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PERPLEXING to the motorist traveling along the highway from Charlotte to Lancaster, South Carolina, paralleling the eight-mile stretch of the north-south boundary line between the Carolinas, are two signs but a few miles apart.
The first, an official North Carolina historical marker, proclaims: "ANDREW JACKSON. Seventh President of the United States, was born a few miles southwest of this spot." The marker refers to the site, on a now little used road, of the George McKemey cabin in which Jackson was born March 15, 1767.
The second marker, placed by the South Carolina Historical Commission, asserts with equal assurance that the seventh President was born, less than three miles form the McKemey cabin, on the Crawford plantation.
The McKemey site is in North Carolina, the Crawford site is in South Carolina. Can it be, the startled motorist asks himself, that one President could have been born in two places? Yet two sovereign states have so proclaimed.
On the Capitol grounds in Raleigh, North Carolina, proud North Carolinians have erected an imposing statuary group to the three Presidents born in North Carolina - Andrew Jackson, James Knox Polk and Andrew Johnson. And at the South Carolina Crawford "birthplace" equally proud South Carolinians have established an Andrew Jackson historical park.
Manifestly, despite the solemn asseverations of the official markers, Andrew Jackson was not born in both houses. But in which?
The question has been debated ever since the red-headed Waxhaw youth attained national fame. Like the Mecklenburg declaration controversy, in all probability it will never be settled to everyone's satisfaction.
There are even varying views of what the controversy involves. Most students of the subject contend - and many do whether they are students of the Jackson story or not - that he was born in the McKemey cabin (the name is variously spelled, including McCamie and McAmey) and therefore in North Carolina or in the Crawford house and therefore in South Carolina. But there are some, too, who agree with the contention of Gerald W. Johnson, distinguished North Carolina writer, as revealed in his Andrew Jackson: An Epic in Homespun, that Jackson indisputably was born in the McKemey cabin, but that the little log structure may have been in South Carolina. On the other hand, Marquis James in his The Border Captain, the first of his three-volume biography of Jackson, declares that whether his birthplace was the McKemey or the Crawford house, Jackson was born in South Carolina - what was South Carolina at the time of his birth.
But if the question was debated in his lifetime, what did Jackson himself say about it? Manifestly, he couldn't have known of his own knowledge where he was born, but did he not have a definite opinion about it, based on what he had been told?
Evidently he had no firmly fixed opinion. When the controversy arose, his mother had been long dead, and many others who would have known. He had left the Waxhaw community at an early age. Perhaps he had taken for granted that he was born in the Crawford house, though he did not actually say so, since from his earliest remembrance he was living there with his widowed mother. Yet here is also evidence to indicate that as a child he thought he was born at McKemey's.
He often described himself as a native South Carolinian, and it is on such statements that supporters of the Crawford birthplace contention seemed mainly to rely. But could he not have thought he was born in the McKemey house and in South Carolina?
In the time of Jackson's birth the boundary line was not known; it was but vaguely traced through this section of the Waxhaws. Not until May 5, 1813, was the line actually run. It was on the occasion of the surveying of this line that the Governor of North Carolina reportedly observed as he mopped his perspiring brow that "it's been a long time between drinks."
The establishment of the boundary put the McKemey cabin 407 yards east of it, in North Carolina; at the same time the Crawford house some three miles down the road, was a few hundred yards west, in South Carolina. Remains of the McKemey cabin, including large chimney stones, to this day determine its location.
The capstone of the South Carolina birthplace argument is the letter that Jackson wrote on August 11, 1824, to James H. Witherspoon of Lancaster, South Carolina, who had asked him where he was born. Jackson replied from Nashville:
D'r Sir, your letter of the 24th ult. is Just recd, and altho an entire stranger to you feel a lively interest in your prosperity and that of your family your lady being the descendant of a distant relation by marriage, I mean your Ladies mother.
