Michael Dennis' Letter
to the Freedmen's Bureau,
November 30, 1865

Contribution and Introduction by David E. Paterson

Anyone who has ever ventured into the voluminous records of the Freedmen's Bureau can testify to how difficult it is to find much in there of a genealogical nature (local historians, on the other hand, can go wild). Occasionally, however, the researcher may stumble across an exceptional document that is both historically and genealogically significant. The following letter comes from the National Archives, Record Group 105, "Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of Georgia, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1869," often simply called "The Freedmen's Bureau Papers." It is found in Unregistered Letters Received, A-W, 1865 (National Archives Microfilm Publication No. 798, Roll 24).

This letter is, perhaps, unique because it names the freed populations of two plantations in Early County in November 1865. One of the plantations was owned by Michael Dennis, the other was controlled by Dennis as administrator of the Thomas C. Grimes estate. The people are described by name, age, and fitness for farm labor (for example, "No. 1" was the best quality of farmhand). They are grouped in "families," although the nature of the kinship is not explicitly stated. The small size and constitution of most of these "families" suggests that most contain only fragments of what we would consider a nuclear family. It would be interesting to see what additional information could be gleaned from the probate papers of the Grimes estate, especially if the Inventory and Appraisement occurred before Emancipation (and therefore would list the slaves). It would also be interesting to see how many of these persons remained in Early County, and to compare family structure, by the time of the 1870 Federal Census.

The historian will find much of interest in Michael Dennis' letter, especially his broad hints to the Bureau (without actually saying so) that the freedpeople on his farms should be compelled by the Federal Government into signing contracts with him. Downplaying his own self-interest, Dennis appeals to "the dictates of humanity" in caring for the freedpeople, and cites several other reasons of national self-interest, extending even to the international balance of trade with Europe!

If, as Dennis states, many of the freedpeople wanted to return to Middle Georgia, their strongest motive was probably to reunite with relatives and friends. Dennis, however, wants the Bureau to believe that they simply (and foolishly) long to farm the worn-out "sedge-fields" at their old homes. His statement that "most of them, having exhausted the soil in Middle Georgia, were sent off to cultivate more fertile land" insinuates that the former slaves, themselves, might have been responsible for ruining the old lands! Of course, such comments meant to suggest that the freedpeople were irrational by nature, unable to exercise successful independence, and that benevolent former masters like Dennis were best qualified to advise the Bureau in solving Georgia's new free-labor problems.

Enough of my words, here's the letter:

Eatonton, Ga., Novr 30, 1865

Brig. Gen. Tilson, Acting Assistant Commissioner
Freedman's Bureau, &c.

General,

I beg leave to ask your advice and assistance touching a matter related to your department.

I am owner of a plantation in Early county, in this state, and control, as administrator of Thomas C. Grimes, dec'd, another one adjoining it. On the two plantations are more than one hundred negroes, a little over half being non-workers. I have lately visited the two places, and read your "Circular No. 2" to the freedmen, and endeavored to make contracts with them for another year. This they positively refused to do, for any consideration, expressing a determination to return to Middle Georgia, whence they removed, several years ago.

I offered them comfortable houses and fuel gratis. Then I proposed to pay them such an amount of wages, reasonable and just, whatever the amount might be determined, as would enable them to procure a sufficiency of good food and clothing, and make something extra. Had they contracted with me, I expected to have provided a sufficiency of food, (and clothing where necessary) for supplying them. But I thought I would add such an amount to their wages as would be necessary to clothe and feed them, and then let them purchase in quantities to suit themselves, either from me, or anyone else – proposing; at the same time to purchase food and clothing for them, wherever they could find it cheapest, and deliver it to them at cost – charging them nothing for hauling it in my own wagons.

My reason for making this proposition – (touching their buying their own food and clothing) – was because the negroes themselves prefer it. As long as they are allowanced, they do not feel like free men. They want the privilege of buying their supplies, without being allowanced, from their employers, or wherever it may suit their convenience, or wishes.

