Meet the Women of Ashland

Lucretia Hart Clay
Henry and Lucretia Clay on their 50th wedding anniversary.
Letter from Lucretia in defense of her son James tearing down the original Ashland (Louisville Journal)

Lucretia Hart Clay

Lucretia Hart was born March 18, 1781 to Thomas Hart and Susannah Gray in Hagerstown, Maryland. Lucretia was well educated in Hagerstown until 1794 when her father moved the family to Lexington, Kentucky where she finished her education. The Harts lived at in a home at what is today the corner of Mill and Second Streets.

Lucretia Hart and Henry Clay were married on April 11, 1799 at her parents’ home. Shortly thereafter, they moved into a home next door. They lived in that home for about seven years before moving to Ashland around 1807.

Lucretia birthed eleven children and buried eight of them. She relied on her faith to get her through the difficult times in her life. According to Lucretia’s family and friends, she preferred caring for her children and home over other roles and did so very well. Women in Lucretia’s social sphere were expected to care for the home and serve as the moral anchor for the family. Later in life, Lucretia also raised some of her grandchildren.

Lucretia was also supportive of her husband and his career. She traveled regularly to Washington, D.C. with him until her last daughter died in 1835. She also hosted several events for Henry. She and Dolley Madison alternated throwing weekly parties. When she did not travel to Washington, Lucretia managed the estate and served as a point of communication between Henry and his overseers and sons who managed the farm. As manager of the estate, Lucretia also managed the people she and Henry enslaved. She assigned work, meted out punishments, and participated in the buying and selling of enslaved people.

After her husband’s death in 1852, Lucretia went to live with her son John at his home on the other side of the Ashland estate. She died there on April 6, 1864 at the age of 83. She was interred with her husband at the Lexington Cemetery. Lucretia left behind a very scant record of herself: just a few letters to her husband, a will, and a letter published in many newspapers in response to criticism of her son James’ decision to tear down and rebuild the mansion at Ashland. It demonstrates how far she, a very private person, was willing go outside her comfort zone to protect her family.

Lotty's document of sale from James Condon to Henry Clay. Courtesy of the National Archives.
Decatur house c. 1822.
Decatur house slave quarters.
Petition to the court from Robert Beale, Lotty's lawyer, asking the Judges to bring Henry Clay to court. Courtesy of the National Archives.
Document summoning Henry Clay to court to answer Lotty's petition for freedom. Courtesy of the National Archives.
Emancipation document for Lotty and Mary Anne.

Charlotte “Lotty” Dupuy

Charlotte Dupuycalled Lotty, was born on the Eastern Shore of Maryland about 1788 to parents by the last name of Stanley. Her enslaver from birth, Daniel Parker, sold her to James Condon when she was 7 years-old for $100. Condon moved to Lexington, Kentucky and hired out Charlotte to a tailor. While working there she met Aaron Dupuy, a man enslaved to Henry Clay who was hired out to work in a nail factory. She married Aaron and in 1806, Lotty convinced Condon to sell her to Henry Clay so she could be with her husband. Clay purchased her from Condon for $450. Charlotte worked in the home as a cook, housekeeper, and caretaker to Henry Clay’s children. She and Aaron had two children, Charles and Mary Anne 

In 1825 Henry Clay became Secretary of State and two years later took residence in the Decatur House. The Dupuys came along with his family. In 1829, Charlotte sued Henry Clay seeking her freedom and that of her children. Her primary basis for the suit were that her mother was free when she was born, making her and her children free; and James Condon had promised her freedom for long and faithful service. Both Clay and Condon denied that any such promise was carried over after her purchase by Clay. 

Clay left Washington, D.C. for Lexington with the rest of the Dupuy family. The court ordered that while the matter proceeded, Charlotte must remain in Washington. During this time she served Secretary of State, Martin Van Buren. The case was very thoroughly investigated and went to trial. Unfortunately for Charlotte, the court found she had no rightful claim to her freedom or that of her children. When told to return to Ashland, Charlotte refused and was jailed as a result. Clay approved of this action and later sent Charlotte to New Orleans to care for his son-in-law Martin Duralde and later his daughter Anne Clay Erwin there. She was separated from her family for about 3.5 years. 

