A Former Slave’s Letter to his Master: What a Viral Letter Says About Historical Knowledge in the 21st Century

3 02 2012

In August 1865, just a few months after the close of the American Civil War, a former slave named Jourdan Anderson wrote a letter to his ex-master. Anderson was then living in Ohio, had been owned by Colonel John H. Anderson of Big Spring, Tennessee.  The letter was reproduced in the New York Daily Tribune at the time. A few days ago, a transcription of the letter appeared on the Letters of Note website. It has since been shared by vast numbers of people on Twitter and Facebook. Many of you may have seen it already, but I thought I would share it here for the benefit of readers who haven’t yet seen it.

The re-publication of this letter in the last few days has inspired a number of people to use digitised databases to discover what happened to Jourdon Anderson after 1865. People all over the United States have discovered bits of data about Anderson. Aggregated together via the internet, they have given us a better sense of what happened to him during the period of Reconstruction and Jim Crow.  This is a classic case of historical research as a distributed process.

Some curious internet users exploited digitized census data to track Anderson down. According to the US Census of 1900, Anderson was still alive and well. The census taker in his neighbourhood recorded the following details about Anderson’s family. (See below). Luckily, this particular census taker had good penmanship!

A search of the local newspapers in Dayton, Ohio, which have also been digitised, shows that Anderson died in 1905. Thanks to the genealogy website ancestry.com, we also have a very good idea of who Anderson’s descendants are. (A family tree has been put online).

The digitization of primary sources is obviously a great boon to micro-historians and genealogists. It also has massive potential for academic historians working on a wide range of topics.

Kris Inwood’s research team at the University of Guelph recently landed a big grant from the Digging Into Data Challenge to do research using digitized census data from Britain, Canada, and the United States. See more here.  It will be interesting to see what sorts of findings come out of this research project.

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One response

4 02 2012
bbatiz

To be honest I cant read the scan but here is a full transcript http://www.lettersofnote.com/2012/01/to-my-old-master.html

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