Louisa Adams’ Moving Adventure

Remember the Beverly Hillbillies? The Clampetts strike oil in the Ozarks and move to Beverly Hills in a rags-to-riches sitcom of the 1960s.

Beverly Hillbillies Moving Van, courtesy Google Images
Beverly Hillbillies Moving Van, courtesy Google Images


Of an entirely different era and social class, diarist Louisa Catherine Adams, wife of the 6th American President, John Quincy Adams, writes about multiple moves – both in European nations where John Quincy was diplomat and in the United States serving variously as senator, secretary of state, president, and finally congressman again.


Woman on the Move

After the birth of her third child, “as soon as she could rise from her bed, she lifted the lids of her empty trunks and opened her packing cases to prepare to leave for Washington. She was ‘a wanderer’ again.” (140)

In her boldest move, Louisa traversed the passage from St. Petersburg to Paris while Napoleon rampaged through Europe. She traveled 2000 miles in 40 days, a journey almost unheard of for a woman alone.

Louisa and Son Charles’ Wild Ride

In 1815, while John Quincy was gone to Paris, Louisa in St. Petersburg had to “sell the furniture, dispose of the house, and buy a carriage that could carry her across the continent” to Paris. She needed supplies: food, drink, clothing, maps, tools and enough medicines for a small apothecary. She had read the map herself, not having heard from her husband, and unflinchingly set her course.

Her largest expense was the carriage, “a berline, a large vehicle with four seats and glass windows, all balanced on an elaborate suspension of springs intended to smooth the rough ride.” Leaving St. Petersburg, the carriage was outfitted with sleigh runners. Wheels were packed when she met melting roads traveling west and south. (206)

She sewed gold and silver into her skirts to hide her wealth from robbers and from her male servants. (206)

Touch of Humor:

During the sojourn, though her two male servants were armed, she put on her son’s military cap and held his toy sword so that what she hoped was a menacing silhouette would show through the carriage window. (221)

True to her declaration when she married Adams, “When my husband married me, he made a great mistake if he thought I only intended to play an echo.” (8)

Her Most Moving Adventure

Louisa, often sickly and afflicted with self-doubt, recorded her grief in “Diaries of a Nobody.” After all, she was often geographically separated from her husband during his ascendance to power, she suffered multiple miscarriages, all of her children except Charles preceded her in death, and she struggled with erysipelas, a skin inflammation.

But her vividly told “Narrative of a Journey from Russia to France” enabled her to tunnel “her way out of depression with the sharp spade of her sardonic humor . . . .“ (396)

She wrote about Baptiste, innkeepers, haggard soldiers she has passed on the road, frightened faces of the women she met, cries of Vive Napoleón! She remembers the practical difficulties she had overcome: the moment the carriage wheel had come loose, the problem of procuring servants, the dangerous decision to ford a half-frozen river. She wrote about her growing confidence, which rippled out of her descriptions and into her voice. (411)

“Her story was her own. No other woman in America had experienced anything like it. But she made its lessons universal. It was a story about women and what women could achieve . . . . She wrote: ‘Under all circumstances, we must never desert ourselves.’” (411)

Move for Equality

At 62, in an era when a woman’s life span was about 40, she was blossoming. Like the Grimké sisters of Charleston, with whom she corresponded, she championed women’s rights and the freeing of slaves.

The Lesson of a Cracked Washbasin 

Cracked Washbasin, Google Images
Cracked Washbasin, Google Images

John Quincy and Louisa Adams observed their 50th wedding anniversary, a milestone almost unheard of in the mid-1800s. Before she died, Louisa presented her daughter-in-law Abby Adams with a cracked washbasin, symbolic of the naked faces bent toward it sometimes joyful and other times full of inconsolable pain, mirroring life itself. (444)

Want More Louisa?

Writer and editor Louisa Thomas has written a stunning account of a memorable woman entitled Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams, 2016.


Thomas’ biography sings with color as she describes an incandescent sun on their approach to St. Petersburg, which edged “the statues with fire and [made] creamy walls blush.” (90)

You can read my full review here.

Your turn: Can you recall any other historical characters with moving stories?

One of your own to tell here? Go right ahead.

