Monday, April 2, 2012

Letters from Edisto Island, South Carolina, to the Freedmen's Bureau

President Johnson as Samson

Committee of Freedmen on Edisto Island, South Carolina, to the Freedmen's Bureau Commissioner; the Commissioner's Reply; and the Committee to the President

[Edisto Island, S.C., October 20 or 21, 1865]

General It Is with painfull Hearts that we the committe address you, we Have thorougholy considered the order which you wished us to Sighn, we wish we could do so but cannot feel our rights Safe If we do so,1

General we want Homestead's; we were promised Homestead's by the government,2 If It does not carry out the promises Its agents made to us, If the government Haveing concluded to befriend Its late enemies and to neglect to observe the principles of common faith between Its self and us Its allies In the war you said was over, now takes away from them all right to the soil they stand upon save such as they can get by again working for your late and thier all time ememies.–If the government does so we are left In a more unpleasant condition than our former

we are at the mercy of those who are combined to prevent us from getting land enough to lay our Fathers bones upon. We Have property In Horses, cattle, carriages, & articles of furniture, but we are landless and Homeless, from the Homes we Have lived In In the past we can only do one of three things Step Into the public road or the sea or remain on them working as In former time and subject to thire will as then. We can not resist It In any way without being driven out Homeless upon the road.

You will see this Is not the condition of really freemen

You ask us to forgive the land owners of our Island, You only lost your right arm. In war and might forgive them. The man who tied me to a tree & gave me 39 lashes & who stripped and flogged my mother & my sister & who will not let me stay In His empty Hut except I will do His planting & be Satisfied with His price & who combines with others to keep away land from me well knowing I would not Have any thing to do with Him If I Had land of my own.–that man, I cannot well forgive. Does It look as If He Has forgiven me, seeing How He tries to keep me In a condition of Helplessness

General, we cannot remain Here In such condition and If the government permits them to come back we ask It to Help us to reach land where we shall not be slaves nor compelled to work for those who would treat us as such

we Have not been treacherous, we Have not for selfish motives allied to us those who suffered like us from a common enemy & then Haveing gained our purpose left our allies In thier Hands There Is no rights secured to us there Is no law likely to be made which our Hands can reach. The state will make laws that we shall not be able to Hold land even If we pay for It Landless, Homeless. Voteless. we can only pray to god & Hope for His Help, your Influence & assistance With consideration of esteem your Obt Servts
In behalf of the people

Henry Bram
Committe Ishmael Moultrie
yates Sampson
Charleston. S.C. Oct 22, 1865.

Messrs. I have just received your letter. You are right in wanting homesteads and will surely be defended in the possession of every one which you shall purchase or have already purchased. The Government does not wish to befriend its enemies and injure its friends, but considers a forgiven man in the light of a citizen restored to rights of property excepting as to slaves. The Supervisory Board must not permit what you fear.3 The old master would be very foolish to try a system of oppression as it would ruin them forever now that you are free. If the planters combine as you think, they will soon be able to get no labor. Their whipping post of which you complain is abolished forever. The duty of forgiveness is plain and simple. Forgive as we hope to be forgiven of Him who governs all things.

Congress must meet before any public lands can be had and before I can buy any for you. I will ask for your rights and try to obtain them. A contract may be by a lease as well as for wages, So that I do not think the Planters will object to leasing you land. Some can lease, some can buy and some can work for wages. I advise the sending to you of Northern men for Agents of the owners where true men can be found.

I think the people had better enter into contracts, leasing or for wages or purchase when possible for next year. If it dont work well something else may be tried afterwards. Send your petition to Congress, if you wish, and I will see that it is not passed by without proper attention. The President himself will urge something in your behalf. Very Truly Yours

O. O. Howard

Henry Bram et al. to Major General O. O. Howard, [20 or 21 Oct. 1865], B-53 1865, Letters Received, ser. 15, Washington Headquarters, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives; Maj. Genl. O. O. Howard to the Committee of the Colored people of Edisto Island, 22 Oct. 1865, vol. 64, pp. 415–16, Letters Sent, ser. 2, Washington Headquarters, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives. Each member of the committee signed his own name to the petition, the text of which appears to be in Bram's handwriting. On October 19, General Howard had telegraphed as follows to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton: “I met several hundred of the colored people of Edisto island to-day, and did my utmost to reconcile them to the surrender of the lands to former owners. They will submit, but with evident sorrow, to the breaking of the promise of General Sherman's order. The greatest aversion is exhibited to making contracts, and they beg and plead for the privilege of renting or buying land on the island. My task is a hard one, and I am convinced that something must be done to give these people and others the prospect of homesteads.” (Quoted in Major General O. O. Howard to Hon. E. M. Stanton, 24 Nov. 1865, in U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, “Freedmen's Bureau. Message from the President of the United States, Transmitting Report of the Commissioner of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands,” House Executive Documents, 39th Cong., 1st sess., No. 11, serial 1255, p. 8.) For Stanton's response, see Land and Labor, 1865, p. 446n.

