After Slavery: Educator Resources

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3. A Freedpeople's Colony on Roanoke Island, North Carolina

The following educational document corresponds with Unit Three: Land and Labor in the After Slavery exhibition. Note the "Questions to Consider" section included at the end of each document.

To some extent, the experiment with free labor amongst former slaves began as a matter of military necessity in a variety of locations around the South as the Union military captured territory. They needed to provide for the newly emancipated people, but they also needed to create a system of support for the families of black men who were joining the army or otherwise supporting the Union war effort. One of the earliest beachheads that the Union military established was on much of the Outer Banks and part of the coast of northeastern North Carolina. In the two documents below, we see the Union army setting up a colony for freedpeople on Roanoke Island, the site of the first English settlement in North America. Despite promising beginnings, the land on this colony was restored to its previous owners by 1867, ending the possibility for an African American landholding community there.

A Freedpeople's Colony on Roanoke Island, North Carolina

New Berne, N. C., September 10, 1863.

In accordance with the views of the major-general commanding the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, Eighteenth Army Corps, are hereby transferred to Chaplain James. He will take possession of all unoccupied lands on the island, and lay them out and assign them, according to his own discretion, to the families of colored soldiers, to invalids, and other blacks in the employ of the Government, giving them full possession of the same until annulled by the Government or by due process of United States law.
The authority of Chaplain James will be respected in all matters relating to the welfare of the colony.
By command of Major-General Peck:

Assistant Adjutant-General.

New Berne, N. C., October 2, 1863.
Asst. Adjt. General, Dept. of Virginia and North Carolina:

COLONEL: I have the honor to report that I returned last evening from a tour of inspection. The fortifications at Washington and Plymouth have been pushed very rapidly during the last month.
My expectations in respect to the colony were more than realized by my visit to Roanoke Island. No better place could have been selected, and I see no permanent cause for apprehension on the score of health. The superintendent is actively engaged in laying out the streets and lots. My instructions were to make the avenues of ample width, with a view to increase the beauty and healthfulness of the island. Mules, horses, wagons, &c., have been condemned and ordered to be turned over to the colony. The success of the enterprise I regard as certain, and believe that this African colony can be made self-supporting after the first year.

I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,


SourceThe War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Vol. 29, Part II (Washington: GPO, 1895), pp. 166, 243-244.


Questions to Consider 

  1. What is the difference between having possession of land and having title to land?

  2. How does the goal of self-sufficiency for the Roanoke Island colony serve both military and political purposes?

  3. The idea of colonizing freed slaves in Africa had been around for decades by the time of the Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln himself had been a proponent of the idea. To what extent does the Roanoke Island community reflect these ideas of colonization?

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