I hate to call her “The Unfortunate Rachel”, but she was. Her troubles started in the fall of 1779 when her father John Donelson, dragged his family along with about 600 men, women and children through the 12 mile long Cumberland Gap to an outpost on the headwaters of the Tennessee River. From here most of the younger men set out cross country, aiming for the Cumberland River. Once there, they bought land from the local Shawnee Indians at the head of a trail called the Natchez Trace. By winter they were warm and snug in their new fort, which they called Nashboro (sic). Unfortunately, on December 22 of that same year, John loaded 12 year old Rachel, her ten siblings and her mother, along with 300 other old men, women and children onto 30 flatboats and canoes, and began floating down the Tennessee River. John Donelson thought the women and children would have an easier time on the water. Boy, was he wrong.
Almost immediately 28 people contracted small pox and had to be isolated in a single boat. Then Indians attacked, killing all the small pox victims. What was left of the expedition repeatedly ran aground, some of the boats capsized, and the women were required to help steer the ungainly rafts, while Indians kept shooting the helmsmen. Eventually, the desperate band reached the Ohio River, at Paduca, Kentucky. They then laboriously poled ten miles against the current to the mouth of the Cumberland River, and then 160 miles up that stream until their joyful reunion on April 24, 1780, with their men at the new fort, now called Nashville. Of the roughly 300 women and children who began that four month 1,500 mile river voyage, 33 had died and nine arrived wounded – that was a better than 10% causality rate They were literally decimated. It was a tough trip.
Eventually the families each established their own little fortresses in the wilderness. Unfortunately, five years later, on March 1, 1785, the 18 year old Rachel Donelson married a 28 year old land speculator named Captain Lewis Robards. It was to prove a tough marriage. He owned land 150 miles to the northeast, around Harrodsburg, Kentucky, and the couple lived there with his widowed mother, Elizabeth, who took in boarders. Then, in the fall of 1788, Lewis returned home from a business trip to find Rachel on the porch talking with a boarder, a traveling lawyer named Peyton Short. According to another boarder, Judge John Overton, Lewis accused Short of flirting with his wife, and a heated argument developed. Elizabeth Robards was drawn outside where she took Mr. Short's side. Lewis then accused his wife of encouraging Short. When his mother supported Rachel, Lewis ordered his wife to leave and never show her face in “his” house again.
So the unfortunate Rachel returned to Nashville, where she met another young lawyer recently arrived at her own widowed mother's boarding house. His name was Andrew Jackson. The next year, Lewis arrived to patch up things with Rachel, but quickly decided Andrew Jackson was now flirting with his wife. And maybe he was. Anyway, Lewis outweighed Jackson by about 50 pounds, and threatened to beat him up. Instead Jackson offered to meet him “on the field of honor”, but then moved to a nearby trading post. However Lewis's behavior, and his new threat to “haunt” Rachel, convinced her that unfortunately Lewis was still crazy. And as soon as Lewis had returned to Harrodsburg for a quick business trip, Rachel took a boat up the Cumberland, then down the Ohio to the Mississippi River. She didn't stop until she got to Natchez..
The following year, an announcement appeared in a Kentucky newspaper saying that through the good offices of his brother-in-law Major John Jouett, Lewis Robards had been granted a divorce by the Kentucky Legislature. Reading this Jackson immediately took off for Natchez, where in the summer of 1791, he and Rachel were married. Unfortunately, they did not live happily ever after. Because Rachel was unfortunate - remember? Even her divorce was going to be tough.
It was not until 1793 that the Jackson's, living as man and wife on land Jackson had purchased ten miles outside of Nashville, learned the newspaper story had been incorrect. Kentucky had not granted Lewis Robards a divorce from Rachel. All that Lewis' brother-in-law had got him was a bill authorized him to seek a divorce in court. He had quickly started that process, but legally, he and Rachel were still married, making Rachel a bigamist. But then so was Lewis Robards, since in December of 1792 he had married Miss Hannah Winn. The Robards-Donaldson nuptials would not be legally ended until a year later – as of September 27, 1793.
Now, Rachel (above) was a devout Presbyterian, and would never have lived with a man without believing she was in a sanctified marriage. After all, marriage was usually the only financial security a woman had in 18th century America. And as soon as the Jacksons could verify the divorce, they remarried, in January of 1794, in Nashville. After that, they settled down to live happily ever after - not. Because Rachel's unfortunate divorce was going to be very, very tough, especially on Andrew.
It is figured that Andrew Jackson fought at least 13 duels to “defend his wife's honor”. It wasn't that people did not understand the confusion distance and shoddy records could generate along the frontier. But it was common knowledge that if you were ticked off with the hot headed Jackson, just mentioning Rachel would instantly get his goat. In 1806 Tennessee Governor John Sevier and head of the state militia Andrew Jackson got into an argument in front of the courthouse in Knoxville. Jackson began to list his extensive record of service, and when Sevier got feed up he interjected, “I know of no great service you have rendered, except taking a trip with another man's wife.”
The duel with Governor Sevier ended with both men shooting into the air. But there was also the 1806 duel with Charles Dickinson, which started as an argument over a horse race, but came to a head when Dickinson called Rachel a bigamist. Dickinson was a well known duelist, a crack shot, who proceeded to lodge a musket ball in Jackson's lung. But Jackson's single minded fury kept him on his feet, and he put a bullet in Dickerson’s chest, killing him. Which is why Charles Hammond decided to bring up the tardy divorce as well.
Charles Hammond (above) had been a Virginia lawyer, who had even argued before the Supreme Court - where he earned Chief Justice John Marshall's praise for his losing arguments. In 1826 Charles moved to Cincinnati, Ohio and bought the failing Gazette weekly newspaper. He immediately turned it into a successful daily. Daniel Webster called him “the greatest genius who ever wielded the political pen” for his editorials. And in March of that year, Hammond produced a classic editorial about Presidential candidate Andrew Jackson, asking, “Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land?”
On March 23, 1827, Hammond returned to the subject, informing the 15,000 residence of Cincinnati that “In the summer of 1790, General Jackson prevailed upon the wife of Lewis Robards of Mercer County Kentucky, to desert her husband and live with himself in the character of a wife.” It wasn't true, at least not entirely. After all, Lewis had ordered the unfortunate Rachel out of his house, before she even met Jackson. In fact they never would have met, except Lewis was behaving like a jerk. But then the purpose of Hammond's insults was not to prove that Rachel had no honor, but to prove that Jackson had no sense - that he was a hot head, not to be trusted with the nation.
Jackson (above) did challenge Hammond to a duel after the first insult, but Hammond refused to even respond. And then Jackson was told that Hammond had met that summer with Henry Clay, of “the corrupt bargain” fame, and that it was Clay who had encouraged Hammond to write about Rachel. So Jackson challenged Clay, who answered by insisting he had never mentioned Rachel to Hammond. But Old Hickory decided he didn't believe Clay. From that day forward Jackson was “determined to...lay the perfidy, meanness and wickedness of Clay, naked before the American people...he is certainly the basest, meanest scoundrel that ever disgraced the image of God...nothing is too low for him to condescend to.”
In public Jackson remained calm, so Hammond decided to step up the attacks. He wouldn't fight to defend his wife's honor, then maybe he would reveal his real self to defend his mother. Wrote Hammond now, “General Jackson’s mother was a “COMMON PROSTITUTE” brought to this country by the British soldiers! She afterward married a MULATTO MAN, with whom she had several children, of which number General JACKSON IS ONE!!!”