Freedmen's Bureau Special Agent for Jackson County, Florida, to the Headquarters of the Florida Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner

Marianna, Fla.  Feb. 28, 1867.

Major:  [CONTRACTS.]  I have the honor to state as my report for February, that with this month closes the making of contracts, with a few isolated exceptions.

The freedmen look upon the contract as their only security against the vicissitudes of the year, and the dishonesty of employers, and have been inflexible in their determination to engage only under this form.

The employers look upon it as an interference with their private rights, and use every art and persuation to keep the freedmen only on verbal bargains.

By appeals to pride and prejudice, as–“If you are free what right have the Yankees to come and make your contracts for you, (?) it shows that they don't consider you as free as we do”; and, “If you go into a contract, it's like going into slavery for the year,”–many employers seek to deter freedmen from entering into written engagements.  But whenever the firmness of the laborer brings the involuntary employer before the Bureau, the latter invariably consoles himself by kindly informing us, that he has come to make a contract solely to “please the whim of these niggers.”  The general answer to this speech is a display of triumphant ivory, for they appreciate the fun of having forced their former masters into something like a moral slaughter-house.

It is only through the energetic influence of the Bureau that the freedmen have withstood these sinister appeals, and been educated into the indispensability of contracts.

One hundred and sixteen (116) contracts are now on record in this office, embracing about six hundred (600) laborers.

This number does not express the whole of the working population of this county, as at least four hundred (400) more have rented lands on their own account, or moved into the “piny woods.”

One of the wisest measures, on the establishment of the Bureau, was basing the inauguration of free labor upon a contract system, but experience is showing that this system can not yet be counted a full success.  The defect is in the want of a ready power of compulsion to enforce the contract, and redress its violation.

[GRIEVANCE.]  And this weakness is now evident in the system, by the many claims that are yet unsettled for last year's services.  Complaints of nonpayments of wages are becoming numerous, though the amounts are generally small, varying from ten to fifty dollars.  And this failure to make payments is found mostly among the “best families,” who are either too aristocratic to pay small debts, or act upon the principle that “ponderous bodies move slowly”.  The excuse in some instances is that the proceeds of the cotton crop have not yet come in, but this does not answer for all cases.

The freedmen, confidently relying upon the virtue of the contract, cannot comprehend why they do not instantly receive their money, and therefore become mystified upon the subject of its utility.

To resort to civil methods of collection would occasion long delay, and be coupled often with the consumption of the debt itself.  Instructions are solicited on this important point.

[COMPENSATION.]  In the beginning of the year planters endeavored to form leagues for the adoption and control of the freedmen's compensation, but they signally failed.  Meetings of the freedmen were called by the planters, on stated days, in different parts of the county, ostensibly to discuss with them the question of wages &c., but they always opened with the firm announcement of “cut-and-dry terms”, upon which alone labor would be engaged.

These terms were “one fourth (1/4) and to be found.”  But from the fact that it takes two to make a bargain, five sixths of the freedmen are to-day working for one third (1/3) of the crop, and two hundred and eight (208) lbs. of meat, finding themselves, while many have even still better bargains.

[STIPULATIONS.]  The following are the stipulations in the form of contract used:–

1. Subsistence, whenever called for, to be furnished by the employer, at market prices.

2. The employer shall provide comfortable quarters, fuel, and ground for garden purposes.

3. Laborers to have six hollowdays during the year

4. The employer shall provide medical attendance, when necessary, at the expense of the laborer requiring it.

5. The laborers shall carefully look after the interests of the employer, and attend to the stock on Sunday and hollowdays.

6. If laborers desert the employer before the expiration of their contract, they shall forfeit all wages that may be due.

7. For time absent without leave, one dollar per day shall be deducted.

8. Two hours shall be allowed for dinner during the months of June, July, August and September, and one hour during the other months.

9. Laborers shall work faithfully a reasonable number of hours each day.

10. Laborers shall not be discharged by the employer, but all causes for discharge shall be referred to the Bureau for decision.

11. In case laborers fail to cultivate their crop, extra help may be added by the employer at the expense of the laborers.

12. All differences arising under this contract to be submitted to a board of arbitrators, each party choosing one, the Bureau constituting the third, and whose decision shall be final.

This last most important stipulation is contained in only about one fourth of the contracts, as the circular directing it, did not reach this office until most of them were made.1

[REBELISM.]  For public convenience, certain days were appointed in different parts of the county for the making and approving of contracts, and by request, many plantations were visited for the same purpose.

While being thus engaged in the town of Campbleton, eighteen miles distant from Marianna, the “unreconstructed” evinced a most insolent and dangerous manner.

In the morning a few of the best citizens were present, but towards noon all of this ilk quietly disappeared off the tapis, and a crowd of roughs had full sway.

