Wearing the white dress she had purchased for her husband's inaugural ceremonies in March 1829, Rachel Donelson Jackson was buried at the Hermitage, her home near Nashville, Tennessee, on Christmas Eve, 1828. Lines from her epitaph – "A being so gentle and so virtuous slander might wound, but could not dishonor" - reflected Andrew Jackson’s bitterness at campaign slurs that seemed to precipitate her death.
Born in Virginia in 1767, Rachel Donelson journeyed to the Tennessee wilderness with her parents when only 12. At 17, she married. But her husband’s unreasoning jealousy made it impossible for her to live with him. They separated in 1790, and she was told that he was filing a petition for divorce.
Andrew Jackson married Rachel in 1791, but after two happy years they learned that a divorce had never been obtained. Her first husband brought suit on grounds of adultery. After a divorce was granted, the Jacksons quietly remarried in 1794. Although it had been an honest mistake, whispers of adultery and bigamy followed Rachel. Jackson was ready to avenge any slight to her. Scandal aside, her unpretentious kindness won the respect of all who knew her. The Jacksons never had children of their own, but in 1809 they adopted a nephew and named him Andrew Jackson, Jr. They also reared other nephews.
After losing his beloved wife, Jackson asked Emily Donelson, Rachel’s favorite niece, to serve as his White House hostess. Though only 21, Emily skillfully cared for her uncle, her husband, her four children (three born at the mansion), many visiting relatives, and official guests. Praised by contemporaries for her wonderful tact, she had the courage to differ with the president on issues of principle. Frail throughout her lifetime, Emily died of tuberculosis in 1836.
During the last months of the administration, Sarah Yorke Jackson, wife of Andrew Jackson, Jr., the president’s adopted nephew, presided as hostess of the Executive Mansion in Emily Donelson’s stead.