Articles & Stories

Andrew Jackson Secured A
Wife From Kentucky Backwoods

An Old Newspaper Account Of The Elopement
Of Andrew Jackson And Rachel Robards

By Woodford V. Dick - 1914

That Andrew Jackson "stole his wife" from Kentucky is not generally known, and those who have met with the statement are not inclined to regard it literally.
Historians and biographers of the hero of New Orleans, finding it necessary to record several unseemly transactions of the great man, have shielded him from the accusation of adultery, and in so doing have left unpublished one of the most thrilling chapters of his life.


Andrew Jackson

The mistress of the Hermitage, according to one writer, was "an accomplished woman from Nashville." Others have written of her family connections in that city, which it is true, are good, but these writers have made no mention of the Kentucky episode. Some, who admit parts of the wife-stealing story, declare that Jackson believed his fiancee' was divorced when he married her. In order to fully justify her course in the matter, her former husband is represented as an uncouth backwoodsman, unfit to be the consort of a woman of his wife's graces.
On the contrary, there is abundant proof to show that this gentleman, who with his mother, brothers, and sisters, came to Kentucky from Virginia soon after the Revolution, was directly connected with one of the best families of the mother state; that he had been married to his beautiful wife but a few months when Jackson first visited his home, and there on a subsequent visit the latter took advantage of his host's temporary absence to elope with his wife. Hereby hangs a tale.
A "Mover's Wagon" Is Snowbound
In November 1791, a "mover's wagon" bound for Nashville, Tennessee, was making its way through Kentucky from North Carolina. The "movers" had passed through Harrodsburg, Mercer County, Kentucky, the principal town of the Bluegrass Region in the days when Kentucky was still a dependency of Virginia. When the party was four miles from the town, they were caught in a severe snowstorm and compelled to ask for shelter at the first farmhouse they reached. They were then in the Cane Run neighborhood, about one-half mile from that place.
The house at which they happened to arrive in the blinding snow was a magnificent stone structure with something of the grandeur of a medieval home to be found in the Kentucky backwoods in pioneer days.
The whole party was soon welcomed about the fireside in the stone house, their horses stabled and their wagons placed under cover.
Among the number was Mrs. Donaldson with her three children, John, Thomas, and Rachael. It is with Rachael Donaldson that this story has to deal. That she was surpassingly beautiful must be connected to her conquest of two men's hearts, and from the double-romance in which she was Juliet and these men were Romeo. At the time she emerged like a queen of the gypsies from the "mover's wagon." She was 16 or 17 years of age. From that moment, Lewis Robards loved her.
The Robards Family
The Widow Robards with her nine children was the owner of the stone residence and several hundred broad acres of the best land of the far-famed Bluegrass country. They had come from Goochland County, Virginia, in the tide water country and with their scrip had staked off the land they then owned. At first they lived in a one-room, log cabin without a roof and with only three walls, one side being open to the rains, snows, and biting blasts of winter, except for a curtain of bear skins. With the fortitude born of woman as well as men of pioneer days, the entire family lived together in this enclosure until their "castle in Spain" was completed.
The weather continued severe, the roads were impassable, and with characteristic Kentucky hospitality the Robards prevailed on their guests to remain. Temporary quarters were provided for the rest of the party in the abandoned cabin, but the family of Mrs. Donaldson remained as special guests in the stone house.
The family into which Providence had thus placed Rachael Donaldson had an unique history.
The Widow Robards, the only name that tradition furnished for the mother of the family, was a granddaughter of Joseph Lewis and his wife, Sarah Cooke, of the fine old Cooke-Aston-Pleasant families, a granddaughter of Colonel Robert Woodson and his wife, Elizabeth Ferris, all prominent founders of the Virginia colony, as a reference to the history of those days shows. Her husband, William, son of John Robards, a wealthy Goochland County planter, died during the Revolution, leaving five sons and four daughters. All the sons engaged in the War of Independence, three of them being officers. The youngest, Captain George Robards, ran away at the age of 16, fought in many of the battles to the surrender of Yorktown, and was at Brandywine, Germantown, and Cowpens; and wintered with Washington at Valley Forge, Stony Point, and Camden. As a result of his many deeds of heroism, he was promoted four times. His brother, Lewis, was a captain and his brother, William, was also an officer.
When the family moved to Kentucky, and their new home had been built, one by one the widow's children began to marry. They all married well.