Whiskey was guzzled down in abundance to get up steam to assault the “Yankees,” and a mob of a dozen drunken, cowardly wretches, with revolvers buckled round them came into our room, criticizing and insulting us in the most provoking manner.  Our only protection was in our revolvers laying on the table before us.  They retired, came again, repeating this manoeuvre several times, when we were entreated by our colored friends to leave the town as quickly as possible, which, in our unprotected condition we thought expedient to do, and did, in an open manner, with our revolvers in our hands, surrounded by a small band of noble freedmen. + + +

Before concluding the chapter of contracts, it may be justly laid down as an axiom, founded upon law and experience, that the freedmen have no security for their labor without written agreements, made by authority of the Bureau.

[LABORERS.]  A considerable demand for laborers exists in the county, arising from two causes, viz: the withdrawal of those who set up on their own responsibility, and the fact that a larger quantity of land is being cultivated this year.  Though the last crop was in part a failure, and the country has just emerged out of the whirlpool of the rebellion, still agriculturists are encouraged, by the satisfactory results of their incipient free labor, the promising character of the freedmen, and the general prospects of the future, to enlarge their operations, thus again reviving and establishing business and prosperity throughout this section.  A small number of freedmen have lately moved into this county from the borders of Alabama, where the spirit of slavery still practically reigns, and their representations show that a continuous series of hardships and defraudings has been practiced upon them since the first day of their freedom.

[FREEDWOMEN.]  Freedwomen encountered some difficulty in obtaining employment this year, which arose out of the following circumstance.  Laborers generally now working for a portion of the crop, the best hands banded themselves together in squads, to the exclusion and disadvantage of poorer hands, among which, unfortunately the women are classed.

But none are suffering for want of employment, as labor of every kind is in demand.

[CHANGINGS.]  The freedmen do not in this section exhibit that wayward spirit of restlessness and discontent, which is ascribed to their habits in other localities.

They seem desirous of remaining on the same plantation whenever they find good employers.  When they move it is in search of a better man, or bargain.  The most noticeable “change of scene” that has taken place among the freedpeople, is the emigration from towns into the country.  One year ago the tide was into towns, now it is into the country where subsistence is cheaper and surer; and this move seems to have been caused more by a laudable spirit of industry, and desire to improve, than by the goadings of poverty or necessity.

[SWINDLING.]  By this is meant the pernicious system of paying the laborers.  It is termed the “order system”, and the modus operandi of it is as follows:–  The laborers, from necessity and imprudence drawing the greater part of their wages from the employer during the year, who colleagues with some merchant, and, for a paltry consideration, given to the employer, receive all their orders upon this particular merchant.  The freedmen receive orders from time to time, but seldom, it is believed, realize the full value of them.  In their ignorance and inexperience they have no means of knowing when the order is really filled, and merchants and planters are unscrupulously “on the make.”

A merchant informed me that several prominent planters made propositions to honor his house with their orders, for a ten per cent consideration, but that he rejected them with scorn; that they remarked to him their motto was “cheat 'em”.

On many plantations the employers turn petty tradesmen, and supply their hands with the necessaries and unnecessaries of life, at exorbitant prices, profit, however mean, being the secret object in keeping this “accommodation.”  That odium so long attached to the Yankee character for loving the “Almighty dollar,” is fast descending upon the Southerner, whose increasing affection for the dollar is truly refreshing to behold.  He is so awkward in his averice that the exhibition is as ludicrous as it is contemptible.  Such are the practices of the quondam “chivalry.”

[TREATMENT.]  A marked change is taking place in the treatment of the freedmen, but it arises not so much from a reconciliation to their rights, as the fear of certain prosecution which the Bureau invariably enforces.

The disposition yet greatly exists to injure and oppress, but the action is kept down by the influence of the Bureau, and a latent fear of the power of the freedpeople.  This fear is becoming more and more an agent of protection to them, and is calculated to draw a wholesome line of demarcation between the justice and privileges of the two parties.  It receives no encouragement from the Bureau, but it is evidently growing slowly into proportions.  But where cruelty drops her bloody weapons, fraud takes up her subtle arms.

. . . .

W. J. Purman

Excerpt from W. J. Purman to Major E. C. Woodruff, 28 Feb. 1867, P-1 1867, Letters Received, series 586, FL Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives. Brackets enclosing the subject headings appear in the manuscript. The excerpt comprises approximately nine pages of a fourteen-page report. In the omitted portion, Purman discussed the education of ex-slaves, their religious sentiments, the views of local white residents toward Northerners and the federal government, and the difficulty freedpeople experienced obtaining justice from civil authorities; he also presented an overview of his service with the Freedmen's Bureau, which was coming to a close. No response to his request for instructions regarding the collection of unpaid wages has been found in the assistant commissioner's letters-sent volumes.

1. The circular in question had been issued by the assistant commissioner on January 15, 1867. “[A]ll contracts for labor of freedmen hereafter made,” it declared, “shall contain a stipulation that all matters of difference between the Employer and Employees shall be submitted to a Board of Arbitration to be composed of two reliable citizens, one selected by each of the contracting parties,” and the local bureau agent; the boards' decisions would be final. (Circular, No. 1, Head Quarters District of Florida, Office Ass't. Comr. Bureau R.F&A.L., 15 Jan. 1867, vol. 11, p. 149, Special Orders & Circulars Issued, series 588, FL Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives.

Published in Land and Labor, 1866–1867, pp. 480–84.