations. Under her hand, she converted the farm from a racing stable to a breeding operation as her husband retired from the track. Jo became known as the “Horsewoman of the Bluegrass,” raising the farm’s reputation to national prominence.

Not to be a one-dimensional horsewoman, Jo was also a best-selling author of romantic novels published by Lippincott & Co. of Philadelphia. Jo died suddenly on March 29, 1920. Eventually, portions of the farm were sold off. Cassidy Elementary and Morton Middle schools stand on part of the farm, Lakewood Subdivision in Chevy Chase on another.

Laura Clay (1849-1941), the eighth of 10 children born to Cassius Marcellus and Mary Jane Warfield Clay, was definitely the child of both her parents. Mary Jane was strong willed, holding her family together while Cassius spent vast amounts of time away from home pursuing abolition, and not a few skirts. At the age of 12, Laura and her family traveled to Boston, then London, and eventually St. Petersburg, where her father served as Ambassador to Russia under President Abraham Lincoln. Returning to Kentucky to save expenses, Laura was enrolled in the Sayre Institute, cared for the wounded from the Battle of Richmond, and observed a cavalry raid led by Gen. John Hunt Morgan.

Early in 1878, her parents divorced and Laura was given a portion of the farm at White Hall, as were each of her siblings. Calling herself a “practical farmer,” Laura became known for her strong business skills. Unlike the other two Clay women, however, Laura’s national reputation was far removed from the soil – and from any man, for that matter.

Laura Clay was one of the nation’s leaders in the struggle to secure voting rights for women. She became active in the movement in her early 30s, and by 1881 was elected president of the Kentucky Woman Suffrage Association, which evolved as the Kentucky Civil Rights Association when the cause broadened to include property rights for married women and the right to practice as physicians in asylums.

Laura led the charge in the Kentucky legislature that created benefits for women and children, secured the right to vote in school board races, and helped draw up the 1890 Kentucky Constitution. Laura’s work was not confined to Kentucky. She campaigned tirelessly in a dozen other states.

Finally, the tide was turned and Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution and sent it to the states for ratification. Kentucky ratified it in January 1920, and by August of that year the right of women to vote was the law of the land. Her sole foray into electoral politics came in 1923 when she ran for the Kentucky senate. She was defeated on the divisive issue of betting at horse tracks. She died on June 29, 1941, having enjoyed just over two decades of voting.

Just three of the many Clay women (and not a few men) who helped shape the destiny of our community, Commonwealth and nation.

About Lexington History Museum

The Lexington History Museum engages all people in the discovery and interpretation of the history of Lexington, Ky., and the Bluegrass Region
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