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Freedmen’s Bureau Reports for Page County

February 13, 2009

In searching the Valley of the Shadow website, more can be found than simply information about Franklin County, Pennsylvania and Augusta County, Virginia. In fact, though Staunton and Augusta County fell under a different sub-district or division than Page, all of the Valley counties fell under the same overall district of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Virginia and therefore, there are actually a number of items of interest in regard to Page County on the website.

On July 13, 1865, Gen. A.T. A. Torbert made an official request for an agent to be appointed to “look after the interest of the Freedmen.” While Torbert noted that “many persons” wished “to get rid of the old men and women left on their places that they may hire white laborers” later reports made after the appointment of an agent in the Valley proved differently for Page County and a few other areas.

In response to Torbert’s letter, Gen. Oliver O. Howard designated that Torbert select from among his officers one that “is capable, reliable, and a strong friend to the Freedmen, and who will see them protected in all the rights and privileges guaranteed them by law and the proclamation of the President.”

The first officer selected was W. Storer How, a dentist and captain from the 83rd New York Volunteer Infantry. Though How had established his office for the 6th District of Virginia on July 28, 1865, there was still a great deal to be done prior to writing reports. Additionally, it would not be How’s responsibility to report to Torbert, but to Col. Orlando Brown in Richmond. A native of Connecticut, Brown had previously served as the “Superintendent of Negro Affairs” in Federal-held portions of Virginia. By the summer of 1865, he had been selected as the Assistant Commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Virginia. As one website points out, “As the highest ranking officer of the bureau in the state, he [Brown] had a unique perspective on conditions in the Old Dominion.” In Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, it is indicated that Col. Brown once stated that blacks “must feel the spur of necessity, if it be needed to make them self-reliant, industrious and provident.” Foner also points out that “Clearly this position reflected not only attitudes toward blacks, but a more general Northern belief in the dangers of encouraging dependency among the lower classes. Yet the Bureau’s assumption that blacks wished to be dependent on the government persisted in the face of evidence that the black community itself, wherever possible, shouldered the task of caring for orphans, the aged, and the destitute, or the fact that in many localities more whites than blacks received Bureau aid.”

Letters and reports do not indicate that How made an official report on matters until October 5, 1865. In his letter to Col. Brown, he mentioned that Page County would fall under Sub-District C, along with Rockingham and Shenandoah Counties, under Lt. Dexter A. Smith of Co. C, 193rd New York. Regretfully, How gave no specifics as to the status of Freedmen in any one county but gave a general report of conditions throughout the Shenandoah Valley.

By October 1865, the district office had been transferred from Staunton to Winchester.

The first specifics of Freedmen matters in Page came on January 9, 1866, when Capt. How reported to Col. Brown of an attempt to create a Freedman’s school in Luray, but that military support was needed. Regretfully, just what sort of military support needed is unclear.

By May 5, 1866, How would tender his resignation and was replaced in 1867 by Capt. John A. McDonnell. Prior to McDonnell’s taking over, the area was re-designated as the 9th District Department of the Potomac.

Under Capt. John A. McDonnell’s supervision, the next report truly detailing matters in Luray and Page County were written and Page County seems to have measured up well against several other counties in the Shenandoah Valley as to the treatment of Freedmen.

On April 30, 1867, McDonnell noted in his report to Col. Brown that the new 2nd Sub-District, composed of Warren and Page Counties was “very much improved.” McDonnell noted of the Freedmen: “They are self sustaining, industrious and generally well employed. They have not received or desired any assistance from the Government for the past three months except $14 for school [unclear: rent] for the months of February & March.” McDonnell also noted in Page and Warren that it was “the intention of the authorities in both Counties to take care of their own Freedpeople, and they are now doing so, but the means at their disposal are very limited.” In contrast to Gen. Torbert’s report of July 1865, it was noted by McDonnell that “The supply of labor is not equal to the demand, many more could find employment in each County, but the pay will not exceed $12 per month.”

As to judicial services, “full and complete justice is given by the Civil Courts to Freedpeople in cases where they are interested against whites, not a case of unfairness is known or reported to have occurred within the past three months in any cause in which a colored person was interested in either Warren or Page County.” Additionally, a special initiative had been made in the Bureau as to the registering of marriages. Oon this, and in regard to Page and Warren counties, McDonnell wrote, “No Register of Marriages has yet been made in either County, and no blanks were ever furnished for that purpose, with this exception, the paragraphs of Circular No 11 of March 1866 have been carried out.”

Since Capt. How’s letter of 1866 mentioning an effort in Luray to form a school, by the spring of 1866, matters were still pressing to organize schools. “The School at Front Royal was in a very flourishing condition up to its close in March, and the progress of the scholars was rapid. The demands for a school at Front Royal in Warren County, and at Luray in Page County is pressing, about $40 per month I think would be contributed by the colored people at each place, if a school could be established at once. A building would also be furnished for the summer months at Front Royal.”

Six months (Oct. 1, 1867) after his initial report of matters, McDonnell gave yet another report that continued to define matters of Freedmen in the Valley. In regard to specifics in Page and Warren County (still the 2nd sub-district) he wrote that “The general condition of the Freedpeople in this division, is perhaps better than in any other of the Districts, for the reason that they are more equally distributed throughout the Counties and thereby have a better field for their labor, and more constant employment. They are self-sustaining, industrious, and generally receive fair wages, and therefore have not desired any assistance from the Govt for the past three months, except in matters of contracts, and adjusting claims. As in the other divisions, the people of each County will provide as best they can for the indigent freedpeople – In Page County the provisions are ample, but in Warren County, the building is in a most miserable condition.” Additionally, since his April report, the register of marriages had been completed for both of the counties.

