A Being So Gentle: The Frontier Love Story of Rachel and Andrew Jackson

A Being So Gentle: The Frontier Love Story of Rachel and Andrew Jackson

by Patricia Brady

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The forty-year love affair between Rachel and Andrew Jackson parallels a tumultuous period in American history. Andrew Jackson was at the forefront of the American revolution—but he never could have made it without the support of his wife. Beautiful, charismatic, and generous, Rachel Jackson had the courage to go against the mores of her times in the name of


The forty-year love affair between Rachel and Andrew Jackson parallels a tumultuous period in American history. Andrew Jackson was at the forefront of the American revolution—but he never could have made it without the support of his wife. Beautiful, charismatic, and generous, Rachel Jackson had the courage to go against the mores of her times in the name of love. As the wife of a great general in wartime, she often found herself running their plantation alone and, a true heroine, she took in and raised children orphaned by the war. Like many great love stories, this one ends tragically when Rachel dies only a few weeks after Andrew is elected president. He moved into the White House alone and never remarried. Andrew and Rachel Jackson's devotion to one another is inspiring, and here, in Patricia Brady's vivid prose, their story of love and loss comes to life for the first time.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Brady (former director of publications, Historic New Orleans; Martha Washington: An American Life) interweaves a tri-fold story: a loving romance, the history of the fledging United States, and a not-so-new tale of dirty politics. Rachel Donelson married, for a brief time, the jealous and abusive Lewis Robards. The confused circumstances of their divorce and Rachel's subsequent courtship with and marriage to Andrew Jackson would haunt Rachel and Andrew for the rest of their lives. Rachel had happily married Jackson, though he was not her social or economic equal. He won her heart with his charismatic presence and resolute personality. By the time their partnership led to the White House, he was a widower: Rachel died between his election and inauguration. Rachel Jackson emerges here as a gracious, kind, and remarkable woman whose life was shortened by the stress of the public bull's-eye with its unremitting attacks on her character. VERDICT Highly recommended for all readers; skill and scholarship for general readers are at their best here as Brady tells a remarkable story of an enduring and touching relationship.—Nancy Richey, Western Kentucky Univ. Lib., Bowling Green
Kirkus Reviews

A scandalous marriage proves Old Hickory's political scourge and emotional rock in this uncomplicated, accessible biography of the Jacksons.

Rachel Donelson and her family were early settlers to the newly opened-up frontier of Tennessee, then Kentucky, purchasing a large tract of land near Harrodsburg. Her early marriage to Capt. Lewis Robards in 1785 swiftly turned sour. Rachel was "a girl of spirit," writes New Orleans–based historian Brady (Martha Washington: An American Life, 2005, etc.), and her new husband was jealous. A few years into her marriage, Rachel met Andrew Jackson, a fledgling lawyer from North Carolina who had gone West like many other brash, determined young men seeking their fortune. The couple eloped to Natchez, Miss., where they claimed to be married—yet Rachel was not yet divorced. This obfuscation would haunt Jackson's career, especially when he ran for president in 1824. However, it was by all accounts a sweet match, as Brady demonstrates through Jackson's ardent letters dispatched during his frequent absences from his wife. He moved from being attorney to attorney general, Tennessee state delegate, congressman, senator and governor of Florida, all while Rachel was largely left alone to run the house and farm. As Jackson's star rose in the military, Rachel remained childless, stout, Presbyterian and capable, fond of smoking her pipe and supervising their growing homestead near Nashville, christened the Hermitage, for the next 17 years. Despite his reputation for violence, dueling and Wild West expansionism, Jackson was a great favorite of the public, and while he narrowly lost the 1824 election to John Quincy Adams, he gained the White House four years later. Rachel, sadly, would not live long enough to attend his inauguration.

Brady's melodious account rarely digs beneath the official line in the lives of these two strong characters.

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A Being So Gentle

The Frontier Love Story of Rachel and Andrew Jackson

By Patricia Brady

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2011 Patricia Brady
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-60950-1


The Tennessee Frontier

West of the Appalachian Mountains lay the wilderness of Kentucky and Tennessee, the backcountry of the colonies of Virginia and North Carolina. For several competing Indian nations, they were traditional hunting grounds. For white explorers and hunters who began coming over the mountains from the East as early as the 1740s, these were lands waiting to be claimed. The beauties of the untouched wilderness—a land of hills, rivers, and vast forests, teeming with game—called out to them. They would return time and again. Within two decades, they would be followed by permanent settlers, their numbers swelling into the thousands, until they made it their own.

