The following letter of David Daniel “D.D.” James to his daughter Bessie James-Gaston leaves much unsaid. Topping the list, D.D.’s lack of knowledge about his James ancestry is abundantly evident. Beyond his father Thomas James, D.D. knew little, if anything at all about his ancestral James family who preceded him and his father.
The Message is Significant for its Omissions
While Bessie did not ask him directly to account their family history, D.D. did omit to say anything to his daughter about his life, his work history, or the family businesses. D.D.’s lengthy letter states nothing about his education at West Point or his subversive intelligence activity in the Civil War. While D.D.’s letter makes occasional references to Hyde’s Ferry in Nashville and the family residence there on the land where Frank and Jesse James later lived after the war, D.D. is plainly silent about the Bank of Commerce in Nashville, where his brother John Duke James was the bank’s president and D.D. was the bank’s cashier.
Most glaringly, D.D. is entirely tacit about the Forks of the Road slave market in Natchez, Mississippi. D.D., his brothers John Duke and Thomas Green James, with their associate Benjamin F. Cochran in Richmond, Virginia operating as James & Cochran, were slave traders in the years leading up to the Civil War.
Letter Prompts Intense Research Probe
This significant letter has laid the groundwork for a decade of new research into this hidden and lost branch of the James family tree. In recent years, an abundance of new information has risen from the deep South. This new knowledge surprisingly has tied together many unexplained discoveries of the past.
The Intelligence Explains Previous Discoveries
- The origination point of James City, now Leon in Madison County, Virginia & Rev. Daniel James
- The family of Phillip Henry James in Charlottesville, Tennessee
- The West Point & military service of the brothers Maj. Robert Allen Williams James, Allen E.L. James, and Col. William Henry Williams James of White Bluff, Dickson County, Tennessee
- John Graves James, Mississipi merchant, and planter who returned to Fayette County, Kentucky to plant hemp and found the Second Agricultural Bank of Kentucky, the progenitor of Commerce Bank of Lexington, Kentucky
- The James in-law descendants of Capt. James Finnie, the migrant from Culpeper & Madison Counties in Virginia to Woodford County to Logan Counties in Kentucky, and founder of Union County, Kentucky
- The 24-year career as Kentucky State Representative & Senator Thomas Henry James of Morganfield, Union County, Kentucky
- Frances Elizabeth Morris “Dolly/Eliza” James & spouse Union Col. William Anderson Hoskins of Hoskins Crossroads, Danville, Boyle County, Kentucky, and the origination of Camp Nelson for African-American Union recruits
- The career of the Indian agent and Senator Burton Allen James in Missouri
- The role of Choctaw & Chickasaw descendants of Benjamin James “of the Choctaw” and Susannah James in tribal leadership, enslavement, education, and the Trail of Tears migration into the West, including the three known James students of Choctaw Academy in Georgetown, Kentucky
- Most significantly, these family ties explain the protection and comfort zone afforded to Frank & Jesse James during their residency in Tennessee.
Source Citation for the Corespondence
Katherine B. Gaston (granddaughter of D.D. James)
August 28, 2004
Upon my mother’s request of her father he, being near 90 years old he wrote her, I think from memory about each part of his family. It was written in pencil by hand and I think most interesting. His original letter is in my lock box at Peoples National Bank.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Minor editing has been applied to D.D.’s letter for purposes of readability and clarity. Editor notes have been added within the text and appear in italics.
July 22, 1902
Mrs. Bessie Gaston
My dear Daughter:
As you request I will give you a short history of my father’s family from memory as told to me different times by my mother. I was only a little over six years old when he died and too young to learn much from him, I shall simply relate facts as told them to me and avoid as far as possible attaching blame to anyone.
Thomas James 1745-1825
My father, Thomas James, died in August 1825, and his age as marked on his tomb stone in the family burying ground in Tennessee is 81 years nine months; counting back, his birth must have been 1744. The family was from Wales. I do not remember his father’s name but he (his father) had a brother Daniel James (the Baptist preacher). There is where my middle name came from. The family was a large one and settled in Culpeper County, Virginia.
