Letter from Roanoke Island Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After the Roanoke Island Freedmen's Colony was established on Roanoke Island, North Carolina, in 1863 and became a haven for former slaves, missionaries from throughout the Union were sent to help the refugees there. By 1865, the colony housed nearly four thousand former slaves. Many of its residents were sick or injured, and those men of working age had joined the Union Army. After the end of the Civil War, property taken to establish the colony was returned to its owners, and the three forts on the island were disbanded, leaving the residents of the colony without protection. Sarah P. Freeman, a missionary from Maine, was one of several who stayed on the island after the war to try to help the people still living there, particularly the aged, ill, and orphaned, of which there were many. Her letter–published in the National Freedman on July 15, 1866, and written the previous month–outlines the struggles of the missionaries, who worked to provide the refugees with food, shelter, and education, as well as the confusion and uncertainty that followed the war for those who had been freed by it. Whether former slaves stayed on the island or left to find work elsewhere, they faced constant challenges to their lives and livelihoods.

Summary Overview

After the Roanoke Island Freedmen's Colony was established on Roanoke Island, North Carolina, in 1863 and became a haven for former slaves, missionaries from throughout the Union were sent to help the refugees there. By 1865, the colony housed nearly four thousand former slaves. Many of its residents were sick or injured, and those men of working age had joined the Union Army. After the end of the Civil War, property taken to establish the colony was returned to its owners, and the three forts on the island were disbanded, leaving the residents of the colony without protection. Sarah P. Freeman, a missionary from Maine, was one of several who stayed on the island after the war to try to help the people still living there, particularly the aged, ill, and orphaned, of which there were many. Her letter–published in the National Freedman on July 15, 1866, and written the previous month–outlines the struggles of the missionaries, who worked to provide the refugees with food, shelter, and education, as well as the confusion and uncertainty that followed the war for those who had been freed by it. Whether former slaves stayed on the island or left to find work elsewhere, they faced constant challenges to their lives and livelihoods.

Defining Moment

The Roanoke Freedmen's Colony was established in 1863 after the Union Army occupied the island, an important strategic location, and freed the slaves living there. Former slaves from throughout the South soon joined the population of Roanoke, and the government responded by seizing land and building settlements that were intended to transition into a self-sufficient colony. The government officials in charge of the colony were instructed to provide paid work for the residents until they were able to support themselves. Many former slaves were employed as cooks, cleaners, and laborers for the Union Army. Those who were able to join the army were promised rations for their families. A church was established in the colony, along with schools and a sawmill.

Although the colony was supervised by an army chaplain, the Reverend Horace James, and initially administered as a military contraband camp, most of the daily care of its residents was provided by men and women supported by the American Missionary Association and the National Freedman's Relief Association (NFRA). One of the first relief workers to arrive at the island was Elizabeth James, a cousin of Rev. James and an experienced educator. Others followed, with more than twenty-five missionaries serving the colony in the three short years it was active. Like Sarah P. Freeman, many of those workers were from New England and wrote letters to the agencies that sponsored them, providing valuable information about the state of the colony.

At the end of the Civil War, the Union Army presence on Roanoke Island was removed, its forts disbanded, and the land on which the colony was built returned to its owners. Some relief agencies negotiated to purchase parcels of land from their former owners, but this effort was largely unsuccessful. Many former slaves returned to an uncertain future on the mainland, but some were unable or unwilling to do so, and relief work continued under dangerous conditions. The situation on the island, which had deteriorated quickly in the last year of the war, became critical. Food was in very short supply, disease was rampant, and the residents of the island were vulnerable to violence and exploitation. Many were afraid to leave the island, despite the deplorable conditions, because they had nowhere to go and did not believe that they could find work.

Freeman's letter illustrates the crisis faced by former slaves on Roanoke Island and also describes the uncertainty and danger they faced if they left the island. Freeman was one of many relief workers who stayed on after the war and tried to help this vulnerable population, but she and her colleagues were unable to prevent the demise of the colony and the suffering of its residents.

