EARLY HERNANDO COUNTY HISTORY
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands
“The Freedmen’s Bureau”
(Hernando and Pasco Counties)
This page was contributed by Jeff Cannon. It was last revised on Dec. 23, 2006.
This part of the Freedmen’s Bureau page is dedicated to those reports I was able to find. I have transcribed these reports as to provide very specific details as to life in our county during the Reconstruction Period after the Civil War. I have put these reports in chronological order so that a timeline of events may be established. These are personal correspondence between our local Freedmen’s Bureau agents and state level agents. The provisions and help the Freedmen’s Bureau provided to our area indirectly led to the establishment of several African American communities throughout both present day Pasco and Hernando Counties; such communities as Freedtown, Twin Lakes, Possum Trot, Mt. Carmel, Enville, later Fort Taylor, and many others. Many times these communities were farming communities and were never incorporated. These reports and correspondence are dated as early as 1865 and as I research the reports more there will be more wonderful and detailed information that becomes available. Please check back to this web site to see more reports and correspondence, as they are made available. As mentioned in “The History of the Freedmen’s Bureau”, on this page, many of the Florida reports are missing and most of Hernando County’s early agent Wall’s reports are missing. Please keep in mind as you read through these reports and letters you are looking at a snapshot in time as though someone took a picture and put it into words. I will attempt to give a brief description of the letter after each.
On July 7th 1866 an article was published in the Florida Peninsular. This article possibly shows evidence to the formation of the first African American Church in the Hernando-Pasco County area. After the abolishment of slavery the African Americans would many times attend most churches in the community. Rev. J. H. Breaker, pastor of the Baptist church in Brooksville, began seeing influences the white members had on the African American members, which did not have good intentions, and he began preaching to separate congregations. Rev. Breaker said that the African Americans were a better congregation and their attendance was regular compared to the white members who’d rather attend to the cares of the world instead of attending church on the Sabbath. Rev. Breaker eventually resigned his position then consented to being the Pastor to the African Americans. Rev. Breaker did not believe in the encouragement of separate churches and felt the congregation should be preached to as a whole, separation caused division in the church.
This article was published in the Floridian Peninsular dated August 4th 1866 and was titled The Negroe Homestead Bill. The article outlined a new homestead bill that was passed. The Bill had stipulation where it was only open to African Americans and Union Members for the firs year, this gave the opportunity for the newly freed African Americans to settle on land of their own. The article also outlines and shows the resistance the African American people met from the white population as the whites were not happy with the passing of such Bills because this allowed the African Americans to work for themselves on their own land. Many times articles such as this portrayed newly passed Bills or laws as a threat to the white race and the articles were written with bias attitudes. Also the article outlines that since the passing of this Homestead Bill that the Freedmen’s Bureau was given new opportunities to work with the Freedmen. The Freedmen’s Bureau reports on this page show that the Agents had a major role in assisting the Freedmen in acquiring these homesteads.
In 1863 the War Department created “The American Freedman Inquiry Commission”, this commission was set up to make suggestions and create methods for dealing with the freed slaves. The commission’s key functions and conclusions were that no permanent bureau or institution should be created; instead the commission promoted true independence and encouraged the “freedmen” to become self-reliant as quickly as possible. The term “Freedmen” had been applied to those slaves who had become freed during the process of the Civil War. The Confiscation Act of 1862 was passed by Congress and declared that any run away slaves that crossed into Union Camps were to be freed as they were declared captives of war. This Act quickly created problems as many slaves began running away from southern plantations and seeking refuge behind Union Lines, many of the run away slaves were drawn to Florida since the Union Forces had advanced on the state at the start of the Civil War. With the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation on 01 January 1863, by President Lincoln, the abolishment of slavery was supposed to take effect however the proclamation did not legally free one single slave, it instead promoted southern slaves to runaway and seek refuge in Union Camps. Throughout the southern states and even in Hernando County slaves were encouraged to runaway. As illustrated in a letter dated September 8th 1863 from Confederate Officer and Hernando County resident Samuel E. Hope, many times these slaves never made it to the Union Camps and their lives came to a tragic end. (click here to read letter) However it must be stated that in many cases these runaway slaves were simply returned to the plantation from which they left. Moreover the proclamation did indeed promote and welcome all escaping slaves into the Union Camps but so did the previously passed Confiscation Act of 1862. It seemed the proclamation was a smokescreen used for the purposes of recruiting the “freedmen” for the Union cause not for the purpose of creating freedom. The African Americans tried to take advantage of this recruitment and tried making the Civil War one of black liberation. With Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation the Union Loyalist appeared to embrace the “freedmen’s” cause through the proclamation but it was all a lie and used as a recruiting tactic. It was really unclear what the North believed in, the regiments being formed by runaway slaves was supposed to be comprised of volunteers but the first African American soldiers were gathered by raiding Union parties who had entered refugee camps, which they had created, and took any able-bodied black man they could find and forced them to fight, essentially creating their own form of slavery for their advantage. There were 200,000 African Americans who served for the Union Army making up about 15 percent of the Union forces during the Civil War.