John D. James’ third wife, Kate Wheatley [Mary Catherine “Kate” Wheatley 1829-1908], was born and raised in Culpeper County and when they went back there in 1863, he reported the family numerous and scattered all over the County. I have found Jameses everywhere And once when en route to Richmond, I landed from a steamboat at Wheeling, Virginia, and registered on the Stage register. Next morning when names were called to take their seats, my name was called, D.D. James; I answered and a young man about my age answered. The company he was with showed his seat and in the hurry, he took it and I had no chance to talk to him.
Father took offense at something his father said or did and left home when he was 17 years old and never went back. He must have written home for some of his relatives visited him in Tennessee. He worked his way to New Orleans, got sick, spent all his money and watch and was wandering about the streets a mere skeleton when an old Indian met him and told him to go home with him and he would cure him. He did so, they fed him on bear meat and he soon got well and strong. This must have been about 1762. He got to trading on an Indian drink, they called Taffa, furs, bear, deer, and other game and got rich, for 1782 found him a merchant in Palmyra of Grand Gulf on the left bank of the Mississippi River, 360 miles above New Orleans and the owner of five or six thousand acres of rich land, ten or a dozen Negroes, immense number of stock, horses and cattle, a mill, a store full of goods and most for the Indian trade and was a married man.
All Louisiana then included about ten of our States; was owned by Spain and its purchase from France by the United States in 1803 will be commemorated by a fair at St. Louis next year.
The Spaniards came up there, levied heavy contribution on the people and gave them so many hours to take the oath of allegiance to the Spanish Government. That night father left with such articles as he could pack upon such horses as the Negroes could catch and went into the forest, intending to keep in hiding until the Spaniards left but they did not leave until they had stripped the people of everything, and desolated the country. Effort was made to get Congress to give the heirs some compensation for their loss, but in vain. The Government would not do anything. Father lived with the Indians several years and worked his way up to Nashville and bought the old homestead on Cumberland River, 640 acres. The date of his settlement there is not known but I see his name on my Davidson County history as a taxpayer in 1787.
He was very popular with Indians, especially with the Choctaws and Chickasaws. They wanted to make him their chief and they made him frequent visits to his home on the Cumberland in squads of 40 or 50 trying to persuade him to go back and I recollect one squad that came after his death. This was their last visit. These visits must have been kept up for twenty years or more at this time.
For years father’s first wife [Anna Sturns] was an invalid and my mother was hired to nurse her. Mother has told me that she used to take her up in her arms and carry her about like a baby. How long this state of things continued I do not know. The invalid made the match between them and they were married shortly after her death, about 1799; father’s age about 55 and she 18 and weighed 180 pounds.
Elizabeth Duke James 1779-1849
Mother’s maiden name was Elizabeth Duke. She was and is my beau ideal of womanly excellence; no other human being ever could rival her in my memory’s secret place. In her all-female excellence centered, she was my heart’s ideal in infancy, boyhood, youth, and manhood. I never saw a picture of her but her features are still stamped upon my heart and I can see her at any time. For years after she was gone, every time temptation assailed me, I could see her standing by me and often has her fancied guardianship averted evil. All through her life of trouble and sorrows she stood finer than Gibraltar’s rock for the right and when assailed by the greatest dangers, she seemed to be strongest. I never heard her speak an indelicate word or perform an unwomanly action. Her education was very limited yet her company was sought by the learned and unlearned alike. Her house was always the Preacher’s home, the needy were never turned away empty-handed. The afflicted was always visited night and day; and when at 9 o’clock on the night of 29th of June, 1849, I closed her eyes in death, I could not realize that my dearest, truest and best friend left me.
Cholera had made its appearance in our family on the Cumberland that morning and five died the first day; mother, sister Mary, Brother John’s wife, Mary [Elizabeth Duke-James 1779-1849, Mary Tennessee James 1801-1849, Mary Elizabeth “May Eliza” Scott-James 1829-1949] and two Negroes and in ten days had buried fifteen; five whites and ten Negroes. [The three children of John Duke James and Mary Elizabeth Scott also expired from cholera on that fateful day: Unknown child James 1845-1849, S.H.C. James 1848-1849, and W.E. James 1849-1849 bringing to a total of eighteen of one household deceased on one day.]