In the eighteenth century, the Tennessee country was the site of only a few Indian towns despite earlier, denser habitation by Native Americans in that region. The two most important Indian claimants to dominion and hunting rights in middle Tennessee were the Cherokees to the east, largely living in North Carolina and Georgia, and the Chickasaws of Mississippi to the west. The Shawnees to the north had once claimed the Cumberland Valley area, but had been driven out by the Cherokees and Chickasaws. Still, there were conflicting claims by all three nations along the Cumberland.

The first whites to come out to that frontier were the long hunters, following trails trodden out over hundreds of years by wild animals and then by Indians. Armed with rifles, they came singly or in small groups on horseback leading packhorses for the deer hides and beaver pelts they expected to amass as they hunted. Staying several months or even a year or two (hence "long" hunters), they lived off the land. In such a large territory crisscrossed only occasionally by roving bands of Indians, the long hunters frequently made it back east without encountering adversaries, making a tidy profit and raving about the paradise they had seen. At other times, their luck ended with an encounter with an Indian hunting party. Sometimes they were killed, but more frequently the affronted Indians merely confiscated all their hides and guns and sent them home sadder and poorer.

Speculators were sure to follow the hunters' paths as land was the bonanza of America. In Europe, land was owned by aristocrats and rented to tenants. There were some independent yeoman farmers, but hardly anyone could hope to acquire land except through inheritance. In America, land seemed endless. Indian patterns of use didn't approach anything whites could recognize as settlement. Speculation—buying or claiming large tracts—and then making a profit by installing tenants or selling small sections at greatly increased prices was a time-honored American pastime.

In 1750 the Cumberland Gap, the largest and most accessible pass through the mountains from Virginia to Kentucky, was explored by Dr. Thomas Walker, a Virginia physician and speculator. In 1769 Daniel Boone, North Carolina farmer and hunter, went on a long hunt in the Kentucky country, coming home broke (after a losing encounter with Shawnees) but inspired. Another land speculator, Judge Richard Henderson of North Carolina, hired Boone in 1775 to arrange a meeting with Cherokee elders. They sold Henderson land in Kentucky to which they had no claim and in Tennessee, including the Cumberland Valley, to which they did. Boone then led an expedition through the Cumberland Gap with a group of muscular axmen, following Indian trails and cutting a road through the forests into Kentucky that became known as the Wilderness Road.

They built a settlement called Fort Boone or Boonesborough, where Boone brought his extended family to live. An ever-growing flood of white settlers followed the Wilderness Road to Boonesborough or to neighboring Harrodsburg, founded at about the same time. Steep, winding, rocky, and clogged with tree stumps, the road west wasn't for the cowardly. Kentucky was the first of the trans-Appalachian areas to be heavily settled by whites, but the area to the south, Tennessee, soon followed.

* * *

Rachel Donelson was the ninth of eleven children of one of the founding white families of middle Tennessee. Her father, John Donelson, was an educated surveyor, planter, and land speculator of Scottish-Welsh heritage. Born in Maryland in 1718, a third-generation American, as a young man he moved to Virginia, where he met and married Rachel Stockley in 1744. She was a native Virginian of Ulster Scottish-English stock. The groom was twenty-six, the bride only fourteen. They moved westward in Virginia to frontier Pittsylvania County in the foothills of the Appalachians, where their fourth and last daughter, a brown-eyed baby girl with curly black hair, called Rachel after her mother, was born in 1769.

Donelson acquired an iron foundry and a plantation, worked by some thirty slaves. He was appointed county surveyor in 1767, represented Pittsylvania in the House of Burgesses for five years, and joined the county militia as colonel at the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775. The Donelsons were prosperous and well-respected minor gentry and might have lived out their lives in Virginia if John Donelson had not gone over the mountains to survey western lands.

As colonies, both Virginia and North Carolina were bounded by the Atlantic Ocean on the east, with northern and southern borders designated carefully by latitude. But their western boundaries were theoretically almost limitless. The grants ran from sea to sea, and no one had a notion how far away the western sea might lie. With a surveying crew, Donelson trekked through the Cumberland River area of middle Tennessee with its broad bottomlands, navigable rivers and streams, and abundant salt licks. On the frontier, it seemed that ambitious and industrious men could better themselves with claims to fertile bottomlands like the early planters on the Atlantic coast. Going west embodied the American dream of wealth and freedom.

In 1779 Richard Henderson contracted with John Donelson and James Robertson to lead settlers to the Cumberland. Henderson's earlier purchase of Cherokee lands in Kentucky had run into trouble, but he still had hopes for Tennessee. Like Henderson, Robertson was a North Carolinian. In 1769 he had established a claim in the upper Holston Valley near the Watauga River of Tennessee. There he settled his family and several neighbors; they formed a government known as the Watauga Association in 1772. But, like John Donelson, Robertson became entranced by the Cumberland while on a surveying trip. A few settlers already lived at French Lick on the Cumberland River, the site of present-day Nashville. Salt licks or salt springs were very much sought after because imported salt was expensive and cumbersome to transport. Naturally occurring salt attracted game and was easily processed for human consumption.

