Contrabands farming Edisto Island, South Carolina, in 1862. From James M. McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom” (illustrated edition, 2003) pg. 305. Original image in the collection of the U.S. Army Military History Institute.
“WELLINGTON. CONTRABANDS.–One of our young men having purchased a lot of timbered land, and made a large contract to furnish wood for the C.C. & C.R.R., finding it difficult to obtain the needed help, went in search of it, first to Canada, where he could find help–but the pay must be in Canada money. That wouldn’t do. So he went to St. Louis and there made arrangements for Contraband help. To perfect the arrangement he was obliged to make a contract with the Government Agent, binding himself and the contrabands to a faithful performance of specified duties. When it was announced, on the arrival of the Saturday night train, that ‘Col Stark and his black brigade were coming,’ the four corners of the Centre were thronged with those who were curious to see the freshly arrived contrabands from Missouri. They were eight in number; five able-bodied men, one woman, and two children, the youngest a little girl say seven years old. They marched up, rank and file, (carrying their beds and baggage,) and took up their quarters over the Sabbath at the popular Wellington House, and thence have removed to a comfortable log cabin on Mr. Stark’s land, and commenced labor as freedmen for very liberal wages and a comfortable support” (Lorain County News, 4-15-1863, pg. 3).
The term “contraband” was first applied to human beings in 1861. According to James McPherson’s seminal study of the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom, General Benjamin Butler declared three slaves who escaped to his lines to be “contraband of war” and therefore not subject to return under the Fugitive Slave Act. It was a decision that infuriated both the South and also Democrats in the North who were not in favor of black emancipation. But the Lincoln administration allowed Butler to proceed with the policy and slaves were soon pouring into Union positions, pleading for a kind of asylum. Their legal status remained extremely murky; General Butler himself wrote to the War Department asking for clarification as to whether such people were, in fact, free (pgs. 291-292).
There were nearly four million souls living in bondage in the United States in 1860. Historians do not agree on how many eventually liberated themselves and became known as contrabands; certainly anecdotal information and estimates from several urban areas suggest a number in the many tens of thousands. As the war progressed, the army struggled with the question of how best to support and employ the swelling numbers. In 1863, the Freedman’s Inquiry Commission was established to address the most pressing issues. The army began to create “home farms” to employ former slaves, and then to relocate large groups around the country to work, including cotton harvesting for the benefit of Northern and British textile mills. McPherson wrote, “The quality of supervision of contraband labor ranged from the benign to a brutal paternalism, prefiguring the spectrum of labor relations after the war. Part of the freedmen’s wages was often withheld until the end of the season to ensure that they stayed on the job, and most of the rest was deducted for food and shelter. Many contrabands, understandably, could see little difference between this system of ‘free’ labor and the bondage they had endured all their lives” (pg. 619).
And so back to our 1863 notice. The mental image it conjured, of eight weary travelers carrying all their worldly possessions through a gawking throng of strangers, haunted me and made me yearn to know more. The most obvious path forward was to investigate the named employer, Mr. Stark. He was described as a young local man who had just purchased a tract of forested land. I looked at corporation tax records for Wellington for the years 1863 and 1864 and found nothing. I then broadened my search to include the seven Lorain County townships that border Wellington. I found a single taxpayer called Stark: Julius P. Stark purchased one-hundred-fourteen acres of land in Penfield in 1863, then sold the parcel off in 1865.
Detail from “Atlas of Lorain County, Ohio. 1874.” Pg. 43. The circled lot belonged to Julius P. Stark from 1863 to 1865. It was bordered on the north by what is today Route 71 and on the west by modern Route 48. Photo by author.
I had already examined the Lorain County News, looking at all Wellington notices for a year after the publication date of Stark’s mention. Now I returned to the newspaper and searched all issues from 1863 to the end of 1865 for any mention of Penfield. I soon stumbled on this: “A GOOD WOMAN IN TROUBLE.–A poor and worthy colored woman lost, near Penfield’s shop, on Monday of last week, a purse containing about three dollars.–The money had just come from her husband who is at work in a distant State and was about to be used in the purchase of winter stores, which the family sorely needs. The loss was a great one and cost the distressed family many tears. Will not the finder of the purse leave it at Fitch’s Bookstore and lest the money should not be recovered, will not those who have generous hearts hand to the post master, as they call for their mails, a contribution, in behalf of the suffering family, of a few pennies to each person” (Lorain County News, 9-30-1863, pg. 3).
