In December 1848, Buchanan purchased the Wheatland estate from William Morris Meredith for a total of $6,750. The following spring, Wheatland would open its doors to its new owner for the next twenty years. Though he was a lifelong bachelor, Buchanan did not move into this spacious home alone; he moved in with his “Little Family.”
Harriet Lane, James Buchanan’s niece, was about 19 years old when she moved to Wheatland with her uncle. She lived under Buchanan’s care after losing both her parents to consumption, or tuberculosis, when she was only 11 years old. A strong-willed, bright, and accomplished woman, Harriet would go on to graduate from boarding school, travel abroad, and eventually become the First Lady of the United States under her uncle’s presidency. On January 11, 1866, Wheatland became the site of Harriet Lane’s wedding to her husband, Henry Eliot Johnston. Upon her uncle’s death in 1868, Harriet inherited Wheatland and used it as a summer home for her family until 1884.
James Buchanan Henry, known to the family as “Buck,” was James Buchanan’s nephew and Harriet Lane’s cousin. He was 16 years old when the family moved to Wheatland. Like his cousin, Buck Henry lost both his parents to consumption and was orphaned at 7 years old. He remained under the care of his uncle, eventually going off to study the law in Philadelphia under John Cadwalader, though his true passion was as an artist. He would also serve as a Private Secretary, or Chief of Staff, during the first two years of his Uncle’s presidency.
Esther Parker, affectionately called Miss Hetty, had been Buchanan’s head housekeeper since 1834. She ran Wheatland until Buchanan’s death, managing the servants and household accounts. A careful household manager, Miss Hetty is credited for building Buchanan’s “modest” fortune to $300,000 at the time of his death. She was always present at the family dinner table, and she was known to be the only woman who could scold Buchanan without rebuke.
Buchanan also employed paid domestic staff. Some domestic servants worked at Wheatland for only a short period of time, while others stayed for many years. Regardless of the length of their stay, it was the domestic servants who took care of Wheatland and created the lifestyle that Buchanan, Harriet, and Buck enjoyed. The majority of Wheatland’s domestic staff were Irish or German, and a few were African American. Although some lived elsewhere, a handful of servants had rooms in the attic spaces or in the gardener’s house.