Thursday, April 22, 2021

The People of the County Who Knew Him Will Long Remember Tom Gordon

Thomas Gordon died unexpectedly 100 years ago on April 22, 1921. The Town of Bovina mourned his loss. He was Bovina’s Town Clerk at the time of his death and was a teacher in Bovina and the area for many years, particularly remembered for his excellent penmanship.
Gordon had his roots in Scotland and came to America under somewhat unusual circumstances. Thomas was born in Crossmichael, a town in Southwestern Scotland, on 20 September 1845. He attended school in nearby Castle Douglas and appears to have briefly taught in the area.
Thomas and his friend Adam Murray decided they wanted to come to America (they already had family there). While they told their parents they wanted to go there for work, their real reason was to enlist in the Union Army fighting in the U.S. Civil War. On July 20, 1864, they arrived in New York City having sailed on the Westminster from Liverpool. They traveled to Delhi to stay with family, including Thomas’s uncle Samuel Gordon. On September 7, 1864, they enlisted, both serving as substitutes.
Thomas was a substitute for Henry Dowie from Andes, likely without Henry’s knowledge. Henry’s mother had told Thomas that she “beseeched [his father] to procure a substitute without Harries knowledge...” She knew that her son would not agree to doing this, thus the need for secrecy. Whether Henry ever found out is not known but considering that he lived until 1920 and stayed in the area, it seems he would have found out at some point.
Thomas and Adam had hoped to serve together but were quickly separated. Thomas, because of his excellent penmanship, was assigned to the Adjunct General’s office in Washington, DC and never saw combat. He was disappointed because he wanted to be in the 144th, though Mrs. Dowie was much relieved that he was not on the front lines. Thomas made repeated requests to go to the 144th but to no avail. His cousin, John Gordon of Delhi, thought that climate- wise, his situation in Baltimore would be preferable to the more humid climate of Hilton Head, South Carolina, where the 144th was located at the time.
Murray joined the 46th NY Volunteers and was in regular communication with Thomas. They were close enough to meet in person a couple of times. Less than a month before the end of the war Adam was killed outside Petersburg, Virginia, leaving behind his grieving family in Scotland and many friends, including Thomas. On April 3, Thomas and his unit marched through Petersburg. In a letter to a friend, he noted “I would have enjoyed two or three hours in the city fine if Poor Adam had been alive but as it was I had no heart for anything.”
Adam Murray, Delaware County Historical Association
It was left to Thomas to notify Adam’s family and send back to them his personal effects. This was challenging for him because they had not told the Murray family that Adam had enlisted. Adam would send letters home first to Delhi and have them posted from there. Thomas wrote to Adam’s father Robert Murray at the end of March and on April 20, Murray wrote back. He noted that “Adam’s death at any time would have been a heavy blow to his mother and me; but I need scarcely say that owing to the way in which he left us, and also to the fact that he never acknowledged to us that he was in the army, we feel his sudden and bloody death more than we would otherwise have done.” Adam’s father had not been in total ignorance of the situation, as he wrote in his letter. Thomas’ brother in Scotland had told Robert “a considerable time ago that my fears were verified; for I feared from the beginning that he would fall into the army.”
Thomas wrote to Robert again in May with details about Adam’s burial. He wrote “Adam was buried in a grave by himself and as he was a noncommissioned officer the spot is marked with a headboard.” He asked Robert what inscription he would like on the stone and what kind of stone (marble, granite or sandstone).  The marble stone that Thomas arranged to replace the wooden one says “Green be the turf above, thee Friend of my early day. None knew thee but to love thee, Time named thee but to praise.”
Gravestone of Adam Murray. From Find A Grave. Poplar Grove National Cemetery, Dinwiddie County, Virginia
Thomas came back to Delhi after his discharge in May 1865 and lived with his Hammond cousins. He started his long career as a teacher, teaching in the Bovina and Delhi area for over thirty years. By 1868 he had already taught 10 terms. Most of his time was spent in Bovina, having taught in almost every district in the town. He was principal of the school in the Bovina Center hamlet for several years. Students who took his penmanship lessons to heart were noted for their excellent handwriting.
In that era, it was usual for teachers to be boarded around the district. Gordon recollected years later that he often seemed to be put in a cold bedroom. In one instance at least, the farmer’s wife would heat up a stick of stove wood, wrap it in cloths, and give it to him to take to bed and place on his feet.
In 1871, he was married to Mary Jane Oliver, with whom he had two children, John, born in 1871 and Maggie, born in 1878. The family lived in Bovina until around 1887. During this time in Bovina, as well as teaching, Thomas served as Bovina’s Town Supervisor from 1885-1887. Shortly after his term ended, he moved to the farm of his wife’s family on Glenburnie Road in Delhi and was there for about a decade.
Thomas Gordon's "first family," - wife Mary Oliver Gordon, Ann Oliver (Mary's sister), daugher Maggie Ann Gordon , son John Gordon and Thomas Gordon, c. 1890. The photograph they are sitting around is that of his friend Adam Murray, who died in the Civil War. (Courtesy Delaware County Historical Association)

What may have triggered him to leave this farm was a double tragedy at the end of 1896 and early 1897. His eighteen-year-old daughter Maggie died in November 1896. Six weeks later, Thomas lost his wife, Mary Jane. This led to Mary’s sister Ann Oliver ‘losing her reason.’ From later letters, it appears she never really recovered.
Thomas sold his cows on the farm a month after the death of his wife. By the end of February 1897 he was working as a clerk in the store of Alexander Hilson in Bovina and settled back in the town around that time. [Ironically, he ended up buying the Oliver family farm in 1902 as part of an estate settlement after the death of his wife. He sold it that same year to Belle Hoag.]
In February 1898, he was elected as Bovina’s Town Clerk, a position he held for over 20 years until his death. His beautiful handwriting makes Bovina town records from this period a joy to read. When Gordon was over 70, a state official noted to the county board of supervisors, holding up one of Gordon’s assessment rolls, “Gentlemen, I am familiar with this sort of work in all the counties of this State and I want to say to you this is the best piece of work, the best made out tax roll I have ever seen.”