John Duke Jr. 1751-aft 1803
Somewhere about the close of the century [18th century], John Duke moved with his family from Wake County, North Carolina, eight miles from Raleigh and settled on White’s Creek where Dan Young lived. His children numbered ten; three males and seven females, all about grown. He was either a widower when he came or his wife died sometime soon after and a stepmother came in who must have been a terror. She scattered the family like a covey of birds. My mother left and hired to father and the others got homes as best they could by marriage or otherwise but all did well. I will give a short sketch of each one.
Martha “Patsy” Duke 1783-Unk.
Aunt Patsy was a beautiful woman, a devoted Christian and everybody loved her. She married Matthew Brooks and settled in Jackson County, Tennessee near the Smith County line. Her children were two girls, Elizabeth, who married a Mr. Daniels and Martha married a Mr. Sadler. She was the prettiest woman in all that country at that time. Brooks took to drink in his old age and made a dog of himself.
Mary “Polly” Duke 1781-Unk.
Aunt Polly married Henry Hyde [1774-1835 of Hyde’s Ferry], a brother of the five Hydes in our old neighborhood, Dick Jordan, Ben, Taswell
Charlotte Green “Lottie” Duke 1785-Unk.
Aunt Lottie married Robert [Luke] Duke [1775-1845], a distant relative. They lived near the mouth of Harpeth, had one child, [Green] Wesley Duke [1813-1860], who married [Rhoda Ann] Simpkins [1822-1894]. You knew some of his girls.
Nancy Ann Duke 1773-Unk.
Aunt Nancy married Jeremiah Ellis [1770-1845] and lived down near Wade’s Schoolhouse and grange hall near Hickman’s Ferry. They raised a large family of boys and one girl, [Charlotte Green]
Sallie Duke 1771-Unk.
Aunt Sally married Eubanks and lived in West Tennessee. Aunt Burchit lived in West Tennessee too. I never knew much of either of them, though I have seen them.
Father sold his place on the Cumberland about 1810 or 1812 and moved with his family to Union County, Kentucky and bought a farm near Morgansfield and County Seat.
Elizabeth Dulaney “Eliza Duke” James Abt 1794-Bef 1902
My oldest sister Elizabeth was the first to marry. She ran away and married James Finnie [III 1789-Bef 1856], son of “Old Captain Finnie” [James Finnie Jr. 1752-1819] of the Union County, Kentucky, a man that stood high in his community. His son was remarkable for his good looks and laziness. He had no force of character. They had one child which she named Thomas James Finnie [1813-1886] who grew up with considerable talent. He was employed by the British Government who sent him to India on a big salary to teach the natives how to raise cotton. He made a success of the cotton-raising but came back poor, having spent his large salary splurging with English nobility, studied law and at the outbreak of war, entered the Southern army and the close in 1865, married a very estimable Virginia lady [Sarah Jane Moore 1832-1917] with considerable property. I forget her name. I saw her and her daughter, [Rosa Lee] Rose [1870-1898], at Abilene, Texas in 1887, where he had died the year before. Their son T.J. Finnie [1867-1955], was in Dallas. He has since married in Dallas. Rose was a beautiful girl of 17. Her mother told me she had to take her from school on account of her beauty; the boys were always in a fuss about her. This is all I know of their history. The family seemed to be poor.
