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In his 1872 recollection Our Neighbors on Lafayette Square, Benjamin Ogle Tayloe reminisced about the residents of the square just north of the White House. He wrote, “Mrs. Decatur was the natural born daughter of Mr. Wheeler, an eminent merchant of Norfolk, and the proprietor of ironworks at Elk Ridge Landing, Maryland, where Mrs. Decatur was born, her mother an obscure woman of that place.”1 Like many women in early America, Susan Wheeler Decatur and her mother’s stories are overshadowed by the men around them. Yet, Susan ultimately became a prominent figure in Washington, Baltimore, and Norfolk. Although it has proved challenging to find more information about her life, this article seeks to tell Susan Wheeler Decatur’s story.

Susan Decatur

Painting on loan from Priscilla Machold Loeb and Family

Susan’s story begins with her father, Luke Wheeler. Luke was born in 1754 in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Evidence suggests that he moved throughout Maryland frequently until eventually settling in Norfolk, Virginia, around 1797.2 According to a Dorchester County Court land record, one Luke Wheeler married a woman named Lilly Loockerman on November 28, 1778.3 Susan was born between 1776 and 1778 near Elk Ridge Landing. Although the land record provides some insight into one Luke Wheeler’s life, a birth record for Susan has not been found. As such, the identity of Susan’s mother remains unclear.4 It is, however, evident that Susan grew up in Maryland where she attended a Baltimore academy for young women and met her best friend Catharine “Kitty” Carroll. Kitty Carroll was the daughter of Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.5

By 1797, Luke Wheeler moved to Norfolk and Susan likely moved with him.6 After 1803, however, there is no mention of Lilly Loockerman Wheeler in any documentation. Her omission from the archival record, along with her omission from Susan’s surviving documents, likely led to speculation about her identity by their contemporaries.7 This is the most that can currently be said about Lilly. It is unclear when she died, and she is not mentioned in Susan’s surviving personal correspondence. As such, it remains unclear if Lilly Loockerman was truly her mother. Much more is known about Luke Wheeler, however, as he became a prominent figure and in 1805 was elected mayor of Norfolk.

Map of Virginia and Maryland

Library of Congress

In November 1805, Susan met her future husband, Stephen Decatur, when he was in Norfolk escorting Tunisian Ambassador Soliman Melimeni during his visit to the United States.8 Stephen Decatur was a well-known American naval war hero, who rose to prominence during the Barbary Wars and was promoted to the rank of captain. Decatur became the youngest man in United States history to earn the rank at twenty-five years old.9 Today, he remains the youngest man to hold that distinction. On March 8, 1806, Susan and Stephen were married at her father’s home in Norfolk by a Presbyterian minister.10

After their wedding, Stephen’s naval career led to several relocations. In 1806, the couple traveled along the East Coast reporting for Stephen’s assignments.11 The 1810 census lists the couple in Norfolk, along with five enslaved individuals recorded in their household.12 On the same census, Luke Wheeler’s household also lists five enslaved persons.13 While little else is known about the Decaturs’ relationship with slavery before their move to Washington D.C., this finding reveals that they likely relied on enslaved labor. The question remains whether the individuals were owned or rented out by the family.

At the outbreak of the War of 1812, Stephen was promoted to commodore, the highest rank in the navy at that time. He received national attention when he became the first American to capture a British frigate, the HMS Macedonian, and bring it safely into harbor in Newport, Rhode Island. For his heroic actions, Congress awarded Stephen a gold medal and $30,000 in prize money.14 Around 1818, Stephen purchased a significant amount of land on President’s Square (known today as Lafayette Square) and built a home with the prize money. In 1819, Susan and Stephen moved into their home across the square from the White House.

