Freedmen's Bureau Superintendent on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, to the Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner for South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida

St Helena Village [S.C.], Aug 17th 1865

Sir,  The following report upon the condition, and state of feeling of St Helena Island is respectfully submitted.  The information it contains has been obtained by numerous accidental conversations with the people, by direct inquiry, and by personal observation.

With regard to the military organization among them, I learn that the freedmen have formed a “Society” to consider means of improvement among themselves–to raise a fund for emergencies–to attend to matters of health and cleanliness in their streets,–and to protect themselves from thieves.  Their regulations are suggested by their experience.  The education of the men has been in camps, and the rules in regard to cleaning their plantation streets are such as returned soldiers would make.  Their police force is of a somewhat military character, and drills in squads.  They also carry guns some of which were purchased by them in Beaufort, Charleston, or Savannah, and some were given to them in the early days of our occupation of these islands, that they might defend themselves against raids of the enemy.  These guns they prize as their most valued possessions next to their land, and to take them away would leave a lasting and bitter resentment, and sense of injustice.  They have never done much harm–and on this island in all their quarrels, no murder–with these weapons which they have had in their hands for three years.  Neither, I believe, have any serious accidents occurred, showing that they have not unwisely been trusted with them.

I can find no other organization among them and all indignantly deny having an intention to rebel in any way against “yankee” law or to resist the Government–  I think it probable that the returned soldiers did wish and intend to keep up their drill and dicipline, that they might be ready to defend themselves should the northerners leave the state, thus placing them as they suppose, at the mercy of their old masters.  So long as the contest with the rebels was of doubtful issue, these islanders were sedulously taught by most of the northern men here, that the time might come when such self defence would be necessary; and feeling that the necessity may yet arise, they wish to be prepared for it.  The “Society” was organized by the advice of northern colored men.  It was publicly urged upon them in the Baptist church building, at a large general meeting on June 8th, Bishop Paine being present,1 that they should raise a fund which might “meet emergencies.”  They were advised to put it into the hands of a “Society” of themselves, and to use it for the improvement of their condition in matters educational, commercial, and military.  They were told of the importance of such a fund, in order to have power to carry out plans for their welfare, and among other uses for it building churches and schoolhouses & establishing a store were mentioned.  The latter enterprise is being eagerly discussed now.

The rumors of a rebellious spirit here probably arose in this way.

Sailors have every summer been in the habit of landing on these shores and depredating as if in an enemy's country.  Com. Dupont issued strenuous orders to prevent it, and from his time to this, there has been some trouble every summer.  The people at Land's End were not disposed to submit to having their melons stolen, their corn pulled green, and their sweet potatoes dug up and carried away.  These were their winter subsistence, and they could not afford to lose their crop.  There is a constable appointed to arrest all thieves and disorderly persons at that end of the island,–Robert, of T. B. Chaplin's.  Twice he surprised and warned away a party of depredators from the vessels.  The next time they came Robert called a posse to drive them away.  The sailors drew bowie knives, and refused to go.  They came again with guns, and old Robert met them with an armed posse.  They were driven off.

These sailors probably reported secret, midnight, and rebellious drilling among the negroes.

A woman from Land's End reports that their police force returning one morning from their night watch, armed and marching in a company, met Capt. Taft, who is a resident upon that end of the island.  The company did not turn out to give way for his vehicle, and he had to take the side of the road.  She thought he supposed this a military force drilling with insurrectionary intent.

I can trace no further cause for the reports, except some boasting idle talk among a few of the returned soldiers, and the angry feeling of some of the most unlucky of last year's cotton sellers.

There is a good deal of ill feeling about the sale of the cotton of last year, owing to their want of knowledge of the risks of business.  They say most emphatically that they wish to select their own agents, or to sell to whom they please unguarded by the protecting laws of the past season.2

Many of them contracted debts to the amount even of a hundred or more dollars, to be paid when the residue of their cotton money came in, and as the expected amount will never come in, they are in embarrasment and discontent, and they most unjustly distrust all of those who sold for them.

There is always much angry feeling manifested whenever a man or woman, refusing to work for a proprietor is required to seek a house and home off the plantation, but there has been no serious resistance in such cases.

Very many of the freedmen, who three years ago were utterly destitute, ragged, and almost starving, have been able by their earnings to buy themselves from ten to twenty acres of land–a horse, mule or yoke of oxen–a cow–a cart–even good light vehicles for driving–implements–household utensils–clothing to a very considerable amount, and in several cases they have had houses built for themselves in their own lots.  I do not allude now to those who were so fortunate as to be able to buy plantations at the first sale of land but to those poorer ones, who have had no chances above the generality.

