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More on that letter ‘To my Old Master’

February 7, 2012


Last week, a really nice blog called “Letters of Note” highlighted a remarkable letter from one Jourdon, ex-slave of a Col. P.H. Anderson of Big Spring, Tenn., to his former master, that dates to August 1865. This letter caused a minor stir (see here and here, for example), both because it landed right before the start of Black History Month and because of the sometimes sly, sometimes incandescent indictment of slavery that it contained.

In addition to being a great read, this letter offers a chance to engage in a bit of historical fact-checking, which I’m pleased to say it passes with flying colors. Read on below the cut for more.

When any document arises, especially on the Internet, it’s worth spending a bit of time looking into its pedigree. That’s especially true in a case like this, when the document itself is so striking.

Over at Huffington Post, reporter Trymaine Lee did just that. In this post, he spends some time commenting on the letter, and then gets in touch with one Michael Johnson, professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, who looked into the 1860 federal slave census schedules. Those documents, which are accessible in books and microform (i.e., not online, so far as I know), list slaveholders by name and their slaves by age and sex, a practice that was done only in the 1850 and 1860 decennial federal censuses. Johnson found the slaveholding colonel, and that he did own several slaves whose age and sex match the people that Jourdon mentions.

That’s excellent work, though it’s a bit harder for your average interested person to do, since the census records require at least a middle-size library to uncover. For my part, I looked into the reputed source of the original letter, which Letters of Note attributes to the New York Daily Tribune of 22 August 1865. There’s even a link to an image of the newspaper itself. My question was: Is it real?

Thanks to the National Endowment for the Humanities, we have an excellent source for historic U.S. newspapers: the appropriately named “Chronicling America” project. A bit of quick searching turned up a link to page 7 of the Tribune of that date, and in the second column from the left, the letter.

Chronicling America is a wonderful resource in its own right, and well worth some browsing to see what other hidden gems it might reveal. As for Jourdon’s 19th-century smackdown, the only thing that’s arguably better than the letter itself is knowing that it’s legitimate.

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