The Hermitage

 
 
The Hermitage

Nathaniel Hays Era, 1780-1804

Before Andrew Jackson purchased The Hermitage, the land was owned and settled by Nathaniel Hays. In 1780, Hays laid claim to a 640-acre land grant comprised of heavily forested level land with rich soil served by natural springs and creeks. The Cumberland and Stone’s rivers were less than two miles away from Hays’ land.

The ongoing Indian wars caused many settlers to abandon Middle Tennessee, including Nathaniel Hays, who had fled to East Tennessee by 1783. Fifteen years later, Nathaniel Hays returned to his Davidson County land and brought his wife Elizabeth, three children, and two African American slaves. Over the next two years, he supervised the construction of a substantial, two-story, log farmhouse near a spring on the property. Hays’ neighbor to the north was Andrew Jackson.

Hays cleared fields and bartered the cotton he grew at Jackson’s nearby Hunter’s Hill General Store, where he had an account. Besides professional and social ties, Hays and Jackson shared an interest in the military, since Hays was a leader in the Tennessee State Militia. Hays’ daughters often visited Andrew and Rachel Jackson. On July 5, 1804, Hays, who was moving to Bedford County, sold his farm to Jackson for $3,400.

Andrew Jackson 1804-1845.

Andrew Jackson sold his more valuable Hunter’s Hill farm on the Cumberland River to pay off debts. Moving from his fine brick home at Hunter’s Hill to a log farmhouse on his new land was a step backward for Jackson. He immediately hired a Nashville craftsman to dress up his new home with French wallpaper and painted trim. He hired men to clear fields and build fences. In August, he and Rachel moved to their new property, which Jackson initially called “Rural Retreat” before quickly renaming it “Hermitage.” How Jackson decided on the name is not known, but “Hermitage” means essentially the same thing as “Rural Retreat.” Jackson hired two Nashville men to construct a new log kitchen the following year. The kitchen was a dual-purpose building that also served as slave quarters for Betty, the cook, and her family.

Initially Jackson operated his cotton farm with nine enslaved African Americans, but this number gradually grew to 44 by 1820. Jackson rapidly converted the farm into a prosperous 1,000-acre plantation and supervised the construction of many outbuildings, including a distillery, dairy, carriage shelter, cotton gin and press, and slave cabins. Jackson typically grew two hundred acres of cotton as his cash crop with the remainder of the farm dedicated to producing food for the Jacksons, their slaves, and their livestock. Jackson also used part of The Hermitage for his true passion in life, raising racehorses. Andrew and Rachel lived in the log farmhouse until 1821.

From 1819 to 1821, skilled carpenters and masons hired by Jackson built a Federal- style, two-story brick dwelling for Jackson and his family. At the same time, Jackson employed William Frost, an English gardener from Philadelphia, to design and layout a formal garden for Rachel. Several outbuildings, including a smokehouse and kitchen stood near Jackson’s new eight room mansion. In the main stair hall, Rachel Jackson selected scenic wallpapers imported from France that depicted themes from Greek mythology. After brick production began for the mansion, Jackson also had new brick slave dwellings built. In the 1820s, brick and log cabins for housing 95 enslaved African Americans, dotted the Hermitage landscape.

Andrew Jackson took office as the seventh President of the United States in 1829. While Jackson was president, his son Andrew Jackson Jr. and Jackson’s Nashville friends saw to Hermitage affairs along with a series of overseers who managed day- to-day operations. In 1831, while in Washington, President Jackson hired Nashville architect David Morrison to enlarge the mansion dramatically with flanking one-story wings, a two-story entrance portico with Doric columns, a rear portico, and copper gutters. The east wing contained a library and farm office while a large dining room and pantry comprised the west wing. Jackson also paid Morrison to construct a “temple & monument” for Rachel Jackson, who had died in 1828. In 1832, craftsmen completed this Greek inspired tomb built from local limestone and covered it with a copper roof.

After a chimney fire seriously damaged the mansion on October 13, 1834, President Jackson hired noted Nashville architects and master builders Joseph Reiff and William Hume to rebuild the mansion in the stately Greek Revival-style. Reiff and Hume used many design features published by New England architect Asher Benjamin. They completed the repairs in 1836. In 1837, Jackson retired from office and returned to The Hermitage. Andrew Jackson died on June 8, 1845 and was laid to rest two days later under the tomb next to his wife Rachel. At the time of his death, nearly 150 enslaved African Americans operated the cotton plantation.

The Ladies’ Hermitage Association

Sarah Jackson’s death in 1887 refocused private citizens and the Tennessee General Assembly on the long term disposition of The Hermitage. In 1888, the State of Tennessee considered using The Hermitage property as home for Tennessee’s Confederate veterans. This plan proposed to convert the Hermitage mansion into a hospital-type institution for indigent and disabled Confederate veterans. A group of wealthy Nashville women, including Andrew Jackson’s descendants, protested and formed the Ladies’ Hermitage Association in response. They modeled their organization on the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union that had purchased George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate in 1859.

After several weeks of intense lobbying, on the last day of the session, the Tennessee State Legislature passed a compromise bill on April 5, 1889. This bill gave the newly chartered Ladies’ Hermitage Association (LHA) control and ownership of a 25-acre section of the Hermitage farm that included the mansion, garden, and several historic outbuildings. The bill also created a 9-member all-male Board of Trustees that oversaw the operations of the all-female LHA Board of Directors. At the same time, the state created the Tennessee Confederate Soldiers’ Home and put it in charge of the remaining 475 acres of the Hermitage farm with the instruction that the home itself be located “outside the view of the Hermitage [mansion] grounds.” In July 1889, the LHA held its first fundraising “excursion” to The Hermitage and opened the property as a public institution. Since then, nearly 15 million people from around the world have toured Andrew Jackson’s home and farm.

