May/june 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 3
Among the infinitude of unintended consequences produced by the personal computer has been the explosion of interest in genealogy in the last fifteen years. The reason is simple enough. The personal computer is to genealogy what the microwave oven is to popcorn: It just does things so much better and easier. And the spread of the Internet has allowed genealogists, amateur and professional alike, to swap data easily. Today great shoals of ancestors whiz through Cyberspace via something called GEDCOM files.
People who have not been bitten by the bug of genealogy always think that those who have are out to prove their inherited superiority. This may have been true in the nouveau-riche nineteenth century that invented modern genealogy, but it is certainly not true today. While it is always fun to find someone famous, it is equally fun to find someone infamous. I recently learned, for instance, that I am descended from Richard Rich, the Tudor-era slime ball whose perjury put Sir Thomas More’s head on the block (at least according to A Man for All Seasons ).
But genealogy really has three chief charms for its practitioners. The first is that it is an area of history where amateurs can make real and valuable contributions to the subject, just as amateur, not professional, astronomers find most of the new comets.
The second is simply the pleasure that comes from all collecting: the thrill of the hunt. Like stamp collectors, genealogists simply have to find what they’re looking for—sometimes no easy task, but that just makes it all the more thrilling to succeed —and paste it into the album.
For historians, the third aspect of genealogy is even more interesting: It is so serendipitous. It takes you to wonderful places and people you would never encounter in any other way. Consider Elizabeth Cutter. Born in the north of England, she emigrated to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1640, after her husband’s death. She was about sixty-five at the time, an advanced age for that era.
She joined the church in Cambridge, and the rector there, the Reverend Thomas Stone, made a practice of writing down what he called “Confessions of diverse p’pounded to be received and entertained as members.” In other words, autobiographies of his parishioners. Historians (and genealogists) quickly learn to be very, very fond of people like the Reverend Stone.
Elizabeth Cutter, it turns out, was a natural writer. “I was born in a sinful place,” she began her confession, “where no sermon was preached.” She ended it: “Afterwards the Lord’s hand was sad on me. My husband was taken away, and I was sent to this place [Cambridge] and I desired to come this way in sickness time [late winter, after months of poor diet]; and the Lord brought us through many sad troubles by sea; but when here the Lord rejoiced my heart.”
The imagination can conjure up an entire Patrick O’Brian novel out of the phrase “many sad troubles by sea.” But I would never have encountered it had Elizabeth Cutter not happened to have been my ancestor.
I bring all this up because the editor of this magazine recently suggested I write about a desk that sits in my office and the man who bought it and thus brought it into the family that has now had the privilege of caring for it for two hundred years. I didn’t encounter this man through genealogical research. I bear his name (although in fact I was named for someone else) and have known about him all my life. But it’s unlikely I would ever have known of him were he not my great-great-great-grandfather. And while his fame in the history of middle Tennessee rests primarily on his military talents, he earned his living as a businessman.
Indeed he conducted much of his business out of the desk, and after his death a treasure-trove of papers relating to his dealings was found in it. He bought it initially, in all probability, because when Tennessee became a state in 1796, he was appointed postmaster of Nashville and needed a place to hold the sorted mail. Its design indicates it was made in the area of Danville, Virginia, about 1760. A splendid example of eighteenth-century Southern cabinet-work, it is made of black walnut and stands nearly eight feet six inches high. While its desk part contains the usual pigeonholes and drawers, some secret, the upper or secretary part contains sixteen additional pigeonholes and three more small drawers, which is quite unusual, and it is altogether likely that John Gordon had them installed to handle the mail better.
John Gordon too came from Virginia and joined the exodus over the mountains at the end of the American Revolution. By the middle 1780s he had arrived in Nashville, not that the city in any real sense yet existed. In 1785 one observer noted that “Nashville…contains only two houses which, in true, merit that name…”
By the early 1790s Gordon was operating a store. I have a letter to him, dated 1793, asking him to send coffee and chocolate to nearby Clarksville and noting that “we have some pleasing Accounts that a war between the Creeks and Chickasaws Indians is now inevitable.”
He expanded his holdings in Nashville, including a 505-acre farm about two miles southwest of the growing city.
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.”
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.