Jo Anderson: The Mysterious Slave of Cyrus McCormick

When I see a street, building, or complex with the name “McCormick” on it, I’m never sure WHICH McCormick it was named after; quite a few members of the McCormick family became prominent in Chicago over the last 150 years. There’s philanthropist Harold Fowler McCormick, his first wife Edith Rockefeller McCormick. There’s Col Robert McCormick of the Tribune. There’s Katherine Dexter McCormick, a social activist.

But there’s no doubt that the family fortune was founded by Cyrus McCormick, whose mechanical reapers revolutionized farming, making it possible for small farmers to harvest far more land than they could by hand. In the 1930s, the company began heavily promoting an Edwin Stanton quote stating that the reaper the country to feed Civil War troops and free up laborers to fight, eventually winning the war for the Union. An early  bio said that McCormick’s invention had done as much to liberate people as Abraham Lincoln did.

Of course, there’s strong evidence that Stanton’s quote was pure fiction, and these praises ignore the fact that Cyrus was an unrepentant slave owner who left the country during the Civil War because he feared an “abolitionist nightmare,” and corresponded with Robert  E. Lee after the war. His brother William quit going to church because of all the abolitionist sermons.

There’s also some dispute as to just how much credit Cyrus should really get. Plenty of other people were building similar devices with varying degrees of success, and whether Cyrus really invented his reaper or used his father’s designs has been the subject of inter-family squabbling for over a century. Additionally, the the McCormick (later International Harvester) company has long acknowledged that Cyrus was helped in his work by a slave named Jo Anderson, and some have even suggested that Anderson was the real inventor.

A widely-printed 1970 newspaper article identified this photo as Joe; it’s really his grandson, Harry Wilson.

From available evidence, I’d say that’s probably a stretch; Anderson probably just did the blacksmith work on the prototypes. But there was also a faction of the family (including Cyrus’s brothers) who always insisted Cyrus’s father, Robert McCormick, was the real inventor, and Cyrus just made some minor improvements or a better prototype. If these stories were true, Anderson might not have been the inventor, per se, but could have been about as responsible for the final product as Cyrus was himself.

Family squabbles as to whether Cyrus should really get the credit, and constant lawsuits from other people who claimed to have invented similar devices, led the McCormick company to employ a LOT of historians, librarians, and researchers to document the history of the company and establish Cyrus as the real inventor. They kept and preserved records carefully. Even now, the Wisconsin Historical Society maintains a McCormick archive that comprises thousands of boxes, including everything from letters, diaries, and medical records of family members to Cyrus’s wife’s death mask.

Most of the information we have about Joe Anderson comes from statements Anderson himself gave to WJ Hanna, a company board member who in 1885 wrote a pamphlet called “Notes On a Virginia Trip,” which seems to have been a collection of interviews with people who remembered the early days of the mechanical reaper. I’ve been unable to track a copy down (it may never have been published); every single quote from it in circulation comes from excerpts that appeared in William Hutchinson’s sprawling two volume biography of Cyrus McCormick that came out in the 1930s.

Hutchinson’s book says that Jo (or “Old Joe”) Anderson was the son of a slave named “Old Charlie,” whom one Adam McChesney told WJ Hanna he’d bought from Robert McCormick, Cyrus’s father, for $700. Joe was a slave of the McCormick family from infancy, about Cyrus’s age and apparently intended as a companion for Cyrus.  At some point after Cyrus moved to the midwest in the 1850s he may have freed Joe; there’s an 1855 Richmond Dispatch to an “emancipated slave” named Joe Anderson being granted permission to remain in the commonwealth, and in 1870 Cyrus wrote a letter to Joe saying that he’d advised him (Joe) to go west before the Civil War broke out, implying that he’d had a choice.

But Hutchinson says that as of 1856 Cyrus was hiring out Joe and another slave, Emily, personally collecting about $40 per year of their pay. If this were true, Anderson was likely still a slave until 1865.