Major Jack Jouett of Revolutionary fame came courting at the old stone house and married one of the widow's daughters, Sarah. It is thought that Matthew Jouett, the finest American artist of his day, a son of these two, first saw the light there.
One daughter married a nephew of President Madison.
When Elizabeth Robards was married to Colonel William Buckner, Mrs Robards, the mother, could boast of three sons and two sons-in-law, all Revolutionary officers.
The Advent Of Jackson
At the coming of the beautiful Rachel, Captain Robards was the widow's only unmarried son. The two fell in love at first sight, and their courtship culminated in marriage during the following spring, when the rest of the party, who had enjoyed the shelter of the Robard's home for the entire winter, went on their way. All, however, with the exception of Mrs. Donaldson, who with her two sons remained in the new home with her daughter.
The newly-wedded pair were enjoying their honeymoon when the hospitality of the Robards home was againt sought. At this time by a young man who came riding one night. He said he was going to Harrodsburg, lost his way, and wanted to remain overnight. He was kindly bidden to enter.
The stranger was prepossessing in appearance, tall and with a lean athletic figure. He was a splendid conversationalist, a clever humorist, and full of stories of travel. They found him altogether an exceptional person.
He was a lawyer and had come from his home in Nashville. He was drawn to Kentucky with scores of others of his profession when litigation had arisen over land claims parceled out to old soldiers of the Revolution in the absence of Clark's men in the West, to whom the land had originally been given.
The household was charmed, and they insisted that their guest of one night should remain with them as long as he was in the community. It was not difficult to induce the young man to accept the best hospitality to be afforded in all the country, and the young lawyer readily assented. The family waited with impatience for his return in the evenings, so much did they enjoy his conversation.
When a week passed, and the young lawyer had concluded his business, it was with reluctance that the Robards' household saw him depart for his distant home from which he had come.
They learned that his name was Andrew Jackson and that he was 22 years of age. Here appears another contradiction of his many-sided character; the future conqueror of New Orleans, the gruff old master of the Hermitage, the slayer of Dickinson could be a Chesterfield as well.
His Second Visit
In the light of future developments, it would appear that the manner of the dashing "young Hickory" had made a deeper impression on Rachael than on any other member of the household. "Love cannot dwell with suspicion," is a lesson from an old Greek myth, and if Lewis Robards had entertained the slightest misgivings as to the behavior of his wife towards their guest, this did not cause him to alter his manner toward him when he returned again during the latter part of the following summer. This time he was welcomed as a long lost brother and was given as much freedom, as if he were master of the premises.
His visit had lasted a little more than a week, when Robards returned home one day from a distant part of his estate, and found his wife missing. At first he was not alarmed, but as time went by, and she could not be found, he guessed the course of her disappearance. Calling to him an old servant, they mounted horses and gave chase.
About this time the people of the little town of Harrodsburg were witnessing the remarkable spectacle of a young man on horseback riding through their midst with the wife of one of the most respected gentlemen of the community seated behind him. He rode with as much devilish dignity as his satanic majesty himself could have mustered.
The Chase
The two on horseback were bound for Nashville, a distance of 300 miles. It is difficult to conjecture how much time would be required for a man (or rather a man and a woman) on the same horse to travel this distance. Certain it is that they let no grass grow under their feet in an effort to reach the Tennessee border before their pursuers. Robard's handicap was time; Jackson's, weight. The latter won out despite the odds.
Many persons living in the neighborhood of Harrodsburg declare that the old servant who was living a few years ago told how he and his master followed the fugitives till they reached a river near the stage line, and that the pair were in a boat crossing the stream and were near the opposite shore when the horsemen came up to the stream. The old Negro and his master fired at them without effect, and then together turned about and began the sad journey home.
Divorce Proceedings
Two years elapsed before Robards made an application for a divorce on the grounds of adultery and abandonment, with Jackson named as correspondent. The application is on file and can be seen in an old docket book in the musty little back room used as one of the circuit clerk's offices in Harrodsburg, county seat of Mercer County, Kentucky. It is dated December 1793, and its pages are brown with time stains and dirty with scores of thumb marks of persons seeking to verify the time-honored story.
The divorce was granted by the state of Virginia, as a reference to the records of that year will show, and it went by default. Then it was that Jackson had another ceremony to make the marriage valid.
