America’s First Ladies

America’s First Ladies: Rachel Donelson Jackson, Emily Donelson, and Sarah Yorke Jackson

Our seventh First Lady was not just one woman, but three, and all were relatives of President Andrew Jackson. Jackson’s wife, Rachel Donelson Jackson, was technically First Lady, but never served, because she died between Jackson getting elected and inaugurated. In her place, Rachel’s brother’s daughter, Emily, took over First Lady duties for her late aunt. When Emily died of tuberculosis at the young age of 29 during Jackson’s time in office, his daughter-in-law and wife of his adopted son, Sarah Yorke Jackson, took on the role.

Rachel’s family were among the first European settlers in Tennessee, and she was considered beautiful, and much sought after by suitors. She married Lewis Robards of Kentucky when she was 21, but the marriage was not happy. Rachel believed Lewis would file for divorce, and returned to live with her parents two years after getting married.

Andrew Jackson met Rachel the same year she got married when he boarded with her mother. After she left her husband, she and Andrew became close and got married in 1790, after Rachel heard Lewis had obtained a divorce from her. What she did not know was that the divorce had not been finalized, and her marriage to Andrew Jackson was a bigamous one.

Lewis heard about Rachel’s marriage, accused her of bigamy and adultery, and obtained a real divorce from her in 1794. Because of this, and the fact that the Jacksons were Protestant, and only Catholic marriages were recognized in Louisiana (where they originally married) at the time, they re-married, legally this time, at Rachel’s parents’ house, in 1794.

They did not have any children together, but legally adopted one of their nephews, a great-nephew, and an orphaned Creek Native boy. They also became legal guardians to numerous nieces and nephews who did not live with them full-time. One of these children, Andrew Jackson Donelson, son of Rachel’s brother, Samuel, became Jackson’s protégé and heir.

Andrew Jackson and Rachel were very close, and their relationship was definitely a love match. However, she did not like the spotlight, and his political ambitions often put them in it. Her status as a “convicted adulteress” was used against Jackson in his presidential campaign against John Quincy Adams. This public attention to what she considered a very personal matter caused her to become depressed, and she expressed a desire to never have to live in the White House. She spent much of the campaign crying and being depressed, which was only compounded by the death of her Creek son from tuberculosis, and the discovery of a heart condition from which she was suffering.

Jackson was elected president, but Rachel died of a heart attack before he was sworn in. He held onto her until he was pulled away, and refused to leave for D.C. until he absolutely had to. He viewed the press as her murderers and said at her funeral that he would never forgive them. Rachel was buried in the white gown and shoes she purchased for the Inaugural Ball and buried on the grounds of their home, the Hermitage. Her epitaph reads:

“A being so gentle and so virtuous slander might wound, but could not dishonor.”

In need of a First Lady now that he was without Rachel, Jackson turned to Emily, daughter of Rachel’s brother, John. Emily was born June 1, 1807, in Tennessee. She had a formal education, unlike most girls of her day, and married at age 17 to her first cousin (and Jackson’s protégé), Andrew Jackson Donelson. The couple had four children together. As she served as First Lady, her husband was Jackson’s private secretary. The first year of Jackson’s presidency was an official mourning period for Rachel, which ended when Emily threw a New Year’s party at the White House on January 1, 1830.

Emily continued to serve as First Lady until a scandal called the Petticoat Affair caused a rift between her and Jackson. Jackson’s secretary of war, John Henry Eaton, had a new bride, Peggy Eaton, who was a widow. Rumor was the relationship started as an affair, and Peggy’s first husband killed himself when he learned of it. There was pressure on Jackson from both sides of the political society in which he lived… one was to accept Peggy to social occasions at the White House, and one was to shun her. Emily was on the side of shunning her. When Jackson refused, Emily left D.C. Jackson implored her to return, but she refused as long as he continued to accept Peggy’s presence at the White House.

Emily’s health began to deteriorate when she returned to Tennessee, and she died at the age of 29, probably of tuberculosis, while sitting in front of her window, waiting for her husband to return from D.C.

This led to Jackson’s third First Lady, Sarah Yorke Jackson, his daughter-in-law. She was married to his adopted son, Andrew Jackson, Jr. Born July 16, 1803, to a wealthy Philadelphia family, Sarah was considered Mistress of the Hermitage while Emily was doing First Lady duties. She and her husband lived there at Jackson’s home and maintained it for years. They were the official administrators and managers of it and inherited it after Jackson’s death in 1845. Their financial issues caused them to have to sell it and move, then come back there thirty years later as wards of the state. Sarah outlived her husband and one of her sons and died only two years before a historical organization bought the Hermitage and restored it for the public.

Sarah was a competent First Lady but did nothing of extreme note while in office. She was a gracious and capable hostess, and people seemed to like her. Unfortunately, because she was not the wife of a president, she was largely forgotten by the public after Jackson was no longer in the White House.

Jackson was buried at the Hermitage next to Rachel. Their elaborate and decorative tomb is a popular attraction there today. All three of his First Ladies did the job well, but there was only one who Jackson really wanted at his side in the White House, and that was, without question, his true love, Rachel.

Will Moneymaker founded Ancestral Findings back in 1995. He has been involved in genealogy research for over 20 years. The thrill of the hunt, the adventure, and the excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his surname. Why I Love Genealogy (And You Should, Too!)