Sea Song - the Jackson House of Hancock County

 written by Russell Guerin

“Sea Song” - The Jackson House “Sea Song” - The Jackson House

Often when we embark on a journey to solve a mystery, what we find at the end is that we have created more questions than we have answers. This may be the case with one of our local legends; and indeed, it may be that what we find is not what we anticipated. After all, a legend may come down to us with all that strength that goes with it being time-honored, told and retold again, each time with the force of tradition and the stamp of history.

The more interesting the story, the more it is told, each time with the possibility of subtle and sometimes not too subtle changes and additions.

The Legend

We have oral tradition in Hancock County that Andrew Jackson had a house built on the site that is now the eastern edge of Buccaneer Park in Waveland. Our legend includes such detail as the name of the builder (James Johnson of Virginia), the date of construction (1815), the methods of building (wooden pegs versus nails) and the narrative that the house burned down just after completion and that the general paid off the contractor and immediately had him rebuild the house.

We also have contrary versions, these involving the general’s adopted son and nephew, Andrew Jackson, Jr., indicating that it was he who actually lived in the house, not the general. Other assertions give a date of construction more like 1840, and include that it was for “Old Hickory,” and that the rebuilding after a fire was in the 1860’s. This would presumably have been for Andrew Jr., as the former president had died in 1845.

Accuracy calls upon us also to consider whether there is evidence contrary to the traditional story. For one thing, we are informed by the ladies of the Hermitage, once the home of the president and his family near Nashville, that he owned only one Mississippi property, and that it was of some 2700 acres in the northern part of the state.

The legendary date of 1815 is also troubling, as it was in that year that Jackson had just finished defeating the British at New Orleans. It is difficult to imagine that his thoughts might have been on a house design in a desolate, isolated area where the only roads were Indian paths, rather than his anxiety to return with Rachel to their beloved “old Tennessee.” At Nashville, there were acres to be planted, many slaves to be assigned their duties, the race horses of which he was so fond, and of course, family. While the British had been dispensed with in early January, Jackson surely heard the beckoning of the Hermitage when leisure became possible.

It may be that the 1815 date is one that was supposed because of the presumption that Jackson had passed through this area on his way to Chalmette. That too, however, does not comport with the journal kept by Jackson’s chief engineer. He records that when Jackson departed Mobile for New Orleans in late 1814, his route took them to what was called the federal road, running along the 31st parallel to Ford’s Fort on the Pearl River, and then southwest to Madisonville on Lake Pontchartrain. From there he crossed Lake Pontchartrain, entering New Orleans through the “back door” of Bayou St. John.

What about the alternate date, 1840? The former president would then have been a tired old man of 73 years of age and in poor health - not impossible perhaps, but improbable.

The reason this date appears might be because Jackson had consented to travel to New Orleans for the 25th anniversary of the battle of New Orleans, but there is no evidence that he detoured to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. In point of fact, he needed to rest frequently on the way, and at one point suffered another hemorrhage. 1  Besides, he had to be persuaded to make the trip, and on balance consented partly because it gave him the opportunity of borrowing money to pay pressing debts. It should be remembered that through much of Jackson’s adult life, including the years as president, he was burdened by debts created by his adopted son, Andrew Jackson, Jr. The year 1840 was a particularly bad year financially, Jackson being quoted as saying, “I would always sacrifice property than the credit of my adopted son or myself.” 2 

To spend money on a new house in an isolated area at this stage would have been folly, especially paying for it twice.

Among other loans, one that resulted after the New Orleans visit was from General Jean B. Plauche, Jackson’s old friend who had commanded the Orleans battalion. Plauche had insisted on having the “honor” of advancing $6,000. 3 

What has perpetuated the legend is the fact that several of the circumstances recited above are correct, but for the other Andrew Jackson, being the adopted son. He was born into the Jackson family as a twin, his father being Rachel’s brother, Severn Donelson. Thus, he became Jackson’s nephew, and as a child was taken in by Andrew and Rachel as their own, as they were childless. Some have believed that the mother of the twins was sickly, and could only take care of one.

