This month, I focused on learning about Rachel Jackson, wife to one of the most controversial presidents, Andrew Jackson. Her life story is one of adventure and heartbreak, ultimately ending in a sad tale that haunted President Jackson for his entire presidency.
Each month, I’ll detail the life of the first lady and their legacy. Then I’ll share what I learned while studying them, along with ways you can travel in their footsteps through historical sites and museums. I’ll also share books, podcasts, TV shows, and websites where you can learn even more about that first lady. Read all of the way through the blog post or click on the links below to go straight to those sections.
Rachel Donelson was born on June 15, 1767 on the frontier in southwestern Virginia (near Chatham in Pittsylvania County) and was the ninth of eleven children. Her parents, John and Rachel, were minor gentry, and her Maryland-born father served in the Virginia House of Burgesses. Her mother’s family was one of the older families in Virginia, emigrating in 1609. At their marriage, he was 26, and she was 14.
Her father surveyed land west of Virginia, and in 1779 when Rachel was twelve, he moved his family to what is now Tennessee. They traveled to the last fort on the frontier at Kingsport and then took a caravan of river boats down an almost frozen river. It was a highly dangerous journey with uncertain navigation and scary terrain with the ever-present threat of deadly Indian attacks and diseases. It was an adventure that would make a rollicking novel, and I can’t imagine a young girl’s horror at witnessing violent raids and seeing many in their group perish on the four month journey. At one point, a family’s boat was trailing the others due to a smallpox outbreak when it was set upon by the Native Americans. In the haste to save lives, a newborn baby born just the day before was lost in the rapids as the father was killed in the skirmish.
They finally got to their destination in what is now Nashville but only stayed a year due to the constant Indian raids. Mr. Donelson moved his family to Harrodsburg, Kentucky which was more established and not as close to the frontier. Rachel grew into a beautiful and vivacious young woman with flashing dark eyes and long, curly black hair. She loved to dance and talk to others, catching the attention of Lewis Robards, a fellow Virginian who had served as a soldier in the Continental Army.
They met in 1784, and when her family decided to move back to Tennessee the following year, Rachel married Lewis and moved in with his mother and family. It soon became clear that her romantic dreams had turned into a nightmare as Lewis was controlling and had a ferocious temper. He was not good with money and was very jealous when other men spoke to Rachel. One of her mother-in-law’s boarders fell in love with Rachel, and even though Lewis’ own family vouched for Rachel, Lewis became enraged. He ended up taking money from the offender instead of fighting in a duel, blaming Rachel more than the man. Lewis also was violent with Rachel and the enslaved women who lived with them.
Rachel missed her family desperately, especially when she learned her father had been murdered in 1785. She moved back to their household, possibly at Lewis’ suggestion, but he ended up following her. She took him back but he continued to treat her badly.
Enter Andrew Jackson. The young lawyer from the Waxhaws area of the Carolinas had already lived a troubled life as an orphan and victim of the British Army. His hard-scrabble upbringing led him to being a lawyer on the Tennessee circuit, and he and a fellow lawyer lived in a cabin as part of Mrs. Donelson’s compound. He and Rachel had an attraction, but as a married woman, she remained loyal to her husband, no matter how badly he treated her. Rachel and Lewis built their own home nearby, but by January of 1790, Lewis was done with the marriage, leaving Rachel in Nashville and moving back permanently to Kentucky. She was relieved to be rid of him, however, upon learning that his mother was sick, she went to Kentucky. While there, his own mother told Rachel she had to get away from him. She wrote home to ask for an escort and Andrew Jackson became her knight on a white horse, riding to get her and fleeing the pursuing Lewis.
Lewis and Rachel finally broke up for good, and he even began divorce proceedings. As a woman, Rachel had no legal standing, and the only way for her to obtain a divorce was for Lewis to petition the Virginia legislature. Tired of the gossip, Rachel took a trip down the Mississippi to Natchez, accompanied by Andrew. He escorted her to friends in the Spanish territory and went home to continue his law business. When he rushed back to let her know that the Virginia legislature had granted Lewis’ appeal for a divorce, they both were thrilled. They quickly married in Natchez in 1791 and spent time there before coming back to Nashville as a married couple. Her relatives were ecstatic, and Jackson loved finally being part of a large extended family.
