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Frank Crawford was the 'belle of the ball'

Posted: November 27, 2011 - 12:00am

Before we learn this young “belle’s” story, we need to go back a few generations.

He wasn’t born in Columbia County, and he would live here less than 20 years. But few events in early county, state or national history escaped the influence of part-time native son and, many say, her most famous citizen, William Harris Crawford.

To date, no other Columbia County resident has served in the cabinet of two presidents, or been nominated for the presidency itself. Also, as far as we know, no one else with even a temporary county address ever met or so elegantly impressed then-president of France, Napoleon Bonaparte – the latter episode while he served as minister to France under American President James Madison.

Crawford began his political career in the Georgia Legislature. Four years later, he was elevated to the U. S. Senate where his colleagues chose him as president pro tempore. In addition to his service in France, within the next four years he would become Madison’s secretary of War and, in a cabinet shake-up, secretary of the Treasury.

By 1816, his ninth year in Washington, Crawford’s name was placed in nomination for the presidency of the United States. Though he might have had presidential ambitions someday, 1816 was not the year. Instead, he congratulated winner James Monroe, promptly joined his administration, and set his sights on 1824.

But poor health and other factors would intervene, and Crawford returned to Georgia where he ended his illustrious career serving as judge of the state’s Northern Circuit. His only other ambition, he said, was to “render his five sons useful to the Republic, and see his daughters advantageously settled in society.”

Considering the number of Crawfords in this area today – plus female descendants whose family connections continue under other surnames – those children and their descendents most certainly “rendered” the Crawford name and its legacy well, even to the present day and beyond.

Of course, not every Crawford is a direct descendant of William Harris Crawford, but it is likely that most of them stemmed from the same Scotland-to-Virginia-to-Georgia ancestral line.

One female Crawford, however, bears a fitting resemblance to her distant cousin and earns mention here.

Frank Armstrong Crawford was given a non-feminine name because of a pact between her father, Robert Leighton Crawford, and his devoted friend, Frank Armstrong, that each would name his first child after the other. Fortunately for Mr. Armstrong, his first child was a boy, but poor little Miss Crawford became the unwitting recipient of her principled father’s whim.

Nevertheless, Frank Crawford never lived up to her masculine name. Instead, the charming young Southern girl became the proverbial “belle of the ball” who, in 1869, married a New Yorker, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, in one of the more beautiful events of the social season.

But the socialite bride never forgot her own people. Realizing that following the Civil War most Northern philanthropy toward the South went to endow black schools and colleges while many Southern white youth were housed in rundown, poorly equipped institutions, she convinced her husband to extend his generosity to white children, too.

Thus, the sum of $1 million was made available to establish Vanderbilt University, in the Southern city of Nashville, Tenn.

This story is an excerpt from my recently published book, As Long As the Rivers Run: Highlights from Columbia County’s Past, available at The News-Times office, and in county gift shops including Martina’s Flowers and Gifts, Cudos 2 U, Strictly Country, and the Visitor’s Center at the Savannah Rapids Pavilion.

Thank you, Columbia County, for encouraging me to tell this amazing story, and for your warm response to the completed book.

(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to seabara@aol.com.)

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