Access to and tenure of land has been fundamental to the Gullah communities since the time of slavery.
During slavery times, Gullah ancestors lived in slave villages, lined up in straight rows, dictated by the plantation owner. Today, families live in compounds, in the tradition of their African heritage, where no line is straight, and the right to a home is based on family ties.
Access to Land and the Port Royal Experiment
Perhaps most significant historical factor in the development of the distinctive Gullah community and landscape was the purchase and allotment of land during the Port Royal Experiment and later, during and after Reconstruction. The current complexities of land ownership and planning within the Gullah community can only be understood within this context of how the Civil War impacted land ownership patterns.
In October 1861, seven months after the first shots were fired on Union troops in Charleston, the Union successfully occupied Hilton Head Island, St. Helena Island, Edisto Island, Port Royal Island and the smaller islands between, an occupation that was to last until the end of the war (Rowland, Moore, and Rogers 1996). The occupation caused an evacuation of Sea Island planters and left over 10,000 slaves behind on their plantations (Roper 1965). Not yet legally freed, the former slaves were termed “contrabands,” referring to their status as confiscated property of the plantation owners. The Union government seized control and title to the plantations, under the authority of government seizure for the non- payment of a newly imposed tax. Under the auspices of the Secretary of Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, the Union embarked on a social experiment that was to last for the remainder of the war.
Titled the “Port Royal Experiment,” this action served as a prelude to and a test of policies for the later occupation of the southern states during the Reconstruction Era (Pearson 1906; Rose 1964). The Treasury Department attempted to manage the growing of cotton on the abandoned plantations by employing former slaves for wage labor. Despite a significant number of mistakes, short-sighted policy, and interference from the troops stationed in the area, the effort was nonetheless somewhat successful (Pierce 1904; Pearson 1906). From the point of view of several groups—northern abolitionists, the army, and southern politicians—the status of contraband slaves was a problematic issue. Widely varying political interests caused quick shifts in public policy and resulted in a series of broken promises to the Gullah.
Historical and Legal Basis of Land Division in St. Helena
In the record of land divisions and sales, it is unclear exactly how and when the 10- acre grid so characteristic of St. Helena was established. St. Helena Island is the only area of the confiscated plantation lands that was resurveyed and sold in this fashion. A square- grid resurvey of the land that remained in government hands after the initial sale is cited by Rose (1964), however, there is no mention of this action in other published sources. More clearly documented is another preemption system devised in late 1863, in which General Saxton encouraged freedmen to build houses on land in order to retain squatters’ rights (Rose 1964). To prevent exploitation by northern speculators, the preemption program included an eligibility requirement that potential buyers must reside in the area for at least six months prior to purchase.
Public policies were contradictory and changed frequently as political power shifted, but between 1862 and 1865 at least some freed slaves on St. Helena, Port Royal and Lady’s islands came into land ownership through the combination of auction sales, preemption settlement and rent-to-own programs (Johnson 1930). Although a thorough study of land records for the period has not been completed, a few examples are documented, most notably by Magdol (1977, 175) on the Edgerly and adjoining Red House plantations on Port Royal Island. By January 1864, freedmen of the area had filed preemption claims for 6,000 acres, however most of this land was never acquired. In a final attempt by the Department of the Army to allow for a reasonable distribution to the resident freedmen, General Sherman issued “Special Field Order Number 15” on January 16, 1865, declaring that land be set aside for settlement on:
The islands from Charleston south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea . . . Each head of family could preempt a plot of not more than forty acres of tillable ground . . . On the islands . . . , no white person, unless military officers and soldiers detailed for duty, will be permitted to reside. . . . [T]he sole and exclusive management of affairs will be left to the freed people themselves, subject only to the Unites States military authority and the acts of Congress. (Johnson 1930, 188)
In addition to Sherman’s order, the federal government set up the Freedman’s Bureau on March 3, 1865 (Cox 1958), with dominion over all land held by the government through abandonment or confiscation. Small pieces of this land were allotted to the freedmen and later leased to them, but the question of title and ownership continued to be an issue for former slaves seeking to purchase land (Pierce 1904). Title to the lands outside of the Beaufort area was not clearly in the government’s hands, and, after Lincoln’s assassination, Sherman’s Field Order and the Freedmen’s Act were revoked by President Andrew Johnson. Many plantations that had been claimed by resident freedmen in other areas of the Sea Islands and across the South were re-confiscated by the federal government and either sold to the former plantation owners or to the highest bidders.
In spite of the government’s contradictory and changing policies, by 1870 much of the islands were owned by a society of free black farmers who had an opportunity to become self sufficient. On St. Helena Island, many of the land grants made under General Sherman’s Order—as well as the previous auction sales, preemption settlement and rent-to-own programs—were never rescinded. The pattern of small holdings which remains on the land today is much more pronounced on St. Helena than on other islands such as Wadmalaw, where land rights were subject only to Sherman’s order. The seemingly random patchwork of ten- and twenty acre landlocked parcels that remains on St. Helena is thus the manifestation of an era of government experiment reconciling social policy and the determination of the Gullah to keep their land, and by extension, their family, intact.
Cox, L. 1958. The promise of land for the freedmen. The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 45 (3): 413–440.
Johnson, G. G. 1930. A Social History of the Sea Islands: With Special Reference to St. Helena Island, South Carolina. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.
Magdol, E. 1977. A Right to the Land: Essays on the Freedmen’s Community. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Pearson, E. W., Ed. 1906. Letters from Port Royal: Written at the Time of the Civil War. Boston: W. B. Clarke Company.
Pierce, P. S. 1904. The Freedmen’s Bureau: A Chapter in the History of Reconstruction. Iowa City, IA: State University of Iowa.
Roper, L. W. 1965. Frederick Law Olmsted and the Port Royal Experiment.” The Journal of Southern History 31 (3): 272–284.
Rose, W. L. 1964. Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment. Indianapolis, New York and Kansas City: Bobbs- Merrill Company, Inc.
Rowland, Lawrence S., Alexander Moore, and George C. Rogers, Jr. 1996. The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.