Freed Slave Writes Letter to Former Master: You Owe Us $11,680 for 52 Years of Unpaid Labor (1865)


No mat­ter how long I live, the dehu­man­iz­ing insan­i­ty of racism will nev­er fail to aston­ish and amaze me. Not only does it vis­it great phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal vio­lence upon its vic­tims, but it leaves those who embrace it unable to feel or rea­son prop­er­ly. Con­tem­po­rary exam­ples abound in excess, but many of the most egre­gious come from the peri­od in U.S. his­to­ry when an entire class of peo­ple was deemed prop­er­ty, and allowed to be treat­ed any way their own­ers liked. In such a sit­u­a­tion, odd­ly, many slave mas­ters thought of them­selves as humane and benev­o­lent, and thought their slaves well-treat­ed, though they would nev­er have trad­ed places with them for any­thing.

One such exam­ple of this bewil­der­ing log­ic comes from a let­ter written—or dic­tat­ed, rather—by a man named Jor­dan Ander­son (or some­times Jour­dan Ander­son), pic­tured above: a man enslaved to one Colonel Patrick Hen­ry Ander­son in Big Spring, Ten­nessee. When he was freed from sub­jec­tion in 1864, Jor­dan moved to Ohio, found work—was paid for it—and set­tled down for the next 40 years to raise his chil­dren with his wife Aman­da. As Allen G. Breed and Hil­lel Ital­ie write, “he lived qui­et­ly and would like­ly have been for­got­ten, if not for a remark­able let­ter to his for­mer mas­ter pub­lished in a Cincin­nati news­pa­per short­ly after the Civ­il War.”

As did many for­mer slave own­ers, Colonel Ander­son found that he could not keep up his hold­ings after los­ing his cap­tive labor force. Des­per­ate to save his prop­er­ty, he had the temer­i­ty to write to Jor­dan and ask him to return and help bring in the har­vest. We do not, it seems, have the Colonel’s let­ter, but we can sur­mise from Jordan’s response what it contained—promises, as the for­mer slave writes, “to do bet­ter for me than any­body else can.” We can also sur­mise, giv­en Jordan’s sar­don­ic ref­er­ences, that the for­mer mas­ter may have shot at him—and that some­one named “Hen­ry” intend­ed to shoot him still. We can sur­mise that the Colonel’s sons may have raped Jordan’s daugh­ters, Matil­da and Cather­ine, giv­en the har­row­ing descrip­tion of them “brought to shame by the vio­lence and wicked­ness of their young mas­ters.”

And, of course, we know for cer­tain that Jor­dan received no rec­om­pense for his many years of hard work: “there was nev­er any pay-day for the negroes,” he writes, “any more than for the hors­es and cows.” Despite all this—and it is beyond my com­pre­hen­sion why—Colonel Ander­son expect­ed that his for­mer slave would return to help prop up the fail­ing plan­ta­tion. On this score, Jor­dan pro­pos­es a test of the Colonel’s “sin­cer­i­ty.” Tal­ly­ing up all the wages he and his wife were owed for their com­bined 52 years of work, less “what you paid for our cloth­ing” and doctor’s vis­its, he presents his for­mer own­er with a bill for “eleven thou­sand six hun­dred and eighty dol­lars” and an address to which he can mail the pay­ment. “If you fail to pay us for faith­ful labors in the past, we can have lit­tle faith in your promis­es in the future,” he writes. You can read the full letter—which appeared at Let­ters of Note—below.

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.

Sev­er­al his­to­ri­ans have researched the authen­tic­i­ty of Jordan’s dic­tat­ed let­ter and the his­tor­i­cal details of his life in Ten­nessee and Ohio. As Kot­tke report­ed, a man named David Gal­braith found infor­ma­tion about Jordan’s life after the letter’s pub­li­ca­tion, includ­ing ref­er­ences to him and his wife and fam­i­ly in the 1900 Ohio cen­sus. Kot­tke pro­vides many addi­tion­al details about Jordan’s post-slav­ery life and that of his many chil­dren and grand­chil­dren, and the Dai­ly Mail has pho­tographs of the for­mer Ander­son plan­ta­tion and Jor­dan Anderson’s mod­ern-day descen­dants. They also quote his­to­ri­an Ray­mond Win­bush, who tracked down some of the Colonel’s descen­dants still liv­ing in Big Spring.

