“Lord Only Knows”: The Many Birthplaces of Andrew JacksonPosted: August 23, 2011
Four birthplace markers. Two states. One president.
What we know is simple. Andrew Jackson was born somewhere in the Waxhaws region backcountry of North and South Carolina, straddling the nebulous border between the two states, on March 15, 1767. But on which side of the border he was born—or whether there even existed a clearly defined border line—remains in question today.
The family’s definitive residence during the president’s boyhood (and until the outbreak of the Revolutionary War) was Lancaster, South Carolina, at his uncle James Crawford’s plantation. But at the time of his birth, Jackson’s mother was returning from a trip to bury her husband, Andrew Hutchinson Jackson, in North Carolina. She may have made it back to Crawford’s plantation before giving birth. She may have gone into labor at another sister’s residence, the McCamie Farm, barely a mile from the border line in North Carolina. Jackson himself claimed in letters that he was born in South Carolina, even approving an 1825 map that pinpointed his birthplace in the Palmetto State. But could he even have known? The land then was so remote that the borders hadn’t even been surveyed yet.
One North Carolina history textbook lists Jackson’s birthplace as “near North Carolina’s borders.” A South Carolina book staunchly labels Jackson a “South Carolina native.” Today, both states quarrel for rightful claim over Ol’ Hickory’s birth. Jackson, then, is one of two presidents whose birthplace is subject to significant dispute (the other being Chester A. Arthur, whose shady birth circumstances I investigated earlier this summer in the northern reaches of Vermont). A monument beside the North Carolina Capital in Raleigh places Jackson beside Polk and Johnson as one of three “Presidents North Carolina Gave the Nation.” (Rebecca and I stopped by on our way to Andrew Johnson’s Raleigh birthplace.) Additionally, a small stone dedication claims Jackson’s birth site on North Carolina territory, while multiple markers and a whole state park claim South Carolina as the seventh president’s birthplace.
Earlier this week, on our way to Georgia, Rebecca and I trekked through the remote Waxhaw backcountry in search of Andrew Jackson’s many possible birthplaces. This post offers no answers. Honestly, it will probably just confuse you more. It is simply a straight narrative (and photojournal) of the hours we spent in the Carolinian wilderness, exhausted and aimless, seeking the impossible birthplace of a president who, for all intents and purposes, spent his life and career in Tennessee.
Sometimes, nobody wins.
* * * *
9:09 am: We set out from Durham. We spent the previous night with a friend’s parents, Peter and Susan, whom I’ve promised to mention here and whose hospitality would be worth mentioning even if I hadn’t. They offered us food and shelter on two occasions (en route to Georgia, and then back north three days later), gave no complaint when brutal Friday afternoon DC traffic delayed our arrival till 10 PM, politely asked what presidents are from around here anyway.
The drive from Durham to Waxhaw takes us southbound through most of the state, all the way past Charlotte. It was, I think, the biggest culture shift we experienced in a single day’s travels: from a liberal, metropolitan college town into the heart of the rural Carolinian backcountry. “Most of North Carolina isn’t like this, you’ll find,” Peter warned. “This area here—Durham, Raleigh, Chapel Hill . . . We call this ‘the triangle.’ It’s different here.” Hell, Peter himself grew up in Scarsdale. He sends his kids to Skidmore and Wesleyan—just like my parents.
Durham is a nice place. But a nice place is no place for Andrew Jackson to have grown up.
Noon-ish: Light drizzle. We pull into Waxhaw, NC, a small town in the historic Waxhaw region just north of Lancaster, South Carolina and about twelve miles south of Charlotte. “Welcome to the LAND OF THE WAXHAWS,” proclaims a rusty brown sign, “birthplace of Andrew Jackson.” The scavenger hunt begins here.
12:13 pm: I pull onto state route 75 and into the parking lot of the nearest service station. I’ve read that there’s a marker of some sort proclaiming Jackson’s birthplace in Waxhaw, possibly at the site of the “McKamie Farmhouse,” and within two or three miles of the Museum of the Waxhaws. Beyond that, no clues.
So I approach the gas station attendant. All I ask is for directions to the birthplace marker (there’s only one in town, I wrongly assume), but I receive a brief rundown of the situation (“well, there’s a dispute about that”) and directions to the Museum of the Waxhaws—not actually one of Jackson’s many birthplaces, but still a wise destination for anyone seeking insight into Waxhaw history.
“So where do you think he was born?” I ask the attendant.
She chuckles. “Lord only knows.”
12:28 pm: Museum of the Waxhaws. Long, windy driveway off of 75. Entrance promising “a memorial to Andrew Jackson”—probably what the gas station clerk was thinking of. A stone white bust of the seventh president greets us in the front door.
“Great, thanks,” I reply, how are you, and by the way, do you maybe know where Andrew Jackson’s birthplace might be?
