The First Hermitage served as Jackson’s original farmhouse. It was converted into slave quarters when Jackson built the mansion at The Hermitage.
A Start as a Farmhouse
Between 1798 and 1800, skilled craftsman constructed a two-story log farmhouse for the original owner of the property, Nathaniel Hays, who had claimed the property as a land grant in the early 1780s. Relocating from Greene County, Tennessee, Hays lived here with his wife, two children and two African American slaves.
Builders constructed the farmhouse with timbers made of tulip poplar, American elm and red oak. The foundations and chimney were made of locally quarried blue limestone. The well-built dwelling measured 24’ x 26’ and featured a large single room on the first floor. The upstairs contained two bedchambers, a stair hall and an attic loft. The house featured an enclosed corner stair and beaded trim. Two springs provided water for the landlocked farm. Hays established a small farm, where he grew cotton and became good friends with his neighbor, Andrew Jackson.
Bought By Jackson
On July 5, 1804, Andrew Jackson purchased Hays’ farm, which he named the “Hermitage.” Before he and Rachel moved in, Jackson hired a local French-speaking craftsman to dress up the interior with painted trim and French wallpaper.
Jackson also hired local men to clear fields, build fences, and construct new outbuildings, including a 30’x18’ log kitchen, which doubled as the cookhouse and as slave quarters for Betty the cook and her family. About 1813, Betty’s son Alfred Jackson was born in the original log kitchen.
It was here that Jackson resided when he led American troops against the British in the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815. When the new mansion was complete in 1821, the family moved out.
Conversion to a Cabin
The farmhouse was converted into a single-story slave cabin in the 1820s. Perhaps dozens of enslaved African Americans lived within its walls over the next thirty years. Significant alterations were made to the structure, including the removal of the first floor, construction of a new brick chimney, whitewashing of the interior and the removal of all window glass and doors. Also removed were the interior stair, wallpaper and trim. Slaves made their own mark on the building by constructing root cellars, exterior shelving and using interior wood stoves with metal flues. After the Civil War, the building was used for agricultural storage and quickly fell into disrepair.
First Hermitage Slave Sites
At least four slave dwellings are known to have stood in the First Hermitage area. The First Hermitage kitchen, a duplex or double pen log kitchen and slave dwelling was built in 1805.
First Hermitage Kitchen
Excavation of this dwelling revealed multiple brick root cellars. Artifacts discovered that could firmly be associated with the slave period include: two pierced coins, decorated clay marbles, hand-blown medicine vials, leather shoe pieces, a shell ornament and thousands of shards of ceramics and glass. A blue-transfer print meat platter found under the kitchen was one of the largest pieces of intact ceramic ever unearthed at The Hermitage. The First Hermitage kitchen stood just forty feet from the First Hermitage farmhouse. This log building had a dividing wall with chimneys at either end.
First Hermitage Farmhouse
Archaeologists have focused their efforts on how the First Hermitage farmhouse changed over time from Jackson’s home to a home for slaves and the differences in material culture between those two periods.
First Hermitage Yard
In addition to excavation of the interior of the First Hermitage buildings, work has been done in the surrounding yard.
Much of the area between the cabins appeared to have been swept clean from the African-American tradition of sweeping outdoor spaces. However, interesting features, such as an outdoor cooking hearth, multiple ash deposits from fireplace cleanings and a fence line to the east of the kitchen building suggest outdoor living and working.
The South and Southeast Cabins
Archaeology often leads to more questions than answers. This is true of the discovery of the remains of two other outbuildings near the First Hermitage, now known as the South and Southeast cabins. They were demolished at an unknown time. At the South Cabin, archaeologists located the limestone foundation of what appears to have been a brick duplex. Testing uncovered a rich assortment of domestic artifacts. Archaeologists also discovered the remains of a chimney associated with another building at this site known as the Southeast Cabin. The large range of household artifacts and early 19th century ceramics, including bone, beads and buttons, lead them to believe it was a dwelling as opposed to a farm outbuilding. Both building sites require further investigation.
By 1889, when the Ladies’ Hermitage Association took stewardship of The Hermitage, these buildings had deteriorated. In fact, the chimney and south wall of the farmhouse had collapsed during a storm. The first action the LHA took was to repair and restore the First Hermitage buildings, becoming the earliest historic preservation project in Tennessee and one of the earliest in the U.S. Although repairs continued throughout the 20th century (being first professionally documented as part of the Bicentennial in 1976), the nearly 200-year old log buildings continued to deteriorate. The First Hermitage farmhouse and kitchen were restored to their slave quarter appearance during a multi-year restoration project completed in 2005. Read more about the history of the mansion