Although he was orphaned as a teenager and fathered no children, Andrew Jackson did have a family. His marriage to Rachel Donelson brought him into her large family of brothers, sisters, in-laws, nieces, and nephews. Several of these children lived for a time at The Hermitage and Jackson and Rachel adopted one nephew, son of Rachel’s brother Severn, as Andrew Jackson Junior. Jackson also served as guardian for several children from outside the family. Some of his friends and associates, such as General John Coffee and artist Ralph E. W. Earl married Rachel’s nieces. After Rachel’s death, Jackson took several members of his extended family to Washington to live with him at the White House. Niece Mary Eastin married Lucius Polk and great-niece Mary Emily Donelson was born in the White House.
The eighth of eleven children of Tennessee pioneers John and Rachel Donelson, Rachel Donelson Jackson was born in 1767 in Pittsylvania County on the western Virginia frontier. When she was 12 years old, her father brought his family and many others on a flotilla of flatboats nearly 1000 miles to the Cumberland River in what is now middle Tennessee. They arrived in April 1780 to become some of the first settlers of Nashville. Because there was still a threat of attacks by Indians on the Cumberland, the Donelsons soon moved north to Harrodsburg, Kentucky.
Rachel married Lewis Robards in Harrodsburg when she was 18 and by all accounts, it was a most unhappy marriage. By this time, Rachel’s father had died and her mother had returned to Nashville. Rachel moved back to her mother’s house in Tennessee. A young lawyer, named Andrew Jackson, newly arrived from North Carolina was boarding with her mother. Clearly, the attraction between the two was immediate. Rachel’s mother sent her to visit friends near Natchez and Jackson accompanied her on the journey. While in Natchez they supposedly married, although Rachel’s marriage to Robards had not been dissolved.
No one has ever located any written record of the Natchez wedding. When the couple returned to Nashville in 1791, they found that that Robards had initiated the divorce proceedings, but the divorce was not finalized. With new evidence based on the Natchez “marriage”, Robards completed the divorce by charging Rachel with bigamy. Andrew and Rachel re-married in Nashville in 1794. Divorce was a little understood process, made more complicated by the distances involved and the changing governmental authorities. (During the process, Kentucky became a state instead of a territory of Virginia and North Carolina turned over management of the territory including Tennessee to the Federal Government). The unusual circumstances of the marriage were not greatly discussed in Nashville society. However, during the mudslinging presidential campaign of 1828, Rachel’s virtue became a subject of great discussion and political spin by the supporters of both Andrew Jackson and his opponent John Quincy Adams.
Andrew and Rachel Jackson were devoted to each other. However, Andrew Jackson’s political, business, and military careers frequently took him from The Hermitage. Rachel sorely missed him. Because her large family lived nearby, she usually had friends or family with her. In 1808, they adopted one of Rachel’s nephews and over the years, many other children made their homes with the Jacksons. Although Rachel Jackson grew up on the frontier, she did receive an education. The fire that burned the Hermitage mansion in 1834 destroyed most of her letters, but the few that remain indicate an affectionate woman who cared deeply about her friends and family.
Some observers described Rachel as an unfashionable country woman. By her own admission, she preferred the company of her family and religious services to a constant round of parties and entertainments. She did accompany Jackson to Washington for the House vote in the contested election of 1825, and as Jackson said, “all are well and enjoying themselves, the young at parties and Mrs. J and myself at home smoking our pipe…”
After the Jacksons returned from Washington, Rachel’s health began to decline. As is the case with most nineteenth century medical diagnoses, it is difficult to translate Rachel’s exact condition into modern medical terms. The problems seemed centered on her heart and lungs. As Andrew Jackson began his campaign to gain the White House and the personal as well as political attacks mounted, Rachel added stress and depression to her medical problems. Degrading remarks and taunts focused on the circumstances surrounding her divorce and her marriage to Andrew. As the campaign continued, Rachel’s condition worsened. She reputedly told a friend “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of God than live in that palace in Washington.” Just after the election confirmed that Jackson would be the next president, Rachel’s final illness began. She died December 22, 1828. Andrew Jackson always blamed his political enemies for her death, even though her medical problems had begun as early as 1825.