Commodore Stephen Decatur

The White House Historical Association and Decatur House, a National Trust Site

Living at Decatur House, Susan was in the center of Washington society. This brought close friendships and excitement, but also meant her life was very public. Susan and Stephen entertained many of Washington’s prominent political and military figures along with their families. On March 21, 1820, the couple attended a party at Secretary of State John Quincy Adams’ home for a celebration of President James Monroe’s daughter, Maria Monroe’s, marriage to Samuel Gouverneur.15 The next morning, Stephen traveled to Bladensburg, Maryland, to duel Commodore James Barron. Both men were shot, and Barron survived. Stephen, however, was brought back to Decatur House. Susan was shocked, as Stephen had left that morning without telling her of his plans. She and her father, Luke, were at the home when the men brought Stephen into the parlor. Stephen died in the first floor parlor between nine and ten that same evening.16 Understandably Susan was devastated and unprepared for his death.17

In his last will and testament, Stephen left his entire estate to Susan; the couple had no children. He also named three men – Littleton Waller Tazewell of Norfolk, Robert G. Harper of Baltimore and Kitty Carroll Harper’s husband, and Colonel George Bomford of Washington as executors of his estate.18 Stephen’s will indicates that he did not own enslaved persons at the time of his death, and there are no known records of enslaved persons living with the couple at Decatur House.

After Stephen’s death, Susan secluded herself from public life. She mourned at Decatur House, and in April, her best friend Catharine “Kitty” Carroll Harper took Susan to Doughoregan Manor in Maryland to grieve.19 The two stayed with Kitty’s father, Charles Carroll. In a letter between Carroll and his son-in-law Robert Goodloe Harper, Kitty’s husband, Carroll writes, “I think the exercise and change of scene has greatly benefited Mrs. Decatur; her spirits are more composed, she dines with us, and converses more…”20

Susan spent several months in Maryland and returned to Washington later that year. When she moved back to the city, she lived in Kalorama near Stephen’s first resting place. While Susan was away, she had the executors of Stephen’s will auction off many of her belongings at Decatur House. She did, however, keep the house and most of the property on Lafayette Square. Susan then moved to a cottage near Georgetown University in late 1820. As owner of Decatur House, Susan began renovations to the home, which she planned to rent out.21The Decatur House renovations and upkeep proved to be an expensive and time-consuming undertaking. While the Decaturs’ status in Washington society indicated moderate wealth, further research revealed that Susan’s financial situation was more complicated.22

Decatur House

The White House Historical Association and Decatur House, a National Trust Site

At the time of Stephen’s death, their wealth was likely tied up in the house and the adjoining properties. The Decaturs moved into their home on Lafayette Square around the time of the Panic of 1819. The financial crisis depressed land values throughout the country, impacting trade and currency. Although documents detailing the value of Decatur House in 1820 have not been found, it is likely that the Decaturs, like the rest of the country, were impacted by plummeting property values. Additionally, while Susan still had regular bills to pay, like property taxes, she no longer had reliable income from Stephen’s salary as a member of the Board of Naval Commissioners.23

On October 28, 1820, Luke Wheeler wrote on Susan’s behalf to Robert Oliver, asking for a $3,000 mortgage of Decatur House and her property on Lafayette Square. Oliver agreed. Susan asked Oliver for money three times in less than two years. Between November 1820 and June 1822, he loaned Susan a total of $23,000.24 With these funds Susan paid for insurance premiums, renovations of the house, and to fill lots in the square. Many of the renovations to Decatur House were made for the French ambassador, Jean-Guillaume, the baron Hyde de Neuville, and included building a servants’ quarters for wage laborers and enslaved persons that renters brought with them.25 Susan rented out Decatur House to foreign ambassadors and American politicians for fifteen years.26

Despite this rental income, Susan’s financial problems worsened. In 1825, attempting to remedy her problems, Susan petitioned Congress for Stephen’s naval pension.27 There was significant debate, as Stephen did not die in the line of duty, but rather in a duel with another naval officer. The petition, however, received support from prominent politicians, including former President John Quincy Adams.

Susan spent the rest of her life in her rented cottage near Georgetown University. She became very involved with the campus community and church and even converted to Catholicism. On November 25, 1828, she was baptized in Holy Trinity Church, the Catholic church at Georgetown, and received first communion on December 31, 1828, reflecting both her relationship with the university community and her friend Kitty Carroll Harper, who was raised a devout Catholic.28

The rental income Susan received from Decatur House allowed her to pay back the principal on her loans from Oliver, however, she continued to struggle with her finances, unable to pay the remaining interest.29 By 1836, Susan could no longer afford to own and maintain Decatur House. She sold the home to John Gadsby, owner of the National Hotel, who also profited from buying and selling enslaved people in D.C.

