Estimated reading time: 28 minutes
The following letter of David Daniel “D.D.” James to his daughter Bessie James-Gaston leaves much unsaid about family ancestry. But the letter does enlighten relationships of other James family kin, formerly gone unexplained, including Frank & Jesse James.
Topping the list of things left unsaid in the letter is D.D.’s lack of knowledge about the depth of his James ancestry. D.D. knew little, if anything at all, about his ancestral James family beyond his father Thomas James 1745-1825. Since then, much has been learned about his James ancestry and the business of this James family in slave trading at the Forks of the Road slave market n Natchez, Mississippi.
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, D.D. makes no reference whatsoever that Frank and Jesse James later lived of the former James family land after the Civil 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 where 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 depths of the South. This new knowledge surprisingly ties together many discoveries of the past, formerly unexplained.
Intelligence Within the Letter 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, a Mississippi planter and a merchant in Rodney, Mississippi, 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 Letter
“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 it most interesting. His original letter is in my lockbox at Peoples National Bank.” – Katherine B. Gaston, (granddaughter of D.D. James),
August 28, 2004
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.
About 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.
About 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.]
About 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.
About 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.
About 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 and Edmund, who owned nearly all the land from Hyde’s Ferry to Hickman’s Ferry and were the richest men in that county at the time. After the old men died, the children went to rack, mostly. Henry Hyde settled on Mill Creek, 9 miles South of Nashville. Their children were Maria [1807-1868], who married a Mr. Carden [Allen Dickenson Carden 1792-1859] and lived in Nashville. Their (Maria and Mr. Carden’s) children were three; Maria [1824-1863], who married Dr. [John Spray] Parks [1819-1908-09] of Franklin; Martha [1827-1847] married Charles Bosley and were said to be the handsomest couple ever in Nashville. I used to think they were perfect models of beauty but they did not live long. And [Henry] Hyde Carden [1831-1862, Harrodsburg, Mercer Co. Ky. resulting from wounds in the Battle of Perryville, Ky.], I lost sight of; I think he died young. Mary [Duke Hyde 1819-1891] a beautiful but vain and foolish woman, married [Augustine Watt] A.W. Butler [1804-1887], who stood high in Nashville business circles. They raised a numerous family but I never knew what became of them. Elizabeth [Hyde 1819-1869] married James [Madison] Green [1812-1883] and lived near Nolensville, fifteen miles south of Nashville. I never knew anything about their family. Their three boys, Edmund, Irvin, and Jordan grew to manhood and all turned out badly.
About 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.
About 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] Chalott [Ellis 1808-1884], the mother of your Cousin, [Sarah] Ellen [James 1842-1912], who married old John Cato and afterward John Simpkins. Charlotte married my brother Joseph [W. James 1800-1850]. They moved to Randolph County, Arkansas and died in Pochahontas, the County Seat, where they raise a large family of girls and one boy, who joined the Southern Army and died of smallpox.