Family Correspondence

To clear the air, the Hancock County Historical Society is privileged to have transcripts of a series of letters written within the family of Andrew, Jr. These cover a period of 1857 to 1860, and are the basis for some of the conclusions that follow. They have come to us courtesy of the Hermitage in Nashville, Tennessee.

Clifton Plantation deed 2 Clifton Plantation deed 1 The first such letter is dated March 26, 1857, from Clifton Plantation. It was written by Andrew Jr.’s son Samuel, age 20, to his mother, Sarah. It describes three locations, the first being referred to as the Dannial [sic] place, which will later be shown to be Clifton, a plantation of 640 acres on Mulatto Bayou. The second so described was the Mitchell place, and the third was the Russ Place.

In the body of the letter, Samuel was contemplating his parents coming down to his area, and counseled his mother that she would not like the Daniell place, and there was not too much to say for Mitchell. The Russ place, however, “is a very prettie one, the house is a very good size the rooms are I think too small they are very little half more than half as large as our place.” He also mentioned pretty flowers and fruit trees and tall cotton, and told of a marsh of 200 acres.

The latter site was intended to become the residence of Samuel’s parents, who would be moving from Nashville.

In the same letter, Samuel related that he had been advised by Col. Claybourn [sic] to record two deeds. 4  One was from James Mitchell and the other “by a Mr. Russ.”

At this juncture, one must wonder about the sources of Andrew Jr.’s wealth. These questions cannot be answered from the letters. Hopefully, therefore, the reader must indulge this writer in a search for answers, and they lie, fortunately, in the history books.

In addition, a full understanding predates the letters.

There is much background information available about the finances of the former general and president, as well as relevant history regarding his adopted son. For purposes of clarity and brevity, a quote from one of the Jackson biographers is in order: “Within ten years of Jackson’s death his son was close to $100,000 in debt. The state of Tennessee in 1856 purchased the Hermitage and 500 acres of adjoining land for $50,000, $2,000 of which was withheld for rent for a two-year period.” 5 

And so we have a clue. One year before the first letter, Andrew Jr. and his family were caused to leave the Hermitage, and to establish a new home. Evidently, Andrew Jr. felt no compunction causing him to apply the cash to the debt, and with money at his disposal, he began to buy in Hancock County, Mississippi.

After much investigation, why he chose this area is still an open question. They had no relatives or other ties that have been established in Hancock County. It was not because of any connection to Sarah Jackson, as she had been from a patrician family in Philadelphia. Perhaps it was to escape responsibility from the accumulated debt. Maybe there is some evidence in Claiborne’s immediate offers of help.

JFH Claiborne was a member of a distinguished family. His uncle, WCC Claiborne was once the governor of Mississippi territory, and then the first governor of Louisiana after the 1803 purchase. His brother, father to JFH, was Major General Ferdinand Claiborne, who had fought the Creek War with General Jackson, and WCC had succeeded to Jackson’s seat in the Congress.

Perhaps Andrew Jr. had been given an introduction.

The Properties

Young Samuel, who was evidently running Clifton Plantation on his own, dutifully reported that he had sent a man to Gainesville, the county seat at the time, to record the two deeds mentioned above. Courthouse records bear him out, at least in the case of the Mitchell deal.

Mitchell deed The Mitchell deed was recorded on March 24, 1857, and describes a sale by James Mitchell 6 to Andrew Jackson of 1920 acres (three sections, or three square miles) for a price of $2,760.

It has been established that the Russ Place was almost coextensive with what is now Buccaneer Park. Efforts to find the records of the Russ deed have been unsuccessful. However, it may be that no title would have passed, as this is primarily “lieu land,” or 16th section, reserved for schools and other purposes. It can only be leased, the period being 99 years. It should be noted, nonetheless, that in later documents transfers of this 16th section have been listed as deeds.

It was one of Samuel’s early letters that contained a clue to the location of the Russ Place, stating that it was “just on the coast.” Of the three properties he described, only Russ was so located. It is known that Clifton was three miles from open water, and Mitchell bordered on what is now Lower Bay Road. Moreover, Samuel said that Clifton was eighteen miles distant from the Bay of St. Louis.

The journal of Benjamin Wailes, the state geologist who passed through our area in 1852, is confirmation of the locations. Wailes reported visits with both Judge Daniels and Asa Russ, measuring the distance from Clifton to the home of “Mr. Asa Russ of the Lakeshore” as fourteen miles. 7 This distance, subtracted from the eighteen miles to the bay, approximates the distance from the Russ Place to the bay.