Colonel Ander­son, it seems, was forced to sell the land after his plea to Jor­dan failed, and he died not long after at age 44. (Jor­dan Ander­son died in 1907 at age 81.) “What’s amaz­ing,” says Win­bush, “is that the cur­rent liv­ing rel­a­tives of Colonel Ander­son are still angry at Jor­dan for not com­ing back.” Yet anoth­er exam­ple of how the ignominy of the past, no mat­ter how much we’d pre­fer to for­get it, nev­er seems very far behind us at all.

via Let­ters of Note

Relat­ed Con­tent:

1.5 Mil­lion Slav­ery Era Doc­u­ments Will Be Dig­i­tized, Help­ing African Amer­i­cans to Learn About Their Lost Ances­tors

Visu­al­iz­ing Slav­ery: The Map Abra­ham Lin­coln Spent Hours Study­ing Dur­ing the Civ­il War

Watch Vet­er­ans of The US Civ­il War Demon­strate the Dread­ed Rebel Yell (1930)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (13) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (13)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Barb Drummond says:

    Slav­ery was­n’t pure­ly about racism. The first slaves in the New World were polit­i­cal pris­on­ers includ­ing the Irish and a lot of poor Eng­lish. Black slav­ery only took off when these sup­plies ran out and so many Euro­peans died in the trop­ics — it was thought Africans were more tol­er­ant of the heat and dis­ease.
    Slav­ery had long been banned in Europe but after the Black Death it was allowed by the Pope to make up the short­age of labour, but for non Chris­tians only.
    When the abo­li­tion move­ment took off in Eng­land, thou­sands of Eng­lish were starv­ing, dirty and home­less. It was often not­ed how bet­ter fed were the slaves and for­mer slaves in the New World. Pover­ty and hunger has only one colour.

  • daniel says:

    Great arti­cle and an amaz­ing let­ter, but we were curi­ous why Mr. Jour­don Ander­son­’s name in your arti­cle was dif­fer­ent “Jor­dan Ander­son” from the name used in his let­ter “Jour­don Ander­son” and the name “Jour­don Ander­son” used by your source Let­ters of Note?

  • Josh Jones says:

    Barb, yes, New World enslave­ment of Africans was entire­ly sus­tained by racism. The idea that “Africans were more tol­er­ant of the heat and dis­ease” was itself a racist notion. There is no equat­ing the treat­ment of enslaved Africans with that of Eng­lish and Irish pris­on­ers or inden­tured ser­vants. To do so is to white­wash his­to­ry and ignore pro­found legal dif­fer­ences in these two cat­e­gories. African slaves had not been con­vict­ed of any crime by their enslavers–political or otherwise–nor could they have been under law, and unlike inden­tured ser­vants, they were con­demned to servi­tude for life, as were their chil­dren, and were legal prop­er­ty to be bought and sold at will.

    If you have a sin­cere inter­est in these his­tor­i­cal ques­tions, I would urge you to read the work of Irish his­to­ri­an Liam Hogan:

  • Ronny says:

    What an amaz­ing let­ter, and what an amaz­ing man. You could for­give him for hav­ing been too scared to put that fool in his place, but it was bril­liant­ly done.

  • norm says:

    I hope this makes you feel bet­ter now. Got­ta keep that bur­den light.

