Thousands of documents written by Andrew Jackson and thousands more written to him or about him have survived to the present. Historians have used this source material to write hundreds of books and articles about Jackson. For this reason, his presence looms large in history and at The Hermitage.
Yet, the majority of people who lived at The Hermitage did not write a single document. They were not thought important enough to gain mention in documents written by others. Their names are rarely encountered beyond bills of sale, runaway notices, and passing observations The only “documents” they left behind were the footprints of missing buildings, objects lost or left behind, and other material evidence of their time here. For almost 200 years, their histories have remained untold.
From its beginnings in the early 1970s, Hermitage archaeology has sought to uncover the histories of those individuals. In the almost 40 years of archaeology at The Hermitage, we have discovered, analyzed, catalogued, and curated almost 800,000 artifacts that speak volumes to the lives of the enslaved who also called this place home
The Mansion Backyard
The mansion backyard was one of the busiest spots on this 1,050 acre plantation. It was here where the slaves performed their daily activities, such as washing, cooking, soap making, and gardening. These enslaved laborers were on constant duty and could be summoned by the Jackson Family through the use of a bell system installed in the mansion. The mansion kitchen and smokehouse were here as well. Many of the barnyard animals would have roamed throughout this area and it was here that over 200 hogs were slaughtered during the first cold days of winter each year.
Of the three living and/or working structures constructed for and by the enslaved in the Mansion Backyard Quarter, one remains on the property and two are known about through archaeological investigation. The area is made up of “Alfred’s Cabin,” the “Yard Cabin,” and the “Triplex.”
Home of Alfred Jackson, an enslaved man and later a free tenant farmer, who lived at The Hermitage until 1901. It is a duplex log cabin built about 1844 and the only slave dwelling still standing in the backyard of the mansion. The rooms are approximately 20 feet by 20 feet, which was the dimension that the Jacksons provided for each slave dwelling. Hermitage archaeologists conducted extensive testing and excavation around the cabin. Along with a wide variety of artifacts, historic fence lines were found around the cabin. This information provides clues about the backyard’s divisions between private and public space.
The "Yard Cabin" was between the Hermitage garden fence and Alfred’s cabin. The “cabin” –it may have been two buildings joined together-- has been partially excavated. A brick root cellar and limestone hearth bases were discovered. Artifact evidence shows that the building(s) were likely built on stone piers and in use from the 1820s through emancipation. It is unclear whether these rooms were working or living spaces for the enslaved. A predominance of eggshell and infant bird bone suggests that the area may have been used to keep fowl.
The "Triplex" was a 60 foot by 20 foot brick building northwest of the Hermitage mansion, divided into three separate units each with a fireplace and chimney. The structure may have been used as working and/or living space. It was likely constructed in the 1820s, but was partially destroyed in a windstorm in the late 1860s. The extensive artifact collections excavated from the interior of these units include animal bone, ceramics, glass, and children’s marbles. Over 30,000 animal bones recovered from this location demonstrate that the area was used as a trash pile after the Triplex was destroyed. An especially interesting find was a large quantity of sewing related artifacts such as needle cases, thimbles, carved bone-lacing rods, straight pins, and dozens of buttons. It is possible that these sewing implements belonged to Gracy, Sarah Jackson’s enslaved personal maid and seamstress. All three units had brick-lined root cellars that would have been under the floorboards.
The Hermitage icehouse stood directly behind the smokehouse in the backyard of the Hermitage mansion. It was a square, below ground feature lined with wood planks. The structure would have been lined with hay and then filled with blocks of ice cut from streams and rivers. Typical icehouses had a ground-level A-frame roof with steps leading down into the pit where the ice was stored. The icehouse was probably constructed in the 1830s and abandoned in the late nineteenth century.
The First Hermitage
This area is known as the “First Hermitage” because it was the first place that the Jackson Family lived when Andrew Jackson purchased this property in 1804. When the Jacksons moved to this property, it already consisted of a two-story log dwelling. The Jacksons moved into the log dwelling and lived there for 17 years prior to the construction of the mansion. The Jacksons constructed a log duplex next to the dwelling to serve as a kitchen and slave dwelling.
After the Jacksons moved into the mansion, this area became solely used as a slave quarter. An additional brick duplex was constructed at this location. Another log building existed at this location as well, but it is unclear whether this was constructed before or after Jackson purchased the property.
Six field seasons of archaeological work have taken place at this site. Archaeology has been an important source of information about the Jackson’s early years at the Hermitage and about the First Hermitage complex during its use as a slave quarters.
The First Hermitage Farmhouse
After the Jacksons moved into the mansion in 1821, they “deconstructed” their former home to modify it for use as a slave dwelling. The Jacksons took much effort in removing an entire story from the building as well as windows, wallpaper, and other features. At the First Hermitage Farmhouse archaeologists have focused their efforts on how the building changed over time from Jackson’s home to a home where slaves lived and the differences in material culture between those time periods.
