Photograph of Rachel Donelson Birthplace Discovered

By Henry H. Mitchell, 1989.

Donelson House

The birthplace of Rachel Donelson Jackson in Markham is located about 12 miles east of Chatham on the south side of VA 686 between its two junctions with VA 683.

The original photograph is in the possession of, and was copied with the permission of, Mr. and Mrs. W. P. “Billy” Johnson, Route 2, Gretna. The photograph is from the collection of Mr. Johnson's mother, the late Mrs. Louise McCormick Johnson. The photograph was probably made in the 1920's, before the Donelson house burned.

The April 5, 1989 edition of this column featured the birthplace of Rachel Donelson, wife of President Andrew Jackson. The birthplace site is located at Markham, about 12 miles east of Chatham on the south side of State Route 686 between its two intersections with 683 (on land owned by John Geyer).

The Donelson house burned around 1930, and later generations have been concerned about the likelihood that the site could be lost from view and forgotten and have also wondered what the appearance of the house actually was.

The question of the house's appearance is largely resolved by the discovery of the photograph printed here. As described in the April article, the concern about forgetting the location was at least partially satisfied by the placement along Route 29 on the norther end of Chatham in 1940 of a state historical marker commemorating the Rachel Donelson birthplace at Markham. Also, that same year the Thomas Carter Chapter of the D. A. R. dedicated a commemorative chimney and plaque on the actual site of the Donelson home.

As the years have passed, the D. A. R. marker has come to be generally known as “the Rachel Donelson chimney,” a name that tends to imply that the chimney at Markham was actually part of the original Donelson house. This is not the case.

According to a statement made by Mrs. Claude S. Whitehead, Sr., just before her recent death, she accompanied her mother, Mrs. Thomas F. Motley, on numerous automobile trips around 1939 to gather stones for the construction of the new commemorative chimney.

There were not enough stones at the site itself to accomplish the task, so Mrs. Motley brought more from the grounds of Cedar Hill, another nearby 18th-century house owned by the Motleys at that time.

If the resulting 1940 chimney were an actual original chimney its size would indicate that it served a small cabin, which appears unusual for a family of such status as Col. Donelson's.

The photograph of the Donelson house seen here shows clearly that the house was rather large, almost certainly of the typical square one-and-a-half-story construction so common in the Pittsylvania area in the mid-to-late 1700's. In this case two massive chimneys flank a substantial clapboard structure.

The house is probably very similar to the oldest (wood) portion of nearby Little Cherrystone, the 18th-century home which sits at the intersection of VA 57 (from Chatham, Halifax Road) and VA 703 (Fairview Road).

Other similar Pittsylvania homes might include the Samuel Calland home five miles west of Callands and the oldest portion of Berry Hill near Cascade.

The photograph was in the personal memorabilia of the late Mrs. Louise McCormick Johnson. Her son and daughter-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. W. P. “Billy” Johnson of Route 2, Gretna, provided the photograph for publication here.


Related Books

(Available from the sponsor.)

History of Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Clement: History of Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County, VA

Hurt: Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County

Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past

Fitzgerald: Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past

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