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A Letter from Jourdan Anderson

Page history last edited by Mr. Hengsterman 6 years, 6 months ago





The original: Jordon Anderson's letter was dictated and published in the New York Daily Tribune in 1865











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.










Union troops camped on the plantation, and Jordan was freed in 1864 by the provost marshal general of the Department of Nashville.

Roy E. Finkenbine, a professor at the University of Detroit-Mercy who is planning a biography of Anderson, thinks it’s likely Jordan was given to Patrick (born in 1823) as a playmate and personal servant when they were young.


According to the 1860 slave schedules in the U.S. Census, Patrick had five 'slave houses' totaling 32 people - 19 males and 13 females


Treasured as a social document, praised as a masterpiece of satire, Anderson’s letter has been anthologized and published all over the world.

Historians teach it, and the letter turns up occasionally on a blog or on Facebook. Humorist Andy Borowitz read the letter recently and called it, in an email to The Associated Press, 'something Twain would have been proud to have written'.

Jordan Anderson, who lived on Burns Avenue in Dayton and worked as a janitor, coachman, laborer and sexton, according to his April 19, 1905, Dayton Daily News obituary, is cited as the letter’s author.

“In a tone that could be described either as ‘impressively measured’ or ‘the deadest of deadpan comedy,’ the former slave, in the most genteel manner, basically tells the old slave master to kiss his rear end,” Trymaine Lee wrote for the Huffington Post website on Feb. 1.

Compensation was to be sent in care of V. Winters of Dayton. A barrister (an attorney) named V. Winters lived in Dayton during that time period.

Jourdan - $25.00 ($400.00) per month for 32 years

Mandy  - $8.00 ($120.00)per month for 20 years

$11,600.00  ( $175,000)   with interests


Anderson described slavery similarly and indicated that females were sexually abused.

“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.”

To me what it seems to be is a story about how a slave seized an opportunity to get a new life.”“It’s a genuine emancipation, a true liberating experience that is, in effect, self-done,” he said.






Jourdan Anderson was born in December 1825, some place in Tennessee.  He became a slave of General Paulding Anderson, of Big Spring, Wilson County, TN sometime around 1833, when he was 7 or 8 years old. General Anderson was a somewhat famous man in Wilson County, having once served in the state legislature.



One of General Anderson’s sons was Patrick Henry Anderson Sr., who was born June 24, 1823, making him about 10 years old when Jourdon arrived at the family farm.


Jourdan Anderson was born 1825


 Patrick Henry Anderson Sr, 1823


On August 7, 1844 Patrick Anderson married Mary A. McGregor. She brought with her at least two servants, Amanda McGregor (born October 1829) and her mother, Priscilla McGregor (born 1801). Patrick took several of his father’s slaves to his new home, including Jourdon.


In 1848 Jourdan married Amanda McGregor, he being 23 and she being 19 at the time. Over the years Amanda had 11 children. The ones born in Tennessee seem to have been Matilda, Catherine, Mildred (known as Milly) circa 1848, Jane circa 1851 and Felix Grundy, born on March 14, 1859. I use the word “seem” as I do not have concrete records that prove Matilda and Catherine were Jourdon and Amanda’s children, although later in this article it will become clear as to why I believe they are.


Jourdon and his family left Colonel Anderson sometime in 1864, with Jourdon receiving his free papers (age 39) from the Provost-Marshall-General of the Department of Nashville, TN and getting a job at a hospital in Nashville.


By the summer of 1865 Jourdon (age 40) and his family had moved on to Dayton, Ohio. But Matilda and Catherine seem not to have made the trip with their parents, nor have I found any record of what happened to them.


It was about this time that Jourdon changed his name to Jordan Anderson. He will be called that name from this point on.  


Sometime during the summer of 1865 (probably in July) Colonel Patrick Anderson wrote a letter to Jordan, asking him to return to Big Springs and live there again.  While this letter is lost to time, Jordan’s reply is not.  On August 7, 1865 Jordan, who could not read or write at the time, dictated a letter to his old master. The content of that letter follows














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 (2.867 million in 2018 dollars) 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]


Life in Tennessee 1823 to 1864


1823 General Paulding Anderson's son Patrick Henry Anderson is born in  Big Spring, TN (Wilson County)

1825 - Jourdan Anderson is born in December, some place in Tennessee.