Interestingly, Wailes, in visiting with Russ, observed the latter’s attempt to drain the nearby marsh. This corresponds with what has become known as the Jackson Marsh on local maps.

On May 22, 1857, Samuel wrote a letter to his sister, Rachel Jackson Lawrence. Several passages offer an insight into the Jackson family life and suggest that their father had not finished his shopping. He mentions that “Pa” had arrived, but Samuel thought that “Pa does not like this place as well as he did at first.” He added that his father “spoke of going to see a place near New Orleans…the price of the place is $30,000.”

Two months later, Samuel wrote to his father, and expressed some concern. That text follows: “You told me to say to Judge Beasley you would take the 80 acres next to Judge Bass. Judge Beverly told me you had bought when you came down the last time. And wrote to me to know if I had received a check from you he sayed you told him you would send it as soon as you arrived at Nashville. And is very anxious to receive it. And has been expecting it every day since you left.”

These passages have a bearing on subsequent events and proceedings to be discussed later in this text.

Samuel wrote to his sister again in September, expressing that he was looking forward daily to the arrival of their parents. The following month, their mother wrote to Rachel and described in detail the trip through Memphis and New Orleans on their way to “the bay” and ultimately to Clifton.

The Fire

From this point, we have no correspondence until March 31 and April 4, 1858. In the first of these, Samuel, still at Clifton, wrote to Rachel; the second is a similar letter to his brother, Andrew Jackson III. Both letters reflect the gravity of some very bad news, telling of “the entire destruction of the dwelling on the Russ Place.”

Samuel narrated that their father “had engaged some workmen to make some repairs and for the entire house to be painted.” One night, after the carpenters had finished and the painters would have completed their work the next day, a fire spread through the house and the workmen barely escaped with their lives.

Samuel made clear in his letters that the parents had planned to take up residence at the Russ Place. He wrote, “I had placed old uncle Ben and Creasy 8 up there to take care of the place and have a garden by the time Ma and Pa came down.” His regret was deepened by the realization that “it looked so fresh and pretty and Ma I knew would like it so much better as the parlour and dining room was made considerable larger.”

In the letter to his sister, Samuel at one point seems to confess to being in the depths of depression, saying, “I will try and cast all in to forgetfulness and try and [illegible] to disperse the dark and threatening cloud that seems to o’er hand our fortune, all my labor last year proved fruitless.”

But then, pivoting in the extreme, Samuel became positive: “I will not look on the dark side of the book of fortune, but will buckle on my armor and battle my way through this broad Universe [illegible] and clear away all imposing obstacles.” He concluded his letter by telling Rachel of the ripe strawberries that he had recently eaten, and his Irish potatoes, radishes, lettuce and peas.

Within a few days of Samuel’s letters, his father wrote two very poignant letters to his wife, Sarah. Both list New Orleans in the dateline. In the first, Andrew Jr. stated, “Our beautiful Little Residence there is all burned down and now lies in ashes….” Evidently very distraught, he asked repeatedly, “What shall become of us?” and “What shall we do?” along with the exclamations, “Alass, alass, alass.”

In Andrew Jr.’s second letter, after expressing similar thoughts of dejection, he too turned positive: “I shall go to Clifton - & do the best I can - I intend to put Ned and Phill - with a good carpenter - Mr. Johnson - and rebuild - this summer and hope by the Smiles of Providence - to have all ready for us by the fall….”

While there is little detail about construction in the subsequent letters, it is apparent that Andrew Jr. was optimistic about the date of completion. In a letter dated December 1, 1858, Samuel mentioned to his mother that the new building was progressing.

By February of 1859, Sarah had returned to Clifton and wrote to son Andrew III that “our house is not near finished. Your Pa thinks it will be completed in one month, but I think there will not be sufficient time in three months….” She went on to say that she liked the building very much.

Sea Song Plantation

In a letter dated July 27, 1859, Sarah mentioned to daughter Rachel that they are very comfortable in the new home. She wrote of fruit, shrimp and alligators, of the “city folks” and “old residents [who] live like nabobs.” She described “two good dairies built under the house, which I shall find a great convenience. They are airtight, and I think will be cool.”

