Touring the Home of Andrew Jackson: Self-Made Man, National Hero, Slaveholder – Brief Article
Every summer, the Hermitage, President Andrew Jackson’s 19th-century plantation home in Nashville, Tenn., becomes the site of an extensive archaeological dig. This year’s focus is on two small log cabins that were home to Jackson and his wife from 1804 until 1821, before he was elected our nation’s seventh president. In 1821, the Jacksons moved into the mansion, which had just been built, and slave families owned by Jackson moved into the cabins. After Jackson’s second term as president ended in 1837, he moved back to the Hermitage, and he lived there until his death in 1845.
A challenge for researchers is determining whether artifacts found in the area of the cabins belonged to the Jacksons or to their slaves. For instance, a pierced copper disk carved in a Turkish script was found in the yard between the two cabins by a black woman from London who was participating in the dig. It reads, “The Victorious Sultan Mahmoud,” which could be a reference to Mahmoud II, ruler of the Ottoman Empire during the early 19th century. How did it get there?
Archaeologist Larry McKee speculates that it may have been traded into the slave community and that it was possibly used as a talisman in spiritual rites.
Archaeologist Whitney Battle, an African-American field supervisor in charge of the area around the two cabins, has a different take. “Maybe someone saw it in the mansion and took it because it reminded them of their mother or father,” she says, explaining that slaves couldn’t really steal, since they were deemed property themselves. They could simply “rearrange property.”
Battle, a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, has spent four summers digging at the Hermitage. This year’s big discovery for her is that there are very few artifacts in the central area, or courtyard, between the two cabins. Consider that most of the Hermitage cabins measured 20 feet by 40 feet, leaving a living area of 10 feet by 10 feet for a family of five to 10 slaves. Such tight living quarters led slaves to do whatever they could–including cooking and socializing–outside. Why, then, are there so few artifacts in the courtyard? From interviewing African Americans, Battle has learned that the sweeping of yards was a popular practice among African Americans in the South, who used yards as extensions of their living areas. She reasons that slaves kept that area swept clean for the many activities that took place there, and she takes a considerable amount of pride in knowing that the enslaved population at the Hermitage–estimated by archaeologists at 160 to 180 people–used their space for activities not necessarily mandated by Andrew Jackson.
Because there is no written record of slave life at the Hermitage, these archaeological digs are providing the most reliable records that we have. Some finds, like the copper medallion, can lead only to speculation, but others determine such important facts as what housing looked like, where it was located, how it was furnished, what foods were consumed, what items slaves claimed as personal possessions.
“Looking at thousands of artifacts, perhaps our most important realization is the determined efforts of the slaves to improve their lives and carve out some semblance of community even while in bondage,” McKee says.–J.H.
“Beyond the Mansion,” a self-guided walking tour
1. Yard Cabins
Imagine it is the year 1840. You are standing at the former fence line, where the private domain of the Hermitage mansion ends and the working plantation begins. Three slave dwellings stand just beyond this barrier, homes to those assigned to cooking duties and personal service in the mansion.
2. Alfred’s Cabin
After Emancipation, this building became the home of a freedman, Alfred Jackson, who had been born into slavery at the Hermitage around 1812. “Uncle” Alfred stayed on as caretaker and tour guide after the Ladies’ Hermitage Association took over administration of the property in 1889.
The paved path away from the mansion takes you through an area that is now a 10-acre lawn. In 1840, this was a bustling area housing Hermitage livestock and vegetable gardens that fed both the mansion inhabitants and the slave families. Here many slaves completed their daily chores. Today, the Hermitage staff cultivates vegetables and other crops that would have been grown in Jackson’s day.
4. Original Hermitage Cabins
Originally home to Andrew and Rachel Jackson, in 1840 these two log buildings served as the homes of at least five slave families.
5. Working Plantation
In 1840, the cotton and corn fields of the Hermitage–totaling 1,000 acres at its peak–lay just beyond the field quarter trail. Along the tree line is the original site of the plantation’s cotton gin and press, where cotton was processed and then sent via boat to New Orleans. Here, as at most Southern plantations, slaves were the primary source of labor, working the cotton and other crops grown on the property and handling the many forms of livestock.
6. Field Quarters
All that remains of the quarters of the field slaves are the foundations of the buildings, exposed through recent archaeological digs. After long days in the fields, slaves returned to this five-structure village. Because their living quarters were so small and some Hermitage slave families had 8 to 10 children, nearly all events of daily living took place outside the dwellings. The doorways surrounded a community “square” where older slaves sat and talked, children played, and the fieldworkers relaxed in the evenings and on Sundays. Underneath these structures were small spaces used to keep food cool and to hide contraband from the overseer. These root cellars were a standard feature of slave homes on the Hermitage plantation, and they have been great sources of artifacts for archaeologists.
–Adapted by permission of the Hermitage.
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