Coming next: Mother’s Sky View: The Beautiful City


53 thoughts on “Louisa Adams’ Moving Adventure

    1. Historian that you are, I’m not surprised you wanted to probe further. You are right about the mother-in-law tension. The formidable Abigail held Louisa at arm’s length most of her life because of her European lineage (her father was American but she grew up in England) and the fact that Louisa’s spend-thrift father couldn’t provide a proper dowry. In the end, Abigail could not deny her daughter-in-law’s accomplishments and their letters reflect friendship.

      Biographies are not usually my genre, but about a month ago when I donated a load of books to the library, Louisa’s silhouette stood out on a kiosk and I was drawn in. I had no idea her moving story would fit so well with my theme this month. Serendipitous, I’d say.

      Thanks for adding the link. I’m clicking on it now . . . .

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I used to have a book called Johann Sebastian Bach Had a Wife (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/8552903-johann-sebastian-bach-had-a-wife )
    which deals with the spouses of five well known figures, including Polly Newton, wife of John Newton, author of Amazing Grace. I must have given it away at some point off my shelves but there are some fascinating profiles of strong and intriguing women in that book. 🙂 See my other comment in response to this post as I went trekking back through your archives to the time before I knew you online!

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Melodie, we have that book plus C.S. LEWIS HAD A WIFE in our church library. William Peterson has done a couple others in the series but we only have these two. Maybe you donated it to your church library??

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Leave it to you to find serendipity in all your great adventures, including this moving one. 🙂

    I knew nothing about Louisa Adams even though I taught women’s history long ago and featured Abigail Adams, of course.

    Will follow Merril to the link. Eager to see you in your new digs.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Abigail’s formidable shadow was long, over-powering her daughter-in-law. The book propelled me on because I cared so much that Louisa would triumph in the end, just like romance novels but real. She did, but with many, many losses.

      Right now we are hovering between two houses. You’ll probably see the pond view on my Facebook page. Today I’m emptying closets – keeping me humble. 🙂


      1. Totally not sure how you’re blogging while moving. I’m in the midst of prepping for major family company in mid August, a grandbaby due any day, canning beans and gardening, taking hub to his therapy, and two jobs so blogging is sliding right now!!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. As you know, WordPress allows setting publication dates in advance. I wrote this one and our anniversary post about a month ago before the full impact of moving slammed into my schedule.

          I am also coming up on the second anniversary of my mother’s passing. As I was paging through a “lost” family album preparing to “box” it, I saw some photos of Mother I hadn’t published before. They sparked an idea for next week’s blog which practically wrote itself. Also, the post gave me a place to “house” my grief. Writing as healing is no cliche in this case.

          You are a busy woman too. I sometimes wonder how you balance the writing outlets you are responsible for in your job, taking care of a house (and husband!) and finding time for the grands. I think we are both wired to “verk! 🙂


    1. Well, there have been glitches here and there, but I have friends like you that cheer me on. We started the search in March or April, bought a house, listed our current address, and now in the full-blown moving process. August is our target month for the official move milestone. Sometimes I hear the M. T. Moore lyric in my ear, “You’re gonna maaake it after all!”

      You’re welcome, Jill, and thanks for caring. I too found Louisa fascinating with way more obstacles than modern movers. She was a shaker too, and loved to dance!


    1. Most of us have an inkling of the life of Abigail Adams. But until I read this book, I had not ever heard of her daughter-in-law Louisa, a First Lady four administrations later. I hope you clicked on the full review at the end, which records some interesting tidbits about Louisia’s contradictory nature: shy and bold/ passive and active. A woman to be reckoned with, no doubt about it!


  3. Oh, Marian, this is a winner! You begin with the hillbillies–now listen to a story about a man named Jeb–as a lead in to Louisa Adam’s packing to be a wanderer, and then the grand finale with a touching lesson: “…a cracked washbasin, symbolic of the naked faces bent toward it sometimes joyful and other times full of inconsolable pain, mirroring life itself.” This blew me away. Thank you, Marian!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re most welcome, Marylin! As writer & writing coach you can see the scaffolding behind this post, just as I observe in your finely crafted pieces. Sort of like putting together a mosaic – or mixing cake batter: Take your pick. Always happy to see your friendly smile here.


  4. Marian — Clearly you have wow’d me with your incredible description of LOUISA — someone I heretofore knew nothing about, but intend to remedy after I follow the link to your review.