As part of her pension petition, she also lobbied Congress to receive prize money Stephen should have earned for capturing and burning the frigate USS Philadelphia in 1804 during the Barbary Wars. Susan pursued the money for many years and was eventually awarded the pension and payments in arrears in 1837.30 Although Susan still experienced financial struggles, she gave $7,000 to Georgetown University after receiving the pension money. In exchange she received monthly annuity payments from the university. Despite Susan’s donation, Georgetown still experienced financial instability. The following year, The Society of Jesus sold 272 enslaved men, women, and children to save Georgetown from bankruptcy.31 Given her financial state, it seems odd that Susan would have donated $7,000 to the university. She likely made the donation because of her proximity to the school and her friendships with the clergy, faculty, and students. This strong connection between Susan and the Georgetown community is further supported by accounts stating that Susan hosted dinners for faculty and students at her home.

This 1860 Slave Schedule shows that Susan owned an enslaved infant.

Ancestry.com

The 1860 slave schedule, taken only a month before Susan’s death, reveals that she owned an enslaved female infant. It is unclear how this child ended up with Susan, but this record demonstrates that she was involved with slavery at the very end of her life. Susan lived at the cottage in Georgetown until her death on July 21, 1860. She was then buried in a cemetery on Georgetown’s campus. In 1953, the growing campus relocated Susan’s remains to Holy Rood Cemetery on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington, D.C. Finally, in 1988, she was moved to her current resting place at Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, beside her husband Stephen.32 While many questions remain surrounding Susan’s life, this research aims to shed some light on her story. With more time and research, hopefully the remaining questions can be answered in the future.

