West Cabin The Hermitage - Andrew Jackson House, Nashville Tennessee

Andrew and Rachel Jackson's first home on The Hermitage property was a two-story structure made of horizontal log construction, later lowered to the one-story building seen today. This one-story structure is known as the West Cabin. Andrew Jackson and his family lived in the log dwelling between 1804 and 1821. Some time after The Hermitage Mansion was completed (1819-21), the cabin became quarters for several of the enslaved Africans working on the Jackson plantation.

In the nineteenth-century, the log cabin assumed a mythic quality. Its legend, and popular appeal, grew to new proportions in political campaigns after 1840. After Andrew Jackson's successful run for the Presidency against the eastern establishment, candidates claimed their origins in a log cabin. William Henry Harrison was among the first to do so. The cabin became a synonym for humble and somehow more true origins, for being self-made men in a democratic system, and for the strength of character shaped by a frontier past. Roots in a log cabin also identified the political hopefuls with their western constituency.

The West Cabin required several skilled artisans but not the services of an architect for its genesis. The talents necessary to build the cabin were those held by a corner man, who knew the nuances of linking the ends of timbers meeting at the corners of the structure, and those of the carpenters, who learned how to carve wood into pieces of trim, add details to structural members, and connect parts in a neat joint or a clean edge. The corner man was responsible for making the building stand, while the carpenter bore the task of making the interior fashionable and more comfortable. The corner man and the carpenter could be the same person.

Building the cabin according to the folk knowledge, that had manifested itself in architectural expression regionally since the 1780s, meant that the conception and execution of the horizontal log house happened on a local level. Half-dovetail notches held the log house together and inside planed, vertically aligned boards formed partition walls through their tongue and groove joints. The essentially square house shape, with its exterior chimney at the gable end and stone foundation piers, reflects the base housing unit for all log structures: the single pen.

Moreover, labor and materials needed to raise the cabin were available to Jackson in the central basin of Tennessee. Presumably it was his slave labor force that constructed the cabin after he purchased the property and that the trees nearby were felled for timber. The stone needed for the foundation piers and chimney base was a natural resource of the area; the same enslaved workers could quarry the rocks desired. The forests of hardwood and evergreen trees included such specimens as oak, cedar, hickory, maple, walnut, chestnut, beech, and significant to The Hermitage, tulip poplar. As for manufactured supplies, such as glass, Jackson could obtain them through his mercantile business.

No archaeological evidence exists for a pre-1804 inhabited structure, although, the West Cabin is clearly an alteration of the building the Jackson family lived in between 1804 and 1821. Foundations discovered underneath the West Cabin indicate the original location of the two-story Jackson house. The two-story dwelling was lowered into the one-story form seen today by rolling the second floor and roof off of the first. That activity accounts for the slight shift in axis from the first foundations to the present position.

Throughout the Civil War era, changes to the West Cabin probably include only the deterioration imposed by natural forces because of the reduced circumstances of the Jackson family. After the war, The Hermitage slaves were free and living elsewhere, with the exception of former slaves Alfred and Gracy who remained at The Hermitage. They resided in "Alfred's house"; the location of that structure is unknown. The Jackson family also remained at The Hermitage; after her husband died in 1865, Sarah Jackson took in a minister, Mr. Finney. They stayed in The Hermitage Mansion. Little was said of the place, or its upkeep, as a whole.

A ca. 1870 photograph of the West Cabin shows it closed up and its shutters sagging. Also in this image, the floor joists are visible, lapped over the sill, and another log runs parallel but beneath the aforementioned sill. The chimney cap appears to have different masonry work than the shaft below and the clapboard gable is falling apart. By 1889, the south chimney collapsed, pushing in the wall as it went.

In 1889, the Ladies' Hermitage Association (LHA) assumed stewardship of The Hermitage property, and faced the prospect of preserving the First Hermitage. The West Cabin's chimney had fallen in and the sill on one side rotted away. The LHA authorized rebuilding the chimney, by using the same bricks, replacing the board roof as well as the flooring for the first floor and loft. As further precaution, six new sills were added.

Toward the end of the decade, road work near The Hermitage employed convict laborers. These men had no place to stay during their tour of duty and so the LHA opted to repair the East and West Cabins in the First Hermitage for their use. It is unclear, however, from the LHA minutes if the road crew stayed in both or either of the First Hermitage cabins or what improvements were completed for their benefit. In a ca. 1898 photograph, the First Hermitage cabins appear to be in good physical condition so it was likely that the LHA saw that the maintenance was done.

At the turn of the century, photographs record the appearance of the West Cabin. At that juncture, the cabin had several stone foundation piers and chinking in place. By 1905, though, minor chinking and log damage was evident in the south wall and the west wall's sill log had been replaced. Also present is a worm fence in the vicinity of the cabins.

In the mid 1930s, the LHA applied for moneys available from the state through the Works Projects Administration (WPA). Between 1935 and 1937, the LHA minutes record the desire to restore the First Hermitage using government funds. They found logs to replace damaged timbers in the cabin, received the boards needed for the doors as a gift, and commented that the "reproduced cabins" were "most charming."