Freedmen's Bureau Acting Subassistant Commissioner for Johns, James, Wadmalaw, and Morris Islands, South Carolina, to the Headquarters of the South Carolina Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner

Charleston S.C.  January 30th 1866

Major,  I have the honor to report, that in the lack of other transportation, I borrowed a row-boat, and have visited the Islands upon which I was assigned to duty, and have found upon as minute an inspection as I was able to make, with my limited means of travelling, matters in such a state, that I think it my duty to make a detailed report, from the memoranda made, as I came upon them from place to place.

I have found generally, that the Freedmen upon James, Johns, and Wadmalow Islands, are not willing to contract, under any circumstances.

They appear to be willing to work, but are decisive in their expressions, to work for no one but themselves: a few have told me that they would contract with ‘northern’ men, but that they would starve before they would contract with others.  They use threatening language, when the former residents of the Islands are spoken of in any manner, and say openly, that none of them, will be permitted to live upon the Islands.  They are not willing to be reasoned with on this subject.

A greater portion of the Plantations are now occupied by Freedmen, and many have commenced to work upon the land, getting ready to make a crop–

On those I have visited, with a few exceptions, I find no uniformity, or method; they have selected, here and there, parcels of land, just as the ground has suited their purposes:  A few have united, & are cultivating lots and small parcels contiguous–

In most cases, the Freed people, who now occupy these plantations, are not those who were formerly in bondage upon them, and I found discontent, and quarrelling, because the original workers of these places, upon their return, find that they are now being occupied by other Freedmen who have, come from up the Country: and I would here say. that the most of the people who do come from the upper Counties, are those who are unwilling to make contracts there, and who have come to the Islands, and ‘squatted,’ with the intention of making crops for themselves alone.  I found men and woman who have (as they state) slept upon the hearths, for two months, and they have nothing, and no way of getting anything, as I can see.  Many are daily arriving, most part, strangers, from the main–some with nothing, others well prepared to go to work. upon their own account, with all necessary tools, and with the intention of squatting on the first vacant lot.  I counted. twelve large flats. between “Church” flats. and “Wapoo cut” on Friday, of this class–

They have generally the idea that the Islands are theirs, and those who are not so sanguine in this, are firm in their declarations, that no one shall prevent them from occupying and cultivating them, as they see fit.  When told, however, that it is the desire of the Govt that they should be orderly, industrious, and improving, and in a manner as it shall direct, they have confidence, more than in anything else, and seem willing to try.  There are men among them, who are “oracles”, and as they go. so go the whole without stopping to consider.

There is at present much suffering, among those who made no crops last year: the number of the suffering is daily increasing, as many of the new arrivals, bring insufficent means of support.

On Wadmalow Island, there are people who are living upon Acorns and oysters.

I respectfully call attention to the fact that the Small pox is rapidly on the increase on these Islands.  Dr Brownley1 informed me, that in January on James Island, alone, one hundred new cases have occurred–his time is all occupied in giving the attention required to the sick on that Island–  On Johns, & Wadmalow, they are doing poorly, and many who recover, put on the only clothing they have, which has been infected with the disease.  There needs to be some physician to go among the people of these two last Islands, and if possible vaccinate them, or there can be no less than an Epidemic.  At Rockville, Wadmalow Isd on the 27th I found a meeting was being held, for the purpose of a general management of the affairs of the people, and A Mr Evans informed me that he had been selected ‘Supervisor’ by them;2 the nature of his duties, I am as yet unable to define.  The Freedmen appear to have unbounded confidence in him. and as I cannot find that all his duties are in unison with the orders furnished me from yr Hd Qr's, I most respectfully request, that I may be informed what powers he has, so that I may not be led to do anything contrary to the general wish for harmony between those outside the Bureau who are working for the general good, and the officers of the Bu. as expressed in the orders, and also that this man may take no undue advantage of the confidence the Freedmen now repose in him.

There is one other subject, I wish to mention in this report.  It is the “calculation” of the colored people.  At first it looks a small matter, but to look upon the waste of time and material I cannot let it pass without a word in report.  I visited the, Main, in company with Captain Nerland comg the Det, there, and find that those who stay there, are quite willing to make contracts, the others, who would not contract having gone to the Islands.  More of these people, possess the means, than there are of the Planters.  They are willing to furnish generally everything; & give the Planter one third: and in some instances it is the reverse, but they are not so willing to give the general supervision of the cultivation of the crop to the Planter.  This is apparently a damage to both: for instance: in the matter of. fencing, & draining–the colored people instead of working in gangs (which they do not like to do) individually ditch, drain, and fence separate tracts, and the time spent in this additional work will work an injury, as it is lost upon the Crops.  On the other hand they have but little confidence in the contractors if they let the supervision of the raising of the Crops go into their hands.

Delay at this time of the year, in these matters is disastrous to all parties, and to the Government, for it comes to a question of Economy.

If Crops are not raised, there will either be much more suffering & misery, than usual the coming year, or the Government will be to a great expense in supplying the necessaries of existence, perhaps to both the whites & blacks–

I most respectfully call attention again to the large number of Freedmen coming from the main land to these Islands.–

I would also invite attention to the following, which has been taken cognizance of by the Military authority on Johns Island, and which I think it my duty to report to yr Hd Qr's and as also confirming the statements hereinbefore made.  In coming down the river Sunday night, we met a party of Northern Gentlemen, on a Str, who had come down with proper passes, &c, and for the purpose of looking about the Island.  They landed on the Kiowa river Johns Island, and were immediately made prisoners by the cold people there, and were kept as such (they state) nine hours–3

The people searched them, and took from them their revolvers, which were afterwards restored.  The Guard from up the Island finally liberated them, and escorted them to their steamer.  The Gentlemen were very much frightened, and state that they were constantly threatened with violence, and had it not been for two colored men, (Geo Roberts. & Saml Flood) they would not have escaped with life

This statement, was testified to, by the Sg't and Guards on duty on Johns Island.

I am of the opinion that the people said more than they intended to put into execution, and that this & similar affairs, arise from a misunderstanding of orders by them in some degree   It has, I find on inquiry, been formerly the custom, when people (strangers) land on the Island, to report at once, to the Agent, at his office, and they have the idea, that if a landing is made at any other point, it is for them to exercise the duties of a ‘local Police’

There being no ‘head or tail’ to their ideas when once such an arrest is made, the victim stands a good chance of being frightened half to death, if he escapes violence.

Captain Nerland 35th U.S.C.T. is investigating this affair, and intends to arrest the Ring leaders in it–  I am Major Very Respectfully Your Obt Servant

Erastus W. Everson

1st Lt Erastus W. Everson to Bvt Major Henry W. Smith, 30 Jan. 1866, E-18 1866, Registered Letters Received, series 2922, SC Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives. Lieutenant Everson signed as an officer in the Veteran Reserve Corps.

1. C. H. Brownley, a Freedmen's Bureau surgeon on James Island.

2. M. A. H. Evans had been a Freedmen's Bureau agent on Johns and Wadmalaw in 1865 but was no longer connected with the bureau.

3. For accounts of this episode by military authorities, see Land and Labor, 1866–1867, pp. 246–51.

Published in Land and Labor, 1866–1867, pp. 240–43.