Robertson and Donelson planned a joint expedition to French Lick in company with their extended families, neighbors, friends, and a few slaves—more than one hundred people altogether. The larger the group, the safer they would be from hostile Indians and the more mutual assistance they could count on in clearing land, planting, harvesting, and building.

After the fall harvest of 1779, the Donelsons sold their land and the furniture they couldn't bring along. John and Rachel Donelson, their eleven children, in-laws, slaves, and neighbors mounted their horses and rode up the rocky trail into the mountains. Because of the snow and sleet, they all wore several layers of clothes, further wrapping themselves in quilts, the hats on their heads tied down with shawls against the angry wind. They were accompanied by a train of packhorses loaded with barrels, baskets, boxes, and saddle bags filled with the necessities for frontier life. At last they reached the defensive blockhouse on the far side of the mountains and turned south on the trail to Fort Patrick Henry, built at the beginning of the American Revolution as protection against the British and the Cherokees and manned throughout the war.

At the settlement outside the fort on the Holston River, they met the Robertson party. There they divided forces, most of the men going with Robertson on horseback, driving all the cattle, horses, hogs, and sheep before them, chivvied along by their dogs. They rode back up to the blockhouse, then turned westward to the Cumberland Gap and on down the Wilderness Road to Kentucky. On the road to French Lick, they met a group of families heading for Harrodsburg and convinced them to go to Tennessee instead. They arrived at their destination during Christmas week of 1779. The Cumberland River was frozen solid, and they completed their 400-mile journey by driving their large herd across the ice to their new home on Christmas Day.

Back at Fort Patrick Henry, the Donelsons and the rest of their party were confronted with one of the coldest winters ever known in those parts. Suffering from hands and feet swollen and ulcerated with chilblains and in danger of frostbite, they built the boats that would take them on their epic journey. At least timber was readily available in the heavily forested valley. The Donelsons' large flatboat, christened the Adventure by its proud owners, was about a hundred feet long and twenty feet wide. There were probably a dozen or more flatboats capable of transporting large families in their flotilla, as well as assorted smaller boats, including canoes and dugouts, bringing the total to about thirty vessels. Their route—down the Holston River, to the Tennessee, continuing onward to the Ohio for a short stretch before ascending the Cumberland River to French Lick—was more than a thousand dangerous miles long, what with Indians, shoals, rapids, and the very real prospect of running out of supplies. By road today, the distance between the fort, now Kingsport, and Nashville is about 285 miles. But back then it was a wilderness so impenetrable to large parties that the long, long river journey was a reasonable option.

John Donelson kept an illuminating journal of the voyage, which he described as "intended by God's permission." He made brief, fairly regular entries, writing more extended accounts of dangers and hardships. He never mentioned his twelve-year-old daughter Rachel or any other family member. That omission indicated how well the Donelsons fared on their trip. The people Donelson mentioned by name were those who suffered some catastrophe—shipwreck, Indian attack, illness, death, or separation from the party.

On December 22, 1779, the boats departed the fort, floating down the Holston River. They didn't get very far. Just a few miles down, they reached the mouth of Reedy Creek, where they were marooned by severe frost and the falling level of the river, no longer sufficient to float their crafts. Camping there for nearly two months, they suffered severely from the cold and low spirits.

In February, they were able to float a few more miles before fetching up at the mouth of Cloud's Creek on February 20. There they lay for another week and then sailed again, now in company with vessels that had just come down from the fort. But that very day, the Adventure and two other boats struck the Poor Valley Shoal, where they lay stuck all afternoon and overnight in what Donelson described as "much distress."

The following morning, the river rose a bit, and, after offloading about thirty passengers, they were able to get off the shoal. They sailed during the day and tied up at night to avoid running into shoals or other obstructions in the dark. The next few days were miserably rainy. On March 2, one of the boats was driven onto an island by the force of the current and sank. All the party put ashore to help, bailing out the swamped boat and refloating it.

Although everyone had brought barrels of salted meat and bags of cornmeal, as well as dried and pickled fruits and vegetables, provisions were already running low because of their two-month delay. Hunting in the woods along the river was essential to feeding the party. The day the boat sank, a young man went hunting in the thick forest and didn't return. To guide him home, Donelson fired the cannon on the Adventure, and the others shot their guns; several men went into the woods looking for him without success. So the following day they set off again, leaving behind the boats of the boy's distraught parents and some of their friends to continue the search. Unexpectedly, the main party came upon him several miles down the river where he had wandered and took him aboard.