    It never occurred to me that overland transportation “back in the day” had to be able to convert from snow to dry roads: “Leaving St. Petersburg, the carriage was outfitted with sleigh runners. Wheels were packed when she met melting roads traveling west and south.”

    And I love that LOUISA never intended to be an “echo” of her husband. Quite a forward thinking gal for her time. Now I’m off to read your review…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. These staid women outfitted in fine dresses with wigs and jewels look unapproachable. Yet ladies with moxie like Louisa apparently weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty and on occasion stand up to their husbands, in her case a towering figure somewhat out of touch with the daily grind.

      It amuses me that she had a bag of tricks to keep JQ in check and could party with the best of the as the linked review will show.

      From what I can gather, no one has heard Louisa’s amazing story — only Abigail’s. I know I hadn’t. As you head toward launch, Laurie, I appreciate your taking the time to comment and spread the joy on Twitter. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. This is the last in a series of 5 “transition” tales. My own stories start with “Mouse Moves House and So Do We” https://plainandfancygirl.com/2016/05/25/mouse-moves-house-and-so-do-we/

        You can just click on the arrows to see the progression. We are now levitating (hovering?) between two houses. I told Cliff yesterday that I feel like a figure in a Marc Chagall painting, floaty but not necessarily celestial. Sometimes I feel like screaming – and do!

        Thanks for reading and commenting here, Jenn!


  5. So interesting , what a gal… I must read that book .
    I used to live in The Black Country in the Midlands . We have a history of having many trades . Cradley Heath was known for chain making and they were instrumental in making all the chain needed for The Titanic .
    Mary McCarther was an amazing woman who came from Scotland and was a trade unionist She founded ‘The federation of women’s work ‘ in a time when help was desperately needed. She came to Cradley Heath in 1910 because at that time women were receiving starvation wages …she turned all around …amazing . Do google her .
    What would we have done without these inspiring ladies fab .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Louisa vacillated between feeling like a nobody in comparison to the towering figures of her husband and mother-in-law but then showing her moxie in traveling alone across Europe and being politically/socially active. I’m an admirer of Louisa too, with all of her contradictions. Thanks for weighing in here, Debby.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Louisa sounds like an amazing woman, way ahead of her time. This looks like a great book. Thanks for the review. I have always thought my great grandmother who crossed the ocean on a cattle ship with three toddlers and expecting another, to settle on the barren Candian prairies, was very brave and strong. Are you moved into your new home yet?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, your grandmother was very courageous, but so are you, leaving your Canadian homeland and settling into Spain as an ex pat. Though the culture is colorful and Spanish a romantic language, still you had to make many adjustments. I give you “brave” points for that.

      No, we haven’t officially moved yet. We have made two U-Haul trips with most of Cliff’s business/art cabinets, but there will come a day in August when we call in a big van and officially move 9 miles south of here. Thanks for asking, Darlene.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. We are in transit as it were – between 2 houses and hoping to sell our current property soon. Fortunately, we don’t have an interstate or intercontinental move to consider, which would be even more disconcerting. Thanks for your concern, Fiona.


  7. THANK YOU for sharing Louisa’s story with us here, Marian. I had my mouth open the entire time I read this post What a woman! What a life! And why isn’t this is our history books?! We need more HERSTORY!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I SO agree. It beats Washington chopping down the cherry tree every time. Until this book, I had heard only of Abigail. Her daughter-in-law Louisa eclipsed her in many ways. I lift my glass to more HERSTORY too, Pamela!

      Sent from my iPhone



  8. What a woman. I especially loved her move to put on a cap and carry a sword. 🙂 And her words about not intending to be an echo of her husband.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, Luci, your words echo my feelings too. What makes her so endearing to me is that like most she had conflicted feelings: The same woman who wore a cap and sword to repel enemies on her travels also many times felt like a nobody – if her diary is any indication.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. A beautiful review, Marian. She sounds like an amazing woman and I didn’t know anything about her. I still don’t know much, but know enough to be interested. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My sentiments exactly, Elaine, and thank you for expressing them. Until Louisa Thomas researched her life via diaries and other historical documents, this woman was virtually unknown. Now I wonder how many other remarkable women’s lives have been obscured by patriarchal primacy or overshadowed by other towering figures, in her case Abigail Adams, wife of President Adams the elder.


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