Slavery at the Hermitage: Fascinating Finds

by Ashley Layhew White.

The Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s imposing home, survives today as a memorial to American history, to the old days of Tennessee, and to true love. Still standing proud and stately, it has endured poverty, the War Between the States, and the 1998 tornado. Today, perhaps more than ever before, The Hermitage serves to inspire and instruct us.

Recent archeological work at The Hermitage has uncovered some significant details of everyday 19th century slave life. Interesting finds in and near slave cabins on the property include sewing items, toys, and bits of money. The discovery of pencils and slates in every excavated cabin, indicating that Andrew Jackson’s slaves were literate, is surprising and leads us to re-examine some of our ideas about slave life. Good luck charms found at the dig sites are also fascinating, especially the Hand of Fatima which was used to ward away evil spirits. Underground “hidey holes” have also been great sources for archeologists at The Hermitage. Items stolen from the main house or passed along from a slave on a neighboring farm were commonly hid in these secret places.

Though it has become more or less expected to find them on plantation digs, the excavation of gun parts at The Hermitage is nevertheless startling. Hammers, flints, and lead shot have been found, pointing toward gun possession among the slaves. Why would Andrew Jackson allow slaves to bear arms? One plausible explanation is that the slaves used guns to hunt game which included raccoons, squirrels, turtles, and deer. By allowing slaves to hunt, plantation owners could promote self-sufficiency in the slave community.

Archeologists at The Hermitage are optimistic about what the future will teach us about the past, and their successful work reinforces the role of the great plantation as a national treasure. The many fortunate discoveries they have made tempt us to ask: Has the Hand of Fatima had something to do with it?

Ashley Layhew White was a junior at McGavock High School in Donelson, Tennessee, when she wrote this essay for the May-June 2000 newsletter. Since that time she has become a respected historian in her own right.

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