1833 - Jourdan Anderson (age 8)  becomes the slave of General Paulding Anderson  and is given to his son Patrick Henry Anderson (age 10)  as as playmate and personal servant 

1844 - Patrick Henry Anderson (age 21) married Mary A. McGregor. She brought with her at least two servants, Amanda McGregor (age 15) and her mother, Priscilla McGregor (age 43). Patrick took several of his father’s slaves to his new home, including Jourdon.


1848 - Jourdan (age 23)  married Amanda McGregor (age 19), Over 52 years of marriage theuy will have 11 children. The children born in Tennessee "seem" to have been Matilda, Catherine, Mildred (known as Milly) circa 1848, Jane circa 1851 and Felix Grundy, born on March 14, 1859. I use the word “seem” because there are no concrete records that prove Matilda and Catherine were Jourdon and Amanda’s children.

There was a Felix Grundy who served as a US Senator from Anderson’s home state of Tennessee in the 1830s who has a Tennessee county named after him


1860 - According to the 1860 census and slave schedules, Patrick Henry Anderson (age 37) has five 'slave houses' on his plantation totaling 32 people (19 males and 13 females) Before the start of the Civil War. P.H. Anderson had a personal estate valued at $92,000 (2.867 million in 2018 dollars)


1861 - April 12th  Confederate artillery fired on the Union garrison at Fort Sumter marking the start of the Civil War ; June 8th Tennessee became the last state to secede from the Union. When the Civil War began in 1861, Jordan’s life changed very little and he still continued to dutifully work the plantation for his master with his wife.


1864 - Union Soldiers happened upon the Anderson plantation.  Upon encountering Jordan, the soldiers granted him, his wife and children their freedom, making the act official with papers from the Provost Marshal General of Nashville


Upon being granted his freedom, Jordan immediately left the plantation which angered P.H. Anderson's son Henry (age 18) to such an extent that he shot at Jordan as he was leaving, only ceasing to fire when a neighbor, George Carter,  grabbed Henry’s pistol from him. Reportedly, Henry vowed to kill Jordan if he ever set foot on his property again.


Jordan and Mandy worked for a time  at the Cumberland Military Hospital in Nashville under the surgeon in charge  Dr. Clarke McDermont.  Jordan and Mandy, with the help of Dr. Clarke McDermont, relocated to Dayton, Ohio in August of 1864



Life in Dayton, Ohio 1865 to 1905


1865 - Following his departure from the plantation, Jordan worked briefly in a Nashville field hospital, becoming close friends with a surgeon called Dr Clarke McDermont. When the Civil War ended in 1865, McDermont helped Jordan and his family move to Dayton, Ohio and put him in contact with his father-in-law, Valentine Winters, an abolitionist who helped him secure work in the town.


For the most part, Jordan’s life in Dayton was uneventful, with his time spent working with a stoic sense of quiet dignity, supporting his family and making sure his many children received a good education, something the illiterate Jordan was never given the opportunity to have. (In fact, it was noted that while still a slave, when an unspecified white girl tried to teach one of his children to read, the girl was beaten for it and forced to stop.)


The Letter

As it turns out, following the Civil War, the Anderson Plantation had fallen into complete disrepair, as is wont to happen when your entire workforce leaves pretty much all at once.


Deeply in debt, in a desperate attempt to save himself from total financial ruin, Henry reached out to the only man he knew who not only had the skills needed for the harvest, but also potentially the clout to convince some of the other slaves to return for paid work- Jordan Anderson. The letter also promised that Jordan would be paid and be treated as a free man if he returned.


1867 - A penniless Colonel P.H. Anderson dies of heart attack at age 44


1870 - Census records show  Jordon Anderson living in Ohio with Mandy, four children (Jane, Felix, William, and Andrew). Jordan will find work as a janitor, coachman, laborer and sexton.


1905 - The Dayton Daily Journal publishes Jordan Anderson’s obituary. He was 79 years old.






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