Charlotte and her daughter Mary Anne were emancipated in 1840 and Charles was freed in 1844. There is no official documentation from the Clay family freeing Aaron, though the 1860 census (see image above with Aaron’s bio) shows him and Lotty as free people living in Lexington with a man named Coleman and a William Dupuy (possibly a grandson). If he did remain enslaved after 1860, he was freed via constitutional amendment in 1865Charlotte resided with Aaron at Ashland or Ashland on Tates Creek (Henry Clay’s son John’s home) as far as is known until 1860, at which time they seem to have moved to live with Coleman. In the following years, it appears that they moved back to Ashland on Tates Creek, as Aaron died there in 1866. The 1870 census shows Lotty had remarried to a man named John Thomas. Nothing about Thomas is known nor is Charlotte’s date of death or place of burial. 

Though we have no image of Sally Hall, we do have a pair of her black stockings.
Sally Hall's receipt for work from 1804 to March 1, 1838.
Sally Hall's will

Sarah “Sally” Hall

Sarah Hall was born in Hull, England in either 1761 or 1770 and immigrated to Virginia with her brothers Thomas, Joseph, and Robert. They later relocated to Bourbon County, KY. In 1804, Sarah was hired as a housekeeper by Lucretia and she moved into their home in Lexington. She came with them to Ashland and served as housekeeper for over 50 years. She never married or had children. As a working-class woman without a spouse, housekeeping was one of the few acceptable means of earning a living. It also provided a home for her as it would have been considered unacceptable for a woman to live by herself.

As housekeeper, Sally would have managed the people enslaved to work in the house. Like the overseers on the farm, she might have punished or rewarded them. She would have worked for Lucretia who would have determined how the house was to be managed. Sally was paid for her work, although not regularly. In February of 1838 she received a lump sum payment for work from 1804 until March 1, 1838. Sally apparently made enough money to lend it to members of the Clay family. Henry Clay had a codicil to his will directing repayment of an $800 note due Sally by his son-in-law James Erwin.

After Henry Clay died, Lucretia took Sally to her son John’s home, Ashland-on-Tates-Creek. She lived there the remainder of her life and died on September 2, 1854 of paralysis (perhaps a stroke). Henry Clay’s son Thomas arranged for her funeral and she was buried in the Old Episcopal Burying Ground in Lexington.

Susan Jacob Clay
Bible given to Susan by Henry & Lucretia.
Susan's letter box.

Susan Jacob Clay

Susan Jacob Clay was the second mistress of Ashland and like her mother-in-law Lucretia, was born in the era in which women were confined by societal norms to the domestic sphere. Susan was intelligent, well-educated, and from a wealthy Louisville family. Against her father’s approval, she married James B. Clay in 1843 and they were married for twenty years, eventually having ten children, of whom they buried five.

Susan’s intelligence is best recorded in her writing.  Her father-in-law Henry Clay enjoyed conversing with her and she served at times as his personal secretary. Later in life she became a prolific author, penning many articles on the family and other topics some of which were published in national media. Some of the articles she wrote on Henry Clay unfortunately altered his legacy by obliterating or sanitizing difficult subjects that did not reflect positively on him such as slavery.

Susan and James rebuilt the Ashland mansion after Henry Clay’s death, completing it between 1856-1857. It was Susan’s strength and resolve that ensured her family’s survival during its darkest hour: the Civil War. James fled to Montreal, Canada during the war, leaving Susan to care for the estate, their children, and the aftermath of a skirmish on the grounds in 1862. She and the children eventually joined him in Montreal, but he died there in 1864 leaving Susan with many difficult decisions to make. After the war, she sold the family estate to deal with financial difficulties and to escape the family tragedy there. Like other women in the Clay family, war forced Susan to be more independent and take greater control of her life.

Susan faced more tragedy and adversity in her home and family than many of the Clays. She met those challenges with keen intelligence, a deep and abiding faith, and tremendous inner strength. Through these qualities she managed to ensure her family’s survival and shape the Clay legacy for future generations.

Josephine Russell Erwin Clay, circa 1853
Josephine's catalog of horses in 1903
Josephine (far right) visiting her horses in her characteristic floppy straw hat
Josephine with her daughters and sons-in-law at Ashland on Tate's Creek, the home she and John shared

Josephine Russell Erwin Clay

Though Josephine Russell Erwin Clay never resided at Ashland, she had a profound impact on the family by marrying into two generations and running the horse farm.

