The Delta is Mississippi’s quintessential plantation landscape, more so than the areas surrounding Natchez, Aberdeen and Columbus, or Holly Springs. However, those places possess an antebellum architectural heritage, derived from the plantation economy, that is second to none. The Delta lacks such an antebellum heritage. There are several reasons for this. First is the sparse settlement of the Delta before the Civil War, much of the Delta was swamp into the Twentieth Century. Second is the nature of Delta plantations as a landowner-less landscape with most plantations being run by overseers on behalf of absentee landowners, some from other parts of Mississippi, some from other Southern states. The third reason is outlined by Mary Carol Miller in Lost Mansions of Mississippi and Lost Mansions of Mississippi; Volume II, as the scattered antebellum plantation houses that once dotted the Delta landscape succumbed to fire, the shifting course of the Mississippi River and the associated levee system, and outright demolition. Most Delta plantation houses disappeared decades, sometimes over a century ago, with little trace or recognition. This post remembers one of those antebellum plantation houses, one that despite its national significance in terms of both its architecture and the prominent political figure who lived there, fell into complete ruin only in the last few decades.
Situated on Hushpuckena Creek near Duncan and Australia Landing in rural Bolivar County, the Andrew Jackson Donelson House was never a mansion nor could be considered ostentatious, even by antebellum Delta standards. The Donelson House was basically a log dogtrot constructed during the 1850s, the same decade which saw the plantation mansions Aldomar, Belmont, Mount Holly, and Swiftwater constructed in adjacent Washington County. What the Donelson House lacked in size, it made up for in historical significance as the last residence for Andrew Jackson Donelson, a prominent Jacksonian political figure.
Andrew Jackson Donelson was the namesake nephew of President Andrew Jackson (through his wife Rachel Donelson Jackson), who raised Donelson from an early age. Much of Donelson’s life and nearly all of his political life was spent by his uncle’s side. After graduating West Point, he served as Jackson’s aide-de-camp during the future President’s military campaign against the Seminoles. Donelson worked on his uncle’s 1824 and 1828 Presidential campaigns before serving as Jackson’s private secretary during his presidency. Donelson served in various other governmental capacities during the 1840s, as Ambassador to Texas, then Minister to Prussia, before closing out the decade as Envoy to the Frankfurt Parliament. Unfortunately for Donelson, he appeared to be unable to maneuver through antebellum politics after President Jackson’s death. Donelson was forced out of the Democratic Party in 1852 but still had some political influence until abruptly killing his political career by accepting the position as Millard Fillmore’s running mate on the American Party (Know Nothing) ticket in the 1856 Presidential Campaign.
The final period of Donelson’s life centered around the Delta, as he shuttled between Memphis and his nearly 1,600 acre Bolivar County plantation. Donelson sold his Nashville plantation, Poplar Grove (also known as Tulip Grove), and invested in his Delta plantation, while being somewhat active in Memphis and Delta politics. Until 1868, Donelson followed the Delta tradition of seasonal residency, with overseers conducting the actual plantation operation in his absence. By 1868, Donelson had become a permanent resident at the Donelson House, possibly to eliminate the expense of paying an overseer, since his correspondence during this period contains complaints about having to pay former slaves to work his plantation. He lived at his plantation until his June 26, 1871 death from “congestion of the bowels” in Memphis, where he had gone for medical treatment.
The Donelson House, although deteriorated, was listed on the National Register in 1976. Its prominence as the oldest house in Bolivar County and Andrew Jackson Donelson’s last residence enabled its listing. The National Register listing form, prepared by MDAH architectural historian, William C. Allen, provides a much more detailed description of the house’s architecture than exists for other lost Delta plantation houses. Despite the house being an L-shaped, three pen, log dogtrot – a standard Southern vernacular house – the house had unusually complex Greek Revival woodwork. A few excerpts from the National Register listing give an idea of what the woodwork looked like:
“The east, or principal elevation, is divided into five bays, with the entrance placed on the center axis. A double-leaf door with fielded panels is flanked by sidelights and transom treated with sham muntins. Windows are double hung with six-over-six lights and are surrounded by architraves treated with molded backhands that spring from miniature plinths and corner blocks…
“The side or south elevation, which is distinguished by a well-proportioned Greek Revival frontispiece containing a double-leaf door – only a portion of which is original – sidelights, and a transom. The architrave is battered and eared and raised slightly on axis to suggest a pediment. A single double-hung window flanks the frontispiece on the east, and two similar windows flank it on the west. Each is hung in a simple architrave enriched with mitered backhand. Although the profiles and joining of the molding differ on the south and east elevations, they are thought to be of a single building phase…
“Interior trim is limited to the woodwork of doors, windows, mantels, and baseboards. Typical doors are four paneled with deep ogee-and-bead moldings and are surrounded by wide architraves with the unusual backhand that springs from small plinths and corner blocks. Window architraves, which are continued below the sill, are treated in a similar fashion. The one mantel that can be identified as original… is a simple pilastered design with a three-part frieze and a large cavetto supporting a plain shelf.”
That is a lot of architectural terminology, illustrative of the adage that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Unfortunately, there are no photographs of the Donelson House’s interior woodwork accompanying the National Register listing, just general exterior views and only one MDAH photograph of the front entrance. The description does illustrate, with or without photographs, the high level of architectural sophistication found in the antebellum houses, even unpretentious ones. While some of this sophistication was lost in the industrialization of woodworking in the late 19th Century, the death knell for such refined woodwork came in the form of the modern ranch house which replaced so many antebellum plantation houses, whether they were small cottages or large, white columned mansions. The ones not demolished, like the Donelson House, have been allowed to fall into complete ruin.
After Donelson’s death, the house passed through the ownership of two families, the Lovinggoods and the Yates. Under the ownership of those families it is likely the house reverted back to its original use as an overseer’s house. The Yates family owned the house at the time of the National Register nomination in 1976 and was interested enough in the house’s preservation to both allow the house to be nominated to the National Register and, according to the nomination form, “to encourage a public preservation program.” It appears that neither significant enough funding and/or sustained local interest materialized for the house’s preservation.
Historian Mark R. Cheathem visited the house site in 2005 in the course of researching his biography of Donelson, Old Hickory’s Nephew: The Political and Private Struggles of Andrew Jackson Donelson. His description and photographs show only an overgrown house site on the edge of a Delta field, thick foliage hiding a chimney and collapsed clumps of house materials. The house did not completely collapse until the 1990s, a testament to its substantial construction out of rot-resistant old growth wood. With the Donelson House’s collapse, Bolivar County now only has one antebellum house remaining, the Burrus House (also known as Hollywood or the Baby Doll House). In the end, the Donelson House was too unpretentious for a successful preservation effort to catch the public’s imagination. Today, there is only a small, uncultivated patch in a Delta field to mark a house that is now just a fading memory in the minds of local residents and a few photographs and forms in a couple of architectural databases.
For further information on Andrew Jackson Donelson and his house, historian Mark R. Cheathem’s blog, Jacksonian America: Society, Personality, and Politics, is a wealth of information with two posts on the Donelson House: Andrew Jackson Donelson’s Home in Bolivar County, Mississippi and Andrew Jackson Donelson’s Mississippi Plantation: A Follow-up.