Maryland Labor Broker to the Freedmen's Bureau Commissioner

Balto. [Md.]  Sep. 4. 1865

Gen.  I beg leave respectfully to report to you, that I have esstablished and agency in this city for [a] perpose of Supplying Farmers with labour.  I imploy the Freedmen when and where ever I can find them unimployed,  I advance them their transportation quarters & rations, untell I place them at their place of destination–where they receive $12 per month and quarters & rations.  the transportation is deducted from the mens wages–by the Farmer–and every cent of my commission is paid out of the pockit of the Farmer, and not one cent charged to the laborer, thus I have releived the goverment of the Support of Eight hundred persons and at the same time done the State, the Farmer and the laborer good Service–  I regret very much to Say however that as the men are brought to this City they are beset by a gang of theives and loafers, who persuade the men to run off or Steal them away under faults pretentions, thus I am daily robbed of the amount advanced the laborer–the Freedmen are corrupted and the Country deprived of the labor so much needed at this time–  in conclution I would most respectfully Say, that if you Should think this matter worthey of your notice, I will give the dept– all the assistance in my power to expose the defrauding partys and protecting the Freedmen.  the matter can easely be done and the gilty partys brought to Justice   I am Gen Very Respectfully &c Your obt– Sv.t

Oliver. Wood

Oliver. Wood to Maj Gen. Howard, 4 Sept. 1865, Unregistered Letters Received, series 457, DC Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives. The commissioner's office evidently forwarded the letter to Colonel John Eaton, assistant commissioner for the District of Columbia, who was already familiar with Wood's activities. On August 16, the Freedmen's Bureau superintendent for Washington and Georgetown, D.C., had informed him of allegations that Wood was claiming to be “the sole agent for this District and that he prevented Citizens from taking hands to the Country that they had employed in this city.” Wood reportedly recruited black men “under large promises,” took them to Baltimore, then turned them over to farmers for a fee of $5 per hand and the cost of their transportation from Washington; the farmers deducted the transportation cost from the laborers' first month's wages. (Captain Wm F. Spurgin to Col Jno Eaton Jr, 16 Aug. 1865, Unregistered Letters Received, series 457, DC Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives.) That same day, acting under instructions from Eaton, the superintendent sought information about Wood from Hugh Lennox Bond, judge of the Baltimore Criminal Court and a prominent Republican. Complaints had been received about the labor broker, he explained to Bond, noting that “Mr Wood claims to act by authority of the Govt.” Judge Bond, who did not know Wood personally, reported that during the war he had been a substitute broker–“not a calling which superinduces the cultivation of all the christian virtues.” So far as Bond was aware, Wood held no government office. “[F]rom what I learn of him by inquiry,” Bond advised, “he is a man of little reputation, and would not unlikely impose upon any colored man if he could make money by it.” (Capt [William F. Spurgin] to Judge Bond, 16 Aug. 1865, vol. 77, pp. 17–18, Letters Sent, series 542, Washington & Georgetown DC Superintendent, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives; Hugh L Bond to Capt Wm F Spurgin, 19 Aug. 1865, mistakenly filed as 14 Aug. 1865, Unregistered Letters Received, series 547, Washington & Georgetown DC Superintendent, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives.) On August 22, Wood himself had complained that “hands” transported to Maryland at his expense were hired by persons they encountered in transit, the employers neither obtaining Wood's consent nor paying his commission and costs. He enclosed a newspaper clipping concerning 150 freedpeople sent to him by military authorities in Richmond, Virginia, where they “had been drawing Government rations . . . for want of employment.” Upon their arrival in Baltimore, the newspaper reported, “the ‘Freedmen’ . . . are beset by colored men and white persons, with influences to dissuade them from going to the country and encouragement to seek occupation at better prices in Baltimore, the result of their efforts being that many Freedmen, whose transportation and expenses hither have been paid by parties are now loafing about the wharves, acquiring vicious habits, or obtaining the means of a precarious existence only by the few jobs they procure.” The clipping also reprinted a dispatch from Washington headed “FRAUD ON FREEDMEN” and a notice by Wood denouncing it as a libel on himself and the farmers of Maryland. According to the dispatch, “a white man from Baltimore comes to Washington, engages large numbers of freedmen, and takes them to Maryland, where he hires them out to farmers, charging Five Dollars per head to each farmer and the cost of transportation. The farmers in turn deduct these expenses from the first wages earned by the Freedmen. A stop is to be put to this brokerage by hiring Freedmen direct to the farmers who want them.” Wood's notice maintained that the man whose allegations had generated the dispatch “has been getting men from my office and huckstering them through the country, at from Ten to Twenty Dollars per head, and then went to the Freedmen's Bureau at Washington and complained that I charged Five Dollars.” “Persons in want of labor will be supplied at my usual rates of commission,” Wood declared, “but in no case, has been or will be allowed to deduct it from the men's wages.” (Oliver Wood to Sir, 22 Aug. 1865, enclosing clipping from an unidentified newspaper, [Aug.? 1865], Unregistered Letters Received, series 457, DC Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives.) On September 7, Colonel Eaton sent an adjutant to Baltimore to look into Wood's operations. He reported as follows: “From his books, it appears that within about three months nearly 900 colored laborers have found situations through his agency. Many of this number came from Richmond, and Washington, Mr. Wood having runners in both those cities. It is claimed that the agents commission, ($5.00) for each hand is paid by the employer, and in no case deducted from the wages of the employee–while a stoppage is made against the laborer for transportation expenses. There has been no complaint so far, but that the employers have faithfully carried out the agreement, & so of the laborers. Mr. Wood complains of some sharpers not only interfering with his legitimate business, but defrauding the negroes, and there is reason to believe the complaints just.” (Lieut. S. N. Clark to Colonel John Eaton Jr., 12 Sept. 1865, enclosed in Col. John Eaton Jr. to Maj. Genl. O. O. Howard, 18 Sept. 1865, Unregistered Letters Received, series 16, Washington Headquarters, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives.)

