The Nacotchtanks were an Algonquian speaking people whose palisaded village was on the far side of the Anacostia River. The ridge where Woodley would one day stand was part of the sustaining hinterland where men and boys would have hunted rabbits, squirrels, bears, and turkeys while women and children would have been out picking strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, huckleberries, chinquapins, and a wide assortment of herbs. One of the tragic consequences of European settlement was that, by the opening of the eighteenth century, the Nacotchtanks, like so many other coastal Indians, had been effectively eradicated.
Ninian Beall was an immigrant from Scotland who started his life in America as an indentured servant and ended up as a major landowner and merchant. In 1675 he was one of those poor inland farmers who took part in Bacon's Rebellion. Almost three decades later, he bought the site of the future Woodley as part of a 795-acre tract to which he gave the name "The Rock of Dumbarton." It was on the Potomac River where Georgetown would eventually be established that he built a tobacco warehouse, a gristmill, and an iron foundry. Ninian Beall is the ancestor of Jessica Eidson '04.
Benjamin Stoddert was a successful merchant and veteran of the Revolution who went on to become the first Secretary of the Navy. The appointment came during the "Quasi War" with France in 1798 when French ships were seizing American vessels on the high seas. Under Stoddert's direction, the American navy not only grew exponentially, but also won the undeclared naval war against France. Earlier in the decade, at the request of George Washington, he formed a partnership with Uriah Forrest and purchased the site of Woodley and its environs to prevent the land from being bought up by speculators who would then have sold it to the government for huge prices.
Philip Barton Key, the man who built Woodley, spent his life in the vortex of the emerging United States. Born into a prominent family of Maryland planters, he sacrificed a considerable in-heritance to fight for a Loyalist regiment in the American Revolution. Eventually, he was captured, paroled, and sent to England where he studied law at the Inns of Court. In 1789, he returned to Maryland, married the beautiful, rich Ann Plater and went on to become the only Loyalist to resurrect his reputation and rise to prominence. Before his death in 1816, he served as both a Federal Judge and a Congressman. In 1801 he built Woodley.
Martin Van Buren served as a Senator from New York and later as Andrew Jackson's Vice President before ascending to the Presidency in 1837. He was a consummate politician who, in the words of one contemporary, "rowed to his objectives with muffled oars." Unfortunately, when he came into office in 1837, the country was plunged into its first depression so that he could not do what all his predecessors had done: move away from the heat of Washington during the summer. Instead he rented Woodley because it was on the cooler heights above the city and because it was considerably cheaper to run.
Lorenzo Thomas was a Union general who played a number of significant roles during the Civil War era. He was serving as Adjutant General when he stood beside Ulysses S. Grant aboard the ironclad U.S.S. Magnolia and watched the siege of Vicksburg. Later in the war, he served in Mississippi where he raised a total of 20,830 black troops. During an assignment in the West, it is believed that he rented Woodley to ex-President James Buchanan. After the war, Thomas served briefly as Secretary of War and was a key player in the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson. In April of 1862, Thomas freed the last of the Woodley slaves: Lucy Berry and her two small sons.
Robert Walker was once described as "a mere whiffet of a man." Despite his small size, he cast a very long shadow. He was a successful Mississippi cotton planter, a Congressman, and a Senator before 1844 when he engineered the election of James K. Polk, the first dark horse president. Polk appointed him Secretary of the Treasury, a post where he served with extraordinary distinction. In 1867, he helped persuade Secretary of State William Seward to purchase Alaska from Russia. To keep negotiations on track, the Czar paid Walker a $20,000 bribe, some of which went into the 1867 renovation of Woodley when a third floor was added.
Francis Newlands, a beneficiary of the Comstock Silver Mine, was both a prominent politician and a real estate tycoon. As Senator from Nevada, he championed the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1901, which culminated in the irrigation of huge sections of the West. At the local level, he developed Chevy Chase and put in Connecticut Avenue so that the owners of his new development could reach downtown Washington by streetcar. He further enhanced the value of his real estate holdings by helping to create Rock Creek Park. After renting Woodley to the Clevelands in 1893, he added a block of rooms on the east side of the building and moved in himself c. 1900.
Grover Cleveland was the only President to serve two non-consecutive terms, neither of which came close to fully addressing the problems of the Gilded Age. Nevertheless, his devotion to his lovely young wife and small daughter won him points with the population at large. When he lost the election of 1888, he sold his dream house on the corner of Newark and 36th streets. Therefore, when he won back the Presidency in 1892, he needed a new summer house within striking distance of the White House. His choice was Woodley which had just been extensively modernized with electricity and state-of-the-art heating and plumbing systems.
Sally Long Ellis (great grandmother of Molly Taylor '05) bought Woodley in 1921. Her husband, Captain Hayne Ellis, had seen action in the Spanish American War, the Philippine Insurrection, and the Boxer Rebellion. He would later become Commander of the Atlantic Squadron. Among the most welcome of the myriad guests who visited Woodley during those years was General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force during World War I. Among the least welcome was a ghost that was seen regularly in Mrs. Ellis's bedroom, now Head of School Marjo Talbott's office. In fact, Mrs. Ellis was so worried by that ghost that she slept with a loaded pistol under her pillow.