In September of 1791, the newly married Andrew and Rachel Donelson Jackson were traveling north on the Natchez Trace, returning to Nashville, with a group of about a hundred fellow frontiersmen. Among the group was a volatile Indian fighter named Hugh McGary. McGary had famously pioneered Kentucky with Daniel Boone and had reached the rank of Major in service to various frontier militias. McGary, however, had rightfully cultivated a poor reputation resulting from his often brash and brutal actions, especially against Indian combatants. In fact, more than a few times, McGary’s dealings had led to defeat, death, or – at a minimum – a continued escalation of hostilities directed at those with whom he served.
In “The Devil’s Backbone: The Story of the Natchez Trace,” historian Jonathan Daniels wrote, “Fools were more often to be feared than rogues on the frontier. There may have been some of both in McGary … as boastful frontier fool, McGary became most famous.”
At the time of this particular trip up the Natchez Trace, both of the Jacksons were twenty-four years old. McGary was forty-seven and likely the recognized leader of the assembled travelers.
The Mississippi Territory through which the Natchez Trace passed in 1791 was recognized by the United States government as being under the control of the Choctaw Indians in the south and the Chickasaws in the north. Both tribes were on notably friendly terms with the U.S. and were key parties in peace treaties signed in Nashville in 1783 and in Hopewell, South Carolina, in 1786. Encounters between Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians and travelers on the Natchez Trace were common in the 1790’s and were usually anything but dangerous. Typically, a trading exchange of some sort was the impetus for interactions between the parties, or just as likely, simple visitations between people who at this point in history had met personally before, possibly many times for routine travelers.
Nonetheless, a conflict arose on the trip to Nashville between Andrew Jackson and Hugh McGary regarding a “meditated Indian attack.”
It is not known exactly what potential Indian conflict had arisen or was perceived to have arisen during the trip. What is known is that Jackson and McGary quickly and firmly held to opposing courses of action in response. It is reasonable to speculate – given the documented, bombastic nature of McGary and the fact that Andrew Jackson traveled with his young bride of less than two months – that McGary instigated for a fight and Jackson, the protector, resisted the idea and counseled otherwise. Perhaps, Jackson pointed out McGary’s history of poor decisions in this arena to the hundred or so fellow travelers, who would have found it logical that no credible attack by Chickasaws or Choctaws was looming. And there wasn’t. Whatever the “threat” had been, if any, it passed into the ether without incident, and the Jacksons, McGary and the rest safely reached Nashville in October of 1791.
The conflict on the trail had made McGary a lifelong enemy of Jackson. Jackson’s business partner John Overton clarified the origination of the feud between the men decades later: “Circumstances then occurred calculated to excite in McGary a strong feeling of dislike toward General Jackson, which it is unnecessary to detail as they related solely to a meditated attack by the Indians.”
So, because of some unspecified affront by Jackson, the rash Kentuckian McGary had found a new target for his wrath. He would surely do Jackson harm if he found opportunity, and unfortunately for Rachel and Andrew Jackson, opportunity soon presented itself.
Why were John Overton’s remarks required decades later? The answer is that he was defending Andrew Jackson against charges of adultery … committed with his own wife Rachel.
Rachel’s first husband Lewis Robards had been granted a bill by the Virginia legislature in 1790 allowing him to seek a divorce from his estranged wife before a jury. However, unknown to Rachel and Andrew Jackson, he had never acted on that bill and technically remained married to Rachel. In 1793, Robards finally brought his act before a jury along with a star witness for the proceedings, Hugh McGary. McGary testified that on the return trip from their Natchez “honeymoon” that Andrew and Rachel Jackson had “slept under the same blanket.” Subsequently, the jury found that “the defendant Rachel Robards hath deserted the plaintiff Lewis Robards and hath and doth still live in adultery with another man.”
McGary had his revenge.
Jackson vehemently swore that he and Rachel would not “remarry” because his wedding before God was true and legal in “the understanding of every person in the country.” But, upon the advice of his friend Overton, Andrew and Rachel Jackson ultimately submitted to a second ceremony on January 17, 1794.
Rachel Jackson never escaped the scandal, which had been bolstered by the testimony of the frontier braggart Hugh McGary. McGary died in 1806, but his vengeance lived on.
When Andrew Jackson ran for president in 1828, John Quincy Adams targeted the Jacksons’ “passion and lack of self-control” as the key reason Jackson should not win election. One newspaper expounded on the theme, asking, “Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband to be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land?”
Her husband just elected president, Rachel Jackson finally yielded to the strain of it all and died of a heart attack at the age of sixty-one on December 22, 1828. As a result, Andrew Jackson arrived for his inauguration as President of the United States a widower. Jackson was a harsher man from that day forward.
“May God Almighty forgive her murderers,” Jackson said at Rachel’s funeral, “I never can.”
At its core, the fabric of all the stories of human existence is woven from our basic emotions, good and bad, and those actions, good and bad, that are derived from them … even the stories of presidents.