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Sunday, February 4, 2001

Freedmen came to Volusia, but often found no fortune

By Lynn Bulmahn | News-Journal Staff Writer

What started as a Promised Land ended as a broken promise.

History recall
Leonard Lempel is a history professor who specializes in local african-american history, at DBCC, Monday, July 22, 2002. (N/J: Pam Lockeby)

The black freedmen who settled in what is now Port Orange came by the hundreds in 1866 and 1867, right after the Civil War, seeking prosperity in a new era of freedom for blacks.

Freedom they had; prosperity was elusive.

There is no known photographic record, but historians and others who have studied the early settlement can picture it clearly in their minds.

It must have looked like a tent city or refugee camp. There were hundreds of people and few supplies. They worked hard under an unrelenting sun. Building crude huts for temporary housing, trying to raise crops to feed their families, and helping to build a sawmill and install the massive machinery, their labors never ceased.

Hard work was probably all they'd ever known.

Many were born into slavery. Even if they were free, they probably had to eke out a living.

For some, that living was as a soldier in the Union army.

Black soldiers were paid less than their white counterparts in the war's early years. Only 100 of the 186,000 black Union soldiers were ever commissioned as officers. The rest were considered laborers.

The end of the war, of course, brought massive changes in the South.

One of the most remarkable but little known stories is how so many freedmen settled in East Volusia County.

The effort failed. Within a few short months, witnesses would describe how "strong men" would cry to strangers, begging for something to feed their families -- and walk long distances to work for food.

A new life begins

The colony started out with much promise.

Most of the men had fought for the Union army. After the war, they contacted the Freedmen's Bureau, a government agency that helped blacks start anew.

Now, they had a chance to carve out a community in Volusia County and, possibly for the first time in their lives, have a promise of a good future for themselves and their loved ones.

Dr. Leonard Lempel, associate professor of history at Daytona Beach Community College, and other black history scholars are documenting the remarkable migration of hundreds of black families to Volusia County.

The Homestead Act of 1866 enabled freedmen to acquire government lands in Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Florida.

Especially Florida. Some 3,000 blacks purchased homesteads here, more than in any other state.

Of these, slightly more than half -- about 1,600 -- settled in eastern Volusia County.

Volusia County had few black residents when they arrived and few people, period. The county's population in 1860 was only 1,158, of which 297 were black, according to Census records. Most people lived in the western county, in settlements near the St. Johns River.

But the freedmen and their leaders chose to settle in the east, near the Halifax River.

"Black soldiers came here with their families," said Lempel, a former Bethune-Cookman College faculty member. "They set up homestead at what is now known as Ponce Inlet."

Back then, the place was called Mosquito Inlet, likely a reflection of the tropical misery such insects could confer.

The ex-soldiers joined a colony sponsored by the Florida Land and Lumber Co. The company would have a sawmill operation to supply lumber to a growing colony of settlers; it would rely on black laborers -- people who were used to sweaty, backbreaking work.

Leading the colony was a white married couple. Both were physicians, in a time when it was almost unheard of for a woman to be a doctor.

And both were abolitionists.

John Milton Hawks and Esther Hill Hawks came from New Hampshire but had spent the Civil War in South Carolina.

"She is -- was -- a very modern type of lady, very independent," Lempel said, showing Mrs. Hawks' photo published on a book cover. A strong face, almost modern in appearance, looks the camera in the eye.

Her diary, found in an attic in 1975, has been published as "A Woman Doctor's Civil War: Esther Hill Hawks' Diary," edited by Gerald Schwartz. The volume found in the New England attic ends before the Hawks settled in Florida, so much of that part of the narrative remains undiscovered.

But not all.

"She was affiliated with a missionary society, and she wrote letters back that were published in the society's magazine or journal," Lempel said. "Those letters -- they were rather amazing."

Mrs. Hawks' writing reveals a woman who Lempel believes was sincerely interested in helping people of all races.

On the other hand, said Lempel, "Mr. Hawks' motives were somewhat mixed."

Problems and delays

A paper Lempel prepared for the 1993 Florida Conference of Historians describes John Milton Hawks in more detail.

The New Hampshire abolitionist served as a medical officer for a black regiment during the war in South Carolina's Sea Islands. In October 1865, shortly after the war ended, Hawks and several other Union officers of black regiments formed the Florida Land and Lumber Co.

"Although Hawks truly wanted to help the freedmen, he also hoped to profit by using their labor for his Florida lumbering operations," Lempel writes in his paper "African American Settlements in the Daytona Beach Area 1866-1910."

According to a prospectus Hawks issued in November 1865, shares in the business venture were offered at a price of $100 each. He and other officers purchased up to $1,000 in stock, while the majority of the former soldiers put up $100 for one share apiece.

In those days, $100 was not pocket change.

According to the Public Broadcasting System's Web site, PBS Online, at the beginning of the Civil War, black enlisted men received a salary of $7 a month, plus a $3 monthly clothing allowance. Their white counterparts were paid $13 a month in salary plus $3.50 a month for clothes.

The pay had evened out by the end of the war, and in the fall of 1866 several hundred freedmen paid their $100 and accompanied Hawks and his fellow officers to the inlet.

Lempel said most settled on homesteads north of Spruce Creek and northwest of the inlet, near Dunlawton.