Author Biography

Sarah P. Freeman was a widow from Maine, the sister of a prominent South Freeport congregational minister. At about seventy years old, she was older than most of the other relief workers when she came to the Roanoke Freedmen's Colony with her daughter as a volunteer for the National Freedman's Relief Association. Freeman was an energetic and organized woman who made significant contributions to the colony. Like many NFRA volunteers, Freeman was primarily interested in the vocational and occupational, rather than religious, training of the colony residents. She was instrumental in founding a vocational school for women to learn quilting and straw braiding, along with sewing and knitting. In addition, Freeman wrote many letters to the National Freedman, the journal of the NFRA, beginning in 1864. These letters, many of which were published, shed light on life in the Roanoke Freedmen's Colony and the needs of its residents.

Document Analysis

Freeman's letter to the National Freedman, written in June of 1866 and published the following month, illustrates the hardships faced by former slaves on Roanoke Island and the relief workers who remained behind to assist them after the end of the war. She begins her letter to the National Freedman with the most pressing need and goes on to explain that people remaining on Roanoke Island were sick and starving, but were too frightened to leave–and for good reason. She concludes by asking for help in the form of “teachers,” who could presumably provide not only educational but also material support.

Freeman's letter begins with an example of how dire the situation had become. She had left the island temporarily and came back to find that “damaged” food purchased for pigs had been eaten by the desperate population. Without the military infrastructure in place, it was nearly impossible to arrange for transportation of goods to the island, though when a steamer carrying wealthy passengers wrecked, they were able to find food and transportation quickly. This injustice outraged Freeman, who asks, “Should these poor oppressed people, to whom our Government has pledged protection and aid, be left to perish?”

Much of the remainder of the letter is a response to those who thought that the residents of the island should simply leave and find work. “I have been collecting facts from some with whom I am well acquainted, and whom I advised last winter to go out and see what they could do,” Freeman writes. She catalogues the difficulties faced by the men who had set off from the island to find work. One had been paid only a fraction of what he was owed and returned to the island in debt. Another, who made shingles, was similarly underpaid and had to work off his passage back to the island. Many of these laborers were forced to buy food and supplies from company stores at greatly inflated prices, and one of Freeman's sources reported that it cost him more to feed himself on Sunday than he made in a week.

In addition to economic exploitation, there was the ever-present threat of violence. Freeman provides the example of a man who was murdered because he had served as a soldier in the Union Army near where he was employed. Freeman notes that this was the second such murder. “Is it any wonder they hesitate about leaving a place of safety?” she asks.

Freeman ends her letter with an urgent plea for help. Residents of the island had set up schools and were “doing all they [could] to prepare buildings, and sustain their schools.” Teachers were also desperately needed on the mainland, as relief workers and the organizations that sponsored them were often the only resources available to former slaves.

Essential Themes

The primary theme of Freeman's letter is the hardship faced by both the residents of the former Roanoke Freedmen's Colony and those who had chosen to leave the island. Missionaries and relief workers, who were primarily educated women from New England, were forced to beg for supplies and support for a population in crisis. They faced a daunting choice: Fight for the survival of the sick and starving settlements on Roanoke Island, or encourage its residents to find work on the mainland, a prospect that was equally perilous. Though Freeman was clearly devoted to her cause, she was unable to provide for the basic needs of the people in her care and understood the crisis they were in, even as she sought to convince more people to join her. Her letter sheds light on an extremely dangerous and uncertain time for former slaves, even those who had found temporary refuge on Roanoke Island, and illustrates the difficulties faced by those who worked to help this vulnerable population.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Click, Patricia C. The Roanoke Island Freedmen's Colony. Patricia C. Click, 2001. Web. 17 Jan. 2014.
  • __________. Time Full of Trial: The Roanoke Island Freedmen's Colony, 1862–1867. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2001. Print.
  • “The Freedmen's Colony on Roanoke Island.” National Park Service. US Dept. of the Interior, 4. Jan 2014. Web. 17 Jan. 2014.
  • Teele, Arthur Earle. “Education of the Negro in North Carolina, 1862–1872.” Diss. Cornell U, 1953. Print.
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