The first child of Jesse R. Grant and Hannah Simpson, Hiram Ulysses Grant was born on April 27, 1822, in the family's hometown of Ravenna, Ohio. Jesse had settled there in his early twenties and opened a tannery that sent its leather down the Ohio Valley to Point Pleasant for trading. He married Simpson at twenty-seven and Hiram arrived a year later. Hiram's parents were a new addition to the frontier culture of the ever-expanding American west. They were among the first generation to advance from subsistence farming to tradesmen, filling the need for civilization left behind as the frontier continued its steady march westward.

The Grant family originally arrived in Boston in 1630 and each generation moved steadily westward before ending up in Ohio. There, after Grant's grandmother died, his grandfather was unable to provide for the eight children and had to break up the family. Jesse had been the second child of an alleged Revolutionary War hero. Although during Grant's life the distorted stories of the famous grandfather, Captain Noah Grant, were retold with abandon, historians now doubt that Noah served in the war at all, much less distinguished himself as a leader on the fields of battle. In any event, at age eleven, Jesse found himself apprenticed out to a local politician, where the young man acquired an interest in politics. From there, he joined his half-brother in the tanning business before landing in Ravenna.

When Hiram was only eighteen months old, the family picked up yet again and moved to the new county seat of Georgetown to open a tannery. Jesse built the tannery and nearby a small brick house for his family. The house stank from the tannery for the entire sixteen years Hiram was to spend there: livestock were slaughtered, their hides soaked in lye and then cured with acid. The animals screamed as Jesse's workers killed them. Hiram hated the whole operation and frequently made his opinions known. In the new house, Hannah Simpson bore five more children: Samuel Simpson, Clara Rachel, Virginia Paine, Orvil Lynch, and Virginia Paine. The two other boys would follow their father into the tannery; only Hiram shunned the family business.

Jesse Grant became involved in politics as a member of the Jacksonian Democrats, serving as Master of the Masonic Lodge and one term as mayor of the town. Historians know almost nothing about Grant's mother, Hannah. Although she was alive for Grant's rise to fame–she died just two years before he did–she rarely granted interviews or gave any hints about her past or Grant's childhood. Likewise, Grant left his mother almost entirely out of his memoirs. Hannah never even once visited Grant during his time as president.

One undisputed fact from Grant's childhood is the fact that he loved horses. Over time, he would come to have an almost supernatural connection to them. At age seven Grant began to take the family's horses to gather wood for the house and tannery. Although he was still too small to carry the wood himself–others would stack it and later unload it–Grant drove the team himself. Four years later he was plowing the fields and took over "all the work done with horses," as he recalled in his memoirs. His father always ensured that the boys received an education, so Grant did his equestrian chores while attending school full-time. Grant soon developed a reputation within the family for his horsemanship; he is said to have been able to move about the horses with ease, while other boys his age would get kicked when attempting the same feats. Grant could control the animals and knew how to match a horse to a specific task, riding, pulling or plowing.

One horse story dogged Grant for the rest of his life, and continually stood to caution him that he was not a businessman. A neighbor of the Grants' owned a beautiful colt that Grant wanted very badly. When the neighbor offered to sell the young horse for twenty-five dollars, Grant's father countered by saying that the animal was worth but twenty. Nonetheless, Grant, then only eight, persisted. His father finally relented, telling his son to first offer twenty; then, if refused, to offer twenty-two and a half; then, if refused again, to offer the full twenty-five. Grant rode quickly to the neighbor's and admitted later that he said, "Papa says I may offer you twenty dollars for the colt, but if you won't take that, I am to offer twenty-two and a half, and if you won't take that, I am to give you twenty-five." Not surprisingly, Grant purchased the colt for the full twenty-five. The village boys teased Grant as the story got out, and Grant forever regretted the transaction. One of the most hurtful aspects for Grant was that the embarrassment resulted from openness and honesty on his part, not trickery.

Grant often traveled as he grew up, visiting other parts of Ohio and Kentucky, often to accompany some other friend or family on a trip. However, he had yet to see much of the world when his father–who insisted that his sons be well- educated–finagled an appointment for him to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Grant only got the appointment because another boy from Georgetown had flunked out the Academy; regardless, at age seventeen, Grant left his hometown for the Academy.

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