Mary Gordon Duffee

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Mary Gordon Duffee (born 1844 in Tuscaloosa; died 1930 on Duffee Mountain1.) was a historian, writer and poet; best known for her Sketches of Alabama, which appeared in 59 parts in the Birmingham Weekly Iron Age in 1886 and 1887.

Early life and writing

Duffee's father, Matthew Duffee, immigrated from Ireland to Charleston, South Carolina with his family in 1822, and then to Tuscaloosa in 1823. He operated the Washington Hall hotel there, prospered, and married Martha Gillespie in 1832. Mary Gordon was the fourth child born to them. He later bought the Indian Queen Hotel from Robert Jemison Jr, as well as a house in Blount Springs, which he operated as a summer resort. Mary Gordon was educated at the Tuscaloosa Female Seminary and in New York. She accompanied her family on the annual trips to Blount Springs. The springs were a well-populated gathering place for the wealthy families of the lowlands, and by 1868 he was operating the 40-room former Goffe House, which he renamed the Duffee House.

Mary, meanwhile, was developing a natural talent for writing and had published a few items in local newspapers. She was inquisitive about the natural and human history of Alabama and made inquiries of the settlers along the route from Tuscaloosa to Blount Springs regarding the geology, agriculture and history of Jones Valley and the mineral district. Her historical inquiries expanded with the study of early written accounts and technical reports, many of which were sent to her by correspondents.

Civil War

The hotel and resort business was one of the first casualties of the outbreak of Civil War in 1861. Mary's brothers enlisted in the Confederate Amry and she took on the position of postmistress for Blount Springs. In the Fall of 1864, Duffee intercepted a shipment of $100,000 in Confederate funds from Montgomery to Quartermaster General Morgan in Nashville. She used the money to purchase livestock, food and clothing for the many suffering families and widows in the area. She was arrested and taken to Mobile under guard. It was learned that she had spent none of the funds for personal gain and champions of her cause made a successful appeal to President Davis in Richmond. She was ordered released without trial and returned to Blount Springs.

There is also a legend that she was staying as a guest at the William Mudd residence in Elyton when it was commandeered as the local headquarters of General James H. Wilson's staff. She overheard the orders given to General John T. Croxton for his assaults on Selma and Montgomery. It is not known whether the intelligence she gathered made its way to Nathan Bedford Forrest's pursuing cavalry. She is also reported to have traveled to Kentucky as a Confederate spy.

She records her own experience of Wilson's Raid as having heard the approach of armies and skirmishing on the outskirts of Montevallo. She and Emmie Bailey organized a mission to Brierfield to tend the wounded there. Afterward she started for home on foot, coming upon the ruin of the Oxmoor Furnace community on April 13, 1865, just weeks after having been greeted there by peace and hospitality. Hungry, tired, and despairing she glimpsed chimney smoke and was offered a meal and a place to sleep by the family of Moses Stroup's son-in-law. She reached Elyton the following day and eventually returned to Blount Springs.

After the war

Shortly after the war's end, Matthew Duffee died and the Duffee House burned. Mary Gordon and her mother retired to a cottage atop Duffee Mountain west of the springs. She maintained her correspondence and contributed regularly to publications around the South, including railroad guides, as well as to the New York Weekly Tribune, sometimes using the pen name Mary Duff Gordon or writing anonymously.

In 1874 she was selected by James Powell to address the Alabama Press Association's annual convention. In June 1875 she toured Mammoth Cave, Kentucky by arrangement of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad. By 1908, Thomas Owen, founder of the Alabama Department of Archives and History, was clamoring to gather her historical "Sketches of Alabama" into book form (a project that was left incomplete until 1970).

Her financial situation was apparently precarious as she supplemented her journalistic and literary work with paid commercial endorsements (such as for Borax) and by peddling subscriptions to various publications. She frequently began her works with a few lines of verse and gave poems to friends and correspondents, earning her the nickname "poetess of the mountain".

Duffee was a member of the American Historical and Biographical Society, the North American Geological Society, the National Geographic Society, and the New Orleans Academy of Sciences.

Later life

It was widely reported that Mary Gordon slipped into eccentricity in her cottage and no longer conformed to accepted habits and dress. In a 1904 letter to her niece, Ella Duffee, she expressed anger at being referred to as a "hermit" in the Daily Age-Herald, and explained the frequent and plentiful visitors she received and the abundance of her correspondence. Nevertheless, by 1910 she was viewed by many as particularly uncongenial in person, though her letters remained eloquent and well-received. She left unfinished a manuscript, since lost, entitled "Pioneer Days" concerning the settlement of the area around Mentone and De Soto Falls.

Historian Marie Bankhead Owen described a visit to call on Duffee, in the company of long-time friend Lily Lykes, in 1928: "...after our long hard pull up the rocks that led like a stairway to the mountain top, we found the aging, but sitlll interesting woman. Miss Duffee came of a long lived family and the many years had not dimmed her eyesight nor dulled her brilliant intellect." During the visit, Duffee showed off documents attesting to her Civil War espionage, verifying her membership in various societies, and attesting to the franking privilege bestowed upon her by Congress. She fended off most callers, however, and was cared for by neighbors Isaac and Maggie Point, an African-American couple, who brought meals from their kitchen up the mountain.

Duffee died in 1930 in her bed in what had become a particularly dilapidated cottage. She was buried without a headstone alongside her parents in a family graveyard on the mountain. Some have said that strange lights reported near the site of the former cabin are due to Mary Gordon "continuing her writings" by candle light.

Notes

  1. Duffee's date of birth, often misreported as 1840, is attested by the 1850 U. S. Census when she is reported as being six years old. The commonly-reported date of death, 1920, is contradicted by Marie Bankhead Owen's first-person account of visiting her in 1928.

References

  • "A Poet Plunderer: Mary Gordon Duffee's Theft from the Confederate Government" (June 24, 1889) The New York Times
  • Wilson, James Grant and John Fiske, eds. (1892) Appletons' Cyclopedia of American Biography. Vol. 2. New York: D. Appleton and Company
  • Johnson, Allen (July 5, 1913) Birmingham Ledger
  • Owen, Marie Bankhead (1949) The Story of Alabama: A History of the State. 5 volumes. New York, New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc.
  • Brown, Virginia Pounds and Jane Porter Nabers (1970) "Mary Gordon Duffee: Historian of the Hill Country". Introductory essay in Brown, Virginia Pounds and Jane Porter Nabers, eds. (1970) Mary Gordon Duffee's Sketches of Alabama. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press ISBN 081735011X