Visiting the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site

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Located on the southwest side of St. Louis, the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site preserves the home the former general and US president shared with his wife before the Civil War. 

Known as White Haven, the farm had been owned by his wife’s family, the Dents. It was here, on the front porch that U.S. Grant (called that here to reduce confusion with the author) proposed to Julia. It was here that he would go on to live after resigning from the Army in 1854. 

White Haven at the Grant National Historic Site
Ulysses S. Grant’s home, White Haven

The Park Service acquired the house and much of the out buildings in the late 1980s and have restored it to much of what it looked like when the Grants owned it. 

The History of White Haven

White Haven was originally an 850-acre farm outside St. Louis purchased as a summer home by Frederick Dent, known locally as Colonel Dent but he was never a military officer. Soon, Dent made White Haven his full-time home, growing a variety of crops.

White Haven was a slave plantation and the Dents owned around 30 slaves. This proved to be a source of consternation for U.S. Grant, whose family were abolitionists. Indeed, neither family approved of the match between U.S. Grant and Julia. U.S. Grant often argued with his father-in-law over slavery and secession. Julia reported being treated very harshly by U.S. Grant’s family over how she was brought up and her acceptance of slavery. 

The Grant National Historic Site made good use of video picture frames to tell the story of the house.
This video exhibit allows viewers to see a typical exchange between U.S. Grant and his father-in-law, with his wife trying to keep the peace.

For U.S. Grant, while he partnered with his father-in-law to help run the farm, he personally owned only one slave whom he emancipated before giving up farming and moving to Illinois to work in his family’s tannery. 

During the Civil War, the Dents kept the farm running but, by 1864, every slave owned by the family had run away. 

White Haven's slave entrance
While there was a back door to White Haven, there was also a slave entrance as well.

Following the Civil War, the Grants acquired the farm and lived there briefly, converting it into a horse farm. But he was quickly drug into politics as the Republican challenger to Andrew Johnson’s presidency. 

Read more about the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site here.

The Grants would come back to visit while he was president and U.S. Grant would send detailed correspondence to his caretaker but he would never live here full time again. 

Eventually, Grant lost White Haven after putting up the property as collateral in an investment that turned out to be a swindle. 

The Park Service maintains about 10 acres of the original farm with White Haven. Much of the surrounding area is now a residential subdivision. Thankfully, a large portion of the original farmland came into the possession of the Busch family, who turned it into an animal reserve. Known as Grant’s Farm, the reserve is right across from the park site.

Grant’s Farm also preserves Hardscrabble, a cabin U.S. Grant built himself, which remains one of the last remaining buildings hand built by a president. U.S. Grant and Julia lived in this cabin briefly but moved back into White Haven following the death of Julia’s mother.

Visiting the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site

When you get to the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, your first stop should be the visitor’s center. 

First things first, ask about when the next tour of White Haven is. You have to be on a ranger-led tour in order to see the inside of the house. When we were there, they seemed to be offering tours about every hour. We got lucky that the tour was leaving just as we got there, so we didn’t have to wait.

Bonnie listening in a on a ranger-led tour of White Haven.
The only way to see inside the actual house is on a ranger-led tour.

The visitor center has a movie about the life of U.S. Grant and his life at White Haven which is quite informative. It certainly paints the picture of a man quite concerned with equal rights for all. The film is well worth your time. If you need to wait for a tour, this is a great way to pass the time. 

Just off to the left of the visitor center is the barn U.S. Grant kept his horses in when he turned White Haven into a horse farm. While some of the barn has been kept as U.S. Grant would have kept it, the rest has been turned into exhibits about his life. 

Grant's barn at the Grant National Historic Site
The barn at the U.S. Grant National Historic Site now serves as a museum about Grant’s life.

The exhibits have recently been updated and they are quite informative. While the best order for seeing the exhibits is not apparent, they do paint a picture of a complicated man, someone who served admirably in the Mexican-American War despite the fact he personally detested the war and why we fought it. 

I was most impressed with the measures U.S. Grant used to put down the Ku Klux Klan and White League in their treatment of freedmen. This part of history was something that was glossed over in the history books when I grew up. 

Inside the museum on U.S. Grant's life.
Grant checking out an exhibit on U.S. Grant.

In all, I thought the museum was quite good and is well worth your time.

Touring White Haven

We found the ranger-led tour to be quite informative. It took us into the home where we could see where Julia had gown up and where U.S. Grant had worked in the farm office. 

The exhibits in the house are a bit sparse compared to other historic houses we have visited. There’s not a lot in the way of furniture or decorations, due to the lack of original pieces owned by the Park Service. 

Bonnie checking out some of the family photos of the Grants.
Bonnie checking out some of the family photos of the Grants.

Still, being able to see the cellar kitchen where the slaves worked or the only door the slaves were allowed to go in was eye-opening. 

It was also really cool to see how folks adapted to the weather without modern conveniences. The home had an ice house for keeping perishable foods fresh in the heat of the summer. The home also had a summer kitchen to get the heat of cooking out of the house in warm months.   

The summer kitchen at White Haven.
The white building served as a summer kitchen to keep the heat from cooking out of the house.

We especially enjoyed being able to tour the house and outbuildings on our own, while the ranger was still nearby to answer questions.

Final Thoughts on Visit Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site

I think what I enjoyed most about visiting this site was learning how slavery played a very personal part in U.S. Grant’s life and the personal conflict he had to endure by living at White Haven. 

The Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site also does a great job of dispelling some of the rumors that persist about him even to this day, like drunkenness, disregard for soldiers’ lives, poor leadership as president. 

The rear side of White Haven at Grant National Historic Site
The Grants actually had the house painted this color green, which was very popular in the 1870s.

All told, we spent about 2 hours touring the site and felt like we explored it quite thoroughly. It’s well worth your time and an easy way to round out a day if you are in town visiting Gateway Arch National Park in downtown St. Louis. 

Read more about our visit to Gateway Arch National Park here.

Travel Resources
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