Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Happy Slave Narrative?

This is a terrific letter from a Mr. Jourdon Anderson to his former master Colonel P.H. Anderson. The date of the letter places the events immediately after the Civil War and is in response to the Colonel's letter requesting Jourdon to come back and work on his land. Jourdon's reply letter is quite hilarious. Enjoy.


[Written just as he dictated it.]
Dayton, Ohio, August 7, 1865.
To my old Master, Colonel P. H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee.

Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin's to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,—the folks call her Mrs. Anderson,—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, "Them colored people were slaves" down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor's visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams's Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve—and die, if it come to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

From your old servant,

Jourdon Anderson.[1]

Upon some further research; this particular letter is a hot piece for many that are studying the Civil War era and concentrating on the issue of slavery. However, to say the least, the provenance of the letter is a bit shaky. The letter was originally reprinted in L. Maria Child's The Freedmens Book in 1865. The letter also appears in newspapers around the same time which can be seen here. Child, the author of The Freedmen's Book is no stranger to the issue of black people in bondage publishing several books on the topic. Her noteworthy publications include: An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans; the short story "Slavery's Pleasant Homes: A Faithful Sketch"; and Isaac T. Hopper: A True Life.[2][3]

There are some who claim or might claim that given Child's history in advocating slave emancipation that there is a motive to write such articles/letters out of thin air to advance an 'agenda.' There is also the noticeable dialect that a former seemingly uneducated slave seems to have right after the end of the war. Jourdon did not write the letter himself which is indicated by the dictation note. It does seem very proper. Looking at census records around that time reveals some information that might shed some light on the subject.

According to U.S. Census records [below], there was only one P.H. Anderson in Wilson County Tennessee in 1860.[4] In Wilson County there is a 'community' today known as "Big Spring." It appears that it is a town that is no longer in existence.[5] According to the 1860 census, P.H. was thirty-seven in 1860 making him roughly forty-two at the time of Jourdon's letter. He had a personal estate of $92,000 making him a very wealthy 'farmer' as the census shows. "Miss Mary" (Wife) and "Miss Martha" as said by Jourdon appear on the census as well as five other children. One of these being Patrick H. Anderson Jr. We can assume from this that the P. in Colonel Anderson's initials stands for Patrick. Patrick Jr. is listed at thirteen years of age at the time making him eighteen in 1865 when the letter is written. It is likely that Jourdon's use of the name "Henry" applies to Patrick Jr. as the letter is directed at the Colonel. To add one more detail to establish the validity of Jourdon's letter is the mention of George Carter at the end of the letter. According to the U.S. census there is only one George Carter living in Wilson County in 1860, who holds the occupation of carpenter.[6] The use of real people in this section of the letter indicates a case for validity.

Five years after the letter was written, Jordan Anderson shows up on the 1870 census in Dayton, Ohio. He is listed as a Hostler, which is an occupation dealing with horses like a stable boy. He is listed as forty-five years old alongside his wife Amanda (Mandy) at thirty-nine. Along with Jordan and his wife are five children: Amanda; James; Felix; William; and Andrew. The entire family with the exception of William and Andrew are listed as having been born in Tennessee where P.H. Anderson has his farm. All children are listed as going to school as mentioned in the letter except for Andrew who is one at the time of the census.[7]

As historians we would like nothing better than the smoking gun but more often than not we are left only with the trail. This trail suggests that the letter is real. The people are real and are in the right locations as presented in the letter. The only thing that seems to be missing from the evidence are the original letters. But even without the originals we are able to use the copies which appear at the same time and trace the story backwards. The theory presented here is that the letter is legitimate, written by Jourdon, intended for Colonel P.H. Anderson and not just advancing an emancipation agenda. As always, this is open to debate and improvement.

Jourdon Anderson Census
P.H. Anderson Census
George Carter Census

[1] Child, L. Maria. The Freedmen's Books. Boston, (Ticknor and Fields, 1865). p266. [Retrieved from, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/38479/38479-h/38479-h.htm#Page_265]
[2] http://deila.dickinson.edu/slaveryandabolition/author/ChildL.html
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lydia_Maria_Child
[4] U.S. Census, Wilson County, Tennessee 1860
[5] http://www.roadsidethoughts.com/tn/big-spring-xx-wilson-profile.htm
[6] U.S. Census, Wilson County, Tennessee 1860
[7] U.S. Census, Dayton City, Ohio 1870

UPDATE: The comments below contain excellent information regarding the lives of P.H. Anderson and Jourdon/Jordan Anderson. 


  1. Good stuff. Thanks for posting this, and offering a demonstration of how basic research can help to corroborate a contemporary document. I saw some random comments on news sites today that the letter must be a hoax, but in fact there's plenty that corroborates the letter, internally and externally. I looked at those documents myself, and noted that Jourdan/Jordan Anderson was still living in Dayton in 1900 -- the census then shows him able to read, but not write.

    Unfortunately, the letter is being described on news sites as a "new discovery," when it's been around for years, entirely apart from its publication in 1865.

    1. Thanks for reading Andy, your input is always welcome.

      When I saw the letter for the first time, I don't think I questioned its authenticity but this time around a lot of comments on news sites were. On the surface it looks a bit shaky so I thought I would dig around a bit; after some rudimentary looking around it holds water.