Published in Land and Labor, 1865, pp. 535–37.

Affidavit of a Former Employee of a Maryland Labor Broker

[Washington, D.C., September 25, 1865]

District of Columbia
City of Washington

I Lewis W. Bruning having been duly sworn doth depose and say. that I was employed by Oliver Wood. No 61. Second Street Baltimore Md., on or about the 1st of July 1865 to procure for him colored laborers.  My instructions were to proceed to the city of Washington and obtain as many colored men as I could collect.  I was instructed to inform them that they would receive for farm labor from $12 to $15 per month, boarding, washing and mending being furnished them.  The men did not understand at first that a deduction was to be made on account of expenses incurred, transporting them &c, neither did I understand it so,  The expenses of transportation was deducted from their first months wages and afterwards this rule was followed up.  On the 4th day of July I took seven men to Baltimore for Mr. Wood, after that I would take to Baltimore on an average about 60 men each week,  These men were then sent to the eastern shore of Maryland and disposed of to the farmers.  many of these colored men were unwilling to go to the eastern shore.  Mr. Wood compeled them to go aboard the steamboat and called upon the Police to assist him.  The Police refused as they said they had no right to do such a thing.  The men were however taken against their will. Wood making them believe that he had authority from General Howard to take them.

He also instructed me to procure men to load and unload boats at the Navassa Islands [near Haiti].  the men did not know where the Navssa Islands were but supposed it some where on the [Chesapeake] bay.  These men were shipped from Washington on the 6.45 train PM. arrived at Baltimore at 8.30 PM. were immediately marched down to the wharf placed in small boats and taken out to the schooner “Twin Brothers” lying in the harbor not far from Fells Point   They were put on this schooner out in the stream so that they could not get ashore.  They were kept on this schooner in the harbor for about one week.  After they had been on the boat three or four days they became very much dissatisfied and refused to go.  They had then learned that they were to go to the Guano Islands to dig bird dung.  when these men became dissatisfied they got to fighting among themselves.  Guards were sent from a U.S. Revenue Cutter lying near.  These men were placed in the hold of the vessel and guarded by Marines,  they were guarded until the boat left.

Wood had turned these men over to the parties who were interested in the guano business and knew well where they were to be taken and the duty they were to perform.  Before the schooner left some of the most dissatisfied were placed on shore.  the rest about sixty were taken to the islands.  These men were promised $15 per month and found.  they were placed on the schooner at night   I had been employed by Wood to collect these hands, and was not aware of the crime which was being committed.  Other parties were taken to the guano Islands against their will but with these Mr. Wood had nothing to do.

Lewis W Bruning

Affidavit of Lewis W Bruning, 25 Sept. 1865, Unregistered Letters Received, series 457, DC Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives. Sworn before Captain William F. Spurgin, Freedmen's Bureau superintendent for Washington and Georgetown, who, by an endorsement of the same date, forwarded the affidavit to the bureau's assistant commissioner for the District of Columbia. In the same file is an affidavit by a freedman named Thomas H. Herbert that was similarly sworn before Spurgin on September 25 and forwarded to the assistant commissioner. In early August Herbert had engaged with one of Oliver Wood's agents “to go to Maryland to work on a farm,” at wages of $12 per month in addition to “boarding washing and mending.” Upon his arrival in Baltimore, Herbert had, however, refused to sign the contract that Wood prepared, whereupon Wood instead offered to employ the freedman in his own office, at $5 the first week “and more wages the next week.” Herbert worked there for a month but received a total of only $15, out of which he had to board himself. While employed at Wood's office, Herbert witnessed an episode involving forty laborers who had been brought from Richmond, Virginia, by another of Wood's agents, “a Colored man.” Wood “took these men placed them on steamboats and sent them to the Eastern Shore, getting 5$. apeice for them,” Herbert reported. “Some of these men were unwilling to go. He caught them by the collar and made them go aboard. He sent me to take a man to the guard Boat  the man did not know where he was to go until he was aboard.”

Published in Land and Labor, 1865, pp. 537–38.