Civil War veteran transformed Madera
Madera County Historical Society Assemblyman George Washington Mordecai was one of the primary forces behind the creation of Madera County in 1893. Before coming to California in 1868, Mordecai managed a plantation in Raleigh, North Carolina, which was owned by his Uncle George Washington Mordecai.
From the moment I first set foot on the Mordecai Ranch just south of Madera, I have been intrigued by this story of a young, defeated Confederate soldier who grew into an elder statesman of Madera County. For 30 years now, I have been following the document trail he left behind, and that search has taken me to Raleigh, North Carolina, several times.
It just so happens that the City of Raleigh owns a plantation house that once belonged to the Mordecai family. It stands just a few blocks from the governor’s mansion. Serving as a museum, it is the centerpiece of Mordecai Historic Park.
On the occasions that I have been privileged to walk through the plantation house, it has always been impossible not to think of two George Washington Mordecais. There was Uncle George, a pillar of Raleigh society who lived in the house for 22 years, and then there was the nephew George who left the house to come to California to make his mark.
Uncle George was born in 1801 to Jacob Mordecai and Rebecca (Myers) Mordecai. He had 12 brothers and sisters, most of whom were educated at the Mordecai academy in Warrington, NC. When his father sold the school and moved to Richmond, George remained in Raleigh to study law under his brother, Moses.
After being admitted to the bar in 1822, Uncle George became one of Raleigh’s prominent attorneys. In 1840 he was elected president of the Raleigh and Gaston Railroad, and in 1845 he was chosen to head the Bank of North Carolina.
Then in the early 1850s Uncle George married Margaret B. Cameron who brought with her as a dowry, five plantations. Before the decade was over, they owned 352 slaves.
In the meantime, Uncle George was fast becoming the head of the Mordecai family. From his position of financial strength, George developed a strong sense of noblesse oblige, beginning with his own kin, who invariably turned to him when in need.
Time after time, George was called upon to care for several of his nieces and nephews as well as the children of deceased acquaintances. His guidance was also sought when a guiding hand was needed in other areas.
His sister, Emma, writing from Virginia in 1853, implored her brother to “come to Richmond the day you get this [letter]...to see about John (a slave)....He has been lodged in jail and insists upon it most resolutely… He means to be sold, and he does not intend to come home again. What we want you to do is this: to come and tell John that, as he insists upon being sold, you have come to buy him.”
In another instance, this same sister wrote the following to Uncle George: “I wish to instruct you on behalf of a young man who was sold here a few weeks ago in the settlement of an estate and who was purchased by one of the Davises of Petersburg....Sally is engaged to be married to him and is so deeply grieved at the turn things have taken that I am determined to do everything in my power to prevent his being sent away. Such a good, faithful, correct servant as she has always been, not only to me but to the whole family, deserves that we should all interest ourselves in what so deeply concerns her. Davis has offered him for $1500. My dear brother, I want to know from you if an arrangement could not be made for me to become the purchaser.”
On one of my visits to Raleigh, I went to Christ’s Church (Episcopal) where Uncle George served as one of its first vestrymen. There on one of the walls was a magnificent stained glass window dedicated to his memory. At the top of the window were the words: “faith, hope, and charity.” Below these were four scenes depicting the following: “I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was naked, and you gave me clothes, I was in jail, and you visited me; I was a stranger, and you took me in.” According to the guide, that window epitomizes the life of Raleigh’s George Washington Mordecai.
Once, when I walked up to the cemetery to visit Uncle George, I remembered how he provided “Nephew” George with funds to come to California and how he gave his namesake a new start amidst the dislocations of Reconstruction. Standing there pondering the past and wishing that I had known this man, a question was forced. What would have happened if George Washington Mordecai of Raleigh had not taken George Washington Mordecai, his nephew, under his wing?
Well, for one thing I would not have been there in Raleigh having the time of my life, and just as certainly, the history of Madera County would be much different. As I walked away from the grave yard that day, I could not help but think how inextricably the roots of Madera County are intertwined with those of Raleigh, North Carolina.