But as I have said, the freedmen refused to contract, upon any terms, however advantageous. If they continue to do so, I shall have to apply to the Bureau for fifty able-bodied hands for the two places I have mentioned. It would be best for all parties, however, particularly the negroes themselves, that the freedmen should remain where they now are, because then the old and decrepid ones, and the children would be provided for: whereas, if they leave their present homes, the non-workers will either become a charge upon the Bureau, or die of starvation.

It would be best for me, were I to take only my own interest into consideration, to have none on my places but able-bodied hands. But I trust, Sir, that I will never forget the dictates of humanity, nor cease to take an interest in the welfare of those who were lately my slaves. If the colored people could be induced to remain where they now are, certainly it would be best for them.

My opinion is that in spite of your commendable efforts to disabuse their minds on the subject, the colored people do still expect a division of property among them at Christmas – though they say they do not. And this is one reason why they almost universally refuse to make contracts for another year. In fact, one negro, near this place, said, a few days ago, that the colored people had positive orders from "the Yankees" as he expressed it, not to make contracts until Christmas. It is thus that the poor creatures deceive themselves. My great fear is, that they will refuse to contract until too late to make a cotton crop – a crop which our government now needs above all others, for the sake of the gold it would bring us from Europe.

Another reason why the colored people, in South Western Georgia, will not contract, is that most of them, having exhausted the soil in Middle Georgia, were sent off to cultivate more fertile land, in another part of the state. These all expect to flock back to the old sedge-fields of their former homes. The result will be, an excess of the colored people, in Middle Georgia, attended with pauperism, and crime, and an abandonment of our most productive lands to weeds and bushes. This is likely to become a question of serious moment, and I beg leave to respectfully call your attention to it. This I am the more emboldened to do, because I see, in the course you pursue, an honest effort to do the best you can for all classes of our population: and I believe you will receive, kindly, any suggestions made by a planter of experience – one who knows the character of the colored people, and who is acquainted with their wants, and the agricultural wants of the country.

But I am going off into generalities, when my only object was to seek your counsel and assistance in my own particular case. Is it compatible with your duties, and powers, to do anything for me, in the premises?

In order to give you a better idea of the condition of the negroes on my plantations, I enclose you a list of their names, ages, &c.

I beg leave, also, to state that, upon applying to Lieut. Frank P. Taggart commanding the detachment at Blakely, Early Co., Ga., he furnished me with Private Leander Smith – an intelligent and clever gentleman – of the 145th Indiana Regiment, who went with me to my plantations, and endeavored to persuade the freedmen to make contracts – but all in vain. To Mr. Smith, I beg leave to refer you touching the truth of what I have written you – which I do because I am a stranger to you.

I have thus presented you with my case, and if you deem it proper, I would be glad to have instructions from you at an early day. It is all-important to planters, and the country, that they should now know what to depend upon for another year.

Respectfully,
Michael Dennis
By J. A. Turner

P. S. [illegible]

[The following lists are attached to the letter. Ditto marks in the original have been replaced with the indicated text to improve readability on web-browsers.]

Negroes on the Dennis Place

Matt man 40 years of age No. 1
Matilda woman 45 years of age unsound
Van boy 18 years of age No. 1
Julia Ann girl 14 years of age No. 3
Eada girl 10 years of age
Dave boy 5 years of age
Jerry child 1 year of age

Family No 1 as above

 

Lucy woman 40 years of age unsound
Judy woman 18 years of age No. 2
William boy 16 years of age weakly
Sylvia girl 12 years of age
George boy 10 years of age

Family No. 2 as above.

 

Mahala woman 35 years of age unsound
Monroe man 22 years of age No. 1
Lucy woman 20 years of age No. 2
Lucy's child girl 4 years of age

Family No. 3 as above.

 

Henry man 55 years of age unsound
Nancy woman 45 years of age No. 2
Katy girl 12 years of age

Family No. 4 as above.

