Scotch-Irish-L ArchivesArchiver > Scotch-Irish > 2005-04 > 1114452943
From: Alan D <>
Subject: Rachel (Donelson) Jackson - frontier woman and President's wife
Date: Mon, 25 Apr 2005 19:15:43 +0100
Rachel (Donelson) Jackson - frontier woman and President's wife*
*Billy Kennedy *reports on the trials and tribulations on the 18th
century Tennessee frontier.
*The extreme harshness of the American frontier during the late 18th
century made life very difficult for women young and old as they
struggled to keep pace with the enormous challenges encountered by their
men-folk in what was a wooded and mountainous wilderness.*
Rachel Donelson, who later became the wife of the seventh United
States President Andrew Jackson, was only 12 when she and members of her
family and Scots-Irish associates embarked on one of the most daunting
and perilous journeys in America's early history.
For a girl as young, intelligent and lively as the dark-haired
Rachel, the arduous and highly dangerous Holston River voyage to the
Cumberland River in Middle Tennessee region obviously left a lasting
impression and the harrowing experience was indeed character-building
for the numerous personal trials she was to face later in her life.
Rachel (Donelson) Jackson was born in 1767 in Pittsylvania County,
Virginia after her Ulster parents had moved there from the eastern side
of the state where they were married.
John Donelson, Rachel's father, was a land-owner and huntsman /
surveyor in Virginia and North Carolina who became a leader of the
Watauga community which settled during the 1770s on the Holston River of
what today is North East Tennessee.
The Wataugans, led by another Scots-Irishman James Robertson were a
hardy, tough breed of people who had the insatiable urge to keep pushing
the frontier westwards to new settlements, across the Allegheny
Mountains - even against the advice of British land agents who feared
the inevitable conflict with the native American tribes. In that
region, the tribes were Cherokees and Chickasaws.
John Donelson and James Robertson combined with a North Carolina
lawyer and agent Richard Henderson to make an assault on new lands on
the Cumberland River several hundred miles west. The plans were first
prepared in 1777 and Robertson led an exploratory team there over a
two-year period before the decision was taken to move.
A 3,000-acre land grant was negotiated with Richard Henderson and
arrangements were made for the movement of these families who were
prepared to risk all to start a new life in a far-distant rugged wilderness.
The journey was split with James Robertson assigned to led 200 men
and boys with their animals (horses, cows, pigs, sheep) and other
belongings on the Kentucky route, along the Wilderness Road and through
the Cumberland Gap.
John Donelson, with the welfare of his wife Rachel and young daughter
Rachel and his nine other children uppermost in his thoughts, led, with
male comrades, the 400 women and children on a flotilla of flat boats
from Fort Patrick Henry along the Holston River to the Cumberland River
and the new settlement of Fort Nashborough, later to be named Nashville.
River travel, because of the obvious dangers of attack from Indians,
was not a favoured mode of communication in that part of the Appalachian
frontier, but the Wataugan people felt there was no other option.
It was an extremely cold winter - said to be the coldest in living
memory in North Carolina and the Tennessee territory with the deep snow
and frozen rivers making the journey for both parties extremely
hazardous, but with dogged determination they persevered and by
Christmas week of 1779 Robertson and his men had arrived.
They were worn out by the rigours of the journey, but began almost
immediately to erect log cabins and clear stretches of land for the
arrival of John Donelson and the families in the spring. The Cumberland
River was frozen over and the animal stock had to be driven across rock
The Donelson-piloted party moved in an armada of 40 small flat boats and
canoes, moving slowly along the Holston River. The largest boat,
Adventure, had 30 families on board, including James Robertson's wife
Charlotte and five children and John Donelson's own family, wife Rachel
and children including young Rachel.
It was a journey into the unknown for the families; along unchartered
waters, over dangerous shoals, rapids and falls; through territory
occupied by hostile Indian tribes and in conditions well below zero
After only three miles the voyage was halted; ice and snow and cold
had set in and the frozen river made progress impossible. There was no
movement until mid-February, and when the boats were eventually cut
loose, they were hampered again by the swell of the river due to
incessant heavy rain.
Several boats sank and some of the voyagers took ill from smallpox
and died. As they passed the Chickamauga Indian settlements the boats
came under attack from tribesmen massed on the shore. There were
casualties on both sides, with settlers countering the Indian assaults
with sniper fire from their long Kentucky rifles.
Most of the boats got through, beyond the danger points, and by the
beginning of spring they were at the mouth of the Tennessee River and
the high water of the Ohio River. They faced difficult upstream
currents and progress was further hampered, when they had to stop and
make camp to replenish dwindling food supplies by hunting buffalo and
bear in the woods.