    2. Thanks for posting this, really cool stuff! I saw the article today on Yahoo and was messing around on Ancestry.com basically doing the same thing you did before I stumbled across your blog. One other thing I found that would further validate the story, is the connection with Jordan's wife Amanda's, mother. She was listed as living with the family in the 1870 census as Priscilla McGregor and under occupation it stated "living with daughter". Based on this I looked into any "McGregor's" living in the area and found some in the 1850 census living with PH. On a hunch I looked up the marriage records for PH and discovered that his wife Mary's maiden name is actually McGregor!

    3. Joe,

      What an amazing find! I will have to update and direct people down to the comments section for this valuable information.

    4. Thanks all for wonderful research. No one has directly said this and I think it's useful to do so, even though it may be common knowledge. Slaves were often given the same surname as their master. Hence PH and Jourdan's shared last name, Anderson.

      Doing single math based on the census and Patrick Jr.'s age, it seems likely that Amanda McGregor Anderson joined the household when Mary McGregor Anderson married PH, in 1842 or 1843. Amanda was 12 and came with Mary M.A. to PH's household. In the letter, Jourdan notes that Mandy had served PH for 20 years. This assumes that the J. Andersons left the big house in 1863.

      Some questions which occurred to me reading this:
      -Is there any way to know whether this letter was sent? To what extent could it have been a publicity stunt? Did PH's letter exist?
      -What was the point in printing it in newspapers, exactly?
      -What spurred the recent declaration that this letter was just discovered?

      Sent or unsent, the letter was published in many newspapers and PH received his response, even if his letter was unwritten. The tone is honest and the references and feelings complex. It is so interesting to hear Jourdan both condemn "your fathers' sins against my fathers" and allude to "a day of reckoning" while still holding this man in obvious regard of some sort and, stranger, warmth. He writes of his son's future as a prospective preacher....this could be read as thrusting in PH's face the possibilities that Grundy wouldn't have on the farm. It may be that, but I hear the proud voice of one father speaking to another about his child. Most outstanding to me is the direct reference to the rape of Catherine and Mildred by if not PH, his son, a teen at the time. Everything about this letter is ballsy, and this is both taboo and ballsy.

      Why Felix was nicknamed Grundy, found here: http://kottke.org/12/02/what-happened-to-the-former-slave-that-wrote-his-old-master

      From doing genealogical research, it became obvious to me that census workers, taking oral record, have little concern for correct spelling. So I chose "Jourdan", but who knows? It also taught me to look for the mother-in-law; she lasts the longest and is the maiden name link. Cheers, Priscilla!

      About surnames and African-American family research:

    5. Thanks for the add on Carey. I will have to answer your questions rather elementary for reasons that will hopefully be apparent.

      1.) I am not sure that we will know if the letter is sent unless a relative of Patrick Anderson comes forward with the originals. What extent might it have been a publicity stunt? I was skeptical about that myself. I am also trying to find out who V.Winters is that is references in the letter. Maybe it is a publicity stunt written by an old slave or dictated by an abolitionist to point out slave atrocities. I am hoping more and more post information.
      2.) I also do not know. It was printed and reprinted. My guess is that the person writing down the letter for Jourdon just copied it and sent it in.
      3.) The letter has been a topic of discussion before. It has just become 'hot' again.

      My research in this was rather rudimentary. I just wanted to establish that their is plenty of evidence to suggest authenticity. Others have only added to that. I hope we can find a link to solidify it one day.

    6. hi Rob--my name is Reg Pitts, from Elkins Park, Pa.; I've been following the Jourdan Anderson story with much interest, and I thank you for your blog. Let me see if I can help a little here--The "V. Winters" mentioned in the letter was actually one Valentine Winters (1807-1890), a wealthy banker of Dayton--you can find him here: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=4216. Jourdan Anderson actually worked for Mr. Winters as a butler and coachman, according to city directories and census records. I suspect that Winters wrote the second part of the letter (the calculations for money owed Anderson), and polished it up for him. The letter appeared in a couple of newspapers of the period, but if the original still exists, we probably won't be able to find it. As to the letter being funny, you'll probably understand it better when you find out (according to the above site) Valentine's great-great-grandson was none other than Jonathan Winters, the comedian. Works for me. I wish you well in your endeavors; keep up the good work! Reg Pitts blanketghs@yahoo.com

    7. Thank you Reg. Both for the compliment and for the information you listed as well.

  2. There is a an obituary or death notice for a Jordan Anderson in the Dayton Daily Journal for April 19, 1905, that gave the deceased man's age as 79, which would have been about right for this man. His address is given as 60 Burns Avenue, which is the current address for a church.

  3. I believe Prof. Blight uses this letter in his lectures on the Civil War and Reconstruction that can be found on the Yale Open Courses site. Fantastic letter and a good piece of detective work on your part.

    1. Thank you for the compliment Corey. I hoped it would draw some discussion and thought. Everything added after the post just adds to the authenticity of the letter. I am wondering if their is any strong evidence that shows otherwise.

  4. I also remember hearing about this letter in the past so I was pretty amazed that it was being treated as a new discovery recently. What is interesting to me is how controversial it is right now, I'm starting to become very interested in what appears to be a new vein of racial tension that's appeared in recent years. Something worth looking into I think.

    Otherwise, excellent research, I really do not see much of a reason to doubt this given your evidence here. I think the dictated nature of the letter gives plenty of reason to not question the semantics and word choices, but the Civil War is such a contentious issue I guess it is always inevitable.

  5. @Anonymous.

    Although I value your opinion, I have a policy about publishing comments from "anonymous" handles and pseduo names. This comes at the exception of certain bloggers who are known for their handle.


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