Jackson made no protest against the divorce going by default. His biographers seem to have overlooked this fact. There was no better time to clear his wife's honor and his own alleged guilty connection in the matter than by refusing to allow the ruling of the court and by bringing evidence to support his objection. He dismissed the matter by a second marriage ceremony and let it stop there. This was certainly incrimination procedure. He could not fight a duel with the court, as it is well known that he did with Dickinson, because of reference the latter made to this story.
Every year a speaker at New Orleans on the occasion for the anniversary of the great President's victory over the English, makes a reference to Mrs. Jackson, and soon finds himself in a labyrinth of apologies and explanations to account for her history. Why not tell the story of the episode in the Kentucky woods? Certainly, nothing is more consistent with the character of the man than just such a high-handed course as this. Indeed, it would not dim the lustre of his great name by a single ray to admit all the facts.
No woman in all the land could claim a truer and nobler husband than Jackson proved to be. It is said that he would incline his head reverently when she spoke. She died soon after his election to the presidency, and once the President threatened to disrupt his cabinet because of a fancied reflection, some member made on her honor. He was simply a passionate, self-willed, daring man who would not deny himself anything that physical bravery or intrigue could bring him. As he never regretted a single action of his life, it seems unfitting for succeeding generations to make apologies for him.
Nothing To Recant
Opie Read, the Southern novelist, relates that when Jackson's end was near preachers all over the country expressed the hope that the old warrior would give out a statement that he regretted killing Dickinson. Such a statement, they believed, would be of great force against dueling, which had become to an alarming extent "the last resort of gentlemen" among the young men of the South.
A preacher who was at the bedside says the novelist asked "General, is there anything in your life that you particularly regret?" There was a momentary silence and then the reply came faintly, "Yes, there is."
The preacher bent forward eagerly. He would be the first to tell the world that Jackson was sorry he killed Dickinson. "I regret that I didn't hang John C. Calhoun," said the dying man.
In the neighborhood of the scenes of this story, the little village of Burgin has since sprung up. Within one-half mile of its confines, a magnificent residence can be seen crowning an imposing hilltop. It stands almost hidden in a cluster of pines, with its massive colonial pillars shining white through avenues among the trees. The structure is of artistically wrought brick with a two-story veranda supported by the giant pillars.
This house is the citadel of the famous "Glenworth" estate. Although it was built in 1847, it will hold its own for beauty and grandeur with any residence in Kentucky.
The present owner of the estate, Mr. Allen T. Edelen, the well-known horse breeder, feels a peculiar pride in the fact that his beautiful home stands on the very spot where once stood the old log cabin in which a part of the "movers" party wintered. Within a few hundred yards of the house and also on the "Glenworth" estate can be seen the ruins of the rugged old stone mansion, from which Jackson eloped with the beautiful wife of Robards. So little is left of the pile of remains that the matted bluegrass blown by the wind droops over the stones and almost hides them from view.
Most of the facts in this story were gleaned from Mrs. Mary Tarkington Edelen, a cousin of Booth Tarkington, the Indiana novelist. Mrs. Edelen, with her son, lived in the Glenworth mansion until a few years ago (prior to 1914), but now resides with her husband in Danville, Kentucky.
Little is known of the action of Lewis Robards bereft of his wife, but the name Robards is a frequent one among the first families of Mercer County where the episode was enacted.
The story runs that Lewis Robards returned home and lived peacefully with the two brothers of his former wife.
An old graveyard on the Glenworth farm is supposed to be the last resting place of John and Thomas Donaldson. A few unhewn rocks bearing no inscription, but undoubtedly marking graves, are clustered together on a lonely hillside. Old residents of the nearby town of Harrodsburg avow that these indicate the graves of the two brothers and the mother, who, according to one story had died before Jackson returned to accomplish his famous theft.
There are no grounds to doubt the story. Places and dates tally perfectly. These facts coupled with the application and cause for divorce on record in the clerk's office in Harrodsburg, the granting of the divorce by the Virginia Court, and the second marriage ceremony all support it.
If all these facts were obliterated, the one fact of the killing of Dickinson, because he taunted Jackson with the story, would be proof enough.
Tennessee may claim "Old Hickory," but Kentucky will claim the treacherous, clinging vine that left its first abiding place to cling to him till death.

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