by Jennifer Watts
Throughout history, women have been restricted on what they can and cannot do. Some women were able to overcome those restrictions, control their own lives, and become successful. Adelicia Hayes Franklin Acklen Cheatham was a Tennessee woman who did just that. She became one of the wealthiest women in the Antebellum south and the owner of Nashville’s Belmont Mansion.
Portrait of Adelicia by Washington B. Copper in 1834, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Adelicia was born in Nashville on March 15, 1817. Her father was Oliver Bliss Hayes (1783-1858) from South Hadley, Massachusetts. He was a wealthy lawyer and cousin to the 19th United States President Rutherford B. Hayes. Her mother was Sarah Clements/Clemmons Hightower Hayes (1795-1871) from Williamson County, Tennessee. Adelicia was one of their seven children. She grew up in downtown Nashville. She was fifteen when the family moved to the southside of the city to a farm called Rokeby.
Today all children go to school, but educating girls in the early 1800s was not common. However, Adelicia’s father believed in educating his three daughters. He enrolled her at the Nashville Female Academy. She attended traditional classes for girls like drawing and music. She also had classes in reading, writing, history, and geography. You are probably learning some of the same subjects that Adelica studied.
Nashville Female Academy, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
After finishing school in 1834, she became engaged to Alfonso Gibbs (1813-1834). He was a Harvard Law graduate and planned to become a lawyer. Sadly, they were never able to marry. Alfonso died shortly before the wedding.
When she was twenty-two, she married Isaac Franklin (1789-1846) from Sumner County. He was a wealthy planter and slave trader. They lived on a 2000-acre plantation named Fairvue in Gallatin, Tennessee. On the plantation, the enslaved men, women, and children grew tobacco and raised cattle and horses. It was through their forced labor that the Franklins made a lot of their money.
In 1846, Isaac died of a virus while visiting one of his plantations in Louisiana. After his death, Adelicia inherited all of his property, valued at $1 million. That included Fairvue, seven cotton plantations in Louisiana, 750 enslaved people, and more than 50,000 acres of land in Texas. She became one of the wealthiest women in the South at the age of 29.
In 1849, Adelicia married her second husband Col. Joseph Alexander Smith Acklen (1816-1863) at her Nashville townhouse on Cherry Street (now part of Fourth Avenue). He was a lawyer from Huntsville, Alabama. Before their wedding, she had him sign a prenuptial agreement. This was a legal document that let her keep all her property and money. At the time, everything a woman owned went to her husband when she married. Adelicia did not want that to happen.
Soon after they married, Adelicia and Joseph built a summer home in Nashville that was finished in 1853. It was originally named “Belle Monte” or “Beautiful Mountain”. The name was later changed to Belmont. The mansion was about 20,000 square feet and had a large greenhouse, beautiful gardens, and even a bowling alley and a zoo. At the time, Nashville did not have a park, so Adelicia and Joseph opened the gardens and zoo to the public. You can still visit Belmont Mansion today!
Carte-de-visite of Belmont from the 1860s, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 changed everything for Adelicia and her family. The war meant there would be fighting and violence. Her family could be harmed. Her property could be damaged. The enslaved labor that made her wealthy and her plantations success could end. Because of this, she sided with the Confederacy like many other plantation owners at the time.
After Nashville was captured by the Union in February 1862, Adelicia learned her cotton crops in Louisiana were in danger. She sent her husband to their plantation called Angola in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana. His job was to take care of the large cotton crop grown there and get it to market. The Confederacy was threatening to burn it to keep it out of the hands of the Union. Unfortunately, he died before he could do anything. Adelicia had to sell the cotton crop herself.
Along with her cousin Sarah, she traveled south to sell her cotton and make a profit. She had a tough challenge ahead of her. The enslaved people at her plantations had run away in hopes of finding freedom by the time she made it to Louisiana. She had to get almost 3,000 bales of cotton past both Confederate and Union soldiers. How was she going to get it to market?
Bales of cotton on New Orleans dock, Library of Congress.
Adelicia had to be smart. Her family’s future depended on selling her cotton. She convinced the Confederate troops to not burn it. Instead, they helped harvest and get it to the Mississippi River. Then, she got the Union Admiral David D. Porter to ship her cotton to New Orleans. From there, it was put on a blockade runner and past the Union ships in the harbor to the open ocean. It finally ended its journey in Liverpool, England. She sold it to the Rothschild family for $960,000 in gold! That is almost $16 million in 2021!
After the war, Adelicia and her four children returned to Nashville from traveling in Europe. In 1867, she married for a third time to Dr. William Archer Cheatham (1820-1900) in the gardens of Belmont. He and his two children moved in, but life was not the same as it was before the war.
Photograph of Adelicia Cheatham, Belmont Mansion/ Acklen Collection.
The end of slavery meant there was no longer a forced free labor system to work on Adelicia’s plantations. Some plantation owners could not afford to pay the workers needed to run them. In the early 1880s, Adelicia began to sell her many properties. First it was her Louisiana plantations and then Belmont in 1887. By that time, she and three of her children had already moved to Washington, D.C. in 1885.
In the years that followed, Adelicia traveled, collected art, and supported many charities. She raised money for orphans and helped single working women. On May 4, 1887 she died of pneumonia while on a shopping trip to New York City. Adelicia was a complicated figure in Tennessee history. She was a slave owner, but she was also a woman who controlled her own life at a time when women had few rights of their own. She is now buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Nashville.
Antebellum – a period of time before a war; in this case the American Civil War (1861-1865).
Slave Trader – a person who buys and sells other people.
Inherited – getting something legally from a person at his/her death.
Bale of cotton – a large bundle of cotton tightly packed for storage and/or shipping. (Cotton bales usually weighs about 500 pounds each.)
Blockade Runner – a ship or person who breaks through a blockade in a port or harbor.
What school did Adelicia attended?
What is the name of the Union Admiral that helped her get her cotton to New Orleans?
When was a time you faced a challenge like Adelicia? How did you overcome that challenge?
Adelicia’s wealth came from enslaved labor on her plantations in states like Louisiana. During the Civil War, many enslaved men, women, and children, fled plantations like Adelicia’s and escaped to freedom. Read more about this and the Emancipation Proclamation on the blog.
Tennessee Social Studies Standard(s)
SSP.01 Gather information from a variety of sources, including: printed materials (e.g., literary texts, newspapers, political cartoons, autobiographies, speeches, letters, personal journals), graphic representations (e.g., maps, timelines, charts, artwork), artifacts, and media and technology sources.
4.33 Evaluate the significant contributions made by women during the Civil War, including Clara Barton and Dorothea Dix.
Jennifer Watts is an Educator at the Tennessee State Museum.