Dissecting Important Documents - Jourdan Anderson: Letter from a Freedman to His Old Master

Jourdan Anderson was a former slave who was freed from the plantation of Colonel Patrick Henry Anderson in 1864. He moved to Dayton, Ohio along with his wife and children. In July of 1865 Col. Anderson sent Jourdan Anderson a letter requesting that he return to Tennessee to help repair the plantation and bring in the harvest. Col. Anderson promised that he would treat him better and pay him this time. In response Jourdan Anderson dictated this letter.

In the first paragraph Anderson describes his hesitation for returning. He first talks about how Col. Anderson had harbored Confederate soldiers at his house and had killed a Union soldier that was left in the stable of Colonel Martin. While Anderson sends his love, he doesn’t want to return because Col. Anderson’s son had threatened to shoot him “...if he ever got the chance”.

In the second paragraph Anderson talks about his new life as a freedman in Ohio. He earns, “...$25 a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy, and the Children, Milly, Jane, and Grundy, go to school and are learning well.” He also talks about attending church and being recognized as former slaves. He responds sarcastically, saying that there was no disgrace belonging to Col. Anderson.

Anderson makes his strongest points in the next paragraph. He begins by rebuffing Col. Anderson’s claim that he can give Jourdan his freedom, saying that he already got his papers from the Provost Marshal General of the Dept. of Nashville back in 1864. He then tests Col. Anderson’s sincerity, asking the Colonel to repay he and his wife the wages they were owed when they were slaves. This total comes to almost $12,000 (roughly $200,000 by today’s dollar value). While Jourdan Anderson knows this isn’t likely to be fulfilled, he makes his reasons for staying even clearer by making this known. He ends the paragraph with a strong exhortation, saying, “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… Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.”

He concludes the letter by sending his love to the Colonel’s family but adamantly rejecting the offer. He finishes, saying, “The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.”

Col. Anderson was ultimately forced to sell his land to try to get out of debt and died two years later at the age of 44. Jourdan Anderson and his wife lived into their 80’s, passing in the early 20th century, having lived free for longer than when they were held as slaves.

Listen to a reading of the letter here

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