Governor’s First Ladies in History

While praise and glory has been heaped on California governors and biographies written about them, standing behind almost every one of them was a First Lady supporting that man. 

I picked up a self-published book recently called “The First Ladies of California” written by Lynn Cook and Janet LaDue, who were docents at the state capitol. Facts in this article are extracted from that book. Like many other authors they were interested in seeing women being written back INTO state history. Here are some of the historical tidbits I found, though very little is known about some of these women. 

The first “First Lady” was Harriet Burnett, wife of the 1st governor Pete Burnett. Like many later First Ladies she traveled across the USA in a covered wagon with six kids. The state capitol at that time was in San Jose and they built a home in Alviso. 

Both the 1st and 2nd First Ladies were brides at age 17. Second governor John McDougal had a wife named Jane. She kept detailed journals of their trip by ship in 1849 and those journals have been saved to this day for a great peek into the past. She died in childbirth at age 38. Third governor John Bigler praised his wife Eliza as a “constant companion and helpmate.” 

Journalists of the time loved to write about celebrations and balls for dancing and what people wore. Mary Johnson, wife of the 4th governor J. Neeley Johnson, had the first governor’s inaugural ball in 1856, and it was described by the press in detail. She was reported to be “vivacious & charming.” John Weller, the 5th governor, chose Lizzie as his fourth wife after the first three died. Very little is known of her and after moving to New Orleans after John’s term of office her death details are unknown. 

The shortest time a First Lady ever served was five days in 1860. Sophie Latham’s husband Milton was elected to the U.S. Senate five days after taking the governors office and he wanted to be a senator. They left town. Maria Downey, wife of 7th governor John Downey, came from a distinguished early California family and was educated and refined. She died in a train wreck at age 50 in the Tehachapi Mountains but her husband survived the wreck. 

Jane Stanford, spouse of the 8th governor Leland Stanford, was wealthy enough to establish Stanford University in memory of her only child who died at age 15. She oversaw the university operations for 14 years. The Stanford Mansion in Sacramento became future governor’s home. Molly Low was wife of 9th governor Frederick Low. The press commented her hair turned white when she was of a young age and it gave her a striking appearance. She was able to travel the world when her husband retired. Anna Haight, wife of 10th governor Henry Haight, was described as a woman of “many excellent qualities.” 

The 12th governor was Remuldo Pacheco and for 11 months in 1875 Mary was First Lady. She was an author, playwright, and wrote comedies. It was noted her husband lost a fortune financing her theatrical productions. There are no photos of Amelia Irwin, wife of 13th governor William Irwin, only a painting. A description of “Mrs. Governor Irwin” exists at a ball and it is known she hosted U.S. Grant at the state capitol. 

The 14th governor, George Perkins, arrived in 1880 with seven kids and Ruth, who loved to grow flowers. Their 22-room home in Oakland had an arboretum. She was a progressive and wrote poetry published in magazines. Mary Stoneman, spouse of 15th governor George Stoneman, hated campaigning and wore eyeglasses. The family home in Pasadena burned down and she discovered George had never insured it and she left him. 

Jane Waterman, wife of 17th governor Robert Waterman, would get request letters asking her to influence her husband in granting paroles for criminals in prison. After having one child die in Sacramento Mary Markham, wife of the 18th governor Henry Markham, moved her family back to Pasadena and would only visit the capitol. 

Inez Budd, wife of the 19th governor, had no children but invented her own religion “Christ Doctrine Revealed & Astronomical Sciences Association.” The 20th First Lady, Fannie Gage, was another who married Henry Gage at age 17 and later in life hosted William McKinley and crowned heads of Europe at the capitol. The 21st governor, George Pardee, had a wife named Helen, nicknamed “Blaze,” for her red hair and flamboyant personality. She was a college graduate and a teacher. Isabelle Gillette, was wife of the 22nd governor James Gillette and was a pianist and composer. 

Hiram Johnson, the 23rd governor, had a wife, Minnie, who refused to occupy the Governor’s Mansion until pest eradicators got the bats moved out. Teddy Roosevelt visited them frequently. Flora Stephens, spouse of the 24th governor, was never well and nervous after I.W.W. radicals managed to bomb the kitchen of the mansion. First Lady Augusta Richardson, wife of the 25th leader, was called “Ma.” The press would report “And so the Governor and Ma Richardson go…” 

First Lady Lyla Young, wife of the 26th governor Clement Young, had a radio installed in the mansion and hosted Thursday Afternoon Tea that anyone in Sacramento could attend for free. And Annie Rolph, wife of 27th governor James Rolph, continued the tea tradition and was an accomplished musician. Jessie Merriman, 28th governor Frank Merriman’s partner, shunned publicity. First Lady Kate Olsen, whose hubby Culbert was the 29th governor, was a poker player and she liked to think of herself as “the powder behind the keg” influencing him. She was the only First Lady to die in the mansion. 

Earl Warren, 30th governor, had his wife Nina live to be 100 years old! She would prepare meals in the mansion kitchen for needy families and have her staff disburse them. They occupied the mansion for 10 years. Goodwin Knight, 31st governor, saw his wife Virginia at age 36 be the youngest First Lady ever. She was a former model and TV personality and she liked to research earlier First Ladies. 

Bernice Brown holds the distinction of being the only woman who was wife to the 32nd governor, Pat Brown, and mother to the 39th governor Jerry Brown. A popular public speaker she also had the first swimming pool installed in the mansion and was an avid golfer. Ronald Reagan, 33rd governor, had a wife Nancy who decided after four months that the mansion’s neighborhood was “unsafe” and moved the family across town. She fought against drug and alcohol abuse among the young. 

Gloria Deukmejian, wife of 35th governor George Deukmejian, was known for her patience and sense of humor. Gayle Wilson, spouse of 36th governor Pete Wilson, was the first First Lady to establish her own office in the capitol and focused on early childhood education. The 37th governor’s Gray Davis’ wife focused on child health, safety and wellbeing while Maria Schwarzenegger, wife of 38th governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, supported Special Olympics. She was a Democrat and her husband was a staunch Republican. 

Jerry Brown was a bachelor while the 34th governor but married to Anne during his second term and she was a business professional. There were two other bachelor governors…Newton Booth 1871-1875 and Washington Bartlett during 1867. The 40th governor, Gavin Newsome, has a wife Jennifer who suggests First Partner is a more appropriate tern for today’s governors wives. She is a documentary filmmaker. 

So there you have it — 40 quick glimpses of the strong women who stood behind their men and helped to make things happen in Sacramento. I praise their spirit.

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