The Hermitage…

…named by Andrew Jackson, 7th president of the United States, a man whose life did not manifest much affinity for the usual pursuits of a hermit. His original name for the house was “rural retreat,” so perhaps he always yearned for a little peace and quiet. The site is now not at all rural — Nashville’s growth has encompassed the area with urban and suburban development.

I visited The Hermitage with a group of faculty and staff from a variety of disciplines within the University. We discussed how we might involve our students in the ongoing study, preservation, and management of the site — internships, on-site classes, collaborations.

From an ecological perspective, sites like this provide “green” spaces within the more heavily urbanized surroundings. These areas can, depending on how they are managed, provide habitat for native species, “windows” of natural space in an otherwise human-dominated landscape. Just as important, they provide places where people can connect to the rest of the community of life, something that is not always possible in urban areas, particularly if those areas have not been planned with green spaces in mind. But there is a tension here: places that are preserved for historical reasons, like the Hermitage, are sometimes not open to the general public without a fee. So, unlike greenways, urban parks, and state natural areas, historical preservation sites are often off limits to many people. A management challenge is therefore how to maximize access while protecting the historical value of the site.

Slave quarters (formerly the early Jackson house), with an impressive understory of privet in the forest behind

Turkeys moved onto the site a few years ago and are now abundant, as are deer, groundhogs, and foxes.

Hackberry is the dominant tree in the forested areas. Its bark is characteristically "knobby" with corky projections


A few years ago, the Hermitage cleaned out this sink hole (>80 tons of garbage). Andrew Jackson's horse was reputed to lie at the bottom. The horse was never found, but when the wind settles down, the smell of the chemicals that were dumped down there wafts up. Humans have been dumping history into this hole for generations.

Jackson did not like to spend money unnecessarily. The columns on the front of the main house are wooden, painted with sand-encrusted paint to make them look like stone. The "marble" inside the house is cleverly painted wood. The "mahogany" doors are faux. Perhaps there is a reason why Jackson was the only president to pay off the national debt...

Music City, early 1800s. The family room.

Old Hickory subdivided -- a few steps down the road. The real estate market is not necessarily friendly to green space, although many studies have shown that open spaces not only increase people's quality of life, they improve "home values" as measured in dollars.

5 thoughts on “The Hermitage…

  1. Sonia Kay MacKenzie

    Wish we could reclaim and recover the tens of millions of acres and families from Jackson’s “removals” circa 1837. Not my favorite Pres. Sorry for the negativity, but among some peoples and people it is still a very sore point–also rankles me every I-24 trip to Chattanooga, so beautiful yet with such awful looking places along the way, especially that horrid Kimball exit. When you are down in the middle of that shopping area though, and look up, you can still get a sense of how beautiful that valley must have been in the past. Good luck on the Hermitage work, Jackson aside. Kay

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Agreed. Injustice layered over injustice: ethnic cleansing, slavery, war. I think the challenge for us is figuring out what our complex history has to teach us today. In what ways will the future judge our behaviors?

  2. Mary Beth

    It’s true that the Trail of Tears receives a relatively brief overview in the museum’s narrative presentation on Jackson’s life. There is impressive equity to be found, however, in the sizeable investment The Hermitage has made (1989 commitment to the establishment of a permenant archaeological program) in African-American history through study of the “erased” stories of Jackson’s enslaved community. In the absence of documents, the retrieval of artifacts have revealed significant information about their lives and culture.

    To David’s point about maintaining consideration of equity while balancing limited resources among both preservation and public accessibility, I’d be interested to know whether museum administrators have\are proactively tracking, over time, the extent to which African-Americans are actually visiting to share in the extraordinary stories that Field Quarter archaeological excavations are revealing — via a *sustained* commitment to community outreach… Perhaps there’s a role(s) for a Sewanee intern in that area. (Related–

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Mary Beth, Wow. These are extremely helpful and insightful comments. Coates’ article is particularly powerful. Your question about community outreach is an important one: having a coherent plan about how the “story” gets told (or, the stories — there are many and they intersect in interesting ways), and to whom, then tracking that plan seems like the core vision that a place like the Hermitage has to develop. I’ll ask about this during our follow-up meetings. I agree that their commitment to archaeology seems to have greatly expanded the scope of what people can learn at the site. Great thoughts. *Thank you* for posting them :)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s