Before closing the unusually long letter, Sarah mused about a name for the house: “You perceive we have yet found no name for our place. We cannot all be pleased with the same one. I proposed as yours was bird song our should be sea song, but Samuel did not like it - Pa says Ocean Wild, Samuel Ocean View, I Idle Hall with many more I wish some of you could settle it for us --.”

A year later, Sarah again wrote to Rachel. This letter is datelined “Sea Song, July 16, 1860.” She described bathing from the 600-foot long pier that Pa had built, telling of the white caps and the large bath house. As she reported that “John has just returned from the Bay with your sweet letter,” it is evident that mail service was now from “the Bay,” rather than Gainesville, as it was for Samuel at Clifton.

Courthouse Documentation

There is documentation in the early deed books of the Hancock County courthouse. Not only do the records pinpoint the exact location of the Jackson property, but they also make clear a fundamental change in the family and their residence. This is found partly in an 1861 deed involving “the late residence of the said Andrew Jackson.” In that transfer, Roderick Seal obtains property in a sheriff’s sale of four parcels that had been owned by Jackson.

The sale apparently was directed by a circuit court order dated May 1, 1861, but not recorded until February 7, 1870.

The time elapsed is obviously not representative of the usual “law’s delay.” One can only imagine the effects of the Civil War on many aspects of life during Reconstruction.

The first parcel listed in the document is clearly delineated as “the property of the said defendant Andrew Jackson to wit the fractional section (16) sixteen Township No. 9 Range (14) fourteen west containing by computation three hundred and eighteen 318 7/10 acres situated on the sea shore of the Gulf of Mexico.” The sale price was $1,000.

The above legal description is almost exactly like today’s Buccaneer Park, with the exception of 86 acres to the north, which the park service owns. Of the park’s total of 398 acres, subtracting out the said 86 acres leaves a present dimension of 312 acres under a 99-year lease. This includes the large marsh which Samuel had estimated at 200 acres in his early letter recommending the Russ Place.

Of the other parcels ordered sold by the court, one piece of 40 acres and another of 80 abut the Mitchell site on Lower Bay Road. The smaller of the two seems to be occupied by Tennessee Gas. Sale prices were $40 and $100, respectively.

The final parcel to be auctioned was the Clifton Plantation, for which Seal paid $3,650. It consisted of 640 acres with a very complex legal description abutting Mulatto Bayou. It is further believed to have been contiguous with Laurel Wood, the plantation of JFH Claiborne.

Jackson judgment The forced sales were necessitated by judgments against Jackson in favor of nine different parties, totally $36,727. The largest of these was in the amount of $28,980, owing to W. R. Adams. 9 

The judgments constituted a great deal of money in 1861, inviting speculation of what they might have represented. One consideration might include the cost of rebuilding after the fire. Another would be the place near New Orleans with a price of $30,000, which Samuel had mentioned in his letter of May 22, 1857.

One of the smaller claims, in favor of Asa Russ, was only in the amount of $1,544. It is mentioned here because in point of fact, it was the Russ name that led to the legal description of the site of the residence of the Jackson family. This came about through a researching of the various transfers of that site which legend held was the site of Jackson’s house. After having found the index of the appropriate transfers, it was a disappointment to find that none of the entries predated 1870. Nonetheless, the Russ name stood out and proved to be the key to certain identification. It was an entry that detailed a transfer to Simpronius Russ by Roderick Seal for $2,000 on May 14, 1872.

It is possible that the Russ family was reacquiring real estate that it had once sold to Jackson, Jr. More importantly, it was in the tracing backward from Russ to Seal that led to the description of the sheriff’s sale of 1861.

The Legend Revisited

After considering the extant documents and the events depicted in family letters, it may be well to reconsider the legend and its meaning. To some, it may be compelling to think that there were two stories, but one cannot be unaware that they are in fact strikingly parallel. The sequence of events in each case consists of construction, destruction by fire, and finally rebuilding. The protagonist in each case is named Andrew Jackson, and even the builder is Mr. Johnson.