They lived for two years in newlywed bliss, however, a scandal was brewing that threatened their happiness. Lewis Robards had never actually filed for divorce even though the Virginia legislature granted his petition to do so. That meant that Rachel and Lewis were still married, and Rachel and Andrew’s marriage was null and void. Horrified, Rachel had no recourse other than to let Lewis sue her for divorce citing desertion and adultery. Unable to defend herself in court, Rachel had to accept this route if she wanted to be legally married to Andrew. In September, 1793, Lewis’ divorce was granted, and she and Andrew quietly remarried on January 28, 1794.
They bought a new plantation near her mother, and Rachel made many of the business decisions with Andrew’s travel schedule. They helped her brothers and sisters raise their children, even adopting one of her brother’s children, naming him Andrew Jackson, Jr. They didn’t have children of their own, but their house was never empty. Rachel was very lonely outside of her family as the women of Nashville were never accepting of her frontier manners (including smoking a pipe!) and her marriage scandals.
Rachel didn’t mind the slights, as long as she had Andrew by her side. They were very much in love and left letters addressed to “my dearest heart” and “my love.” Andrew even learned to play the flute so as to accompany her on the piano! That is love! If he could just stay at home, Rachel would have led a happy life.
Andrew started moving in political circles and served in the US House of Representatives and then as senator. Rachel stayed behind in Tennessee and was “bathed in tears” at his leaving. He didn’t stay in Philadelphia long, coming home and serving on the state superior court.
They both were sickly and had a terrible time with their health, traveling to warm springs and ordering books to treat their various ailments. They were rarely without a cough or digestive issue and only had the rudimentary medicine at the time as a cure. They could find no relief, however, from their childlessness, which was a constant source of pain.
As Andrew climbed in political and military circles, he had one soft spot that continued to be his Achilles heel – the ever-present threat to Rachel’s good name. Even with their official marriage, they could not live down the infamy from the scandal. Andrew continually fought duels over the insults, resulting in a bullet lodged in his shoulder and near his heart for the rest of his life. Rachel was mortified that her past mistakes continued to cause them problems and worried that it would affect his political career.
In 1804, they had to sell their plantation to pay down debts, purchasing a small log cabin on adjacent land called The Hermitage. It was here that Andrew and Rachel would create a lasting home. They owned slaves, nine in 1806 and up to 40 by 1830, and the enslaved worked in the fields, turning The Hermitage into a thriving plantation. Rachel did not like dealing with the discipline of the enslaved, leaving that to Andrew or the overseer.
In 1805, Rachel and Andrew had a distinguished visitor, Aaron Burr, who was on his way out west. When it came to light what Burr planned to do, Andrew was called to Richmond to testify at Burr’s treason trial. That plus Andrew’s participation in a duel that resulted in a death damaged his reputation.
With the advent of the War of 1812, Rachel had to bid Andrew goodbye as he rode to Alabama and Louisiana. He led a massacre of an Indian tribe but saved a young boy that he sent home to Rachel. Lyncoya became part of their family until he died as a teenager.
After the victorious Battle of New Orleans, Andrew sent for Rachel, and she arrived in New Orleans to a gaunt and haggard husband. They attended balls and celebrations in New Orleans, but it was too much for a pious and simple Rachel.
They headed home and then to Washington, DC, stopping for a ball in Lynchburg, Virginia where former president Thomas Jefferson raised a glass in their honor. They became very sick in Washington with Rachel missing the ball given in Andrew’s honor by the Madisons.
Rachel once again was left home alone when Andrew moved into Florida for the brutal First Seminole War. She continued running their businesses and even expanded The Hermitage while he was away, only joining him when he became the first governor of Florida in 1821. They lived in Pensacola for eight months until he was so sick, he had to resign.
