A Thriving Farm

 
 
A Thriving Farm

A Thriving Farm, 1804-1845

First Hermitage FarmhouseTo Andrew Jackson The Hermitage meant more than just the mansion; it meant his entire farm. It also meant refuge from the trials and frustrations of public life. But before Jackson purchased The Hermitage, the property was owned and settled by Nathaniel Hays. In 1780, Nathaniel laid claim to a 640- acre preemption 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 that would eventually become The Hermitage.

The ongoing Indian wars caused many settlers to flee the region, including Nathaniel Hays, who returned to East Tennessee by 1783. By 1798 the Indian wars ceased and Nathaniel Hays brought his wife Elizabeth, three children, and two African-American slaves to settle his land in Davidson County. Over the next two years, he supervised the construction of a substantial, two-story, log farmhouse near the “Gravelly Spring.” Hays’ farm adjoined Andrew Jackson’s Hunter’s Hill plantation.

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. Jackson sold his more valuable Hunter’s Hill farm on the Cumberland River to pay off debts. Jackson immediately hired a Nashville craftsman to dress up the farmhouse’s interior 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 outbuilding the following year. The Kitchen was a dual-purpose building that also served as slave quarters for Betty the cook and her family.

A detail from a Jackson portrait provides the only image of the first version of the Hermitage mansion.Initially Jackson operated this cotton farm with nine African-American slaves, but this number gradually grew to forty-four slaves 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 at the field quarters. Jackson typically grew two hundred acres of cotton as his cash crop with the remainder of the farm dedicated to producing food stuffs for the for the Jacksons, their slaves, and 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 the winter of 1820-1821.

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. The 8- room mansion featured several outbuildings, including a smokehouse and kitchen. 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 had new brick slave dwellings built. In the 1820s, brick and log cabins for housing 95 African-American slaves, dotted the Hermitage landscape.

Massachusetts architect Asher Benjamin's pattern books provided the inspiration for some of the mansion's details.Andrew Jackson took office as 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. A series of overseers 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 small 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 Grecian “temple & monument” for Rachel Jackson, who had died in 1828. Craftsmen built the domed limestone tomb with a copper roof from 1831 to 1832.

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 C. Hume to rebuild the mansion into a stately Greek Revival-style monument. Reiff and Hume completed the repairs in 1836. In 1837, Jackson retired from the U.S. presidency 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, 161 African-American slaves operated the cotton plantation and resided in dozens of slave cabins scattered about the 1,050-acre plantation.