On 04 March 1865 the United States Congress, under the direction of The American Freedman Inquiry Commission, elected to establish “The Bureau of Refugees, Freedman, and Abandoned Lands” commonly know as the “Freedmen’s Bureau”. The bureau was in operation until 1872 when it was disbanded. This newly formed U.S. Government Agency, like the commission, was under the direction of the U.S. War Department. The Bureau controlled confiscated lands in the former Confederate States, border states, District of Columbia and Indian Territories; these lands were given to the “freedmen” the Bureau protected. The main purpose of the “Freedmen’s Bureau” was to help newly freed slaves acquire some of the things that they had been previously denied such as land, education, equality and the opportunity to learn the same trades as the whites. On 06 December 1865 the true abolishment of slavery had been finally reached through the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. The previously passed acts and proclamations only freed a few thousand slaves but the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery once and for all, legally. The Thirteenth Amendment was ratified to read as follows:
With the true abolishment of slavery the Freedman’s Bureau was now assisting 4,000,000 newly freed African American, no longer slaves, with their transition from slavery into freedom. The Freedman’s Bureau not only assisted the newly freed African Americans but they also assisted white farm owners who were now destitute due to the abolishment of slavery. Much of the Southern Slave Plantation estate values were based upon the value and number of slaves in that particular estate. According to the 1860 Hernando County Tax Book there were 853 slaves valued at an amazing $309,030 for such a sparsely populated area; at that time Hernando included all of present-day Pasco and Citrus Counties. In today’s dollars that figure would be multiplied by 10 times equaling more than 3 million dollars in value. Throughout our area the most populated area with slaves stretched from Brooksville on the north to Dade City on the south; in 1860 there were some 151 slaves in and around the Dade City area. Other Southern States had more significant losses. After the close of the Civil War and the abolishment of slavery, life became very different for the African American people, they were no longer owned and could move about the country freely.
Union Major General Oliver O. Howard headed the newly formed Freedman’s Bureau, which has been termed the first federal welfare agency; he helped manage the bureau’s approximately 900 agents. Howard was a devout churchgoer and fervent civil rights advocate. With the bureau’s newly acquired 4,000,000+ people to care and provide for there were Freedman’s Bureau Offices established throughout the U.S., specifically in areas with high numbers of newly freed African Americans; which was typically in the Southern states. Local level Freedman’s Bureau Offices were the most important and effective institutions every created during the U.S. Reconstruction Period. The Freedman’s Bureau was the only organization every established that truly sought to better the lives of African Americans. The Bureau helped African Americans in ways that were thought to be not possible. Some of the biggest achievements reached by the Bureau were helping to establish schools, communities, jobs, homes and independence through wealth for African Americans.
Hernando County wasn’t any different than any other part of the Southern United States after the abolishment of slavery; it too was affected by the formation and accomplishments of the Freedman’s Bureau and it’s local offices. The Freedman’s Bureau opened a local office in Brooksville to assist with formation of communities, schools, homes and jobs for the newly freed African Americans in our area. Col. Thomas W. Osborn, Assistant Commissioner of the Bureau in Florida, appointed Hernando County Judge Perry G. Wall agent of the Hernando County Freedmen’s Bureau. Circulars were rules or laws passed by the Bureau, in Circular number 9 all probate judges had been appointed agents for the Freedmen’s Bureau. According to “The Life and Career of Perry G. Wall” by Kyle VanLandingham, it was reported “the African Americans were very pleased with Perry G. Wall as their agent, especially those who had made contracts with the planters”. Perry had a vested interest in the African Americans of his county since he too had previously owned 25 slaves in 1860, as recorded in the Tax Book for the same year. Later Hernando County became a part of the Tampa local office under the direction Agent Wm. G. Vance who was not just an agent but was also a member of the United States Military. This was because Perry G. Wall could not take the Bureau’s oath of office, known as the “Ironclad”, since he had previously supported the Confederacy; the office of Freedmen’s Agent was only open to members of the Union Party and only if they had not been involved with the Confederacy. As local Bureau office were opened locally throughout Florida many of the agents were surprised and reported that much of the bureau’s future work was already underway as the freedmen and plantation owners had already reached agreements to work without help from the Freedmen’s Bureau. The bureau’s job was made easy throughout Florida and they simply started to monitor what had already been established.
Among the achievements of the Freedmen’s Bureau education was the first priority for the bureau. The Bureau spent more than five million dollars on establishing schools in the Southern States. By the end of 1865 there were over 90,000 former slaves enrolled in schools throughout the south with average attendance rates between 79 and 82 percent. By 1870 there were 1,000 schools, in the South, for freedmen. J. W. Alvord, an inspector for the bureau, wrote that the freedmen “have the natural thirst for knowledge,” aspire to “power and influence … coupled with learning,” and are excited by “the special study of books.”