This article was originally published August 2, 2023

Footnotes & Resources

  1. Benjamin Ogle Tayloe, Our Neighbors on LaFayette Square, (Washington, D.C., The Junior League of Washington, 1872), 19.
  2. In 1754, Luke Wheeler was baptized at St. John’s Parish, an Episcopal church in Prince George’s County, Maryland. By 1778, he lived in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, where he signed an Oath of Fidelity pledging his loyalty to the state of Maryland during the Revolutionary War. Given his business dealings in the state, his partners mentioned, and his land transactions, historians are fairly certain this is the same Luke Wheeler, father of Susan Decatur. See Luke Wheeler in the, Godfrey Memorial Library, American Genealogical-Biographical Index, Middletown, CT, USA: Godfrey Memorial Library. “Oaths of Fidelity Index,” Maryland State Archives, S1420-15, https://msa.maryland.gov/megaf.... And Walter V. Ball, “The Ancestors of Susan Wheeler Decatur,” unpublished, White House Historical Association Files, 7.
  3. In the historical record, Lilly Loockerman Wheeler appears under several names and spellings. She appears as Lily Loockerman, Lilly Loockerman, Lily Lockerman, Lilly Loockerman, Lilly Wheeler, and Mrs. Wheeler. In land records referring to her father, Thomas Loockerman, several documents spell their last name with two “o’s”. Since he was a man, his name was recorded far more often than his daughter’s. For the purposes of this article, she will be referred to as Lilly Loockerman Wheeler indicating the spelling of her family name and her marital status. For Lilly and Luke’s marriage record see Dorchester County Court Land Records, 2NH/275. One other document exists mentioning Lilly. In his last will and testament, Robert Portteus, in Baltimore Town, Maryland wrote, “to Lilly Wheeler, wife of Luke Wheeler, my wife’s Trunck of Cloths.” See Robert Portteus’s Last Will and Testament, Maryland State Archives, MSA No. C437, Baltimore County, Register of Wills, Robert Portteus, Box 21, folder 32; 2-33-8-18.
  4. As early as 1785, an advertisement in the Baltimore Maryland Gazette mentions that Luke Wheeler was in Baltimore, Maryland. While it is difficult to prove whether this Lilly and Luke Wheeler of Dorchester County are Susan’s parents, it is more than likely that they are. Susan’s whereabouts, attending a Baltimore school, further support that this Lilly and Luke, in Baltimore, Maryland in the late 18th century are her parents.
  5. Kitty Carroll grew up at her family’s summer mansion, Doughoregan Manor, near Elkridge Landing Maryland, where Susan was born. Charles Carroll of Carrollton was a prominent figure in Maryland during the American Revolution and the Early Republic. The Carroll family were devout Catholics, and his father Charles Carroll of Annapolis was well known for his efforts to secure Catholic equality in a predominantly Protestant environment. Charles Carroll of Carrollton was elected as a Maryland Representative to the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. He was the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. Once the colonies gained their independence from Great Britain, Carroll served as a Senator for Maryland in the United States Senate. Much like Susan, and many other women from this period, Catharine Carroll Harper’s role in history cannot be discussed without mention of the men in her life. “Charles Carroll of Carrollton,” Carroll Museums, https://www.carrollmuseums.org....
  6. Letter from Catharine Carroll Harper (Kitty) to her husband Robert Goodloe Harper, written from Annapolis “Sunday” 1801, “Robert Goodloe Harper Collection,” Copies of the Maryland Historical Society Microfilm at Library of Congress, Manuscripts Division, Washington, DC, Reel 1.
  7. Genealogist Walter V. Ball attributed Lilly’s disappearance from the historical record to gaps in the archival record. The only record associated with Wheeler after Portteus’ last will and testament that typically required a wife’s signature appears in 1803. Because Lilly is not mentioned on the power of attorney document, Ball posits that she died before it was signed. Walter V. Ball, “The Ancestors of Susan Wheeler Decatur,” unpublished, White House Historical Association Files, 9-10.
  8. Stephen Decatur escorted the Tunisian Ambassador, Sidi Soliman Melimeni, as part of his naval duties. “James Madison from Soliman Melimeni, 25 August 1806,” Founders Online, National Archives and Records Administration, https://founders.archives.gov/...
  9. On October 31, 1803, the USS Philadelphia ran aground off the coast of Tripoli. The ship was captured by Barbary Pirates and its crew, including Captain William Bainbridge, was taken hostage. On the evening of February 16, 1804, Decatur and a group of seventy-five men sailed the Mastico, a Tripolitan ketch captured by Captain Edward Preble, and renamed the USS Intrepid, into Tripoli harbor disguised as Maltese sailors. Once the men were close enough to the Philadelphia, they boarded the ship, fought the enemy sailors aboard, and then set the ship ablaze to prevent the Barbary pirates from using the Philadelphia against Americans. Decatur earned the rank of captain, for his leadership and valor in attempting to recapture Philadelphia.
  10. “Married,” Norfolk Gazette Public Ledger, Kirn Memorial Library, Norfolk, Virginia, March 10, 1806.
  11. Robert J. Allison, Stephen Decatur: American Naval Hero, 1779-1820, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005), 80-83.
  12. 1810 US Federal Census, Ancestry.com. 1810 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010. Images reproduced by FamilySearch. Original data:Third Census of the United States, 1810. (NARA microfilm publication M252, 71 rolls). Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29. National Archives, Washington, D.C.