 

Littleton man 45 years of age sore leg
Emeline woman 45 years of age unsound
Richard man 21 years of age No. 1
Milly Ann girl 17 years of age No. 2

Family No. 5 as above

 

Betsy woman 50 years of age
Patsy girl 13 years of age No. 3
Miles boy 10 years of age
Amanda girl 7 years of age
4 small children 5 years – 3 years – 18 months – 8 mo's.

Family No. 6 as above

 

Andrew man 35 years of age No. 1
Charity woman 28 years of age No. 2
Eddy boy 8 years of age

Family No. 7 as above

 

Henrietta woman 70 years of age unsound
Lou girl 18 years of age rheumatic
Margaret girl 10 years of age
Bill boy 25 years of age No. 1
Rhoda woman 19 years of age No. 2

Family No. 8 as above

 

Jim man 40 years of age No. 1
Martha woman 32 years of age No. 2
Lucinda girl 6 years of age
Sanford boy 4 years of age
Jim boy 2 months

Family No. 9 as above

 

Nick man 25 years of age No. 1
Harvey boy 18 years of age No. 1
Arnold boy 19 years of age No. 1
Josh man 28 years of age No. 1
Elbert man 62 years of age No. 2
Allen boy 14 years of age No. 3
Mary woman 20 years of age No. 2

 

Negroes on Grimes Place

Family No. 1

Umphrey man 55 years of age unsound
Marah woman 35 years of age unsound
Henrietta girl 14 years of age No. 3
Bill boy 12 years of age
Delfy girl 10 years of age
Celia girl 8 years of age

 

Family No. 2

Clarissa woman 55 years of age No. 1
John man 28 years of age No. 1
Stephen man 25 years of age No. 1
Little Clarissa girl 17 years of age unsound
Mary girl 12 years of age

 

Family No. 3

Marah woman 35 years of age unsound
Wash boy 16 years of age No. 2
Anna girl 14 years of age No. 3
Adeline girl 12 years of age
Jim boy 10 years of age
Bob boy 8 years of age

 

Family No. 4

Dorcas woman 40 years of age unsound
Austin man 26 years of age No. 1
Hurston boy 16 years of age No. 2
Ibby girl 14 years of age No. 3
Viny girl 10 [years of age]} orphans
Adeline girl 9 [ years of age] }

 

Family No. 5

Adaline 50 years of age No. 3
Sol boy 14 years of age No. 3
Louy girl 12 years of age
Harry boy 11 years of age
Silas boy 9 years of age
Jenny girl 8 years of age

 

Family No. 6

Martha woman 28 years of age No. 2
Pete man 19 years of age No. 1
Jinsy girl 17 years of age No. 2
Fanny girl 15 years of age No. 3
Cornetus boy 10 years of age

 

Family No. 7

Harry man 85 years of age
Ibby woman 65 years of age
Joe boy 12 years of age orphan
Cornelia girl 8 years of age

 

Family No. 7 [sic]

Peter man 40 years of age No. 3
Mariah woman 35 years of age unsound
Strirling [sic] boy 16 years of age No. 1
Letha girl 14 years of age No. 3
Addison boy 12 years of age
Andrew boy 10 years of age

 

Family No. 8

Fanny woman 68 years of age
Abe man 27 years of age No. 3

 

Family No. 9

Seaborn man 40 years of age No. 1
Frances woman 35 years of age No. 2
Liz girl 12 years of age } orphans
William boy 10 years of age }

 

Family No. 10

Gilbert man 18 years of age No. 1
Charles man 30 years of age unsound
Ann woman 20 years of age} No. 2
Rose girl 15 years of age}orphans No. 3
July girl 13 years of age} No. 3

 

Harrison man 20 years of age No. 2
Simon boy 7 years of age
one boy (name forgotten) 5 years of age
Willie 3 years of age

(Several other children, whose names are forgotten, both in this and the other list.)

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