Frances Cox Henderson, cultural leader, church builder, and first lady of Texas, daughter of John and Martha (Lyman) Cox, was born at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 21, 1820. Her father recognized that his daughter had exceptional intellectual ability when she was only nine years old and arranged for his children to be educated in Europe. Frances learned to speak at least eighteen languages, was proficient in mathematics, became an accomplished musician, and wrote and translated short stories. Her book Epitome of Modern European Literature (1882) contained stories translated from nineteen languages.
In Paris, at the age of nineteen, she met and became engaged to James Pinckney Henderson, envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary from the Republic of Texas to the Court of St. James in London and the Tuilleries in Paris. They were married at St. George's parish in Hanover Square, London, on October 30, 1839. In 1840 the young couple arrived in Galveston, Texas, and went directly to San Augustine, where Henderson opened his law office.
Frances studied law and became proficient enough in the subject to carry on the law practice when James had to be away on state business. Henderson was elected the first governor of the state of Texas in 1845 and moved to Austin for his two-year term. His wife remained in San Augustine. One of her major contributions was to establish Episcopal churches in San Augustine, Rusk, Palestine, and Nacogdoches. When the Committee on Domestic Missions in Philadelphia indicated reluctance to send a new pastor to San Augustine, the vestrymen of the San Augustine church gave Mrs. Henderson the authority to call a minister. In 1855 she went to Philadelphia and shocked Bishop Alonzo Potter by producing her credentials and insisting that she be allowed to address the clergy of the diocese, something no woman had done before. She made her point, and East Texas received a new minister.
Three daughters, Frances, Julia, and Martha, were born to the Hendersons while they lived in San Augustine. Two other children died young. In 1856 the family moved to Marshall, Texas. Mrs. Henderson was zealous in developing Trinity Episcopal Church in that city. In addition to her leadership as a church builder, she supported woman suffrage. She also shared with her neighbors the benefits of her talents and education without alienating them by appearing superior. She gave free speech and music lessons to children of the community. In addition to entertaining her husband's political and business associates, she opened her home regularly to the townspeople for parties.
In 1857 Henderson was appointed to the seat of United States senator Thomas J. Rusk, who had committed suicide. Frances Henderson went to Washington, D.C., with him. His health declined rapidly, and in less than a year he died there. His wife's primary concerns were now the education of her daughters and the threat of civil war. Her sympathies were divided, for Philadelphia was the place of her birth, but Texas was her adopted home. She decided to solve both problems by going to Europe, where the girls could have the best educational opportunities available and she could avoid the problem of divided allegiance in time of war. With income from the sale of her Texas land she was financially independent. A close friend, Ashbel Smith, helped her dispose of the property.
The Hendersons' youngest daughter, Martha, died in Germany at the age of eighteen. Fanny married an Austrian baron in 1864 and did not return to the United States. In 1868 Julia married Edward White Adams, an American sugar-plantation owner whom she met in France. Frances Henderson returned to the United States with Julia and her family and lived with them until her death. Her experience living on the plantation moved her to write a book about a black woman, Priscilla Baker: Freed Woman (1874). In the last years of her life she was busy as a community leader in East Orange, New Jersey. She established the House of the Good Shepherd for aged and invalid women and a laundry for older women who were able to work. She was also active in the work of the East Orange Free Library and in the support of St. Mark's Episcopal Church. She died at the home of her daughter on January 25, 1897, and was buried in Rosedale Cemetery, East Orange, New Jersey.