If Pittsylvania County, Virginia, were to have a formal “Hall of Fame” for her sons and daughters, first on the list would be Rachel Donelson Jackson, wife of President Andrew Jackson. Rachel was born at the home of her father Col. John Donelson, ten miles east of present-day Chatham, on the Banister River, in 1767 — also the birth year of Pittsylvania County itself. Rachel left Pittsylvania County at age 12 when her parents moved to Kentucky (then later Tennessee), the Donelson family thus becoming known as founding settlers of both those states.
At seventeen Rachel married Lewis Robards of Mercer County, Kentucky, but the marriage did not last. Rachel then married Andrew Jackson, but it was later discovered that she was not legally divorced from her first husband. This embarrassing circumstance was used against the Jacksons by supporters of the opposition during Jackson's 1828 presidential campaign. Even though Jackson won, the pressure of the campaign apparently brought on Rachel's final illness, and she died before her husband was inaugurated. Villified by some but beloved by many, Rachel is the key figure in one of America's great love stories.
A commemorative chimney, dedicated in 1940, graces the spot near the Banister River where Rachel Donelson's childhood home stood.
In 1929 Maud Carter Clement wrote on page 155 of her History of Pittsylvania County that the Donelson home “is still standing with long sloping roof and wide rock chimneys.” At about that time the house was destroyed by fire, and in the late 1930's Myrtle Blair Motley (Mrs. Thomas F. Motley) launched a campaign to save the memory of the Rachel Donelson birthplace location. Mrs. Motley's daughter, the late Mrs. Claude S. Whitehead, Sr., recalled to this writer in 1989 that her mother had gathered stones herself, some from other locations including Cedar Hill plantation, and hired laborers to place a commemorative chimney on the gentle rise of ground near the Banister River where Rachel's home once stood (now the property of John Geyer). The Friday, August 2, 1940 issue of the Star-Tribune included a photo of the unveiling of a marker on the commemorative chimney by the Thomas Carter Chapter of the D. A. R. The chimney can be seen today near VA 686 in the Markham community (see the map included in “Whispers of the 1700's in Central Pittsylvania County,” an article published in the Fall 1992 Packet).
Virginia Historical Marker L-52 stands along U. S. 29 east of Chatham.
Virginia Historical Marker L-52, commemorating the Rachel Donelson birthplace site, now stands along the U. S. 29 bypass east of Chatham. For many years it stood in north Chatham, but was moved in 1989 to its present more visible site in response to a request from the board of directors of the Pittsylvania Historical Society.
Also in 1989, Mr. and Mrs. W. P. “Billy” Johnson of Route 2, Gretna discovered a photograph of the Donelson home in the memorabilia of his mother, the late Mrs. Louise McCormick Johnson. This is the only photograph of the house known to exist. The house, although almost obscured by cornstalks in the picture, is clearly seen to have been rather large, almost certainly of the typical square one-and-a-half-story construction common in the Pittsylvania area in the mid-to-late 1700's. Two massive chimneys flank the substantial clapboard structure. The house was probably very similar to the original wood portion of “Little Cherrystone,” which sits 2 1/2 miles east of Chatham near the intersection of VA 57 and VA 703.
This old photo shows Rachel Donelson's birthplace before it was destroyed by fire. A cornfield is seen in front of the structure. (The photograph is from the collection of the late Louise McCormick Johnson, provided by her son and daughter-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. W. P. "Billy" Johnson. See also another, apparently later, photograph in a separate article.)
Another county reminder of Rachel Jackson is a portrait of her which hangs in the Pittsylvania County Courthouse. (For further information, see article).
Clement: History of Pittsylvania County, Virginia
Hurt: Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County
Fitzgerald: Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past
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Copyright © 1994–2006 Henry H. Mitchell.