Admittedly, Penfield was a family surname in the area. It is unclear from the article whether it refers to a shop in the village of Penfield, or simply a shop owned elsewhere by someone called Penfield. (The placement of the notice is also ambiguous; its nearest column heading is ‘Oberlin,’ but the piece immediately above it describes an incident that occurred in Amherst.) I decided to check federal census records to see if the Penfield post-war enumerations contained any reference to black residents.
In 1860, there was not a single person of color included in the twenty-two page listing of Penfield’s citizens. But by 1870, that had changed. Five years after the Civil War ended, there were two separate black households in Penfield, in which ten people lived. The first household was home to William Brown and his wife, Sarah, both aged thirty. Their daughter, Mary Ann, was listed as fifteen years old and the only non-white student in the township. William and Sarah were both born in Kentucky, their child in Mississippi. Though William owned no land, his personal estate had an estimated worth of $350. He was by no means the wealthiest man in his neighborhood, but neither was he the poorest.
The second household was larger and less well-off, with two families cohabitating. Jacob Brown, 68, and his wife Rena, 66, were originally from Georgia and North Carolina respectively. George Taylor, 29, was from Tennessee. His wife, Lucinda, 27, was from Georgia; two of her children, Betsy (3) and William (2) had also been born in Georgia. Baby Sarah Ann, just two months old when the census was taken on July 7, 1870, had been born in Ohio. No one in this household owned any real estate or personal property of note. Each of the three adult black men included in the census was listed as a “farm laborer.”
1870 Federal Census for Penfield, Ohio showing William Brown, farm laborer, and his family. Pg. 12, household #89.
1870 Federal Census for Penfield, Ohio showing Jacob Brown, farm laborer, and his extended household. Pg. 16, household #117.
Were any of these people part of the group that traveled to Ohio from Missouri in 1863? It is tempting to note that the Lorain County News highlighted a “little girl say seven years old.” Seven years later, Mary Ann Brown was recorded as fifteen years of age in the Penfield census. Of course, that proves nothing. In the absence of further documentary evidence, there is no way to know what happened to the contrabands. Indeed, by 1880 Penfield again had zero residents of color. What became of the William Brown family, the Jacob Brown family, and the Taylors? Further research is clearly needed.
There is at least one more contraband connection to Wellington. In 1899, The Wellington Enterprise published a two-column obituary for David “Davy” Jackson, born into slavery ca. 1840 in Virginia. Jackson fled to General Philip Sheridan’s army as it moved through the Shenandoah Valley in the fall of 1864. Eventually, he fell into the service of then-Captain Albert C. Houghton (1841-1931), who later wrote Jackson’s obituary. When Houghton was severely injured at the Battle of Five Forks in 1865, Jackson nursed him back to health and returned with him to Wellington Township, living on the Houghton family farm for a decade. He attended the District No. 4 school one winter and Albert’s younger sister, Edith, attempted to teach him to read. “He took great pride and dignity in ”spounding the scriptures’ to the few colored boys in the village who had come from slavery land with their heritage of ignorance” (10-11-1899, pg. 4). David was not the only African-American man living in Wellington in the postbellum years; the 1870 federal census shows nine black residents and seven more classified as “mulatto,” i.e. persons of mixed racial ancestry.
1870 Federal Census for Wellington, Ohio showing David Jackson (second line from bottom) , farm laborer, living with the Houghton family. Pg. 14, household #108.
1880 Federal Census for Wellington, Ohio showing David Jackson (bottom line) , laborer, living with the Vischer family. Pg. 30, household #359.
Jackson saved enough money from his wages to both support family in Virginia and start a business (of lumbering, coincidentally). The business failed and David went to work as a coachman for Wellington organ and piano merchant William Vischer (1838-1914). For seven years, he lived in a small red house behind the Vischer residence, which once stood at 216 South Main Street but was demolished in 2009. All told, Jackson remained in Wellington for nearly two decades before relocating to Detroit, where he died as a result of an industrial accident at the age of fifty-nine.
Though Albert Houghton clearly felt affection enough for Jackson to write and publish such a lengthy tribute, his racial attitudes could hardly be characterized as enlightened. The obituary concluded, “To those who knew Davy Jackson thoroughly it was noticeable that his face, although black, his heart was white as his spirit that shone through it.” Contrabands may have escaped the institution of slavery during the war, but the movement to achieve true equality under the law, and end discrimination based on the color of a person’s skin, would sadly continue for many generations to come.
ETA: I have been informed by a knowledgeable local historian that there was a Fitch’s Bookstore in Oberlin in the 1860s. That suggests the notice about a woman losing her purse and money did occur in Oberlin, rather than Penfield.