While they were both at The Hermitage, their health continued to plague them even as renovations on the home continued. Rachel chose expensive wood block wallpaper for the foyer and installed a new formal garden along with opening a new church on their land. She wanted Andrew to be satisfied living there but rumors were swirling that he would be nominated as president in 1824. He went back to Washington as a senator in October of 1823, and with his rise in prominence, the nasty gossip about their marriage was dredged back up by political opponents.
Rachel and Andrew traveled to Washington in December of 1824 with their nephew, Andrew Jackson Donelson, and his new wife (and cousin!), Emily. They expected Andrew to win the presidency, but while she supported Andrew and wanted him to win, Rachel was heartsick over the expense and heathen social life in Washington. In a contentious election between four candidates, Andrew won the popular vote but was defeated by the “corrupt bargain” that made John Quincy Adams president. They returned to Tennessee where Rachel said she much preferred country life to being First Lady, but Andrew simmered in rage at the unfairness of the election.
As Jackson continued to be a political threat, a pro-Adams newspaper publisher started looking into the Jacksons’ marriage, urging people to vote against Jackson to prevent a “degraded female” from being the head of the nation’s society. Rachel tried to block out the gossip, focusing on a full house and serving as a gracious hostess. She had become stout and tan from her days outside on the plantation, but she was still friendly and hospitable, putting her guests at ease.
As the election loomed, Rachel dreaded Andrew’s expected victory, telling a friend that she’d rather “be a doorkeeper in the house of God than live in that palace in Washington.” However she knew better than to hope Andrew would stay in Nashville and had a new white dress made for the occasion. Just days after he was declared the winner, Rachel suffered a heart attack, rumored to have occurred after she overheard two women discussing her marriage scandal. Andrew stayed at her side until she died four days later on December 22, 1828. She was buried on December 26 in a tomb at The Hermitage wearing the white dress she had made for the inauguration.
Bitter about the attacks that he was convinced caused her death, Andrew Jackson became a president bent on revenge and ready to go to battle in Washington. How different might his presidency have been if his Rachel had been by his side? Years later, his bitterness had not receded, with her epitaph reading, “a being so gentle and yet so virtuous, slander might wound but could not dishonor.”
Rachel Jackson’s legacy is tarnished by scandal during her life and by the controversy of her husband’s presidency. It’s hard to separate her from his deeds but we have to remember that she was not there while he was president. Who knows how his decisions would have changed, maybe been softened, by her influence? He did do some brutal things while they were married, so it’s just a guess if she would have been a tempering influence on him.
Her own legacy is one of hardiness and perseverance. I can’t imagine being a young girl and seeing the horrific things she must have witnessed on that trip to Tennessee. It had to be life-changing and could account for her dedication to religion as she got older.
The scandal with her first husband is heartbreaking but also shows Rachel going after what she wanted in life. With the frontier being a little more loose with laws and social mores, divorce wasn’t as taboo a topic as it was in the gentrified east. Her family seemed to just be glad that Rachel found someone to treat her well, and the scandal seemed to be more focused on the timing rather than the actual divorce. From all accounts, Rachel truly thought she was divorced and was horrified once the truth came to light.
As with many of the First Ladies, Rachel grew up at a time of slavery and was a part of plantation life. In the scant sources we have of her, I didn’t find anything that said she ever discussed the morals of slavery or had any thought as to if slavery should be abolished.
Her legacy as a First Lady is minuscule as she didn’t live to move into the White House. Her niece, Emily Donelson, served as Andrew’s hostess for much of his presidency and even gave birth to three children in the White House. Sadly she died early as well, not living to the end of his presidency. He was then served by his daughter-in-law, Sarah Yorke Jackson.
There are just a few portraits of Rachel which makes her legacy one of mystery. One is of younger Rachel with her beautiful dark eyes and slight smile on her lips. Another is an older Rachel with a world-weariness to her look. Her life was one of hardship and disappointment, but she remained focused on her family, her love, and her faith.
