A unique surviving record of the Roanoke Freedmen’s Colony

Census 1864 / No. II / Roanoke Island. [Roanoke Island, 1864.]
Notebook of lined paper, 7 5/8”h x 4 ¾”w, lined in red ink and accomplished in light-but-legible pencil. 111pp., including a page of census instructions and 55 openings, each with facing pages arranged as a spreadsheet. Original sheep, title lettered by hand on front cover.

A unique surviving census of approximately two thirds of the African-American population residing in the Roanoke Freedmen’s Colony in 1864, giving much demographic detail on each individual recorded.

Roanoke Island lies off the coast of North Carolina, between the mainland and the Outer Banks. Fortified by the Confederates at the beginning of the war, it came under Union control when captured in February 1862 by a force under Ambrose Burnside. There followed a rapid influx of slaves and freedmen seeking refuge. In May 1863 the camp was given a new status as a government-sanctioned colony. Army Chaplain Horace James was instructed by Major General John G. Foster, commander of the Department of North Carolina, “to settle the colored people on the unoccupied lands and give them agricultural implements and mechanical tools… and to train and educate them for a free and independent community.” Thus did Roanoke Island become “the setting for an historic experiment during the Civil War…. This colony, similar to others established by the Union Army, gave African Americans their first tastes of independence and freedom.” (National Park Service)

Recorded in this notebook are the names of approximately 1485 of the several thousand freed and escaped slaves who, beginning in 1862, became inhabitants of Roanoke. According to the National Park Service, “a local census in 1864 reported that 2212 black freedman resided on the island.” This volume, denoted Census 1864 No. II was presumably part of that local census, its 1485 names constituting about two thirds of the total population. To the best of my knowledge, no other portion of this census is extant—nor for that matter is material from any other census taken during the colony’s brief existence between 1862 and 1867.

The notebook begins with an introductory page of “Directions” for recording each category of information gathered during the census. This is followed by 55 openings, each with facing pages arranged as a spreadsheet containing twelve columns with the following headings: “Name,” “Age,” “Free or Slave in 1861,” “Last owner’s name,” “Occupation or Trades,” “Employ’d by Gov,” “Enlisted in,” “Not Emp,” “Helped by Gov,” “Can read,” “Cannot Read,” and “Remarks.” The name and surname of each and every individual—men, women and children—is given along with his or her age (Regarding the age, item 2 of the Directions reads, “If unknown guess at it.”) All are designated as either free before or enslaved before the war, and for most of the freed slaves the name of their last owner is given. Entries for “Occupation” are naturally spottier, as many of the individuals named are children. Relatively few are noted as employed by the government; most so noted are in the service of the Quartermaster Department. Details of enlistment are given for only a very few. Most are listed as “not employed,” likewise “helped by the government” and “cannot read.” This may be explained by the fact that in 1864 that the colony had begun to decline, as the Army impressed increasing numbers of male inhabitants into service as laborers.

In a recent exhaustive study, Time Full of Trial: The Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony, 1862-1867 (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2001) author Patricia Click, writes “No roster of the Roanoke Island colonists has surfaced. Given the constant change in the colony, it is not likely that one existed. The following documents do, however, include lists of some of the names of Roanoke Island colonists.” (Appendix E, p. 215) She then lists the names of approximately 360 individuals, 65 of whom are designated “& Wife.” The author cites two sources: “Report of Transportation furnished to Freedmen during the month of January 1866” and “List of names of freedpeople living on Roanoke Island N.C. likely to become destitute during the ensuing Winter [1866-1867],” both found in the Records of the Assistant Commissioner for North Carolina, held in the National Archives. Click’s extensive bibliography contains an exhaustive listing of manuscript sources, published documents and other primary sources. Given the consummate scholarship apparent in this study, none of those, we can safely assume, contain information such as that presented in the notebook offered here. The sheer number of names, four times the number given by Click, together with related details not available elsewhere, constitutes a unique sample with significant potential for historical and genealogical research.

The front endpaper bears the inscription of Samuel S[tickney] Nickerson (1835-1930). A native of Tamworth, New Hampshire, Nickerson was a Baptist minister who served the freedmen of Roanoke as a missionary and educator from late 1863 to 1867. Though not trained as a teacher, Nickerson opened his own missionary school. His role in conducting this census is unclear, as his signature seems to differ from the hand in which the preliminary instructions and tabular headings are written. Whether he directed or otherwise took part in the census, or whether this notebook simply came into his possession—not improbable considering his leadership role—I cannot say.

The Roanoke Colony was short-lived. At the end of the war, lands confiscated by the Union Army and used to settle African American residents were restored, by order of President Johnson, to their original owners.

“The black residents on Roanoke Island failed to receive the rights and privileges to their homesteads promised by the government when they established the colony. Further government orders that reduced food rations… ushered in the beginning of the end…. By late 1866, the Freedmen’s population had dwindled to a few families and by 1867 the colony was officially decommissioned. The Freedmen’s colony on Roanoke Island never became the self-sufficient community its planners envisioned. Its isolation and the transfer into the army of most of the working men made the residents more and more dependent on the government for support. [As noted earlier, the widespread dependency of inhabitants in 1864 may reflect this fact.] It did, however, provide homes for the families of soldiers, brought education for the first time to the colony’s residents, and gave them a renewed sense of hope. Furthermore, while most of the freedmen returned to the mainland, many descendants still live, work and raise their families on Roanoke Island today.… its contribution to the betterment of the African American community in particular and American society in general cannot be overlooked.” (National Park Service)

Patricia C. Click, Time Full of Trial: The Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony, 1862-1867. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. See also Click, The Roanoke Island Freedman’s Colony (http://www.roanokefreedmenscolony.com/index.html).


Spine worn but sound, contents excellent.