I have a great with to revisit my native state, and once more mingle with those friends of my Juvenile days who may still be living. . .
As to the question asked, I with pleasure answer. I was born in So Carolina, as I have been told at the plantation whereon James Crawford lived about one mile from the Carolina road [crossing] of the Waxhaw Creek, left that state in 1784, was born on the 15 of march in the year of 1767.
yr mo obdt. Servt.
In 1767 the plantation "whereon James Crawford lived" was owned by James's brother Robert and the deed placed its eastern boundary at the State Line. The McKemey house likely, it is argued, was a part of the Crawford plantation. Mrs. Jackson, Mrs. Crawford, and Mrs. McKemey, as well as Mrs. Sarah Lessley, the midwife at Andrew's birth, were sisters and with their husbands had come into the Waxhaws some two years before from Ireland. So Jackson, it is contended, could have been referring to the McKemey house on "the plantation whereon James Crawford lived." This view is supported by an affidavit of James Craig, "formerly of Waxhaw, then of Mississippi," as quoted in James Parton's monumental biography of Jackson, in which Parton says Craig related that once while sleeping with Jackson in the McKemey house, young James Faulkner, Andrew's cousin, was told by Andrew that he had been born there.
Perhaps as a result of having seen published Jackson's letter of August 11, 1824, to Witherspoon, someone who signed himself "K" wrote a letter to the Columbia, South Carolina, Telescope, and this letter was copied by the Charleston Courier in its November 24 issue. This letter, summarized by Dr. Archibald Henderson in his monumental North Carolina: The Old North State and the New, refuted General Jackson's assertion that "I was born in So Carolina, as I have been told. . ."
"There has been much uncertainty in regard to General Jackson's birthplace," this letter said. "I am glad that I have it in my power to settle this question. . . . After the death of his father, his mother . . . went to live with her brother-in-law, a Mr. McAmey. . . . General Jackson was born at the house of Mr. McAmey, and therefore in the State of North Carolina. When he was about six weeks old his mother removed him to the house of Mr. James Crawford, another brother-in-law, on the South Carolina side of the road."
Some four years after Jackson wrote Witherspoon, a letter from Craig was published, on July 11, 1828, in the United States Telegraph, Washington, in which he asserted that "General Jackson was born 2 miles of this spot; there are living witnesses yet remaining."
This was the year of the lively Presidential campaign and already scurrilous stories were being circulated about Jackson, some of them concerning his birth and parentage. Evidently having seen the Craig statement, George Nevills of Ohio, chairman of a committee supporting the Jackson campaign, wrote Craig and asked him to obtain affidavits with which to refute the scandalous reports. This Craig proceeded to do. After making abstracts of the certificates, he sent the originals to Nevills. The originals disappeared, but the abstracts are now in the North Carolina Historical Commission's archives.
But even in that era the documents obtained by Craig did not settle the controversy. And years later a July 4 oration delivered by Samuel H. Walkup, a leading lawyer of Union County, North Carolina, which in 1842 had been formed form Anson and Mecklenburg, stimulated renewed argument because of his reading the signed testimonials of two elderly men of the Waxhaw community. In these certificates Benjamin Massey and John Carnes each affirmed that Mrs. Sarah Lessley [sometimes spelled Leslie] Lathan [sometimes spelled Lathen], the President's cousin, said that Jackson was born at McKemey's, that as a girl of seven she had gone there with her mother. Mrs. Sarah Lessley, Mrs. Jackson's sister, that she well remembers having walked the nearer way through the fields, and that she was present when Andrew was born.
