- Historic Sites
The Other John Gordon
The author’s desk connects him with a businessman forebear, the Indian wars, and Old Hickory
May/june 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 3
He became increasingly interested in other areas as well. As the population expanded, it exported more and more by means of flatboats to New Orleans. Their task completed, the flat-boats were sold as lumber, and the crews had to walk or ride home. Increasingly they used the Natchez Trace, a wilderness road that ran between Natchez, Mississippi, and Nashville. John Gordon saw opportunity and acquired the right to operate a ferry on the Duck River, which is crossed by the trace about fifty miles south of Nashville. He was living there, in what came to be called Gordon’s Ferry, for part of the year as early as 1802. In 1806 the state of Tennessee granted him 640 acres at this site, and additional grants brought his holdings in the area to 1,514 acres. In 1804 the future U.S. senator Thomas Hart Benton, then still a boy, served as his clerk at the store and tavern he operated there.
He apparently became overextended, however, and had to sell off his Nashville holdings. In 1812 he moved his family permanently to Gordon’s Ferry and began building a house there. The house is now in the National Register of Historic Places. One of the windows is unusually high off the ground, and it is thought it was so placed to allow people to make purchases without dismounting from their horses—perhaps the country’s earliest drive-in store.
The success of these farming and commercial interests could not have been possible without the help of his wife, Dolly Cross, and a letter from him shows how much he relied on her. “I would recommend you to go on with the building if possible, and will try to keep you in funds,” he wrote on March 2, 1818, from Pensacola, Florida, where he had gone on business. “As to farming, you are to be governed by circumstances. I did think of putting the Briley field in cotton, but of that you will be the best judge.”
A high window was so placed to allow people to buy things without dismounting —perhaps the first drive-in store.
No small reason Gordon relied so heavily on his wife to run his businesses was that he was so often away on military expeditions. Indeed, that letter to his wife had been occasioned because he had just received a letter from Andrew Jackson summoning Gordon to join him in what would soon be the First Seminole War.
The two men had been friends since Nashville’s earliest days. (I have often wondered if Jackson might once have sat at the Gordon desk and written something on it. It is entirely possible.) Jackson had the highest respect for Gordon’s ability as a scout and as what was in those days called an Indian fighter.
In 1812, as the British were stirring up Indian trouble on the frontier as part of the war that broke out that year, Jackson asked Gordon, commissioned as early as 1793 as a captain of mounted infantry, to form an intelligence unit. Gordon agreed, provided he was allowed to choose his own men and report directly to Jackson. The general would later refer in a letter written during the Creek War to “the brave Captain Gordon of the spies,” the title by which John Gordon has been known ever since.
Although Gordon fought in most of the battles and skirmishes of the Creek War, his greatest contribution to victory may well have come in December 1813, before the war had properly begun. Jackson, like so many militia generals of that day, was plagued by short enlistments, and many of the men in his command, their enlistments up, were determined to go home. Jackson, his temper always on hair trigger, told them that “if only two men will remain with me, I will never abandon this post.”
Captain Gordon rose immediately. “You have one, General,” he told Jackson. “Let us look if we can’t find another.” By the end of the night, Gordon had persuaded 109 men to stay.
Capt. John Gordon of the spies was in no sense a great man, the kind that history so often necessarily deals with. But he was a brave and good one, the kind this country was built on. It is an honor to have him as an ancestor and to be for the late twentieth century and, I hope, early twenty-first the custodian of his wonderful desk. But anyone can find people like him. They need only look in their own families’ pasts through the magic window of their relatives’ memories or, failing that, genealogy.