The one woman starts chuckling (“well, that ain’t such an easy question”), and two more behind the desk scramble to help us out. The first starts pointing out pins in an eighteenth-century map of the area, one apparently suggesting Jackson was born an hour north of here, in territory then still unnamed. Mmmm, no, that can’t be it. Another starts giving us directions, but it soon becomes clear she’s sending us to the Andrew Jackson State Park in Lancaster. “No, no,” I clarify. “The marker in Waxhaw. In North Carolina. Isn’t there something in Waxhaw?” That’s what the internet told me: a historical marker right on Route 75.
Finally, the last woman, the youngest, seems to know what we’re talking about. There is something in North Carolina. Something not that far from here. She gets out a whole sheet of printer paper, starts penciling a whole diagram of directions: take 75 all the way to the intersection, find a restaurant called Captain’s Galley, make a left at Captain’s Galley, onto a dirt road, stay right at the fork in the road, and, uh, keep going. It’s past that fork, or down there somewhere. Something. “Just keep goin’.”
“But, uh.” She doesn’t know how to phrase it. “Y’all aren’t gonna find a whole lot down there, you know.”
12:47 pm: So there is a marker for Jackson right on 75, at Captain’s Galley. Not hard to find at all. That’s what I had read about online.
False alarm. This is just a pointer. It’s the birth site itself that we’re looking for—”a few miles southwest of this spot,” which could fall on either side of the state border. Across the street a road sign by the train tracks specifies that it’s seven miles south. Whether we’ll actually find anything at that site remains totally and infuriatingly unclear. “That must be where that woman was directing us. Right?”
Rebecca poses by the road sign and manages to step in a massive cluster of fire ants. “WHEN YOU’RE NOT HERE GOD KNOWS THE REASON,” warns a baptist church sign across the street. Goddamn right he knows. We’re off to a rollicking start.
12:55 pm: Onto the dirt road. I’m driving stupidly slow, careful not to miss anything, but there’s nothing to miss, and I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be looking out for anyway. Another historical marker, I assume. Eventually a fork in the road. We stay right. Forest on every side. Small cabin-style homes. And then—
“Oh, shit. Did you see what we just passed?”
“We’re in South Carolina. That was it. That was the state line right there.”
“No, that’s not possible. We couldn’t have passed it. Or could it be in South Carolina?”
“We must have passed it. That was the state line. See how the road line just stopped?”
“Do you think we were supposed to go the other way at the fork?”
“I dunno . . . she said go right. This is still Rehobeth Road, I think.”
“Ok, ok, we must’ve passed it. I had no idea the state line was right there.”
“Yeah. Wait. This turns onto the main highway here. This goes into Lancaster.”
“Aight. Maybe we can just go to the state park and get lunch or something? I’m really hungry. I don’t think we’re gonna find anything back here.” FIRST BORDER CROSSING.
1:11 pm: We have accidentally found ourselves in South Carolina. It won’t be the last time. Sick of the wilderness, we temporarily abandon the search and head onto the highway towards Lancaster, for solid nourishment and a few sultry hours at the Andrew Jackson State Park. But somewhere on SC-521, we roll past this:
The temperature hits 90. We’re starving. “REJOICE EVERMORE. PRAY WITHOUT CEASING,” demands the entrance to the Ebenezer Baptist Church directly across the street. Instead, we wonder if this was what the museum woman was directing us towards (“but this is in South Carolina! She must have known that”) and decide to figure out lunch.
1:19 pm: Approaching the Fast Food Strip: Lancaster, SC. Enter: options.
We waltz confidently into a “Bojangles’,” curious to experience real southern eatin’ in the Deep South. We flee out of Bojangles’ in disgust. Morale damaged, we venture a bit more cautiously into an Arby’s. “It’s like Subway,” Rebecca promises. “But grosser.” She’s right. We share some turkey/honey mustard contraption with curly fries and plot an exit strategy.
1:52 pm: We backtrack about nine miles north of Lancaster to the Andrew Jackson State Park, 360 acres on the grounds of James Crawford’s plantation. Another identical Jackson birthplace marker greets us. Jackson may or may not have actually been born here, but he definitively spent his boyhood on the property. The park today commemorates its native son with a few modest museum exhibits describing Jackson’s early life in the Waxhaws and his adolescent involvement in the Revolutionary War, during which he and a brother were captured by the British following the Battle of Stono Ferry.
I speak with the park manager, who explains a bit about the history of the park and Jackson’s boyhood. Was the president actually born on the grounds? I ask. “Yes, he was.”
It’s more complicated than that, though. Right?
The manager sighs. “During Jackson’s lifetime, the boundaries between the two Carolinas changed three times. The boundaries that exist today came about in 1813,” he explains. “Jackson’s mother had two sisters who lived in the area, two east of the [border line] and one west. If not here, he was born within a mile of where we are standing, at another aunt’s house.”
“Jackson himself consistently said he was born in South Carolina,” the man adds. You can’t argue with that one.
At any rate, the park in South Carolina has a badass Jackson statue. Take that, NC.
3:28 pm: We leave the park. It’s too early to head to Columbia, our overnight stop en route to Georgia, and we never did find the supposed birth site in North Carolina. Rebecca still thinks the woman was just directing us to the marker by the train tracks, but it doesn’t add up. Why else would she have directed us onto the dirt road? There must be something there. We missed it.