In 1858, Colonel Walkup, an uncle of the late William Henry Belk, noted merchant of Charlotte, who would later be colonel of the Forty-Eighth North Carolina Regiment in the War Between the States, continuing his interest in the Jackson birthplace argument, wrote to Mr. Craig, who some twenty years before had moved to Mississippi, for further information substantiating the contention that the McKemey cabin was the birthplace. And on September 23 of that year the North Carolina Argus, a weekly newspaper of Wadesboro, North Carolina, published a series of affidavits obtained by him. A copy of this newspaper was kept by C. C. McIlwaine of Union County, and when in 1891 it was seen by R. B. Redwine, a student at the University of North Carolina, young Redwine borrowed it and had the article about Jackson's birthplace published in the University Magazine. Copies are on file in the University library.
"I think it can be as clearly demonstrated as any such thing can be at this distance of time that General Andrew Jackson, the late President of the United States, was born at the house of George McKemey, or McCamie, in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, after his father's death, on Twelve Mile Creek, North Carolina," declares Colonel Walkup, after an introductory paragraph, and he then launches into his discussion. Transcripts from a number of the affidavits were used by Parton in his biography, which was published in 1861. Each document is offered to support the McKemey site version; each was made by a person familiar with the Waxhaw region and the Jackson story. In fact, most of those testifying were related to the seventh President.
Andrew Jackson, Sr., had moved into the Waxhaws not long before his death. On September 21, 1766, he had applied for a patent to 200 acres on Twelve Mile Creek. It was while engaged in clearing his land, according to the traditional story, that he ruptured himself; he died within a few days after the injury. The body was prepared for burial, and since a heavy snow had fallen before it could be carried to Waxhaw Presbyterian Church graveyard, it was placed on a sort of sled and the funeral party, several of them reputedly well fortified with refreshments provided in those days at proper wakes, started through the snow to the church several miles away.
When the party arrived, it was already growing dark. And to make things infinitely worse, it was discovered that the sled bore no body. But several members of the party quickly retraced their journey and upon coming to a small creek, found the coffin. It had slipped form the sled as the horses had plunged across the little stream. The body was placed on the sled again and a short while later, after a service by torchlight, was committed to the earth. A tombstone stands in the ancient churchyard over what is purported to be the elder Jackson's grave.
Andrew Jackson died only a few days before his son's birth. On the return from the funeral, Elizabeth Jackson stopped at either the Crawford house or the McKemey house and gave birth to her third son. But in which house?
Colonel Walkup, though a native South Carolinian, felt that the evidence supported the McKemey site. But he wished to see the controversy settled, and so, three decades after Jackson had been elected to the highest office in the nation, he determined to collect evidence that would end the controversy.
"This is oral tradition," he says, "among the near neighbors and nearest relations of Jackson himself in Waxhaws, North Carolina and South Carolina, as is shown by certificates of Benjamin Massey, Esq., and Messrs. John Carnes, taken in 1845, and John Lathen (his second cousin), James Faulkner and Thomas Faulkner (also second cousins of Jackson), who all testify that old Sarah Leslie and Sara Lathen, the aunt and cousin of General Jackson, often asserted that 'he (Jackson) was born at George McCamie's, and they were present at his birth,' that Mrs. Leslie, his (Jackson's) aunt, 'was sent for on the night of his birth,' that 'it was at her brother-in-law's, George McCamie's, in North Carolina, close by where she (Mrs. Leslie) lived in North Carolina,' and that she 'took her little daughter, Mrs. Lathen, with her,' and 'recollected well of walking the near way through the fields in the night time.'
"In addition to this positive testimony," Colonel Walkups article continues, "we have the testimony of Mrs. Elizabeth McWhorter and her son, George McWhorter, and Mrs. Mary Cousar, who state that they were 'near neighbors, and present on the night of the birth of General Jackson,' or were there on the next day, and have a distinct recollection that 'he was born at the house of George McCamie, in North Carolina'; which testimony rests upon the statements of Samuel McWhorter, the grandson of Elizabeth McWhorter, Thomas Cureton, Senior, and Jeremiah Cureton, Senior, who heard these old persons very often speak of these facts in the most positive terms, and who gave many circumstances in corroboration of its truth. And all these witnesses, and those who traditions they relate, were persons of unimpeachable honesty and veracity, who had the very best opportunities of knowing the truth of all the facts they narrate, who were near neighbors, near relatives, and intimate associates with Jackson in his youth."