Throughout present day Pasco and Hernando County there were no Freedmen’s Bureau sponsored schools however there were two schools for the freedmen in 1867, these schools were located in present day Brooksville. One of these schools was known as the Brooksville Colored School and carried and average attendance of 45 scholars according to Freedmen’s Bureau reports. The Brooksville Colored School was owned by Dr. Stringer and later was owned by the freedmen of the area. The other school for the area was a special school called a Sabbath School meaning it was conducted in a church. This school held sessions every Sunday for one hour before or after church. This Sabbath School had an average attendance of 35 scholars according to reports. This school later closed on account of the teacher moving to Tampa and lack of pay. These two schools serviced freedmen from many miles away as they saw it important to retain an education.
The second biggest achievement made by the Freedmen’s Bureau after education was helping the freedmen secure land. Major General Howard supported this cause and even went as far as to advise his agents to invest their own personal money to lease farms to the freedmen. Howard also advised to subdivide the farms and build homes for the freemen willing to work for wages; this paved the way for later communities. Howard created a $52,000 trust fund for the purpose of purchasing land for resale to the freedmen. One of the biggest deals the bureau made from this money was 375 acres near Washington D.C., this land was divided in 359 lots which was sold to the freedmen for $225 per lot. There were several other similar purchases across the south, which provided homes to countless former slaves.
Since the bureau was in charge of confiscated and abandoned lands they could distribute these confiscated and abandoned lands to the freedmen. By 1865 there had been 850,000 acres of land distributed to the freedmen. One type of land grant became known as “40-acres and a mule” because the freedmen were given 40-acres of land to farm and a mule to drag a plow with. This type of grant applied to the freedmen on the coasts of both South Carolina and Florida. Only a few thousand freedmen really took advantage of the 40-acres and a mule grant since they were later allowed to apply for land under the same Land Acts as the whites.
One area the Freedmen’s Bureau concentrated on was in providing everyday necessities such as clothing, food, medicine and other such aid. The Bureau provided food in the form of rations to the freedmen and poor whites. The Bureau set aside $350,000 for the service of rations but only used $35,000. There were such items as pork, syrup, corn meal and rice given as rations. The rations would be shipped to the agent of a particular bureau office and he would distribute these rations to the freedmen in his district. There was also a system set up where planters could feed the freedmen they employed. The Freedmen’s Bureau also provided another creative way of supplying rations through the distribution of seeds for the freedmen to plant crops on their newly acquired property, this provided some freedmen with employment and a way to eat.
After the abolishment of slavery southern plantation owners had no way to maintain their crops since they had previously done so with their slaves. The freedmen or newly freed slaves also were sitting idle with no more work. Although the Bureau distributing seeds for the farm owners and freedmen to plant, there was still lack of manpower to work and maintain the crops produced from the seeds. With this in mind the Freedmen’s Bureau started negotiating contracts between the plantation owners and the out of work freedmen. They united the two with contracts and agreements. This system of sharecropping created different classes of people. The plantation owner would hold a sharecropping contract with one of the freedmen in turn the freedmen would hire other freedmen to work the crops. These were called hired or share workers because many times these workers rented small shanty type homes that were established on the plantation. The rent of these homes was also controlled and monitored by the Freedmen’s Bureau. The sharecroppers or managers would give a portion of their earnings to his help or share workers. The plantation or landowners would provide homes, equipment and land to plant crops on and the government would provide them with rations to feed these workers. This would allow the poor farm owners or planters a means of making a wage and it also gave the freedmen the same so they could eat. The rental workers were eventually able to buy food with their earnings and later they began to purchase property so they too could establish small farms to earn money with. Many times there were sharecropping contracts arranged with the freedmen who had previously acquired property from the Bureau. This finally provided the freedmen with employment that led to the establishment of African American communities throughout the southern United States.
Sharecropping arrangements and contracts were also made throughout Hernando County and what became present day Pasco County. These arrangements led to the formation of African American communities throughout our area. Some of these communities were formed during the time period of the Bureau and others were formed later by freedmen who worked and later bought property. Remnants of these pioneer communities are still visible today in both Hernando and Pasco Counties.
Agents oversaw the daily activities of the freedmen, in their districts, and were responsible to report the progress to their state Freedmen’s Office Representative; for Florida that state agent was Col. Thomas W. Osborn. The state agent would in turn create a report for his state which was sent to Washington D.C. The reports sent to the state agents included detailed information on homesteads, rations, employment, schools, and elections. These reports consist of correspondence between the state’s agent and the many local offices throughout Florida; the reports gave very specific information on the progress of the freedmen in their area. The homestead reports were typically made by what was called a Land Agent, his job was to issue homestead patents to the freedmen. The land agent reports included the Section, Township and Range numbers and whom the land was issued to. The reports pertaining to rations included how many rations were issued to a particular office and that office would keep track of whom the rations went to. There were also reports on the progress of education and schools for the freedmen. Any provisions the Freedmen’s Bureau provided, such as land, rations, education, crops, etc.; they kept track of the progress. Unfortunately, for Florida some of the reports have been lost, it seems that many of Col. Thomas W. Osborn’s collection of data pertaining to the freedmen of Florida was either destroyed or misplaced never to be discovered. Some of the lost reports refer to freedmen of Hernando County, but what does remain gives some wonderful insight and details as to what life was like for the freedmen and for others in Hernando County in 1867.