Two photographs reliably identified as the Rachel Donelson Jackson birthplace (the John Donelson home) at Markham, Pittsylvania County, Virginia, are now known. It is thought that the house was demolished and/or burned around 1930.
This first, more detailed photograph is from the collection of the Tennessee State Library and Archives, and probably shows the house in its last days.
It appears from the photograph that the house is probably being cannibalized for building materials. Windows and doors and some frames are missing, the chimney is gone from the right side of the house, and clapboards have been removed from the near side of the house. One can see through the window on the right side, and through the right wall of the house as well, in the area where the chimney and fireplace once filled an opening.
A small shed roof on the near left corner of the building probably protected both a cellar entrance and steps into a first-floor door opening. It is uncertain whether this view is looking from or toward the Banister River, which is near the house.
This second photograph, from the collection of the late Mrs. Louise McCormick Johnson, appears to be slightly earlier. Unfortunately, the cornfield in the foreground obscures details of the building.
It is difficult to tell which aspect of the house is being seen, compared to the photograph above. It may be from off to the right of the first photograph, or it may be looking at the opposite side of the house. Both chimneys are still probably standing in this photograph. The building seems to be more intact than in the other photograph, so this one probably was taken at an earlier date.
It is evident from both photographs that the house was a noteworthy example, of local vernacular colonial-era architecture.
The birthplace of Rachel Donelson Jackson in Markham is, by road, about 12 miles east of Chatham. A commemorative chimney was built in 1940 by then-property-owner Myrtle Blair Motley and the Thomas Carter Chapter DAR, supposedly on the exact spot where the house had disappeared about ten years earlier. The location of the chimney is in a pasture on privately-owned property, on the south side of VA 686 between its two junctions with VA 683.
Neither of the old photographs is clearly descriptive of land features near the house. There has been some speculation through the years that the Thomas Carter DAR Chapter's selection of location may not have actually been on the exact place where the Donelson house stood. One such logical argument is that the house is on low ground, too near the Banister River for it to be safe from floods.
However, Donelson descendant P. Duncan Callicott, A.S.L.A., of Franklin, Tennessee, advises this author that when John Donelson settled on the Stones River in Tennessee after leaving Pittsylvania County, he chose an almost identical siting adjacent to the river, and immediately suffered flooding in that situation. Therefore, close proximity to a river may have been a personal preference of Donelson's.
Additionally, the late Marguerite Motley Whitehead, daughter of Myrtle Blair Motley, told this author that she assisted her mother in gathering what stones remained on the Donelson site, and in transporting others from their nearby Cedar Hill property, in order to have enough to erect the present commemorative chimney. Mrs. Whitehead seemed absolutely confident in the continuity of attention to the exact site, from the time the house disappeared until the chimney was built.
Furthermore, Markham neighbors and schoolchildren were long familiar with the site and its Donelson connection (see Virginia Historical Inventory Report), thus it seems unlikely the site would have become confused at the time the chimney was built. Of course, one cannot guarantee that confusion might not have occurred in earlier generations.
There are other seemingly ancient homesites on high ground not far from the Donelson chimney, which provide tempting alternatives to the traditionally-recognized Donelson homesite. However, determining their historical relationships, if any, to the Donelsons may be quite difficult.
Another photograph of possible significance is found in the Maud Carter Clement papers at the University of Virginia Library. Mrs. Clement's inscription states, “Woman with [four] children in front of log cabin — Donelson pictures.”
The structure in the photograph is built of logs, whereas the other two photographs (above) specifically known to be of the Donelson house show frame construction. It is possible that the log building is a Donelson dependency, if it actually was on the Donelson property as Mrs. Clement seems to have indicated. So far no residents of the Markham area have been able to identify either the log building or the family standing in front. One might assume that the photograph was obtained around the 1920's, when Mrs. Clement was compiling her History of Pittsylvania County. Of course, such an assumption is purely speculative.
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 © 2004–2006 Henry H. Mitchell.