We decide to circle back and recross the border. The directions to the site are too confusing to navigate in reverse, so we head back to the Captain’s Galley restaurant in the center of Waxhaw. SECOND BORDER CROSSING.
3:49 pm: Back at the original birthplace pointer by Captain’s Galley. H-core déjà vu. Back onto the dirt road, but this time we spot a man standing in his front yard and decide to ask for directions.
“Excuse me. Can you direct us to the Andrew Jackson birthplace marker?” He nods in recognition.
“Well, sure. Y’all are going to want to keep goin’, and stay straight at the fork in the road, and then, uh, just, ah, keep going, and there’s a stone down there. It’s, ah, it’s down there somewhere, it’s a stone, so y’all are just gonna want to keep goin’ and you’ll see it.”
This is how people give directions in the Waxhaws.
We, ah, we keep goin’.
4:03 pm: We continue straight at the fork—again. We’re cruising at a steady eight mph, and there’s nothing. Woods. Trees. Red-brown clay. Miles. Woods. Trees. Red-brown clay. Miles, miles.
4:05 pm: Still driving. Still nothing.
4:06 pm: wait
4:06 pm: pause
4:06 pm: Rebecca sees something.
4:06 pm: “Wait, stop, stop, I think you passed it. I saw something on the side of the road.” I pull over. We step out of the car to the sound of gunshots, unnervingly not that far off. We’re traversing hunting territory.
4:07 pm: It’s a white trash bin. And the gunshots are kind of maybe getting louder . . .
4:08 pm: We keep on trucking down Rehobeth Road, discouraged and confused.
4:10 pm: Oh no. The border. We’ve crossed the border again. “We’re in South Carolina.” Rebecca points out the obvious. “We must’ve gone too far.” THIRD BORDER CROSSING.
4:11 pm: There’s a horse farm just a few yards past the state border, in SC. A tan, muscular woman in a tank top is stationed out front, saddling up a few horses. I pull over and approach the fence.
I ask for directions to the birthplace, and she knows exactly what I’m talking about.
“I think I must’ve gone past it. We’re in South Carolina now, right?”
“Well, sure. It’s up thatta way.” Kind southern drawl. She raises a blistered finger, points in the direction we’ve been traveling. “You gotta turn onto the dirt road, continue past the church. It’s at the cul de sac.”
“But isn’t this South Carolina? I thought it was supposed to be in North Carolina.”
“Yep.” She nods. “It’s in North Carolina.” Big smile.
My head spins. “How’s that possible? We just crossed into South Carolina.”
“Sure, this is South Carolina.” She points at the ground of her farm. “But that’s North Carolina there.” She points in the direction we came from, the border we just crossed. “And that’s North Carolina up there, too.” She points farther west, where the birthplace supposedly is.
We’ve landed on an island of South Carolinian horse farm territory, with North Carolina bordering from either direction. Nothing makes sense anymore. No wonder no one knows where the hell Jackson was born. I can’t even figure out what state I’m in.
“The stone’s up there,” the woman continues. “You’ll like it.” Another toothy smile.
4:19 pm: We follow the horse-farm woman’s directions to the stone marker. She mentioned two crucial details that our other navigators left out, which are:
1) You cross the border into South Carolina and you keep going. In less than a mile, you’re back in North Carolina. Shocking that historians are confused, right?
2) There’s another turn that nobody told us about: a left onto Andrew Jackson Road, a dead-end dirt road.
4:21 pm: FOURTH BORDER CROSSING. Who knew the Palmetto State could be so fleeting?
4:25 pm: Back in Union County, we make the left onto Andrew Jackson Road. Past the church, into the woods, to the end of the road. And there, on North Carolina soil–in the middle of the cul de sac, surrounded by woods on all sides–sits the modest stone monument proclaiming the site of Andrew Jackson’s birth.
4:32 pm: We don’t linger too long. We’re surrounded by woods on three sides, which means we’re surrounded by hunting gunshots on three sides, which is unnerving when you’re in the Waxhaw backcountry searching desperately for an obscure 111-year-old stone marker and can hardly keep track of what state you’re in. Seeking Andrew Jackson’s countless birthplaces is a noble quest. But it doesn’t warrant getting shot.
We cross into SC for the third and last time that day, satisfied that Andrew Jackson was indeed the only president born in two different states.
* * * * *
So here’s the truth. I do not know where Andrew Jackson’s birthplace actually is. I only know that he seems to have a lot of them—more, by far, than any other president I’ve visited.
There’s one anecdote I especially like. “For decades,” the Washington Post recently reported, “one high school in Lancaster County, S.C., and another in Union County, N.C., played a football game in which the winner got to claim Jackson for the next year.” I can’t tell you who won the game this year. But if you’re looking for consensus, that seems about the best methodology you’ll get.
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- Location of Andrew Jackson’s birthplace still under debate (WIS News 10)
- Old fight lingers over Old Hickory’s roots (The Washington Post)
- North, South Carolina Fight Over President Jackson (NPR)