From: The McGavocl Family, A Genealogical History of James McGavock and His Descendants from 1760 to 1903, by Robert Gray, p. 85
Thomas James Finnie… He, son of James Finnie and his wife Elizabeth Duke James, was born in Union
In the meantime, after father moved back from Kentucky to see the old farm which he had taken back from Gilbert about 1820, Sister Elizabeth married again against parental advice, a Mr. Yarborough and went with him to Florence, Alabama. After about two years she stole away from and walked and carried her one-year-old boy, William Lafayette Yarborough, all the way back home, 110 miles. This boy grew up to
Charlotte “Chalott” James 1799-1817
The next one of my sisters to marry was Chalott. She too ran away and married Abner Davis [1797-1877] while the family lived in Kentucky. Davis was rich and was afterward a member of Congress. One child was born, Julia Greenfield [1817-aft 1901] and my sister died at birth. Mother took the child and raised it, nursing it with her own child, Ann, who was born two weeks after its birth. Davis never contributed anything to its support. The child grew up as win sister to Sister. Married first Edmund Powell [1835-unk] and lived at the place we called Cedarvale. She had four Powell children, James l., Abner D., John
Martha Field “Patsy” James 1806-1862
My next sister to marry was Martha Field. Patsy, we called her. She too ran away and married Hiram Welles [1795-1836]. This was after the family came back to Tennessee and took possession of the farm on the Cumberland and must have been about 1818. So you see three of my oldest sisters ran away to marry and all under fifteens years old. Sister Patsy and ten or twelve children, more than half of whom did not live to be grown. Welles was an industrious, pushing fellow; accumulated good property and died of heart trouble about 1838, generally respected by his neighbors. She then married Thomas C. Simpkins [abt.1819-unk.]. They had one child, Albert, who is still living about Nashville. Neither of them lived long after Albert’s birth. The other children, you knew. Martha married Robert Cato. Eliza married Barnes and afterward Russell, John and Jeff Welles, you know never did much good.
Mary Tennessee James 1801-1849
My next sister, Mary Tennessee never married. I suppose she was deterred by
Juliana G. James 1817-1866
My youngest sister, Juliana G. James, married John McClaren of Carthage, Tennessee, and elder in the Cumberland Church but in every way unworthy of her. She died at my house in Nashville in May 1866, aged forty-nine, from effects of an operation by Dr. Briggs for ovarian dropsy. She was a sweet Christian.
Joseph W. James 1800-1850
Brother Joseph W., I think was my oldest brother. He traded a fine horse for a farm in Randolph County, Arkansas and moved to it but did not like it. He rented it out and settled in Pocahontas, the county seat, kept hotel and was County Judge for many years. In early manhood, he married his first cousin, Charlotte [Green “Chalott”] Ellis [1808-1884]. They had seven or eight daughters and one son who was about eighteen when the civil war commenced. He joined the Southern army and died of small pox. I think in about 1862.
John Duke James Sr. 1808-1899
John Duke was married three times, first to Miss Mary [Elizabeth “May Eliza”] Scott [1829-1849], daughter of Samuel Scott of Jefferson County, Miss. They were summering at the old homestead in Tennessee and on the 29th of June 1849 all died of cholera, mother and three beautiful boys. The oldest lingered several months and I brought his corpse up from hatches and buried him beside his mother and little brothers in the old family burying ground. His second wife was widow Shelby, whose maiden name was Maria [Elizabeth] Delaney [1824-aft 1857] of Morganfield, Kentucky. She died, I think in 1857 leaving four children. Mary [Elizabeth James 1853-1871], Mattie (twins) [1852-unk.], Lucy [abt 1855-
The next of my brothers is nameless, having died in infancy.
George Washington James Abt 1812-Abt 1864
George Washington was my fifth brother. He was reckless don’t care sort of fellow. Had rather fight than work. Went to Texas in 1836, fell in love with Julia Cook on the vessal crossing the gulf, married her, joined the Texas army, fought in every battle including San Jacinto. Got a great deal of land from the State, squandered it and died poor as a church mouse. I educated his only child, Fanny at Brenham Academy and am prouder of it than anything I ever did. I visited him in 1860 and stayed one night with them and was happy that he held prayers in his family. He was an Episcopalian and a thoroughly reformed man. He died, I think about the close of the war aged fifty-two. Fanny was eighteen the day I was there and a beautiful girl and of a sweet and lovely disposition. She corresponded with us for years and up to her death. She married a widower, Mr. Rogers and died childless in a year or so.
