A Former Slave Writes His Master

I first heard the following document while I was a teaching assistant for Richard H. Sewell at the University of Wisconsin.  It appeared in several newspapers in the summer of 1865, and offers a humorous if pointed look at the worlds of slavery and freedom.

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 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 Col. 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 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 $25 a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy, —the folks here 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 Col. Anderson. Many darkies 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 are sincerely 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 has 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 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 Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve, and die if it comes 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.
P.S. —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


15 thoughts on “A Former Slave Writes His Master

  1. Barky August 13, 2011 / 5:01 am

    Wow! Brilliant!!

  2. James F. Epperson August 13, 2011 / 7:22 am

    I’ve seen that letter before, and think it is one of the best comments on slavery vs. freedom I have seen. Thanks, much, Brooks!

  3. Ray O'Hara August 13, 2011 / 8:06 am

    I first saw that long ago too.
    I always thought it was well written for a slave and if authentic then Col Anderson deserves some props for educating his slaves.

    I always liked the “send us the money you owe us for work and we might come back” bit.

  4. Noma August 13, 2011 / 10:13 am

    Jourdon Anderson is one of my all-time favorites. Teaching Civil War history to high school students can be a challenge. Why not just throw out everything else and start with this one brilliant document, and let students research its background, and see where that leads?

    For example, it might lead to Frederick Douglass “Autobiography of a Slave,” to Alexander Stephens’s “Cornerstone Speech,” to Grant’s description of Lee’s Surrender at Appomattox, to Sherman’s “Forty Acres and a Mule,” to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, etc. Jourdan Anderson’s letter is just such a great place to start!

    • Noma August 13, 2011 / 10:15 am

      Each line is so ingeniously packed with meaning that could be analyzed in 10 classes. Take this one:

      “You know how it was with Mathilda and Catherine.”

  5. Carl Schenker August 13, 2011 / 11:24 am

    Queries on Google Books indicate that this letter is widely known and quoted. I wonder whether anyone has ever investigated its authenticity — was there really a Colonel Anderson and a Jourdan Anderson? Here is a link to what appears to be the original publication, in 1865, stating that the letter was dictated. (If the link doesn’t work, query “colonel p.h. anderson” and it should be the first response.)

  6. Donald R. Shaffer August 13, 2011 / 12:38 pm

    There is a worthwhile discussion of this letter on Snopes.com, a website which specializes in analyzing the factuality of material found on internet. This discussion indicates the Jourdan Anderson letter was published in several northern newspapers prior to being published in Lydia Maria Francis Child’s book. See the discussion at: http://message.snopes.com/showthread.php?t=45660

    • marcferguson August 13, 2011 / 3:23 pm

      I’ve seen this before, and suspect that the letter must be read bearing in mind some of the strictures that John Blassingame alerted us to when using 19th century slave narratives.

  7. marcferguson August 13, 2011 / 2:31 pm

    I think this letter shows Jourdon Anderson to have been a man of wit and insight into his and his family’s circumstances, and gives the lie to the notion that slaves didn’t understand the difference between slavery and freedom and were satisfied with their circumstances as slaves and complicates the paternalist claims of “friendship” between masters and their slaves. Students really like this document and quickly see the ironies of the master/slave relationship being expressed here. It also tells us much, I think, about the insights and experiences that freedmen who became politically active during Reconstruction were able to bring to their political activism, and the policies they supported and pursued.

  8. Donald R. Shaffer August 13, 2011 / 10:57 pm

    Hi Marc. I agree entirely with your sentiments regarding abolitionist influence on the Jourdan Anderson letter. I was thinking of saying something along the same lines myself but refrained from doing so since my main point was what the Snopes.com discussion thread revealed about the provenance of the letter. Regardless of Lydia Maria Childs indicating in her book that she merely took Anderson’s dictation, no doubt her contribution to the letter’s content is more extensive. But is also fascinating she took pains to deny it, since evidently she was aware of the perception that abolitionists shaped slave narratives to advance their own agenda.

  9. Carl Schenker August 14, 2011 / 7:22 am

    I am not familiar with “the strictures of John Blassingame” mentioned above. But I can’t help wondering about how we should best understand this letter, which seems rather too good to be entirely true.

    Due to Donald Shaffer’s link, the provenance appears to be —
    (1) Date of letter = August 7, 1865
    (2) Original publication in Cincinnati Commercial = very soon thereafter
    (3) Republication in other newspapers = various 1865 dates
    (4) Republication in NY Tribune = August 22, 1865 [per link posted on Snopes.com]

    This version starts “The following is a genuine document. It was dictated by the old servant, and contains his ideas and forms of expression. Cincinnati Commercial”
    (5) Lydia Maria Childs republished late 1865. She notes dictated nature and smoothed over at least one passage as compared to NY Tribune version (“as I used to was” becomes “as I used to be”).

    At the very least, then, someone hurried this letter into the hands of the Cincinnati Commercial within days of its first being written, allowing it to be reprinted in NY only 15 days after the August 7, 1865 date the letter bears. To me, this bespeaks something of a propaganda campaign by someone. That, in turn, leads me to wonder about the veracity of the details in the letter. Did “Colonel PH Anderson” actually go “to Col Martin’s to kill the Union soldier,” etc, etc.?

    The letter obviously is resonant because it captures essential truths about slavery. That doesn’t mean, however, that it is a factual recounting of the actual relationship that existed between the person Jourdon Anderson and the person Colonel Anderson, assuming they both existed (as posters elsewhere have claimed on the basis of Census data that I have not been able to check).

  10. marcferguson August 14, 2011 / 8:32 am

    Blassingame warns us that some of the 19th century Slave Narratives were dictated to abolitionists, and subsequently shaped, or altered, to serve the purposes of their agenda. He wrote a journal article for the Journal of Southern History discussing these problems of interpretation, where he also discussed problems, of a different kind when using the WPA Slave Narratives from the 1930s:

    Using the Testimony of Ex-Slaves: Approaches and Problems
    John W. Blassingame
    The Journal of Southern History
    Vol. 41, No. 4 (Nov., 1975), pp. 473-492
    (article consists of 20 pages)
    Published by: Southern Historical Association
    Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2205559

  11. Carl Schenker August 14, 2011 / 10:05 am

    Thank you, Marc.

    Here is a link to 1870 Census data about one “Jordan Anderson,” Dayton, Ohio, who plausibly is the “Jourdon Anderson” of the letter (black, born in Tennessee, wife Amanda = Many in the letter).

    Anderson is recorded as 45 in 1870; hence, 40 in 1865. The Jourdan Anderson letter refers to 32 years of “serv[ice]” in calculating the claim for back wages, which would equate to starting the claim at age 8.

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