While the supply of labor still did not equal the demand, McDonnell did not recommend “the introduction of more, at this season, many however would find employment by the day, and many more, when the spring returns, at $10 per month.”

Lastly, while schools in Warren County were evaluated quite well, Page was still struggling to get one underway. “There seems to be a great demand for a school in Luray, Page County, where the freedpeople have purchased land for a schoolhouse also, but outside of these points, the people are not in numbers sufficient to locate a school.”

By McDonnell’s report of March 10, 1868, Clarke County had been included in the 2nd Division (sub-district) and, as noted by McDonnell, an observer had been designated to oversee matters in the respective counties at different times. “E. H. Ripley A.S.A.C. to be at Berryville, county seat of Clarke County, at the Courthouse, on the fourth Monday of each month, being court day, to remain 2 days, or longer if business demands; To be at Luray County seat of Page County, at the Courthouse on the 15th of each month (for two days) or longer if necessary. To be at Front Royal County seat of Warren County, on Court day, at the office of the Bureau and at all other times when not at Berryville or Luray as above stated.”

Capt. McDonnell’s report of July 1, 1868 added a few more details of matters in Page as well as the other two counties in the Second Division. “In this division no perceptible change in the general condition of the freedpeople is apparent. Although all are employed no cases of suffering are reported, yet as no considerable number of freedpeople are congregated at any one place, it is difficult to estimate the general condition.” McDonnell also commented that “At the principal places, namely Berryville, Clarke Co, Front Royal in Warren County and Luray in Page County, there is evidence that the freedpeople as a class are not far behind many of their white neighbors. The schools in this division have been as well attended as could be expected, and the people generally are believed to be industrious, temperate and prosperous.” McDonnell continued, “Each County provides for its own poor, of both colors. The means as regards buildings, are poor and the feelings of the freedpeople are so strongly opposed to the poorhouse, that it would be difficult to induce even the most destitute to enter them.”

McDonnell readily noted a standout problem as existing in the court systems in Clarke, Page, and Warren counties. Wrote McDonnell, “The likelihood of full justice being given to freedpeople in cases against whites is very questionable. Frequently on colored people applying for redress of grievances to Magistrates their complaints are met with excuses, and only on application of the officer of the Bureau have such complaints been attended to. If official restraints were removed I do not think full justice would be given to freedpeople.”

Schools continued to be a problem, but McDonnell reported that “The demand for schools . . . are not urgent, and if organized it is doubtful if a sufficient number of pupils would attend to warrant the experiment of employing a teacher and other expenses.”

Regretfully, the last report mentioning Luray and/or Page County directly was from December 31, 1868. In it, McDonnell continued to emphasis that “The Freedpeople appear to be in a prosperous condition in the Counties comprising this division. No great number being in any one place, labor is equally distributed, and all who were able to work are employed. Warren and Page Counties are equally prosperous with Clarke, but for the reason that no large number can be found together it is considered inexpedient to organize schools at other than those places where schools are now in operation, viz: Berryville, Clarke, Co. Front Royal, Warren Co. and Luray, Page County. Although the people are constantly employed and labor is abundant, there does not seem to be that disposition on the part of the people to acquire property or homes for themselves that is manifested by the Freedmen in the First division. No suffering exists, and the demand on the Counties, by indigent freedpeople, if any are very few.” McDonnell continued, “In each County, indigent Freedpeople are provided for by the authorities as are the same class of whites. From superstitious causes the most indigent are unwilling to avail themselves of the privileges of the Poorhouses, and consequently few if any seek relief from that source. The demand for labor in each County is greater than the supply for nine months in the year and about balanced for the remainder. Wages range from ($7) seven to ($12) twelve dollars per month, which is generally paid in produce, clothing, &c. As the most exorbitant prices are demanded for articles thus given, it cuts the wages down to a cash value of at least two dollars per month less than the above quotation.”

While McDonnell indicated possible injustices in the judicial system in his previous report, he noted in December: “For some months past, no cases of injustice to Freedpeople were reported, but so long as local prejudices exist, full and complete justice will not be given by juries. A much larger amount of evidence than would be required to sustain the cause of a white man, would alone establish facts in his case, and complaints made by them do not receive equal attention as if made by a white.”

Finally, in his December report, it is made clear that the school in Luray was finally operational. However, he also noted that “The school at Luray would be much improved if a more competent teacher was in charge. Revd Mr. Jones although an excellent man is not qualified for the work, as not being master of words of one syllable himself, and therefore unfit to instruct others.”

In all, what little detail given by How’s and McDonnell’s reports still leaves much misunderstood as to the activities by Freedmen in Page County. While the judicial system left McDonnell somewhat uncertain as to fairness in the 2nd Division (Clarke, Page and Warren), reports for other districts differed little. However, there was not one incident of violence noted in Page while some of the surrounding counties (notably Augusta, Rockingham, Shenandoah and even Clarke) had more than a few occurrences.

For further information and a more broad perspective on matters of the Freedmen’s Bureau in the Shenandoah Valley, visit the Freedmen’s Bureau papers at the Valley of the Shadow website’s Freedmen section.

This article, written by Robert H. Moore, II for his “Heritage and Heraldry” column, originally appeared in a June 2006 issue of the Page News & Courier (Luray, Va.).

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