By some accounts, Cyrus and Joe were more like brothers than slave and enslaver. Among the most oft-repeated of Joe’s quotes to Hanna were “Sometimes he and I used to go out of an evening to see our girls. ” It’s certainly true that Cyrus was, as these things go, fond of Joe; late in life, Cyrus bought him some land and a cabin, and sent him money whenever he wrote to ask for some.  Of course, Joe certainly didn’t get nearly as much money as Cyrus’s actual brothers, William and Leander, did.

In any case, it was well known that Joe helped to build the prototype of the reaper, and was present when it was first publicly tested in 1831. As to whether Cyrus had invented the reaper himself, Anderson told Hannah that “Old master Robert gave up working on the reaper when Master Cyrus said (he) thought it could be done. It is like the good Lord who sent his son to save sinners; He began the work, but his son did the work and finished it.”

In the endless family fights about the real credit for the work, Anderson was generally not considered a reliable source, as he was too close to Cyrus. Even in 1885, four years after Cyrus died, it was generally assumed that Anderson wasn’t about to say anything against the man who had sent him money and bought him a cabin.

Personally, I’m not even sure the 1885 quotes are entirely real; certainly no one else who knew young Cyrus as a teenager ever believed he had a girl to go see of an evening in the first place. But all available evidence does show that Anderson held Cyrus in high regard (certainly in higher regard that William and Leander did); his letters to Cyrus, even long after the war, were always addressed to “Dear Master.”

Of course, one could simply assume that Anderson fawning over McCormick while asking him for money was just good business. So far as I can tell, Anderson never came to visit Cyrus in Chicago, or sent him a friendly letter as opposed to one asking for support. Not enough data survives (or, at least, has been found), to give us any clear idea of how Anderson spoke of Cyrus when he had nothing to gain from praising him, or what he personally thought of his own role in the creation of the reaper. In any case, for him to say anything against Cyrus, or try to take credit for anything Cyrus or his father was generally given credit for, would have been downright dangerous for him as a black man in 1880s Virginia.

When became of Anderson is a mystery I’m still working on; there are a number of Joe Andersons in the Virginia census records, but none that I’ve positively identified as him. No one seems to be sure when he died or where he’s buried. Even less seems to be known of McCormick’s other slaves.

Harry Wilson, Joe’s grandson, with Fowler McCormick, Cyrus’s grandson, in the 1960s. Wisconsinhistory.org

This wouldn’t be surprising except for one thing: Anderson’s family remained connected to the McCormicks for generations. In 1937, a man identified as Joe’s grandson, Harry Wilson, portrayed Joe in a short film entitled The Romance of the Reaper (which is available online and interesting for historical purposes, though not exactly a cinematic gem). The photo at the top of the article is Wilson in character as Anderson.  In the late 1960s, the now-elderly Wilson was working as the site custodian of the old McCormick homestead, which was something of a tourist attraction, and was photographed with some of McCormick’s grandsons for the International Harvester company magazine. Having been born just a few years after Anderson’s 1885 interview, it’s possible that Wilson knew Joe as a boy, and it’s certainly likely that he could have at least cleared up the mystery of when Joe died.

But if anyone asked him, no one seems to have written it down.

Of the thousands of boxes in the McCormick Archives, the “finding aid” online only contains one folder related to Anderson; a folder marked “Jo Anderson correspondence,” which, curiously, is not mixed in with Cyrus’s other letters. I’m waiting for a response from the archive to see if there’s enough out there to be worth a longer project. His letters, in any case, should probably be digitized, as should Hanna’s “Notes on a Virginia Trip” (which was apparently never published and only survives in manuscript, though I couldn’t find it in the archives catalog). It may be that there’s really a lot of material on him that never made it into Hutchinson’s book, which is currently the sole real source of data on Anderson, or it may be that there’s only enough to leave Anderson a tantalizing mystery, a man who may have been rightfully entitled to a large share in one of the largest fortunes of the 19th century, but was instead relegated to a pittance and a few dubious quotes.

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