Colonel Walkup also presented some interesting testimony from the immediate relations of General Jackson and persons living in South Carolina who had direct knowledge of the birth and events leading up to it.
Benjamin Massey's affidavit, dated August 5, 1845, affirms:
Sir: Agreeable to your request, and to fulfill my promise to you, I herewith send you Mrs. Lathen's history of the birth of Andrew Jackson, as related to me by herself about the year 1822, as well as my memory now serves me. Mrs. Lathen states that herself and General Andrew Jackson were sisters' children; that Mr. Leslie, the father of Mrs. Lathen, Mr. McCamie, Mr. Jackson, the father of Andrew, and Mr. James Crawford, all married sisters; Mr. Leslie and Mr. McCamie located themselves in Mecklenburg, N.C., Waxhaws; Mr. Crawford located in the Lancaster District, S. C., Waxhaws; Mr. Jackson located himself near Twelve-Mile Creek, Mecklenburg, N. C.; that she was about seven years older than Andrew Jackson; that when the father of Andrew died, Mrs. Jackson left home and came to her brother-in-law's, Mr. McCamie's, previous to the birth of Andrew; after living at Mr. McCamie's awhile, Andrew was born, and she was present at his birth; as soon as Mrs. Jackson was restored to health and strength she came to Mr. James Crawford's, in South Carolina, and there remained.
I believe the above contains all the facts as given by Mrs. Lathen to me.
Perhaps the strongest of the affidavits bolstering the McKemey claim was given by John Lathan, son of Mrs. Sarah Lessley [Leslie]Lathan. Said he:
The following is about what I have heard my mother, Sarah Lathan, say in frequent conversation about the birthplace of Andrew Jackson, President of the United States. She has often remarked that Andrew Jackson was born at the house of George McCamie and that she, Mrs. Lathan, was present at his birth. She stated that the father of Andrew Jackson, viz., Andrew Jackson, Sr., lived and died on Twelve Mile Creek, North Carolina, and that soon after his death Mrs. Jackson left Twelve Mile Creek, North Carolina, to go to live with Mr. Crawford in Lancaster County, South Carolina. That on her way she called at the house of George McCamie, who had married a sister of hers. Mrs. Jackson, and while at McCamie's she was taken sick and sent for Mrs. Sarah Leslie, her sister, and the mother of Mrs. Sarah Lathan, who was a midwife, and who lived near McCamie's. That she, Mrs. Lathan, was a young girl, and recollects going with her mother; they walked through the fields in the night; and that she was present when Andrew Jackson was born. That as soon as Mrs. Jackson got able to travel after the birth of Andrew Jackson she went on to Mrs. Crawford's, where she afterward lived.
The maiden names of my grandmother and sisters (Mrs. Jackson, Mrs. McCamie, and Mrs. Crawford) were Hutchison. One of them married Samuel Leslie, my grandfather, one married James Crawford, one married George McCamie, and one married Andrew Jackson, Senior. Jackson lived on Twelve Mile Creek, North Carolina; Leslie lived on the north side of Waxhaw Creek, North Carolina, on the east side of the public road leading from Lancaster Court House, South Carolina, to Charlotte, North Carolina, about one mile east of said road, and east of a large branch, and near George McCamie's, as I understood, but not so near the public road of McCamie's. I don't know where McCamie lived - Crawford lived near Waxhaw Creek South Carolina.
My mother, Sarah Lathan, was the daughter of Samuel and Sarah Leslie, and died about 35 years ago, and was over 60 years old at her death. My mother lived near me until her death, and we lived about seven or eight miles from Samuel Leslie's and William J. Cureton's place, and about two miles from old Waxhaw Church, in South Carolina. I am 70 years of age and have a very distinct recollection of all facts above stated as true and correct, as stated by my mother, and as recollected by myself.
