Andrew Jackson actually had two First Ladies and never married either of them.
One was his wife’s niece, Emily Donelson, who did as planned and assumed the role of hostess in the presidential mansion at Washington.
The other was his daughter-in-law, Sarah Jackson, who it was planned would assume the role of hostess in the president’s plantation in Nashville, but a sudden fire there had her also coming to live in the presidential mansion.
For the first time in history, there were two women serving simultaneously with equal status as White House hostesses, neither of whom were presidential spouses.
Sarah Jackson’s story is one that has never been widely disseminated, but it is unusual.
Orphaned at 15 years old, raised by two maiden aunts in Philadelphia, Sarah Yorke and her two sisters Jane and Marian were heiresses to great mercantile fortune, established by their father, like his own father, was a sea captain who travelled the globe and were familiar with the cultures of Africa and Asia.
Her grandfather’s grandfather had been a Quaker in England, a follower of William Penn who immigrated to the American colony of Pennsylvania when he learned of the religious freedom it offered those of his sect.
She was born in July of 1805 but practically nothing his known of her childhood.
Sarah’s narrative becomes more definitive after her wedding to the President’s adopted son and namesake, two years after his presidency began. Jackson was unable to attend the ceremony in Philadelphia but greeted her with literally open arms on the North Portico of the White House, commencing a series of dinners and receptions to honor her, at which she wore her wedding gown.
She and Andrew, Jr. spent the winter of 1832 in the White House.
In the late spring of 1832, a pregnant Sarah and her husband headed down to the President’s Nashville plantation.
That November, she gave birth to her first child, a daughter named after her late mother-in-law.
She was fully recovered and in a joyous mood when she returned to the White House for her father-in-law’s second Inauguration on March 4, 1833.
She stayed through summer and accompanied the President on his summer vacation in Virginia, after which she proceeded home to Tennessee.
Sarah Jackson gave birth to her second child in the spring of 1834 at the Hermitage plantation, after which a fire broke out and destroyed part of the plantation house. This prompted the return of Andrew, Jr., Sarah and their two-year daughter and seven-month old son.
Interestingly, she made the northern trip by stagecoach along with Emily Donelson so that there would be no rumors of one or the other being the “official” or primary hostess of the White House.
Nevertheless, the President did declare that Sarah was “mistress of the Hermitage,” a home he considered more important to him personally than the White House.
Even if they were intended to be treated with the same status in relation to the President, Emily Donelson did dominate the White House simply by the nature of her tenure there since the beginning and her wide circle of Washington social contacts.
There was never any known rivalry between the two of them and they even co-hosted a children’s Christmas party at the end of 1835.
Sarah Jackson again returned to the Hermitage in the spring of 1836.
That summer Emily Donelson also returned to her adjoining plantation but was terminally ill.
It’s unclear if Sarah Jackson visited with her fellow First Lady in the fall of 1836 before she returned to Washington and Emily died at home, but it is highly likely.
With the end of the Administration nearing, Sarah Jackson was now back at the White House as the sole hostess there for President Jackson and she oversaw the packing of his personal possessions for shipment home to the Hermitage.
Sarah Jackson ran the household at the Hermitage for the former President until his death in 1845, giving birth to three more sons there. Pressed by the debts he left, she and her husband relocated to Mississippi just before the Civil War.
After the war, the state of Tennessee bought the Hermitage to preserve as an historic site but permitted this relatively obscure First Lady to continue living there until her death in 1887.
Although Sarah Jackson did not play an important role in the White House, she did ensure the physical and emotional comfort of her legendary father-in-law during his increasingly infirm and disabled retirement, playing a vital role that was entirely private and personal rather than political and public.