  • mike hire says:

    In 1969 I worked as a migrant farm labor­er pick­ing oranges. I made 2.50 a day. We could work on Sat­ur­days if we want­ed, or do what­ev­er, and there was no work­ing on Sun­days, but we were still charged for ‘room and board’ at 2.75 a day.
    I also bor­rowed 2 dol­lars for tobac­co from the ‘com­pa­ny store’.
    So at the end of my first 2 weeks I owed them $10.50 ….They trans­ferred me to lemons and I even­tu­al­ly earned 18.50 for a cou­ple months work ….

    That’s true and there’s more to ‘the sto­ry’ ….but this ‘Let­ter to the Mas­ter’ August 7, 1865 is total hog­wash.

  • myeck waters says:

    mike hire, you are, of course, going to pro­vide some doc­u­men­ta­tion to back up your claim about Jour­don Ander­son­’s let­ter, right?

    BTW, all you nice peo­ple com­ing in to “set the record straight” about slav­ery — well, you’re kind of mak­ing the arti­cle’s point, espe­cial­ly the last sen­tence.

  • Saphroneth says:

    In one unfor­tu­nate sense, peo­ple from Africa *were* more tol­er­ant to the local con­di­tions than Euro­peans — they were more resis­tant to malar­ia, which was the big killer in the South.

  • mike hire says:

    Your doc­u­men­ta­tion, please ?
    Per­haps you can pro­vide some info on the sources ?

    You knew Marx and Engels wrote for The New York Tri­bune ? Any chance there might be bias there ?

    Have you ever heard of “pro­pa­gan­da” and the effect it has, even today, on those who fol­low their feel­ings into what­ev­er delu­sion they wish upon ….left or right.

    “Dur­ing the 1863 Draft Riots a mob tried to burn down the Tri­bune build­ing which lacked the Gatling guns of the near­by New York Times. [6] >read your wiki

    Fun­ny how those guys were anti-slav­ery and anti- Irish at the same time, go fig­ure huh ?
    History’s been writ­ten by those with bucks and an axe to grind . (yeah Abe Lin­coln said that )

    “Over the riv­er and through the woods to Grandma’s house we go “ , we sang that song as a chil­dren, did you ?
    But you know Lydia Maria Child also wrote about and sup­port­ed John Brown (remem­ber Harper’s Fer­ry ? and if you were a slave own­er then your response would be sim­i­lar to the mass­es response you are see­ing now towards any­one from Syr­ia ….What State is refus­ing to accept more Syr­i­an refugees hav­ing accept­ed 50 males of ‘mil­i­tary age ‘ ( checked out btw and ‘cer­ti­fied ok’ ) …..

    But back to the point — How does Ms Child ver­i­fy that the let­ter was “ writ­ten just as he dic­tat­ed it” ?

    Yet you still expect me to actu­al­ly ‘believe’ the slave, who was unable to read and write (and some were taught to read and write ) was actu­al­ly able to dic­tate “a mas­ter­piece of satire “ which humorist Andy Borowitz (is he pulling our legs) com­pares to Mark Twain.

    So then, the let­ter is from a Colonel in the Con­fed­er­a­cy (who’s father had been a Gen­er­al) who is cry­ing for his for­mer slave to come save him from ruin ? Oops,that’s the let­ter that’s miss­ing ….

    his­to­ri­an Ray­mond Arnold Win­bush aka Tikari Bioko

    A Day­ton banker named Valen­tine Win­ters

    ( nope, you can’t make this stuff up ….bet­ter than Roswell, air­tight undis­put­ed His­to­ry >)
    Yes, a banker should be the per­fect guy to write about all the miss­ing mon­ey ; then again, he for­got the inter­est ? But maybe it was edit­ed by ‘pro­fes­sion­als’ who would real­ize that’d be a lit­tle too much ?

    Can any­one give me a review of these ‘Let­ters to my for­mer mas­ter’ series that appeared in those won­der­ful news­pa­pers of yo’re ….Have you also then com­pared them with a Valen­tine from Win­ters ?

    ‘who got paid’ for the Tri­bune let­ter ?

    I’m not fin­ished , but this is already too long ….