In another affidavit, Thomas Faulkner, described as Jackson's second cousin, who said he was seventy years old and had lived all his life in the Waxhaws, testified substantially to the same facts. So did James Faulkner, grandson of Mrs. Sarah Lessley [as it was generally spelled in her day], the midwife and Mrs. Jackson's sister, who affirmed that often she had heard his aunt, Mrs. Sarah Latham, say that as a seven-year-old child she had gone in the nighttime through the fields with her mother, Mrs. Sara Lessley, to the McKemey house and that she was there when Andrew was born.
James Faulkner testified that he had heard his aunt, Mrs. Sarah Lathan, say she was present at McKemey's house when her cousin Andrew was born.
One of the affidavits from the Craig collection was made by a Mrs. Mary Cousert [variously spelled Cowsar, Cousare, etc.], who affirmed that she was "at McKemey's the morning Jackson was born and before he had been dressed."
The affidavits present a very strong case for the McKemey cabin as the Jackson birthplace. In fact, Parton declares without question that Jackson was born there, as Johnson does, and others who have given careful study to the question. Marquis James, too, agrees that the evidence is very strong. But he points out that Mr. Walkup may have "put words in the mouths" of the persons testifying; he says that the Parton quotations do not agree altogether with the affidavits and adds that the affidavits as presented are abstracts rather than the originals.
James, after making a stronger case of the McKemey house, it appears, that for the Crawford plantation, concludes: "My opinion is that neither party has proved its case, but that the Crawford house has a little better of it on Jackson's own testimony."
But Marquis James, strangely, makes no reference to Jackson's Murfreesboro letter. And that letter weakens, almost to the point of nullifying it, the case of the Crawford site supporters based upon the Witherspoon letter. It is an interesting letter and it gives weight to the contention that Jackson actually knew little, or cared, about where he was born.
Evidently - to return to the campaign of 1828 and the efforts of Nevills to refute nasty rumors about the President's birth and ancestry - Jackson saw the affidavits sent to Nevills by James D. Craig and was convinced by then that he was born in the McKemey cabin in what by then had been established to be North Carolina. At any rate, apparently from then on, as his correspondence tends to prove, he considered North Carolina his birthplace.
On February 26, 1831, a committee representing Murfreesboro, North Carolina, wrote to President Jackson requesting that he visit their village on his expected southern tour. They referred to North Carolina as the state of his nativity.
Replied Jackson, in a letter dated Washington, March 8th, 1831:
Gentlemen: - I have the satisfaction to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 26th ultimo.
Should my official duties permit me to visit my native state during the recess of Congress, I will with great pleasure accept the flattering invitation which you have so kindly presented me in behalf of its inhabitants to visit Murfreesboro. The State of North Carolina is a portion of our country endeared to me by the earliest associations. It was upon her bosom and among her citizens I first entered the career of life. The people were the patrons of my youth as they have been the true and zealous supporters of my political course. Their generous confidence and kind regard will ever be remembered with feelings of the warmest sensibility.
Allow me gentlemen to present to you individually and through the citizens of Murfreesboro an expression of the gratitude and esteem of
Your fellow citizen,
So, seven years after he had written Witherspoon the letter upon which those who contend he was born at the Crawford house mainly rely, President Jackson himself renders that evidence virtually valueless by his letter to the citizens of Murfreesboro in North Carolina, declaring upon "her bosom and among her citizens," he "first entered the career of life."
But that was in 1831. And the preceding half century would have advanced his career far beyond his native Waxhaws. In 1780, with the British pushing northwestward in the up-country form their victory at Charleston, nothing could have been of less concern to the thirteen-year-old red-head that in what house he had been born.
Blythe, LeGette and Brockmann, Charles Raven. Hornets' Nest: The Story of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. Charlotte, NC: Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, 1961.