My Time with Rachel
I had a harder time with Rachel’s story than any other First Lady I’ve studied to date. So much has been written about her husband that it’s hard to not focus on what he was doing at the time. Even the authors of the two books about Rachel had the same issue, always reverting back to what Andrew was doing.
I found the beginning of her life exciting, imagining the adventurous trip on the river to Nashville. I think that’s my favorite time of her life to think about, one that is different from any other First Lady so far. Most of the other First Ladies hadn’t been further west than Warm Springs, Virginia, much less Nashville, Natchez, and New Orleans. Rachel was the first one to visit the new American frontier. She must have been a hardy soul to have survived that trip!
Rachel was also the first First Lady to have been divorced. The resulting scandal was surprising to me, especially learning that divorce was commonly accepted among the western frontier. That’s not well-known, and I found it fascinating.
I mostly felt sorry for Rachel. It seems like she never was able to do what she wanted in life. Her father made her go west, her first husband made her life miserable, Andrew’s political aspirations took him away from her, and her childlessness was a constant source of pain. Plus the one time she finally had succeeded with Andrew’s election, her body failed her. However, the one thing she wanted and fought for most – marrying Andrew – remains her triumph. Maybe that was enough for her.
Travels with Rachel
Rachel saw more of the country than most of the women of her time.
In addition to the marker, a nearby chimney built of stones from Rachel’s childhood home still stands
A historical marker is all that is left of Andrew and Rachel’s home adjacent to what would become The Hermitage.
This historical marker is all that remains of the plantation started by Rachel’s father and where she and Andrew lived for a time
A historical marker on a busy street marks where Rachel lived with her mother and met Andrew Jackson.
You can follow in Rachel and Andrew’s footsteps on the Natchez Trace.
This replica fort in the town where Rachel lived and married her first husband is a good place to learn about her life on the frontier.
This home is where Andrew and Rachel lived while he was governor of Florida.
A historical marker is all that is left of the home where Rachel and Andrew married in 1791
You can follow in Rachel and Andrew’s footsteps on the Natchez Trace.
This town is where Rachel came to celebrate Andrew’s victory in the Battle of New Orleans. She attended balls and receptions given in their honor all over the French Quarter. (Photo below is the Andrew Jackson statue in Jackson Square)
To Learn More
I read two books written about Rachel, one fiction and one nonfiction. It was a perfect pairing!
All links are Amazon affiliate links. You can also purchase the books through my affiliate link to Bookshop.org which supports independent bookstores.
A Being So Gentle: The Frontier Love Story of Rachel and Andrew Jackson by Patricia Brady
The author of one of my favorite Martha Washington biographies, Brady writes a highly readable, short biography of Rachel. I loved the descriptions of the trip to Nashville and Rachel’s early life.
The President’s Lady: A Novel about Rachel and Andrew Jackson by Irving Stone
This fictionalized tale of the romance between Rachel and Andrew had moments of heart-stopping adventure and quiet moments of reflection. It’s an easy way to learn the history of Rachel’s life.
Here’s Where It Gets Interesting:
- The Catastrophic Marriage Scandal of Rachel Jackson
- Tennessee: Incorrigible Andrew Jackson with Richard Lim
The President’s Lady (1953) – starring Susan Hayward as Rachel and Charlton Heston as Andrew Jackson
White House Historical Association
- Rachel Donelson Jackson
- Emily Donelson
- Sarah Yorke Jackson
- The Jackson White House Christmas ornament is inspired by Christmas 1836 when the children of Jackson’s family were treated to a “snowball” (cotton balls) fight in the White House! You can purchase it here.
Rachel Donelson Jackson was a private woman with public pain. She was the first of our First Ladies to deal with the extreme personal attacks we associate with modern campaigns. Through it all, she remained her loyal and faithful self, full of charm, hospitality, and most importantly, love for her husband.