One of the very first projects the LHA undertook in 1889 was the repair and restoration of Jackson’s original log farmhouse, which had fallen into disrepair and was in fact a “tumbling ruin.” Jackson and his family had lived in this once two-story log farmhouse from 1804-1821 before the mansion was completed. Later in the 1820s, the log First Hermitage farmhouse had been converted into a single-story slave cabin where dozens of slaves lived until the 1850s. The restoration of the “First Hermitage” in 1889 was the first historic preservation project in Tennessee and one of the very first in the United States.

In 1896, the LHA restored the original log kitchen cabin at the First Hermitage site and soon preservation work began on the Hermitage mansion, the garden and tomb, and other original outbuildings. In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) put $70,000 towards repairs and restoration work at The Hermitage. This included the construction of new support buildings, such as a ticket office, a greenhouse, and a home for the caretakers as well as a large pond containing water in case of fires. In the 1920s, Jackson’s original horse stable and a non-historic support building had been destroyed by a disastrous fire. In response, the LHA operated its own private fire department at The Hermitage for many years until city services arrived in this once rural area.

In the 1920s, the Tennessee Army National Guard constructed an airport on a section of Jackson’s original farm, which Andrew Jackson, Jr. had sold in 1857 to private property owners. This was Nashville’s second airport and it was used mainly for air shows and private traffic. However, in the 1930s, the city proposed to use WPA funds to expand the airport for commercial traffic. But, the LHA fought the proposal tooth-and-nail, even travelling to Washington to argue against the proposal that would destroy Jackson’s original farmland. They won and the WPA built an airport closer to Nashville. Today, this is the enormous Nashville International Airport, serving some 10 million travelers per year.

In 1933, the Tennessee Confederate Soldiers’ Home at The Hermitage closed and the State turned the 475 acres over to the LHA. In the early 1940s, the LHA allowed the U.S. Army from nearby Fort Campbell to practice tank and military maneuvers on the Hermitage farm and they allowed a 40-acre field to be used as a community Victory Garden, one of the largest in Tennessee.

In the 1950s, the LHA purchased the 60-acre tract of land containing the old airfield in order to preserve it. In the 1960s, the LHA acquired and restored the adjacent Tulip Grove mansion, built by Andrew Jackson Donelson in the 1830s, and a surrounding 60 acre parcel. Also in the 1960s, the LHA acquired the original 1820s Hermitage Church, which had been nearly destroyed by a fire. The LHA restored and rebuilt the church almost exactly as it appeared after Andrew Jackson renovated it in the 1830s. In December 1960, the National Park Service designated The Hermitage as one of Tennessee’s first National Historic Landmarks and in 1971; the property was formally listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Tulip Grove mansion was individually listed on the National Register in 1984.

During the 1960s and 1970s Nashville grew from a sleepy southern town into sprawling suburban city that began to surround The Hermitage. At one point a commercial developer threatened to subdivide the remaining 460 acres of original Hermitage land that Andrew Jackson, Jr. had sold in 1857. However, the LHA successfully convinced the State of Tennessee to purchase the land in order to preserve it instead. The State used the land for the Hermitage Wildlife Management Area until 2003 when they turned it over to the LHA.

It took over 110 years, but in 2003 the LHA finally had control of the entire 1,050-acre Hermitage cotton plantation that Andrew Jackson owned when he died in 1845. Today, the LHA manages 1,120 acres, making The Hermitage one of the largest and most popular historic site museums in America.

Since 1970, the LHA has used historic archaeology as a tool for historic preservation. That year, foundations from the Hermitage mansion’s kitchen were documented during a repair project. In the mid-1970s large-scale archaeological excavations were undertaken at the First Hermitage cabins. In 1988, the LHA established a permanent Archaeology Department and has undertaken annual archaeological excavations since then, accumulating nearly 1 million artifacts, primarily related to slavery and slave sites. This work has made The Hermitage a leader in the field of historic archaeology as a preservation and educational tool. Through our excavations of Jackson’s former slave sites, historians and scholars have a new and much better understanding of American slavery during the Jacksonian Era.

Through the years, the LHA has continuously preserved the historic buildings and land at The Hermitage. This includes a major $2.2 million interior restoration of the Hermitage mansion from 1989 to 1997 and a $1.1 million restoration of the First Hermitage cabins from 2003 to 2005. Both projects received national acclaim as well as national and state historic preservation awards. The First Hermitage Restoration was a Save America’s Treasures Official Project.

In recent years, the LHA has received much national acclaim and recognition for its historic preservation leadership. In 2002, the National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded The Hermitage with its prestigious “Stewardship Award,” which had been given out only eight times prior. In 2004, HGTV chose the First Hermitage Restoration as one of only 12 sites across the U.S. for its “Restore America: Celebrating Historic Preservation” program and provided a $50,000 grant for restoration work.

Preserving The Hermitage is ongoing. Work started in the 1850s continues today as we use the latest in science and technology to preserve this extraordinary American landmark. We use archaeology, dendrodating, finish and paint analysis, and other techniques to preserve, restore, and repair all of Andrew Jackson’s original buildings and land. Our goal is to restore the farm to as near as it looked during Jackson’s lifetime as possible so that our visitors have a better understanding of Andrew Jackson, his family, his slaves, and life during Jacksonian America.