You may not have heard of Jordan Anderson — I know I hadn’t — but his story is an interesting one.
Jordan — sometimes spelled Jourdan — was born in 1825 in Tennessee and around the time he was seven or eight he was ‘sold’ to General Paulding Anderson to work on his plantation.
General Anderson had a son, Patrick Henry Anderson, and it is believed that Jordan was “given” to Patrick as a playmate and personal servant … slave … when they were both children. The two men grew up together and Jordan, as property of now Colonel Patrick Henry Anderson, worked on his plantation; Jordan married a fellow slave, Amanda, and they had eleven children … all owned by the colonel.
In 1864 the Union army came into Tennessee and camped on Anderson’s land; Jordan and Amanda, and their children, were set free by the provost marshal general of the Department of Nashville.
He then may have worked at the Cumberland Military Hospital in Nashville before he and Amanda took their family to Dayton, Ohio where he lived for the next forty years, working as a servant, janitor, coachman, or hostler, until 1894, when he became a sexton—a person who looks after a church and churchyard—at the Wesleyan Methodist Church until he passed away in 1907, a free man.
So why does anyone know Jordan Anderson?
Well, in July 1865, a few months after the end of the Civil War, Colonel Patrick Anderson wrote a letter to Jordan asking him to come back and work on the Tennessee plantation which was in a shambles after the war; Colonel Anderson also owed a great debt that he’s hoped to ease by getting Jordan back to “work” for him.
On August 7th Jordan Anderson dictated his response to the colonel though his employer, Valentine Winters; Winters sent the letter to Colonel Anderson and also sent it to the Cincinnati Commercial, who published it. And from there it went around the world, in newspapers and in classrooms; it was reprinted in the New York Daily Tribune and Lydia Child’s The Freedman’s Book; it became the subject of lectures in history classes everywhere.
In the letter, which has been compared to the satiric writings of Mark Twain, Jordan describes his new, better, life in Ohio; he has a job, he gets paid, his children are allowed to go to school. And so he asks the Colonel if, in good faith, he would prove his goodwill by paying the back wages Jordan and Amanda were entitled to during their years of working on Anderson’s plantation; he calculated the back pay at roughly $11,000. But then he turned serious, asking if his daughters, his own children, would be safe on a plantation that, during his time there, had been the home to horrific violence to female slaves.
Jordan tells the Colonel he would rather die "than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters... how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine."
He ends the letter with … well, here, you read it ...
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 Jordon, 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,
The people Jordan talks of in the letter are real; George Carter was a carpenter; “Miss Mary" and "Miss Martha" are Colonel Anderson's wife, Mary, and daughter, Martha. The "Henry" who vowed to shoot Jordan if he ever got the chance was probably Colonel Anderson’s son. Jordan’s two daughters mentioned in the letter — “poor Matilda and Catherine" — did not leave Tennessee with Jordan and Amanda; their fate is unknown. They may have been killed or sold to other plantations before Jordan was freed.
Colonel Patrick Henry Anderson never responded to Jordan’s letter and later sold his land for a pittance to erase a debt; he died two years later. In 2006, historian Raymond Winbush tracked down the colonel’s remaining relatives who were said to still be “angry at Jordan for not coming back" to help the Colonel save his home.
Yes, seriously; in 2006 they were furious that a former slave did not wish to return to his master — even as a free man.
Jordan Anderson; I cannot imagine what was done to him, his wife, and his children, during their time on Colonel Anderson’s plantation though I imagine it was horrific.
And Colonel Anderson; I cannot imagine the gall of someone who owned people, owned people, as playthings and personal servants, who would then ask them to give up their new, free lives to come back and help him save his land.
But I love Jordan’s letter; I love the humor, the sarcasm, even at what must have been a horrendous life, in responding to the Colonel. His request for “back pay” was priceless.
He could have, as many of us might, having been put in that situation, written back to the Colonel in a decidedly different tone; I’m imagining the vile things I might have spewed in the same situation. But Jordan took the high road, the satiric road, the common sense road, in responding to a man who had more than likely treated him as property, and treated him badly, and apparently sold off two of his children before Jordan and Many were freed.
I’m thinking we could all learn a lesson from Jordan Anderson … even after 150 years.