Somehow, over the years, a few facts were modified, and the span of time allowed for a preference to be exerted over what had been recorded. After all, it would have been wonderful for the hero of New Orleans, the seventh president of the United States, to have blessed Hancock County with his presence.

Though not the president, Andrew Jr. still must have been welcomed into the community. It is evident that he was extended large amounts of credit; he was titled “Major” and “Colonel” in official documents; members of his family were befriended by Col. Claiborne and others. It was probably generally known that Sarah had served the president for a brief period as First Lady of the White House. Young Samuel was named a delegate to the state convention in 1857.

What went wrong to cause their exodus from Mississippi after only a few years? Finances certainly played a decisive role. From time to time, enthusiasm turned to pessimism with regard to the cotton crop. On several occasions, some of the slaves had to be sold to make ends meet, and an unsuccessful attempt was made to sell the shell midden at Mulatto Bayou for road fill. Finally, offerings to sell Clifton failed.

Moreover, sentiments having to do with the election of Lincoln and talk of greater control being necessary over the slaves and servants had ominous meanings.

But even before the court judgment of 1861, Sarah was already resolute in her desire to leave by October 1860. In a letter dated the first of the month from Sea Song, she wrote, “I am very anxious to leave this place, and no earthly power will ever induce me to return to it. I will break rock on a turnpike road first. I have lived in dread since the eleventh of August, the time of the first storm.”

Sarah told Rachel of her terror during a hurricane in which storm waters surrounded the house and covered the fence, while Pa was away. History records two hurricanes very close together, one from August 10 to 12, 1860, which made landfall between Biloxi and Pascagoula. The other was the one described in her letter, the eye passing over the Bay of St. Louis on September 14 and 15.

At the time of Sarah’s writing, she was probably feeling some of the force of yet again a third storm that entered to the west of Grand Isle, Louisiana on the 2nd of October.

The Dénouement

And so the little corner of Buccaneer Park represents more than the brief presence of a family who bore a great name. In many ways, it was the stuff of Greek tragedy: a fall from high place brought about by a tragic flaw. But it also harbors the residuals of well-meaning and courageous others in the family who strove mightily against natural and financial adversities. Surely, some of their dreams and ambitions were left on this place.

After the Jacksons left Hancock County, Andrew Jr. continued his pattern of unsuccessful financial adventures, this time in Louisiana. Meanwhile, the Civil War had begun.

Andrew Jackson, Jr. survived the war, only to die of lockjaw shortly after, the result of a hunting accident.

Captain Samuel Jackson, still in his mid-twenties, died of battle wounds received at the battle of Chickamauga. At last he was back in his beloved “old Tennessee.”

Sarah eventually was allowed to resume residence at the Hermitage. It was there that she was able to have Samuel’s remains moved after the war.

* ~ * ~ *

[1]  Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson, vol. three, p. 454

[2]  Ibid, p. 455

[3]  Ibid, p. 477

[4]  This was Col. JFH Claiborne, who owned Laurel Wood, the plantation adjacent to Clifton. The same Claiborne eventually became know as the “historian of Mississippi.”

[5]  Linda B. Galloway, Andrew Jackson, Jr. , pp. 74-75

[6]  Mitchell was a son-in-law of Judge Daniels, the prior owner of Clifton Plantation. The site of the land has been identified as being of the south side of Lower Bay Road, formerly known as the old Pearlington road.

[7]  Benjamin L. C. Wailes, Journal of Notes in Field, No. 4, August – September 1852. Mississippi State Department of Archives and History, 20076.0

[8]  Long-term slaves of the Jackson family. Husband and wife, they had been brought down from the Hermitage., vol. three, p. 454

[9]  This would have been Robert W. Adams and Co., of New Orleans, to whom Claiborne had referred Jackson for 'groceries' in a letter of December 3, 1856. Others awarded lesser amounts included Asa Russ, Mitchell, and John Martin. It is speculated that the latter, who owned a commercial pier at the Bay of St. Louis, may have built the 600-foot long pier mentioned by Sarah.


Correspondence with the Ladies’ Hermitage Association by mail and phone was very helpful in the research of the Jackson family.  Mrs. Macpherson was of particular assistance in all phases of reconstructing their history in Hancock County, MS.

Letter from The Hermitage
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