The Port Royal Experiment was a program begun during the American Civil War in which former slaves successfully worked on the land abandoned by plantation owners. In 1861 the Union liberated the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and their main harbor, Port Royal.
The white residents fled, leaving behind 10,000 black slaves. Several private Northern charity organizations stepped in to help the former slaves become self-sufficient. The result was a model of what Reconstruction could have been.
In February 1862, a report was made to the Treasury Dept. which gives an indication of the territory held in the Port Royal Experiment:
An estimate of the number of plantations open to cultivation, and of the persons upon the territory protected by the forces of the United States, if only approximate to the truth, may prove convenient in providing a proper system of administration. The following islands are thus protected, and the estimated number of plantations upon each is given:
Island Plantations Port Royal 65 Ladies’ 30 Parry, including Horse 6 Cat 1 Cane 1 Datthaw 4 Coosaw 2 Morgan 2 St. Helena 50 Hilton Head 16 Pinckney 5 Bull, including Barratria 2 Daufuskie 5 Hutchinson and Fenswick 6 Total 195
The African Americans demonstrated their ability to work the land efficiently and live independently of white control. They assigned themselves daily tasks for cotton growing and spent their extra time cultivating their own crops, fishing and hunting. By selling their surplus crops, the locals acquired small amounts of property. In 1863, General Mitchel allowed African Americans to found the town of Mitchelville on Hilton Head Island. In 1865 President Andrew Johnson ended the experiment, returning the land to its previous white owners.
On March 3, 1865, the federal government established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands within the War Department to deal with the humanitarian problems across the South at the close of the Civil War.
Better known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, it was responsible for food, clothing, and medical relief as well as educational services for the freedmen. The first Freedmen’s Bureau office in South Carolina was opened in Beaufort in 1865, and many volunteers of the Port Royal Experiment became leaders of the agency.
General Rufus Saxton, the military governor of the Sea Islands and a major supporter of the Port Royal Experiment, was the Freedman’s Bureau director for South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.
The Freedman’s Bureau was the first humanitarian, or “welfare,” agency established by the U.S. government. The Freedman’s Bureau was officially disbanded in 1872, but the lingering influence of the Port Royal Experiment survived in Beaufort County’s unique landownership patterns and educational institutions.
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