|Hermitage, TN||June 11, 2013|
Most U.S. first ladies and White House hostesses have been the wives of presidents, but not all. In instances where the commander-in-chief was a widower, or his spouse was unable to fulfill expected responsibilities, it was not unusual for another female relative to step into the role. Emily Donelson took up the mantle in place of her late aunt, Rachel Jackson, when Andrew Jackson became president in 1829. Donelson was in her early twenties at the time and remains one of the youngest first ladies in history, both in life and death. She succumbed to tuberculosis at age 29 during the final months of her uncle’s administration, having ceded her duties to Sarah Yorke Jackson — the president’s adoptive-daughter-in-law — two years prior.
Donelson was initially laid to rest on the grounds of Ingleside, her brother William’s plantation outside Nashville, Tennessee, that abutted the Jacksons’ Hermitage. Development came for Ingleside in 1948, and a local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution saved the Donelson Family Cemetery by having it uprooted and reestablished at the Hermitage Church. It now sits beside another burial ground that contains the remains of 483 Confederate soldiers, most of whom died at the Confederate Soldiers’ Home that once stood one mile north.
This faded epitaph is chiseled into Donelson’s tombstone. It reads, “To the memory of Emily consort of A.J. Donselon who was born on the 1 of June 1807 and died on the 19th December 1836.” Her husband, Andrew Jackson Donelson, was the ward of General Jackson and served as his secretary during his presidency. Mr. Donelson is buried separately, in Memphis. Rachel and Andrew Jackson are interred in the Hermitage’s garden.
Emily Donelson’s gravestone was not wide enough to properly accommodate the inscription chosen for its reverse side; the letter “s” at the end of the third word — “remains” — is carved haphazardly above the “n,” which touches the edge of the surface area.
This is the Hermitage Church, which stands a few yards east of the Donelson Family Cemetery. My father and I did not venture out to this area when we first toured the Hermitage on July 22, 2006. Seven years later, with the Roadside Presidents mobile app at my disposal, I guided us to Donelson’s tombstone and the church. A small plaque attached to the house of worship in 1936 notes it was “erected in 1823 by citizens of the community,” and that General Jackson was influenced by Rachel Jackson to give “the land and the largest contribution” for its construction.
Born: June 1, 1807 in Donelson, Tennessee
Spouse: Andrew Jackson Donelson (m. 1824-1836)
First Lady Tenure: 1829-1834
Died: December 19, 1836 in Nashville, Tennessee
Cause of Death: Tuberculosis
Interment: Donelson Family Cemetery, Hermitage, Tennessee
"It is almost unnecessary for me to tell you that from the time that we left home until the adjournment of congress we were constantly surrounded by a crowd and in one continual scene of ceremony bustle and confusion. This at any time would be annoying but particularly so, as we had just come off a long journey, and my health was so bad that I was scarcely able to keep out of bed one half of my time, but since the dispersion of strangers and our removal to the White House, I have had time to rest, and my health is consequently much improved, and I hope by a visit to the springs this summer it will be completely restored."
- Emily Donselson
March 27, 1829 in a letter to her sister, Mary Donelson Coffee
Sources Consulted and Further Reading
Burke, Pauline Wilcox. Emily Donelson of Tennessee. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2001.
Spence, Richard Douglas. Andrew Jackson Donelson: Jacksonian and Unionist. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2021.