Josephine’s first husband, Henry Clay’s grandson, Eugene Erwin was killed in action in the Civil War in 1863 leaving her a Confederate widow in Union occupied Independence, Missouri. Losing a spouse is never easy for anyone, but for women in the early 19th century, it was especially devastating. Widows had little chance to find work to support themselves or their families. Josephine had three children and needed help to survive. She eventually came to Lexington, Kentucky to be housekeeper for Henry Clay’s son John whom she married a few years later. He was a very successful Thoroughbred breeder and racer and Josephine became his business partner. When John died, Josephine took over the horse business vowing “to do my best and to rely absolutely on myself—to paddle my own canoe; and if the craft went down to sink with her.” Josephine was ultimately very successful and respected in her own right in the male dominated equine industry, paving the way for women to be involved in the industry today.

Later in life, Josephine found a new voice through a series of novels she paid to publish based on her experiences and ideas. She also gathered many family artifacts and stories and made sure her daughters and their children, not their spouses, would inherit them. Her efforts ensured that many of these artifacts survived. They make up a large part of the legacy of Henry Clay today.

Josephine’s obituary said she was “perhaps the most remarkable woman of her generation, a writer of poetry and prose, a successful business woman, fearless and intrepid in spirit, brilliant in mind and admired for beauty, wit and all the womanly graces as well.” Clearly Josephine’s impact was great on many levels.

Anne Clay McDowell, circa 1890s
Anne (seated far left) and Major McDowell often hosted dinner parties where the family could reconcile after the Civil War
Ashland during the McDowell era

Dinner party photo courtesy of the University of Kentucky Libraries Department of Special Collections and Digital Projects.

Anne Clay McDowell

By 1882, Ashland had suffered a great deal and was in a perilous state. Between the Civil War and subsequent 12-year use as a college campus, the estate was run down and in need of serious help. It was also for sale. Henry Clay’s granddaughter Anne Clay McDowell stepped into this situation seeking to return the family home place to its former glory and to rise from her own personal misfortunes. In the process, Anne also helped heal family wounds and restore unity to a divided house.

Like many in the Clay story, Anne’s life was defined by loss and changed by war. Her mother died when she was three and her father was killed in the Mexican War when she was ten. Both of her sisters also died in infancy. When the Civil War came, both her brothers went off to fight, one for the Union and one for the Confederacy. After enduring a year and a half of worry that they might meet on the battlefield, she lost both to disease. After the war, Anne and her husband Henry Clay McDowell raised their seven children on a farm in Franklin County, KY. In 1881 disaster struck again when Anne’s youngest child died of severe burns from a fireplace accident in the family home.

When Henry Clay McDowell bought Ashland in 1882, he did so in no small part so his wife could restart her life in the family home. Anne’s efforts returned the estate to its former place atop Lexington Society. She also sought to enhance Henry Clay’s presence in the home and its status as a monument to him by acquiring important artifacts and displaying them. Having felt the pain of family being ripped apart by the Civil War, she also used the home as a place where the family could reunite, share their legacy, and heal old wounds. Her efforts paved the way for her daughter Nannette to take the necessary steps to preserve Ashland in perpetuity.

Magdalen Harvey McDowell, or "Aunt Mag"
Aunt Mag drew this sketch of a child
House at 325 Linden Walk, Lexington, KY designed by Aunt Mag
Aunt Mag's patent for a device that could heat multiple rooms with one fireplace

The drawing of the child and the patent are from the HCMF Papers University of Kentucky Libraries Department of Special Collections and Digital Projects. The Linden Walk property photo is courtesy of the Fayette County PVA.

Magdalen Harvey “Aunt Mag” McDowell

Magdalen Harvey McDowell (Anne Clay McDowell’s sister-in-law), also called Aunt Mag, lived at Ashland from 1883-1918.  Unlike many women of her time, she was completely independent by choice. She never married or had children nor was she ever employed in domestic service. Her sheer determination and the privilege of her family insured she succeeded in ways very few women of her time did. Her obituary noted that she “in a day [when a] woman’s sphere was thought to be confined to the drawing room, the kitchen and the nursery, [she] sought an outlet for her genius in painting, architecture, [and] kindred activities.”

Aunt Mag was educated but not trained in any of the fields in which she worked. She was most prodigious as an artist, painting a wide range of subjects with incredible skill. Several of her works are in Ashland’s collection and in other museums as well. Aunt Mag also excelled as an architect and designed several buildings, including homes for many family members and a children’s facility for the Lexington tuberculosis hospital. A few houses she designed still stand. Most remarkably perhaps, she invented a device to heat multiple rooms with a single fireplace and received a patent for it.

