The freedmen of Roanoke Island

Capture of Roanoke Island, Feby. 8th 1862: By the federal forces, under Command of Genl. Ambrose E. Burnside, and gunboats under Commodore L.M. Goldsborough. Image via Library of Congress
Capture of Roanoke Island under Ambrose E. Burnside. Image via Library of Congress

ROANOKE ISLAND, N.C. — Roanoke Island seduces travellers with promises of grand mystery and road signs that proudly declare the birthplace of the first English—read “white”—child in America.

The story of the Croatoans is sexy, indeed. Author Harlan Ellison and the TV show Supernatural have referenced the Lost Colony—when more than a hundred people vanished during the six years in the 1500s that John White was back in England begging for supplies.

Unless visitors pause at the monument near the interpretation centre in the Lost Colony national park, they are missing a grander story that took place 300 years later and had a much greater impact on the nation.

* * * 

The inscription on this monument on Roanoke Island reads: First Light in Freedom: Former slaves give thanks by the creek's edge at the site of the island. "If you can cross the creek to Roanoke Island, you will find 'safe haven'."
The inscription on this monument on Roanoke Island reads: First Light in Freedom: Former slaves give thanks by the creek’s edge at the site of the island.

The Civil War battle for Roanoke Island was spectacular. Sixty ships, 20,000 sailors, one victor: the Union Army under Brig-Gen. Ambrose Burnside.

Then 300 victors more, when the Union forces realized they had to do something with the resident Confederate slaves—some of them escapees Burnside had used as spies or pumped for information to give him a wartime advantage. Those slaves were immediately emancipated, thus creating the first freedman’s colony in America.

It was February 1863 and Roanoke didn’t have much to recommend it. There were barracks, but otherwise the newly freed people were on their own under the stewardship of Horace James, superintendent of blacks for the Department of North Carolina. Inhospitable as the heavily forested land might have seemed, word spread: “If you can cross the creek to Roanoke Island, you will find safe haven.”

“It is an island 10 or 12 miles long, but four or five in breadth,” James wrote, “well wooded, having an abundance of good water, a tolerably productive soil, a sufficient amount of cleared land for the commencement of operations, and surrounded by waters abounding in delicious fish.”

By June, communities had been set up, the land divided in a grid fashion with about an acre given to each family. By September, James said the colony was “fairly on its feet.”

He went on: “I am surprised to find it so healthy here. Of the troops garrisoning the three forts only 16 are ill enough to be off duty, and only one is dangerously sick. The breezes are strong and pure from the sea, and our teachers can begin here as soon as they can get transportation hither. On the whole the island smiles, the prospects are bright, the work advances.”

An 1863 image in Harper's Weekly shows freedmen in North Carolina. Image via the Library of Congress
An 1863 image in Harper’s Weekly shows freedmen in North Carolina. Image via the Library of Congress

When the teachers arrived, they would tell another story, one of rations lost at sea, of smallpox and overcrowding.

Just before their first Christmas at Roanoke, Elizabeth James wrote, “One day I found, living in one room, ‘Jim’ Whitby and daughter, a girl of 14; Clarissa Whitby and two daughters, one of whom had two children, the other five; Lavinia Whitby with five children; Charlotte Cressy and three children; Moses Midget, his wife and mother; and Priscilla, a sick, crazy girl of 20; and her mother. … Should not the government provide at least a temporary shelter for the crowds which come? … Scenes of suffering are witnessed there which baffle description.”

But despite the poverty and hunger, the women who ran the schools for a population that would, at its height, swell to 4,000 souls, found beauty in the freedmen’s voices lifted in song and hope at their charges’ eagerness to learn.

“The suffering of the people is much lessened of course, by our genial April sun,” Ella Roper wrote in 1865. “Of destitution, there is still enough to make our hearts sad—is, and always will be—for have we not the poor ever with us?”

The Civil War ended in 1865. There had never been enough jobs on Roanoke Island for such a population, and with wartime rations drying up, things would only get worse. The land that had been given to the freedmen was suddenly returned to the prewar owners. People started to leave. The colony was drying up. They had lost their home, but they had gained their freedom, or, at least, they had gained a foothold toward their freedom.

The last word goes to missionary teacher Esther A. Williams, who wrote of a 102-year-old auntie: “She remembers distinctly the War of the Revolution, and that of 1812 also. She said, when asked, if she expected to live to see her race free: ‘Why laws honey, ‘deed I did’nt. It’s what my mammy afore me prayed for, and what ise prayed for all my life; but she did’nt ‘spect to see it in her day, or I in mine; but, honey, bress de Lord, he’s bringin’ it all out right, that he is’.”


The Roanoke Freedmen’s Colony website is an invaluable resource for learning more about this time and these people. It is packed with history, documents and maps. Descendants of the original freedmen are encouraged to contact the webmasters.


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