From India to The White House to Wheatland: The Journey of the Presidential Desk

In the Sitting Room at Wheatland, a pretty impressive desk quickly catches the eyes of visitors. The desk is made of hand-carved teakwood, including the inside well at the center. A set of faux drawers add detail to the front of the desk, whereas real drawers provide function at the back. Though this desk resides at Wheatland, it once furnished the White House during Buchanan’s Presidency.

But how did this desk get to Buchanan in the first place?

Friendship Abroad

In the 1830s, James Buchanan served as the United States Minister to Russia. His appointment came from President Jackson in a political move to get Buchanan as far away from the inner circle in Washington, D.C. What President Jackson didn’t calculate, though, was Buchanan’s relative success in negotiating a trade deal that bolstered his political resume. While Buchanan served abroad, he spent time traveling around Europe and south central Asia. Along the way, he made friends in India that would last for several years.

A Presidential Package 

A few decades (and a few failed attempts at the presidency) later, James Buchanan wins the Presidential nomination in the 1856 election. The word of his nomination spreads across the world and makes it to his friends in India. To congratulate Buchanan, they sent him a carved teakwood desk as a personal gift.

According to the family histories, the teakwood desk traveled from India to Wheatland in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. From there, Buchanan shipped the desk to Washington, D.C. so that it would be waiting for him upon his arrival to the White House. For four years, Buchanan sat at the teakwood desk, making decisions that would affect the nation’s history for years to come.

A photograph of Buchanan's teakwood desk
Buchanan’s Teakwood Desk

The Journey Home 

After his Presidential term, Buchanan shipped the teakwood desk back to Wheatland. It remained at Wheatland until Buchanan’s passing in 1868. Upon his death, Buchanan’s nephew, James Buchanan “Buck” Henry inherits the desk. For 145 years, the teakwood desk remained with the Henry family. In 2013, the family of James Buchanan Henry III donated the teakwood desk to Wheatland. Once again, it traveled back to Wheatland where it remains to this day.

Sometimes, objects in historic houses like Wheatland can seem very permanent and resolute in their spot. Indeed, a desk as large as Buchanan’s teakwood desk seems like it has always been at Wheatland. Objects can travel many miles before journeying home to Wheatland, and the teakwood desk is no different. From its creation in India to its spot at Wheatland, the teakwood desk has journeyed far and long, and we are very grateful to have it at Buchanan’s beloved home.

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Gaining perspective from the history left behind at Wheatland, Museum Associate Stephanie Celiberti explores the world that James Buchanan inhabited, digging up the intricacies of daily life in the 19th century to better understand the ins-and-outs of those who came before us. By walking in the shoes—quite literally—of the Victorians, she challenges a new understanding of history—one that is tactile and present with our world today. 

From History From The House