The last lap of the journey came via the Cumberland River and on
Monday April 24 when the party reached French Salt Lick, site of
present-day down-town Nashville, there was a hearty welcome from James
Robertson and his men who had prepared well for the arrival.
When they reached Fort Nashborough in 1780, John Donelson settled his
family on fertile bottom land, a few miles from the fort, but this was
dangerous territory and with a scarcity of grain and food for the
winter, they moved to a more settled area at Harrodsburg, Kentucky in
the fall (autumn) of that year.
In 1785, Rachel, in her 18th year, married Lewis Robards, from Mercer
County, Kentucky. But it was a relationship which lasted only a few
years and Rachel returned to be with her mother, who had moved back to
live near Nashville after the murder of her husband in 1786 by persons
unknown on the road between Nashville and Kentucky.
The death of John Donelson was a severe blow to his family and it was
at her mother's home that Rachel met a young lawyer from North Carolina,
Andrew Jackson, who was staying as a boarding guest. Jackson was the
son of Ulster emigrants who left Carrickfergus in 1765.
The friendship developed and in August, 1791 the pair were married at
Natchez, but the marriage to Lewis Robards was never officially wound up
which meant Rachel had unwittingly committed bigamy when she wed Jackson.
Robards had filed divorce proceedings to the Virginia legislature,
but dropped these without telling Rachel and it was an inconclusive
arrangement that was to haunt Mrs Jackson in later years.
By September 1793, Robards did manage to get his divorce, after
charging that it was his wife who had deserted him and was living an
"adulterous relationship" with another man. The charge was not
contested, and Rachel and Andrew went through another marriage ceremony,
quietly in Nashville in January, 1794.
Rachel came with a settlement of her late father's estate, which
included household articles valued $433.33 and two black slaves. The
couple had no children, but they had a very happy 37-year marriage, even
though the last few years were marred by allegations from political
opponents of Andrew over the legality of their marriage after Rachel's
break-up with Robards.
During the early years of the marriage, Andrew Jackson was a lawyer,
circuit judge, land speculator, farmer and businessman. He later moved
into politics, was a soldier of national renown especially for his
victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 and,
eventually, he became President, serving two terms in Washington from
1828 to 1836.
From a life as a child and teenager in the harsh Tennessee and
Kentucky frontier wilderness, Rachel's personal circumstances improved
immeasurably and in the several large plantation homes where they lived,
her role was more supervisory of the housekeeping duties which were
carried out by the slaves.
She hosted regular gatherings for members of the large family circle
and Jackson's political and business friends, but she fretted much over
her husband's long absences from home, due to his exploits as a soldier
In 1808, they adopted one of twin sons born to her sister-in-law
Elizabeth Donelson and eventually Andrew Jackson Jr. was made President
Tragically, Rachel Jackson died a few weeks after Andrew was elected
for his first four-year term as President. It came soon after the death
of another adopted child, 16-year-old Indian son Lyncoya. Devastated,
Rachel's condition deteriorated on learning of the vicious accusations
of 'bigamy and adultery', made against her during the Presidential
campaign of 1828.
Rachel was heartbroken that she should be targeted in his way and,
within a few weeks, her physical and mental condition had considerably
worsened. Although Andrew tried frantically to revive her, she died on
December 22, 1828.
She was buried in the garden of their Hermitage estate outside
Nashville on Christmas Eve. Among the pall-bearers at the funeral was
Sam Houston, then Governor of Tennessee, a close associate of Andrew
Jackson and another with Co Antrim roots.
For several days, the incoming President was inconsolable and he told
his aides that 'a loss so great can be compensated by no earthly gift.'
He had to prepare for the trip to Washington, to begin his Presidency,
but until the day he died in 1845, Andrew grieved for a wife who was so
close and dear to him.
Andrew's love for his wife, over thirty seven years of marriage, was
evident by the inscription he placed on Rachel's tomb.
It was said he kept his pistols polished and in condition for instant
use against anyone who cash a shadow of discredit or doubt on the honour
of the woman he loved with 'such single-minded, fierce and gentle devotion.
'The inscription on Rachel's tombstone read: 'Here lies the remains
of Mrs Rachel Jackson, wife of President Jackson, who died 22nd
December, 1828, aged 61. Her face was fair; her person pleasing, her
temper amiable and her heart kind.'
Women of the Frontier by Billy Kennedy. Published by Ambassador
International, Ardenlee Street, Belfast BT6 8QJ and 427 Wadehampton
Boulevard, Greenville, South Carolina 29609. £9.99 and $15. Website: