A second glance is needed to notice the great historical significance of this sign on the north side of Chatham. The site to which it refers is about 10 miles away as the crow flies.
Along U. S. 29 (Business) on the north side of Chatham is found a marker which draws little more than puzzled glances from passing motorists with its title “Markham.” Only a traveler more addicted to historical trivia would stop to find that the sign refers to the birthplace of Pittsylvania County's most famous native, Rachel Donelson, who became the wife of President Andrew Jackson.
Rachel, daughter of one of the county's leading early citizens, Col. John Donelson, left here at age 12 when her parents moved to Kentucky (then later to Tennessee).
Col. Donelson sold the local tract of land on which stood his family's home to John Markham, whose name is now associated with the area.
At seventeen Rachel married Lewis Robards of Mercer County, Kentucky. They later separated, and confusion over the fact of their divorce 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 a few but beloved by many, Rachel is the key figure in one of America's great (and true) love stories.
Commemorative chimney graces spot near Banister River where Rachel Donelson grew up.
The Donelson home reportedly stood until around 1930, when it was destroyed by fire. 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. Her daughter, Mrs. Claude S. Whitehead, Sr., recalls that her mother gathered stones herself, some from other locations, and hired laborers to place a commemorative chimney on the gentle rise of ground near the Banister River where Rachel's home once stood. The Friday, August 2, 1940 issue of the Star-Tribune included a photo of the unveiling of the marker, stating that “on Saturday morning, July 27, the Thomas Carter Chapter of the D. A. R. met at Markham to unveil a memorial tablet to Rachel Donelson.”
D. A. R. plaque is found on side of the chimney, stating, “Birthplace of Rachel Donelson, wife of President Andrew Jackson; erected by Thomas Carter Chapter D. A. R. 1940.”
In the photo were Mrs. S. S. Gregory, Mrs. Sidney Wooding, Mrs. F. K. Perrow, and Mrs. N. E. Clement along with Robertson Carter and Mills Rogers, two boys who pulled the cords to unveil the plaque. Apparently Mrs. Motley graciously remained behind the scenes while official recognition was made of the festive event.
The land where the house stood and the marker is now located currently belongs to Mr. John Geyer. The chimney bearing the D. A. R. plaque can be seen in the distance, near the Banister River tree line, off to the right side (for a driver headed east) of VA 686 between the two intersections of VA 686 with VA 683. (Yes, it is easy to miss!)
Clement: History of Pittsylvania County, Virginia
Hurt: Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County
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