Hawks named his settlement Port Orange. Its first post office was built in 1867 in what is now the town of Ponce Inlet. Later that year, it was moved across the river. In 1868, it was moved a few miles north to within the boundaries of modern-day Port Orange.

The colony's success hinged on getting the sawmill up and running, to cut the wood that would build the houses and build the towns.

Any delay in having an operational sawmill meant the colonists would have to make do with temporary housing -- crude tents and huts and shelters.

Colonists started work on the mill on the Halifax River's eastern bank.

Lempel said the sawmill machinery was likely brought in by steamship. During its long journey, it was damaged and needed expensive repairs.

And, it was much too large. Hawks later admitted the mill was three times larger than the colonists needed.

But that was not their only bit of bad luck.

"They were counting on aid from the Freedmen's Bureau for supplies, but they didn't get all the supplies," Lempel said.

The black settlers were poorly equipped in part due to the greed and corruption of some bureau officials who were supposed to be helping them.

First integrated school

Dr. Esther Hill Hawks arrived in Florida a month after her husband. As a teacher with the Freedmen's Aid Society, she established what Lempel believes may have been the first integrated school in Florida. She taught adult blacks -- slaves typically were not taught to read and write -- and both black and white children.

The delay in getting the sawmill up and running meant that, like most homesteaders' residences, the schoolhouse was unfinished.

So, Mrs. Hawks taught her students outside, building a log fire for warmth. She stood on whichever side of the large fire that was "most sheltered from the smoke," according to a letter dated Dec. 26, 1866.

The adults sat on benches, and smaller children sat on the ground. They wrote on slates.

On Nov. 19, 1867, she reported her school was flourishing. She counted eight whites, 15 "full blacks," and two "mulattos," or people of mixed racial heritage.

She reported the black and white children "playing together as harmoniously as kittens." And that all the former soldiers were learning to read.

However, Hawks was not always so optimistic. Not all was going well, she admitted in another letter. Attendance was small and there was widespread sickness. It was also planting season, so some students left to work in the fields.

Mrs. Hawks reported "bitter" complaints from white parents that their children were attending school with blacks. Only four white students were still enrolled.

Other problems plagued the young settlement. The colonists certainly knew how to farm -- in other places. But Florida's sandy soil and warmer climate required techniques they did not know.

They needed more seeds, more tools, more supplies and more assistance.

They got just the opposite, according to records from the time. Corruption in the bureau and within the company itself was rampant, and soon, there were many more mouths to feed.

Hope fades quickly

In January 1867, only three months after the first group landed, three steamboats appeared on the horizon.

Instead of being stocked with supplies, the boats brought even more settlers.

Some 1,000 freedmen led by Gen. Ralph Ely had traveled to the Port Orange settlement from Charleston.

These settlers were even more poorly equipped than those who came with Hawks. Historians believe that Ely illegally sold supplies that were supposed to have been distributed to the black colonists he led.

S.C. Osborn, a Freedmen's Bureau agent, was later accused of selling rations to the black colonists that had been intended as government aid.

And G.A. Purdie, treasurer of the Florida Land and Lumber Co., ran off with the money that had been borrowed to complete the sawmill.

By spring 1867, only 251 colonists remained -- 109 of them children.

"These people are now suffering for the necessities of life," wrote W.J. Purman, a special agent with the Freedman's Bureau, in an April 1867 report. "Their condition is pitiable, and their wants and anguish appeal not only to sympathy, but to feelings of humanity."

He said most had not seen a meal in weeks. The colonists stayed alive by eating coutee or coontie, which are the starchy roots of a native plant, palmetto cabbage and what fish they could catch.

"Strong men with tears come begging for anything to appease the hunger of their families," the agent wrote. "They are willing to go any distance to labor and do go 50 and 60 miles to earn a morsel to keep starvation off from day to day."

Even after the colony failed, Esther Hill Hawks continued teaching. She moved her school away from the Halifax River, in an effort to be closer to her students who had left the colony.

It also brought her into closer proximity with unsympathetic whites -- who despised schools for freed blacks, especially integrated schools.

In January 1869, Mrs. Hawks' new schoolhouse was torched. In 1870, disheartened, she returned to New England to practice medicine.

That same year, only 83 blacks remained in the eastern part of Volusia County.

What happened to most of them Lempel is not sure. Some may have migrated to work in the citrus groves in West Volusia; others may have gone home.

But a few colonists stayed. Henry and Hannah Tolliver owned land in the northwest corner of Port Orange. Some of the former colonists lived on their land, in what was later a community called Freemanville.

Said to be the most successful black homesteader, Tolliver harvested large amounts of corn and sweet potatoes in 1870. His home mill manufactured 250 gallons of molasses. He also raised cotton, peas and beans. Mrs. Tolliver made and sold clothing.

Emma Overstreet, who may have been Tolliver's stepdaughter, married George Freeman during the 1870s. They later had 15 children. The Freemans bought a part of Tolliver's land for $1, and lived next door to them. Freemanville took its name from the Freeman family.

The Tolliver's son, John Tolliver, was one of 26 electors -- two of them black -- who voted to incorporate Daytona. He later built several roads, under contract from the town's council, including much of Ridgewood Avenue.

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