1. On October 19, after conferring in Charleston with ex- Confederates intent upon regaining control of property on Edisto Island, General O. O. Howard, the Freedmen's Bureau commissioner, had visited the island to inform the freedpeople settled there of President Andrew Johnson's order to restore the land to its former owners and “endeavor to effect an arrangement mutually satisfactory to the freedmen and the land-owners.” Howard had addressed the freedpeople in a public meeting, then asked them to select a committee of three and to that committee submitted “the propositions to which the land-owners were willing to subscribe.” (Major General O. O. Howard to Hon. E. M. Stanton, 24 Nov. 1865, in U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, “Freedmen's Bureau. Message from the President of the United States, Transmitting Report of the Commissioner of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands,” House Executive Documents, 39th Cong., 1st sess., No. 11, serial 1255, pp. 6–7.)

2. The promise of homesteads had been made in an order of January 16, 1865, by General William T. Sherman, which set apart for settlement exclusively by former slaves the sea islands and rice plantations along the Atlantic coast from Charleston, South Carolina, to the St. Johns River in northern Florida; it granted the settlers “possessory title” to tracts of up to forty acres until the U.S. Congress ruled on the validity of their claims.

3. For the supervisory board, see Land and Labor, 1865, pp. 445–46n. [Published in Land and Labor, 1865, pp. 440–42.]

Edisto Island S.C. Oct 28th 1865.

We the freedmen Of Edisto Island South Carolina have learned From you through Major General O O Howard commissioner of the Freedmans Bureau. with deep sorrow and Painful hearts of the possibility of goverment restoring These lands to the former owners. We are well aware Of the many perplexing and trying questions that burden Your mind. and do therefore pray to god (the preserver Of all. and who has through our Late and beloved President (Lincoln) proclamation and the war made Us A free people) that he may guide you in making Your decisions. and give you that wisdom that Cometh from above to settle these great and Important Questions for the best interests of the country and the Colored race: Here is where secession was born and Nurtured Here is were we have toiled nearly all Our lives as slaves and were treated like dumb Driven cattle, This is our home, we have made These lands what they are. we were the only true and Loyal people that were found in posession of these Lands. we have been always ready to strike for Liberty and humanity yea to fight if needs be To preserve this glorious union. Shall not we who Are freedman and have been always true to this Union have the same rights as are enjoyed by Others? Have we broken any Law of these United States? Have we forfieted our rights of property In Land?– If not then! are not our rights as A free people and good citizens of these United States To be considered before the rights of those who were Found in rebellion against this good and just Goverment (and now being conquered) come (as they Seem) with penitent hearts and beg forgiveness For past offences and also ask if thier lands Cannot be restored to them are these rebellious Spirits to be reinstated in thier possessions And we who have been abused and oppressed For many long years not to be allowed the Privilige of purchasing land But be subject To the will of these large Land owners? God fobid, Land monopoly is injurious to the advancement of the course of freedom, and if government Does not make some provision by which we as Freedmen can obtain A Homestead, we have Not bettered our condition.

We have been encouraged by government to take up these lands in small tracts, receiving Certificates of the same– we have thus far Taken Sixteen thousand (16000) acres of Land here on This Island. We are ready to pay for this land When Government calls for it. and now after What has been done will the good and just government take from us all this right and make us Subject to the will of those who have cheated and Oppressed us for many years God Forbid! We the freedmen of this Island and of the State of South Carolina–Do therefore petition to you as the President of these United States, that some provisions be made by which Every colored man can purchase land. and Hold it as his own. We wish to have A home if It be but A few acres. without some provision is Made our future is sad to look upon. yes our Situation is dangerous. we therefore look to you In this trying hour as A true friend of the poor and Neglected race. for protection and Equal Rights. with the privilege of purchasing A Homestead–A Homestead right here in the Heart of South Carolina.

We pray that god will direct your heart in Making such provision for us as freedmen which Will tend to unite these states together stronger Than ever before– May God bless you in the Administration of your duties as the President Of these United States is the humble prayer Of us all.–

In behalf of the Freedmen
Henry Bram.
Committee Ishmael. Moultrie.
yates. Sampson.

[Henry Bram et al. to the President of these United States, 28 Oct. 1865, filed as P-27 1865, Letters Received, ser. 15, Washington Headquarters, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives. Each member of the committee signed his own name; the petition appears to be in Bram's handwriting. An undated endorsement referred the petition to General Howard, “By order of the President.” Published in Land and Labor, 1865, pp. 442–44.]

()source: Freedmen and Southern Society Project)


  1. This is wonderful research about Edisto Island. Thanks so much for posting these letters.

  2. I have been researching my family history to ascertain the lifestyle of the free slaves on Edisto Island. These letters provide awesome info as to the need to own land in a place where slaves worked so hard to cultivate. To many the island was the only place known as 'home.' Being free meant free to own property and live without the threat of bondage ... again.



Click here to return to the US Slave Home Page