Page from the Town of Bovina tax roll, 1916, created by Thomas Gordon. Bovina Town Records.

A little over a year after becoming the town clerk, in June 1899, Thomas married a woman 27 years his junior, Mary Richardson Scott of Delhi, and started a new family. His son William Scott was born in 1903 and daughter Margaret Janet was born in June 1907, when Thomas was 51 years old.
Another tragedy hit Thomas and his family a little over a year after the birth of his last child. His son John from his first marriage was a New York City policeman and had been since 1896. He had several stresses on the job and in 1905 attempted suicide after being overwhelmed by heat. On September 9, 1908, he succeeded in committing suicide with illuminating gas. More about John can be found in this blog from May 23, 2014: Bovina (NY) History: Stories from Bovina's Cemeteries - Policeman John Gordon.  John’s widow continued bringing their two sons to stay at Lake Delaware with her father and for visits with their grandfather Thomas. 
Thomas was active in veterans’ organizations from the Civil War, starting as treasurer of the Delhi Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Union in 1866. He was active in the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) and attended many of their ‘encampments’ over the years. He attended the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg observance in 1913. Late in life his daughter Margaret recalled going with her father to this commemoration.

Reunion of Delaware County Civil War Soldiers, probably in Andes in 1910. Thomas Gordon is seventh from the left. Delaware County Historical Association

Something he received for his service in the war was a tract of land in St. Andrew’s Bay Colony, Florida. In August 1913, he took his family down there to explore whether or not to move there. He decided not to do so. According to his daughter, he did not like the school system there, preferring to have his children receive their education in New York. The Florida land passed down to Margaret, who sold it a few years before her death in 2001.
Thomas had a brother and two sisters back home in Scotland. They wrote to him regularly – some of these letters survive and are at DCHA. Thomas never went back to Scotland (at least as far as I can tell) but his sister Mary did pay him a visit in 1894. When Thomas’s daughter and first wife died, Mary dropped hints that she would be willing to come to the U.S. to keep house for him. She never did and when reporting the death of their brother John in 1913, she noted that “I am too old to emigrate.” She was his only surviving sibling at his death.
Thomas turned 70 in 1915. He had some issues with rheumatism, but it didn’t seem to slow him down very much. He continued going to Civil War veteran reunions, was census enumerator for the NY State Census in 1915 and that same year was elected secretary of the newly formed Hook and Ladder company in Bovina. He also was secretary for the Bovina Water system.
Around this time, he also took on a project for David F. Hoy. Hoy was actively researching the old families in Bovina. Thomas went around to all the cemeteries in Bovina, recording the burials. His work formed the basis for the very detailed records that we have today of all the burials in Bovina.
Thomas was active right to the end of his life, traveling to Antietam in September 1920 to attend the dedication of the NY monument there. Family tragedy continued to dog him, however. That same month, his son’s widow, Elizabeth, died, leaving her two sons, William and John, orphans. They ended up living with her parents but continued making visits to their Gordon relatives.
Thomas continued his regular duties into 1921, recording his last town board minutes in March 19 and the last death in the vital records book on April 2, that of Hamilton Russell, father of Cecil Russell. He continued making trips to Delhi to help the county with clerical work and to carry out his work as court crier (the officer making public announcements in court).
On April 21, he had a heart attack and after lingering a few hours, died at 2:45 in the morning of April 22, his son William’s 18th birthday. On April 25th, deputy Town Clerk Alex Hilson recorded Thomas’s death certificate, below the last one Thomas had recorded three weeks before.
That same day, Thomas’s funeral took place at the Bovina U.P. Church, with a large crowd attending. The American Legion and the England Post of the GAR attended and conducted a service at the Bovina cemetery where Gordon was buried next to his first wife.
This is the bill from the funeral home for Thomas Gordon. Delaware County Historical Association.
The Andes Recorder, in its April 30, 1921, issue, wrote an appreciation of Gordon: “All in all – we shall not soon look upon his like again. With his genial temperament, his accurate knowledge of affairs, his splendid English diction graced by a Scotch brogue that Harry Lauder might envy, the people of the county who knew him will long remember Tom Gordon.”

Margaret Gordon, 1969 (one of her last years teaching), photograph by Bob Wyer, Delaware County Historical Association.

Thomas’s last surviving descendant was Margaret Gordon, who taught history for many years at Delaware Academy. She was the last surviving child of a Civil War soldier with roots in Bovina. Late in life, she talked with my dad, Charlie LaFever, a bit about her father. After his death, when she was 13 years old, she had to help the town officials find all the records kept by her father as town clerk so they could go to his successor. Margaret died not long into the new millennium on January 31, 2001 at the age of 93. She is buried near her father in Bovina.

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