  • Dr Nancy Sculerati says:

    “Negro slav­ery” was racist by def­i­n­i­tion, but the notion that sub-Saha­ran Africans sur­vived bet­ter than Euro­peans in the New World in the cen­turies when slav­ery was prac­ticed is just a fact. This is one rea­son that run-away slaves pros­pered in South Amer­i­ca, such genet­ic traits as sick­le-cell ane­mia give real ben­e­fit to het­erozy­gous car­ri­ers when it comes to malar­ia, and sim­i­lar­ly there was bet­ter resis­tance to Yel­low Fever and oth­er dis­eases that were new­er to Euro­peans than Africans.

  • Ruth Larson says:

    Very inter­est­ing his­to­ry and first hand accounts of hep­pen­ings dur­ing that peri­od. I have always been sad­dened to read about the treat­ment of the slaves in the USA.

    Thank you for shar­ing this his­to­ical infor­ma­tion.
    We should nev­er for­get the lega­cy of so many. and nev­er for­get the real­i­ty of those who are still suf­fer­ing today.

    Thank you

  • Tex says:

    Nice sto­ry but would seem ret­ro­spec­tive­ly fake. Could have been more per­sua­sive oth­er­wise.

  • Cherwyn Ambuter says:

    It is so dis­heart­en­ing to see peo­ple come here and try to con­jure up all man­ner of rea­sons why this let­ter may not be authen­tic or accu­rate. What pos­si­ble rea­sons could you have to argue with its verac­i­ty except your own stink­ing racism?

    We KNOW the treat­ment of enslaved peo­ple was exact­ly as described in the let­ter. There is absolute­ly no rea­son to imag­ine this colonel did any dif­fer­ent­ly with the human beings he “owned” to pro­vide forced labor for him. He and his father were men of stature. Of course they were delight­ed to pos­sess so much wealth and pub­lic regard, and prob­a­bly felt very enti­tled in life. This is a per­fect pro­file for some­one who would abuse, oppress, tor­ture, and rape or allow sons to rape his enslaved human beings.

    There’s no rea­son in this entire world this let­ter should offer any fal­si­fied infor­ma­tion, nor for any­one to sus­pect such a thing. And a freed slave could cer­tain­ly be in pos­ses­sion of the wry wit reflect­ed here­in. These were real peo­ple, after all, with their own God-giv­en sens­es of humor, per­son­al­i­ties, intel­lect, tal­ents, and PERSONHOOD — the same as you or me. Just because these traits were sub­merged beneath the slaveholder’s dehu­man­iz­ing oppres­sion doesn’t mean these traits didn’t exist in abun­dance. What a total waste of human intel­lect and abil­i­ties to have had to per­form forced menial labor all their lives.

    I’m glad Col. Ander­son died at 44. If he had tak­en (gun) shots at Jour­dan, sure­ly he had also actu­al­ly killed quite a few enslaved peo­ple, per­haps as they sought to escape their lives of mis­ery. He should have been hauled up in court for his many crimes against human­i­ty and impris­oned for the rest of his life, dwelling in abject dis­grace. The fact he was even left free to con­tin­ue to oper­ate his fail­ing plan­ta­tion is an abom­i­na­tion.

    I hope Jordan/Jourdan Anderson’s descen­dants are doing well today and flour­ish­ing. It sounds as though he pro­vid­ed a won­der­ful child­hood to his younger chil­dren and start­ed them off in a way that posi­tioned them for as much suc­cess as was pos­si­ble in those days for peo­ple freed from enslave­ment with no inher­i­tance, nor even pay nor sav­ings to car­ry with them, as they left their for­mer lives.

    Thank you to Josh Jones and Open Source for the pub­li­ca­tion of this impor­tant first-hand resource let­ter. The racist don’t even believe the first-hand accounts by actu­al for­mer enslaved peo­ple! It takes one’s breath away to see the extent to which they will go to attempt to white­wash Amer­i­can his­to­ry even when pro­vid­ed with orig­i­nal doc­u­ments from the time.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.