Henry Fletcher James 1815-1836
My sixth brother, Henry Fletcher, in my estimation was the perfect of manly beauty, of medium height and weight. He possessed all the qualities of heart and temper to make him a perfect gentleman and carried his nobility in such a manner that no mortal could ever dare to question it; modest and unassuming yet so decided in manner and bearing that no one could doubt the nobility of his character. Everybody loved him and evil doers would stop to think before incurring his displeasure. Such was the boy at school, such was the man. Every lineament of those countenance, very word, every action showed invincible decision, always companionable, always playful, always ready for any turn of things might take, he was a hero amongst the girls as a boy and when grown to manhood, though he never seemed to try his skill in that line. He was a protector at school and at home. If ever a larger boy whipped me, Brother Henry was sure to whip him no matter how much bigger he was, it made no difference. He always whipped him. I reckon this will account for much of my idolatry. Oh, how I loved him and when the letter came announcing his death, I was bereaved indeed. John D. was farming Jefferson County, Miss. And in 1836 Henry went to spend a year with him and took congestive fever and died and was buried in the Rodney burying ground near the age of twenty-one. My brother was not professionally a Christian but I cannot cease to hope through God’s boundless mercy of Christ’s sake that when the last trumpet shall sound and all nations be gathered at the great white throne, I shall then see my brother with the redeemed, washed in the blood of the Lamb.
I shall now turn to my mother’s three brothers which I should have finished before taking up my mother’s family.
Philemon “Phillip” Duke 1775-Unk.
Uncle Phillip Duke settled in Montgomery County, near the Davidson County line and raised a large family. His wife had the reputation of being the laziest woman in the county. Her chief occupation was eating, smoking and sitting in the chimney corner but her two daughters married well. Uncle Phil was a pretty good old time farmer. His boys did pretty well. William married Martha Simpkins.
Josiah Green Duke 1772-1835
Uncle Josiah was the aristocrat of the family. He kept up more style than any of them. One of his boys was a big Methodist preacher. I don’t think the family was a large one. The brothers’ homes were not more than seven or eight miles apart.
Micajah Cagger “Kage” Duke 1777-Aft 1865
Not a moment lost for lack of a forethought. Not a horse ridden when the rider was able to walk; he must rest to be fresh to begin his week’s work, Monday. This indomitable worker at the head of his sons working with his army of Negroes lived to be somewhere in his nineties, respected, if not loved by all his neighbors. The last I heard of his boys, they were trading in their father’s steps, getting richer each succeeding year for they were the stingiest set I ever saw. I went with mother when a little boy to visit Uncle Kage, whom she had not seen in many years. He fell out with her about the division of property and had cut her off as an enemy. The old lady put on the war paint and took the war path determined to settle the difference. After two days of hard travel on horse back for there were no carriages or buggies then and no roads fit for them, we rode up to the incorrigible one’s yard fence about an hour after dark and called him. To my boyish judgment the old man seemed obstinate for a while but could not resist his sister’s determination to make friends. She threw herself upon his neck and talked to him and cried over him until she got him to crying and peace was made and never disturbed afterwards.
I have under the press of many hindrances and disadvantages finished this short sketch of my father’s family. I could not write with pen so took pencil. I hope you can read it. Its chief commendation is its brevity and its truthfulness. All are gone. I hope to see them all again in that bright world where the Savior is and where our conditions of life will be on a higher scale and we will have a better chance.
I am sorry I could not bring better results out of my long life but I tried to do my best and I trust our Merciful Father will look with pity on our infirmities, forgive our many mistakes and wash in the cleansing blood of our Crucified Redeemer, may we all stand justified, an unbroken family around his throne in Heaven and begin anew a life of joy and peace.
I am the last of my father’s family of twelve children. All but one lived to be grown. I am not satisfied with my life. I have tried to do right. It might have been worse. It ought to have been much better. My life will soon end, I have no fears for my future. I hope all my children will live long, do much good and all meet me in Heaven.
August 22, 1902
EDITOR’S NOTE: Alliene Gaston-Coker, a daughter of Bessie James & Finis Ewing Gaston, wrote about her own family, as well about her family’s Gaston ancestry. Like her grandfather, D.D. James, Bessie was silent about her James ancestry.