The most important legacy of Aunt Mag was not her art, architecture, or invention; it was encouraging her three nieces Nannette, Madeline, and Julia McDowell to find their voices. Aunt Mag showed them that they could be their own persons and accomplish great things. They used her example to move beyond the domestic sphere and be self-defined, providing important service to their community.

Nannette McDowell Bullock
Henry Clay Memorial Foundation Articles of Incorporation--Created by Nannette McDowell Bullock in 1926
Clipping from newspaper about Nannette running for School Superintendent

Newspaper article courtesy of the HCMF Papers University of Kentucky Libraries Department of Special Collections and Digital Projects.

Nannette “Nettie” McDowell Bullock

Nannette McDowell Bullock was Ashland fourth and final mistress. She originally moved to Ashland with her family in 1882, and returned in 1903 with her husband and son to take care of her ailing mother, Anne Clay McDowell. Her father had died and left the Ashland estate in trust to Nannette and her siblings. Around the time Nannette came home, the family began to contemplate development of the western end of the farm because the city had grown out to its edge. By 1920, the first houses were being built on the property and Nannette became concerned about the future of the mansion and surrounding acreage. In 1926, with the aid of a lawyer friend, she created the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation to own and operate the mansion and surrounding land as a park and monument to her great-grandfather Henry Clay and sister Madeline, a suffragist and reformer. Despite Nannette’s best efforts, no money could be found, and the foundation lay dormant until she died and her will funded it. Ashland’s story and history exist today because Nannette had the foresight and will to preserve the family legacy.

While never as outgoing or active as her sister Madge, Nannette did support many of the same progressive causes. For example, in 1913 Nannette ran for school superintendent. She did not do this because she wanted the job, but because women were being denied the right to vote for it as provided by state law. Once that right was secured in a lawsuit, Nannette dropped out of the race.

When Lucretia Hart Clay moved to the Ashland estate the sphere in which she lived was largely defined by the walls of the mansion on the property. By the time her great-granddaughter Nannette returned to the estate a century later, she had much greater freedom, independence, and a sphere whose boundaries were far wider. She used these opportunities to accomplish important things for her family and community.

Madeline "Madge" McDowell Breckinridge
The Lincoln School not only made it possible for lower income children to receive an education, it also served as a community resource center
Madge, second from right, looks over the shoulder of Governor Morrow as the 19th Amendment is ratified in Kentucky--January 8, 1920

Lincoln School photo courtesy of the University of Kentucky Libraries Department of Special Collections and Digital Projects. Governor Morrow photo courtesy of the Kentucky Historical Society.

Madeline “Madge” McDowell Breckinridge

Madeline McDowell was born on May 20, 1872 into two of Kentucky’s great families. She was the great-granddaughter of Henry Clay, the most famous Kentuckian of the 19th century and the great-great niece of Ephraim McDowell, the famous surgeon. Being part of these families gave her prestige.  Her family’s wealth gave Madge, as she was often called, opportunities beyond the reach of many women. Those included substantial education and social connections. Madge also benefitted from the support and camaraderie of her sisters Nannette and Julia.

Madge’s activities in the community were widely varied and her goal was to do as much good as possible in whatever time she had. She worked to provide educational opportunities and community development to poor and working-class areas by establishing the Lincoln School. She fought for the rights and advancement of African Americans. She extolled the benefits of fresh air and creating parks for outdoor recreation. She also created or led many organizations engaged in bettering society.

Of all the causes and projects for which Madeline McDowell Breckinridge fought, none was as near or dear to her as woman suffrage. She dedicated most of her adult life to obtaining the right to vote for women and was tireless in her pursuit. She wrote voluminously, spoke often, and traveled widely. She was active on every level— local, state, and national. Madge also rose to positions of leadership in state and national organizations that fought to enfranchise women.

Unfortunately, Madge suffered from ill health for most of her adult life. She battled tuberculosis and suffered a stroke at the age of 30, but still pressed on in pursuit of her causes. Madge was present on January 8, 1920 when Governor Edwin Morrow signed the ratification of the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote. Madge was able to vote in the presidential election later that year but died from another stroke just two weeks later. Her passing left a monumental void in her community and in the many organizations she served.

To view a video about Madge, click here, or use the link to the Women of Ashland Video page below.

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