Such settled prosperity could not be the result of either neglect, or oppression, or pampering, in their management.  Protection, with not too much interference in their own plans, has given them all the fostering and encouragement they needed.  One of the leading men of the island, who was very destitute three years ago, and who now owns his twenty acres, and keeps his horse, applied to a lady here to ask the cost of hiring a teacher from the north, as the people on the plantation where he lived wished to engage one for their children.  When she answered “at least four or five hundred dollars a year.” he said “Well” we can afford it, and we want our children well educated.”

The thrift and success of the freedmen, makes them objects of attention to their former masters, who are returning every day to visit their plantations in search of “material aid”–  I hear from the people that two young ladies came here, and went from house to house among their fathers slaves, pleading their poverty, and receiving from one some grits or potatoes, from others plates and spoons–or from others money.  One woman took the shoes from her own feet and gave them to her former mistresses.

These donations are made partly from pity, and partly to let their former owners see how well they can take care of themselves–an intense satisfaction if a little boastful–

One freedman–Jim Cashman, who has been guide to some of our commanders here, and corporal in a regiment for three years, met his old master who had come to visit the plantation he used to own.

“You come back again Sir” said Jim most respectfully.  “The Lord has blessed us since you have been gone–  It used to be Mr. Fuller No. 1, now it is Jim Cashman No. 1.  Would you like to take a drive through the island Sir?  I have a horse and buggy of my own now Sir, and I would like to take you to see my own little lot of land, and my new house on it, and I have as fine a crop of cotton Sir, as ever you did see, if you please–and Jim can let you have ten dollars if you want them, Sir.”

Mr. Fuller did want them.  He took up quite a collection on his place I hear–  Another of the old proprietors, formerly a very wealthy man, came to ask for aid, and received from his people over seventy dollars.  Others have received fifty dollars.  One lady came to Beaufort from the interior a week or two ago, and sent word to them that “she thought some of her Ma's niggers might come to wait upon her.”  None volunteered–  Some went to see her however, and from these she received food, money, and clothes.  She offered to become a dressmaker for the negroes, and will probably get enough money for a support in that way.

A master, infamous for burning his slaves, that is stretching them on the ground “till their skin cracked” to use their own expression–and then dropping fire on them, returned recently, intending to spend some time on his plantation, but the people would not tolerate his presence.  They told him that they had bought the land, and he should leave it before morning, which he did.

Although to the first who came back the people gave liberally they are becoming more cautious, for they say that two come for every one they send away relieved, and that it is a new way “maussa” has of making them work for him.  Although the “masters” weep with joy at the sight of their humble friends, and though one of them said he “should go away and cut his throat if they looked coldly upon him.” yet the people are only transiently touched by this manifestation of affection.  They look very jealously and uneasily upon all who return, often ask why Government lets them come back to trouble the freedmen, and now they ascribe this report of an insurrectionary spirit here, to tales told by their “old owners” “to set the yankees against them.”

An unwise speech made here a few weeks ago by a northern black man, has called out a free expression of the latent spirit of discontent, on the land and cotton questions, and though it was intended, I believe, only to teach the people to be on their guard against all southern white men, and all northern speculators, and to urge them to uphold their own race, yet it had the effect of exciting animosity against all white men.3  This spirit is confined to a very few, and whether it will grow and give trouble, remains to be seen.  I think the speech could have had nothing to do with the formation of the Society, as that was organized before the speaker came to the island.  Neither can he be responsible for the drilling, as that was to meet a local emergency of which he had no knowledge.  His speech was not approved by the more intelligent of the people, and its effect will be counteracted by their influence.

The people have worked well this season, and the crops promise a good return, though the dry weather has done them some injury.  I am very respectfully Your obt. Servant.

W. E. Towne,

W. E. Towne to Brvt. Major General Saxton, 17 Aug. 1865, T-6 1865, Registered Letters Received, series 2922, SC Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives. Towne signed as “Genl Supt. 2d Div.” A notation indicates that the assistant commissioner's office forwarded a copy of his letter to General O. O. Howard, the Freedmen's Bureau commissioner.

1. Daniel A. Payne, a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was visiting South Carolina to organize missionary activities. (Daniel Alexander Payne, Recollections of Seventy Years [1888; reprint, New York, 1968], pp. 161–65.)

2. The “protecting laws” were probably wartime regulations that required purchasers of agricultural products in Union-occupied parts of the Confederacy to secure permits from agents of the Treasury Department, to post bond, and to abide by other restrictions. For the regulations in effect as of July 1864, see U.S. House of Representatives, “Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of the Finances, for the Year 1864,” House Executive Documents, 38th Cong., 2d sess., 1864–65, No. 3, serial 1222, pp. 296–312.

3. The speech in question was probably that delivered on July 23, 1865, by Major Martin R. Delany, an officer in the 104th U.S. Colored Infantry who was on duty with the Freedmen's Bureau. For accounts of the speech, see Land and Labor, 1865, pp. 254–59, and memorandum by 2d Lieut. Alexander Whyte Jr., 23 July 1865, The Black Military Experience, pp. 739–41.

Published in Land and Labor, 1865, pp. 157–61.