After entering the Tennessee River, the fleet arrived at a deserted Chickamauga town on March 7. The Chickamaugas were a breakaway group of Cherokees who had settled in several towns along the southern bank of the Tennessee. Their leader was a chief called Dragging Canoe. Incensed at the sale of Cherokee lands to the east and determined to turn back the white tide, the Chickamaugas were ferocious enemies of the settlers. Although they had deserted some of their towns because of militia attacks that spring, the Indians still maintained a strong presence along the river.

The next day, the boats came to a town that was very much populated. Upon spying the Donelson party, the Indians made signs of friendship and called them brothers. Donelson's son and another man started paddling toward shore in a canoe when they were warned off by a boatload of Indians. Among them was Archy Coody, described by Donelson as a "half-Breed," who advised them that they were in danger and should continue on downstream. After some confused negotiations, the whites saw a number of Indians embarking in their canoes, armed, and painted red and black. They outran that group, then came upon another town, where one young man of their party was shot and killed when his boat ran too near the shore.

Later that day, still more shocking to the voyagers was the "tragical misfortune," as John Donelson called it, of the Stuart family and their friends—twenty-eight in all. Part of the expedition since the beginning, several family members had come down with smallpox, one of the most virulent and contagious illnesses of the day. The leaders of the main party and Mr. Stuart agreed that their boat should be quarantined, lagging some distance to the rear to keep the infection from spreading and camping separately each night. The increasing numbers of Indians marching along the shore, shadowing the travelers, took note of the isolation and helplessness of the trailing boat. They struck at once, out of sight of the flotilla. But the main party could hear the agonized screams and cries of the Stuarts and their friends as they were killed or taken prisoner.

Fearing for their own lives and not daring to pause, the convoy kept an anxious watch on the Chickamaugas, who continued to keep pace with them. When the Cumberland Mountains narrowed on both sides of the Tennessee River, the Indians could no longer continue along the banks, but the rapids through this gorge were dangerous enough. Going through the choppy upper portion, called the "boiling Pot," a large canoe was overturned. Everyone landed at a level spot to help rescue its cargo. To their horror, the Indians reappeared atop the cliffs and started firing down at them, wounding four people slightly. They immediately pushed off and headed into another trial, a place where the river rushed so rapidly over rocks that it created a powerful whirlpool called the Suck or the Whirl.

As they caromed through the Suck to the wide and peaceful current on the other side of the gorge, one boat ran aground on a large rock. Unable to approach safely, the others abandoned the hapless passengers to drown or be taken by Indians. The boat belonged to Jonathan Jennings and his family, like the Stuarts part of the original expedition. Terrified to stop, the other boats continued on throughout the night and the next day. Finally at midnight, they believed they were beyond the reach of the Chickamaugas and set up camp on shore.

At four o'clock the next morning, March 10, however, they were awakened by cries of "help poor Jennings," coming from upriver. To their surprise, some of the Jennings family had caught up with them, their boat riddled with bullet holes, battered by rocks, and practically useless. Floating downriver, they had found their companions by the light of their campfires.

Their survival was the stuff of legend. Trapped on the rock and under blistering fire from the Indians, they had started throwing goods overboard to lighten the boat so it could float free. Their son, a male passenger, and a male slave went overboard, possibly wounded, to be captured or killed by their attackers.

Jonathan Jennings, an excellent marksman, fired back while his wife, a black slave woman, and their passenger, the wife of Ephraim Peyton, one of the men who had gone overland with James Robertson, continued tossing the cargo. Mrs. Peyton was particularly valiant since she had given birth only the night before. Mrs. Jennings finally got out and shoved, nearly getting left behind when the boat suddenly slipped off the rock. In all the hurry and confusion, the day-old Peyton baby was killed, perhaps going overboard. Donelson remarked that all their clothes, particularly those of Mrs. Jennings, were "very much cut with bullets."

After redistributing the Jenningses and Mrs. Peyton among the other boats, the party floated on. On March 12, they arrived at Muscle Shoals (in present-day Alabama), a fearful danger in their path. The roar of high water running at a great speed over rocks could be heard for miles. But they had hopes of ending their river journey without attempting these rapids. It had been agreed that Captain Robertson would explore an overland route from French Lick to the Tennessee River above Muscle Shoals, leaving signs that they could debark and finish their journey on land. To their intense disappointment, there were no signs, so they had to run the shoals.


Excerpted from A Being So Gentle by Patricia Brady. Copyright © 2011 Patricia Brady. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Patricia Brady is a social and cultural historian who served as director of publications at the Historic New Orleans Collection for twenty years.Her books include Martha Washington: An AmericanLife and George Washington's Beautiful Nelly. She lives in New Orleans.

Patricia Brady is a social and cultural historian who served as director of publications at the Historic New Orleans Collection for twenty years. Her books include Martha Washington: An AmericanLife and George Washington’s Beautiful Nelly. She lives in New Orleans.

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