The First Hermitage Kitchen
The First Hermitage Kitchen building is a log duplex measuring 18 x 30 feet with a chimney/hearth at either end. One side would have been used as the kitchen for the Jackson household, while the other would have housed slaves. Excavation of this dwelling revealed multiple brick root cellars under it. Artifacts that could firmly be associated with the slave period include: two pierced coins, decorated clay marbles, hand-blown medicine vials, leather shoe pieces, a shell ornament, as well as thousands of shards of ceramics and glass. A blue-transfer print meat platter found under the kitchen was one of the largest pieces of intact ceramic ever excavated at The Hermitage.
The First Hermitage Yard
In addition to excavation of the interior of the First Hermitage buildings, work has been done in the yard areas surrounding both. While much of the area between the cabins appeared to have been swept clean from the African-American tradition of sweeping outdoor spaces, interesting features, such as an outdoor cooking hearth, multiple ash deposits (from fireplace cleanings), and a fence line to the east of the kitchen building suggest outdoor living and working.
The South and Southeast Cabins
Oftentimes, archaeology leads to more questions than answers. Archaeologists have also discovered the remains of two other buildings near the First Hermitage known as the South and Southeast cabins. At the South Cabin archaeologists located the limestone foundation of what appears to have been a brick duplex. During this testing a rich assortment of domestic artifacts was uncovered. Archaeologists also discovered the remains of a chimney associated with another building at this site known as the Southeast Cabin. The large range of household artifacts, including bone, beads and buttons, early 19th century ceramics, lead archaeologists to believe it was a dwelling as opposed to a farm outbuilding. Both building sites need further investigation.
The Field Quarter Site
The Field Quarter is located almost in the geographic center of the plantation and would have been a strategic place to house the enslaved who worked this land. Upwards of 80 men, women, and children would have lived at the Field Quarter.
Four brick duplexes with limestone foundations and end chimneys built around a central courtyard comprised the Field Quarter. All evidence suggests these structures were built in the early 1820s at the same time the Hermitage mansion was built. None remain standing today. All four were had two 20 x 20 foot living spaces that would have been home to a single slave family. Archaeologists have excavated brick lined and dug-in-ground root cellars within each unit. These distinctive and important features, hidden away from Jackson and his overseers, are critical to understanding aspects of slaves’ lives that they retained control over.
In addition to the four brick cabins, archaeologists discovered remnants of log buildings that pre-dated the brick dwellings. The Field Quarter yard areas were very important as many activities took place outside rather than inside the cramped quarters. Archaeologists found brick paving or flooring outside the doorway of one cabin and excavated a fence line (postholes) along side another cabin. Artifacts in and around these buildings have revealed a great deal of information about the Field Quarter slaves’ lives and culture
During the summer of 2001, Archaeologists searched for the cotton gin house and press. Historical documents proved that Andrew Jackson had a cotton gin and press built and in operation by 1807. Research indicated that those buildings were located in one of the cotton fields just beyond the First Hermitage. Hermitage archaeologists tested this field and found a raised area of ground with heavy concentrations of brick and limestone. Excavations uncovered evidence of post holes from the corners/sides of a large log building that is believed to be the cotton gin house. This building housed the ginning machinery and also contained storage rooms for cotton. Jackson’s cotton press was also discovered just 90 feet from the gin house. The pit press was a 9 foot deep pit lined on the bottom with brick and limestone and had two parallel limestone walls on either side that formed a box-like structure. The ginned cotton was dropped into a framed box that was in the bottom of the pit and an 11 foot screw turned by a horse powered treadmill pressed the cotton into bales weighing 500 pounds each.
The Hermitage Landscape
Excavations have been conducted in and around the garden to answer questions about its original size, paths, layout, and fence lines. Archaeologists learned that the garden went through at least three major alterations and renovations. Some of these changes include changing fence lines around the garden, circular planting beds found underneath the library wing of the mansion, planting beds that were lined with brick, and earlier pathways that may have been paved with crushed brick. Artifacts were infrequently found in the garden but some do reflect gardening activities.
Archaeologists tested this guitar-shaped driveway to answer a basic question. What did the driveway look like in Jackson’s time? They discovered that the driveway was roughly the same shape and width as it is now (about 10 feet). Originally it was paved with small to golf-ball size chunks of limestone, which would have firmly supported carriages and horses as they approached the mansion.
Many years of testing and excavation uncovered the post hole lines where the Hermitage mansion yard fences ran. Evidence from the post holes combined with documentary sources showed that a fence once surrounded the mansion. In 2002, the yard fence was recreated as it stood historically. This fence was an extremely important physical and symbolic barrier that separated the private mansion yard from the very busy yards of the working plantation.