Making Mitchelville real: Dig unearths Hilton Head's freedmen's past

tbarton@islandpacket.comJanuary 25, 2014 

  • Finding Freedom's Home: Archaeology at Mitchelville

    What: New exhibition features artifacts recently unearthed from historic Mitchelville on Hilton Head Island

    Where: Coastal Discovery Museum, 70 Honey Horn Drive, Hilton Head

    When: Main gallery through March 31; exhibition then moves to the museum's Sea Island Room through December. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.

    Information: 843-689-6767 or

For more than a century, photographs, maps and historical accounts gave a glimpse into the lives of former slaves who fled to Hilton Head Island in search of freedom.

Largely missing were artifacts providing a tangible connection to the past. Until now.

Archaeologists last year found remnants of old homes, wells and garbage pits, and recovered more than 20,000 artifacts representing the personal belongings, tools and household goods from the first self-governed, freed slaves' town in America, established on Hilton Head in 1862.

The findings -- porcelain-doll and dish fragments, jewelry, buckles and buttons -- shed new light on villagers' efforts to make a new world for themselves as free people.

"The story of Mitchelville's residents is not well told in the historic record," said archeologist Scott Butler of Brockington and Associates. "The archaeological finds and data represent firsthand evidence of how people lived their lives during a unique transitional period in American history. ...

"These artifacts are a tangible reminder that these freemen were real people."

Parts of the village have been excavated before, notably in 1986 by the Chicora Foundation. The 2013 dig, however, represents the first large-scale excavation of former home sites, according to Butler and local historians.

Brockington and Associates was hired by Beaufort County airport consultants Talbert, Bright and Ellington to uncover and preserve artifacts found on land the village once occupied and that now is needed for expansion of the Hilton Head Island Airport runway.

Objects recovered from the dig have been collected in a new exhibition called "Finding Freedom's Home: Archaeology at Mitchelville," which is on display at the Coastal Discovery Museum. The exhibition is sponsored by the county, Federal Aviation Administration and S.C. Aeronautics Commission.

"There is such an extensive history that exists here in Beaufort County, and the artifacts found in this exploration of Mitchelville prove this history," County Council Chairman Paul Sommerville said. "I'm proud that we have been able to be part of these findings and were able to put more pieces to the puzzle when it comes to learning about the daily lives of those living in Mitchelville 150 years ago."


Barracks were initially set up for "contraband slaves" left behind Union lines and those who fled to freedom from plantations on nearby islands. Within a month of the capture of Hilton Head, 400 escaped slaves had flocked to the island, according to news reports and government accounts.

The Union Army found itself quickly overwhelmed as word spread it was offering jobs and shelter. Refugee camps, including those in Beaufort, Bay Point and Otter Island, became overcrowded and unhealthy. To remedy the situation, Union Gen. Ormsby Mitchel, for whom Mitchelville is named, set aside land to create a "Negro village" in October 1862.

Each family was given a quarter-acre plot to build a home and grow crops. The village of about 1,500 was built along what is now Beach City Road at the island's north end.


The belongings and household goods indicate the freedmen were able to earn a living, and purchase goods for pleasure that expressed their tastes, said Natalie Hefter, vice president of programs at the Coastal Discovery Museum.

"These items -- which haven't seen the light of day in more than 150 years -- demonstrate their efforts to identify themselves as free people," Hefter said.

One of the most common means of expression was through clothes. The formerly enslaved had no say in what they wore, and the newly freed who flocked to Mitchelville often were given discarded military clothing.

An 1863 account from government agent Edward L. Price and the discovery of clothing fasteners, scissors, thimbles, buttons, beads and buckles suggest a determination to shed "the Negro cloth" and create new identities as free people, according to the exhibit.

Residents earned a living working in the military encampments as guides, carpenters, servants, cooks, blacksmiths, stable hands and laborers. Mechanics earned $8 to $12 a month; other laborers made $4 to $8 a month, according to government records.

Some worked as paid laborers on local cotton plantations. Others sold vegetables, seafood, eggs and other food, and many able men enlisted in the Union Army.

Some of the most striking items found, however, were ink wells, slate tablets and pencil fragments.

Soon after the Union captured Hilton Head, Northern missionaries arrived to set up schools. Mitchelville became the first community in South Carolina to make school attendance compulsory for all children ages 6 to 15, according to the exhibit.

"By all accounts Mitchelville's inhabitants, including adults, were eager and joyful to learn," Butler wrote in an email. "It's hard to imagine how much this meant to people who by law were not allowed before to read and write."


The exhibit, open now, runs through December.

Joyce Wright, executive director of the Mitchelville Preservation Project, said the exhibit helps the nonprofit organization build awareness of its efforts to re-create a portion of the village as a living-history site.

"It gives an added, tangible dimension to a small piece of history that wasn't exposed to locals or others across the state and country," Wright said. "Now, we have things we can go back and refer to. ... And it provides a greater opportunity to identify Hilton Head not only as a resort destination, but an important historical and cultural destination, and develop the tale of Mitchelville as more than just a footnote or line in American history."

Follow reporter Tom Barton at

Related content:

Clemson students help trace Mitchelville's descendants: Oct. 14, 2013

Mitchelville exhibit's images, artifacts give form to freedom: Aug. 3, 2013

Kiosk brings to light Mitchelville's hidden story: May 22, 2012

Historians, scholars delve into Mitchelville history at inaugural forum: Oct. 22, 2011

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