  13. Little information has been found to explain when they arrived, or who these enslaved individuals were. Previous historical works on Stephen Decatur do not investigate his ties slavery. However, this finding does reveal that the Decaturs benefited from enslaved labor directly.
  14. “Ship’s Crew: Stephen Decatur,” USS Constitution Museum, https://ussconstitutionmuseum.....
  15. Robert J. Allison, Stephen Decatur: American Naval Hero, 1779-1820, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005), 3. And John Quincy Adams, John Quincy Adams Digital Diary Massachusetts Historical Society, March 21, 1820, https://www.masshist.org/publi....
  16. John Quincy Adams, John Quincy Adams Digital Diary Massachusetts Historical Society, March 22, 1820, https://www.masshist.org/publi....
  17. Robert J. Allison, Stephen Decatur: American Naval Hero, 1779-1820, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005), 212.
  18. Stephen Decatur’s Last Will and Testament, “Decatur Primary Source Documentation, (After Duel, March 22, 1820).
  19. Letter from Robert Goodloe Harper to his daughter Elizabeth, Robert Goodloe Harper Family Papers, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, From Microfilm of Maryland Historical Society, Reel 3.
  20. Letter by Charles Carroll of Carrollton at his country estate, Doughoregan Manor to his son-in-law, Robert Goodloe Harper (probably in Baltimore), Robert Gooodloe Harper Family Papers, Manuscripts Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, Reel 4, June 3, 1820.
  21. Letter from Elizabeth Wirt to her daughter Laura Wirt, William Wirt Papers, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, VA, microfilm, May 10, 1820.
  22. Historian Robert J. Allison states that Susan turned over management of her financial portfolio to her father, Luke Wheeler. Despite inheriting the entirety of Stephen’s property, estimated between $75,000 to $100,000 in value, Allison argues that due to mismanagement by Luke Wheeler, Susan was soon without money. See Robert J. Allison, Stephen Decatur: American Naval Hero, 1779-1820, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005), 218.
  23. While Susan was named the sole inheritor of her husband’s estate, Tazewell, Harper, and Bomford were named as the executors, indicating that they controlled the estate. Only a week after Stephen’s death, Susan renounced her option to become an executor of the will. It is unclear why she chose to do so, but this decision allows the executors to essentially control Susan’s money. Thus, it is unclear who mismanaged her finances. Finally, it is possible that previous scholarship or Susan’s contemporaries overestimated the value of Stephen’s estate. Given his status, and news of his award for capturing the HMS Macedonian, reports may have overestimated the value of Stephen’s estate. In combination with his land speculation and the construction of Decatur House, Stephen may have spent most of his award money, leaving Susan with little.
  24. Oliver v. Decatur, 4 D.C. 461, 4 Cranch 461 (1834), March 1834, United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, 4 D.C. 461, 4 Cranch 46, https://cite.case.law/dc/4/461....
  25. James Tertius de Kay, et. al., The Stephen Decatur House: A History, (Washington, DC: The White House Historical Association, 2018), 204.
  26. It is likely that the foreign ministers who lived at Decatur House brought their own staff with them. By 1827, however, it is evident that Henry Clay’s rental of the home indicated a transition to the space a site of enslaved labor. To learn more about slavery at Decatur House see Matthew Costello, “The Back Building,” White House Historical Association, January 25, 2022, https://www.whitehousehistory.....
  27. Kristin A. Collins, “‘Petitions Without Number’: Widows’ Petitions and the Early Nineteenth-Century Origins of Public Marriage-Based Entitlements,” Law & History Review 31, no. 1 (February 2013): 1–60.
  28. “Susan Decatur’s Baptism,” Georgetown House Diary, November 25, 1828.
  29. Susan did not make enough money through her rent income and was unable to keep up with the agreed upon interest. In a letter to Oliver on December 24th, 1829, Susan wrote, “I am sorry to tell you that such is the continued financial distress in this district, that it is impossible to dispose of real Estate without an almost total sacrifice—I have therefore been unable to effect any sales that would enable me to pay the interest of my debt to you…” In March 1834, Oliver sued Susan over the unpaid interest on her loans. The case found that Susan still owed Oliver $7,558. Letter from Susan Decatur to Robert Oliver, Washington DC, December 24th, 1829, National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 21, Entry 20, Box 40, 16E3/11/21/4 Chancery Rules 3, Cause No 231. Letter from Susan Decatur to Robert Oliver, Washington DC, December 24th, 1829, National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 21, Entry 20, Box 40, 16E3/11/21/4 Chancery Rules 3, Cause No 231.
  30. Decatur v. Paulding, 39 U.S. 497 (1840). And Robert Emmett Curran, S.J., The Bicentennial History of Georgetown University: Volume I From Academy to University, (Washington, D.C., Georgetown University Press, 1993).
  31. “Our History,” Descendants Truth and Reconciliation Foundation, https://www.descendants.org/wh....
  32. “Is it true Susan Decatur, the Widow of Stephen Decatur, is buried on Campus?” Georgetown University Library, https://library.georgetown.edu....

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