Born in Calvert County, Maryland, on September 21, 1788, the daughter of Walter Smith, a prosperous Maryland planter and veteran officer of the American Revolution, and the former Ann Mackall, "Peggy" was raised amid refinement and wealth.
While visiting her sister in Kentucky in 1809, she was introduced to Lieutenant Zachary Taylor, then home on leave, by Dr. Alexander Duke.
Lt. Taylor, aged 25, married Peggy Smith, aged 21, on June 21, 1810, at the home of the bride's sister, Mrs. Mary Chew, near Louisville, Kentucky. Their marriage appears to have been a happy one. A devout Episcopalian, Mrs. Taylor prayed regularly for her soldier husband. She became somewhat reclusive because, it is said, she had promised God to give up the pleasures of society if her husband returned safely from war. While he was serving in the Mexican–American War, she lived at their Cypress Grove Plantation near Rodney in Jefferson County, Mississippi.
With the rise in Zachary Taylor's political career, his wife Peggy Taylor literally prayed for his defeat, for she dreaded the personal consequences of his becoming president. By the time she became First Lady, the hardships of following her husband from fort to fort and the birth of several children had taken their toll.
A semi-invalid, she remained in seclusion on the second floor of the White House, leaving the duties of official hostess to her daughter Mary Elizabeth "Betty" Bliss.
With the sudden death of the President, Mrs. Taylor's health deteriorated rapidly.
For many years no portraits or photographs of Margaret Taylor could be fully authenticated and none were known to exist. A suggested likeness was created in 1903 for Presiding Ladies of the White House, by Lila G. A. Woolfall, published by the Bureau of National Literature and Art, Washington, D. C. Portraits and dagguerrotypes purporting to be of Margaret Taylor surfaced occasionally within the collector's market but were not confirmed or authenticated by historians at the White House, Library of Congress or the Smithsonian.
But in 2010 a tinted sixth plate ambrotype portrait of Taylor surfaced. This particular image seems to have been the model for most depictions of her. For many years, the only known image of Taylor was an engraving issued by the U.S. Government in 1902. It was mistakenly believed that no photographs of her had survived. Heritage Auctions offered a ninth plate daguerreotype of the First Lady, a Taylor family heirloom, in November 2010, identifying it then as one of only two known photographs. This is the one loaned by her daughter, White House Hostess Betty Taylor Bliss Dandridge, to be used as the model for the engraving.
A brief description of her personal appearance in 1825, when she was about 37, describes her as "a fat, motherly looking woman." The source of this description is "Early Days at Red River Settlement, and Fort Snelling. Reminiscences of Mrs. Ann Adams, 1821–1829." in Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society, Vol. 6, St. Paul, Minn., 1894" pages 102–103:
In the summer of 1825, Col. and Mrs. Snelling with their children... made a trip to Detroit to pay a visit to her relatives, the Hunts and Mclntoshes, at that place. I accompanied them on that journey... When we reached Prairie du Chien, we put up at Fort Crawford, and tarried there a day or two, to rest. The Snellings were guests of Col. and Mrs. Zachary Taylor, who were stationed there then. It was a daughter of this couple which Jefferson Davis married, while a lieutenant in the army. I fell sick here, and wanted to return home, i. e., to the Fort. There was really nothing the matter with me but home-sickness. I had never been separated from my parents before. Mrs. Snelling was alarmed, as she did not know what to do unless I accompanied her on the journey, to care for the children. She talked about it with Mrs. Taylor. That lady came to see me. She was a fat, motherly looking woman. She told Mrs. Snelling the best way was to divert me and I would soon forget my ailment. This was done, and the cure succeeded.
Another description of Margaret Taylor's appearance, from November, 1848, when she was 60, can be found in The Massachusetts Ploughman and New England Journal of Agriculture, November 18, 1848, Vol. 8, No. 7, page 2:
MRS. GENERAL TAYLOR AND DAUGHTER.-—At a late ball, at East Pascagoula Mississippi, General Taylor, his lady and daughter and Major Bliss, were present. Of them a correspondent of the Mobile Herald writes as follows:---
Mrs. Gen. T.—Dress plain, and in good taste; manners dignified and easy, countenance rather stern but it may be the consequence of military association. Person tall and commanding, demeanor retiring, with no palpable predilection for high station; and, judging from appearance, one would suppose the White House offers no peculiar attractions to Mrs. Gen. T., and if her 'liege lord' would listen to her sage and wel-considered counsel, it is not unlikely he would be content to remain as Gen. T.