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A Look Back: The Return to Edisto

After the Civil War ended, many of Edisto Island’s plantation owners were eager to return home. But there was one major problem that loomed in their way: the government had allocated the old plantation lands to the newly emancipated African Americans so that they could make a living for themselves and the original owners of the land would have to fight to get it back.

A petition was drawn up by close to 100 planters who wanted President Andrew Johnson to know that redistribution of their land was not something they would accept. Amazingly, Johnson sent a general to Edisto to work out an arrangement between the landowners and emancipated African Americans. The resulting outcome was this: Whatever crops were planted in 1865 had to be left to those who had planted it, African Americans on the land were allowed to stay on the plantation as long as they agreed to contract their labor to the legal owners (or lease crop land from them), and landowners were not to interfere with the schools set up by the African Americans.

Although this decision was not ideal for pre-war landowners, it expedited the restoration process and many families were able to get back to their rightful homes.

For instance, the attorney for John Ferras Townsend, owner of Bleak Hall, Botany Bay and Sea Cloud plantations field for restoration of these properties. While the pre-war landowners were gone, Sea Cloud’s big house was home to 35 African Americans. The home had lost much of its grandeur and was dilapidated. Since many of the African Americans living in the house did not possess certificates denoting their rights to the land, Sea Cloud was reclaimed by its rightful owner in 1866.

The same situated occurred at Bleak Hall. The main house had burned down, but several smaller structures still stood and provided shelter for 115 African Americans, but only three held certificates to the land, so Townsend was able to regain control of the land. He did, however, agree to let the people who were living there stay as long as they were willing to sign a labor and occupancy contract.

Botany Bay was also recovered and restored, although documentation specifying the recovery of that land is unclear.

All throughout the island, pre-war owners filed documents to have their lands returned to them. Some agreed to let the African Americans stay on and farm the land, others did not.

Although returning home is something most people love to do after an extended absence, the homes these people and the newly freed African Americans returned to were reminders of the perils of war. Many of the homes had been ransacked and were missing everything from doors to windows to simple furnishings. Anything of value had either been taken by the families when they evacuated at the start of the war or by Union troops when the occupied the land.

Homes weren’t the only things that had changed. Barns were burned town, fields were burned or overgrown, wagons were broken or burned, fences were down, fallen trees blocked roads, boats were sunken or washed up on shore, and all the tools needed for rebuilding all that was lost were essentially nonexistent.

In addition to the living conditions, whites who had once dictated the actions of the African Americans on the land were now required to pay them for their labor and tensions grew.

It is said that many of the plantation owners felt as though the African Americans were not working hard enough to get the cotton crops to flourish. But during this time the newly freed African Americans were also working on their own food crops to make sure they would have enough food to live off of through the winter.

Another issue at hand was that the African Americans were at an unfair advantage when it came to receiving payment for their work. Many times the plantation owners did not give them fair wages and knew that because the vast majority of these people had no arithmetic skills they could not challenge them.

The planters and the newly freed African Americans contended with these issues on a regular basis. Some managed to work out peaceful relationships the benefited both parties, while others continued to struggle with the changes. Some plantations continued to flourish and withstand the test of time, while others succumbed to the pressure of the changes at hand and eventually crumbled into disrepair.

To this very day the plantations from this era still exist. Some are still the fine homes they always were, others are in various stages of disrepair, and others have faded into obscurity.

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