The Rost Home Colony, St. Charles Parish, Louisiana
By Michael F. Knight
After the Civil War, a major task faced by the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands was to help newly freed slaves adjust to their new lives. In Louisiana, the field office there established four "home colonies," self-sustaining agricultural collectives that also provided schools, commercial stores, and a hospital. These colonies, the brainchild of the assistant commissioner of the Louisiana field office, Rev. Thomas Conway, were meant to be safe havens for persecuted freedmen as well as sites for training and educating them with the necessary skills for survival in post - Civil War Louisiana.
The Rost Colony in St. Charles Parish was by far the most successful of the four. The other three colonies, McHatton Colony near Baton Rouge, the Sparks Plantation in Jefferson Parish, and the Bragg Plantation in Lafourche Parish, never financially broke even as the Rost Colony did. The reasons for their lack of viability range from earlier claims by former owners for the return of the plantations to their lack of adequate medical and support facilities. Although the Rost Home Colony existed for only two years (1865 - 1866), the records created for tracking the lives of those freedmen fortunate enough to take advantage of its services have left genealogists with an invaluable resource. This article examines the information found in the "Registers of Arrivals and Departures of Freedmen at the Rost Home Colony" in the Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, Field Office Records for Louisiana (Record Group 105).
The two-volume register lists the names of freedmen laborers and heads of households at the colony, the names of their family members who accompanied them, the sex and age of each individual, date of arrival at the colony, and date of departure and destination. Also listed are the individual's (or family's) place of origin, former owner's name, former occupation, familial connections to other groups or individual freedmen who arrived at a different date, and lists of subsistence stores (clothing, food, farming equipment) distributed to them. The register also contains assessments of the person's physical or mental well being and general remarks further describing them.
The Freedmen's Bureau
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, most often referred to simply as the Freedmen's Bureau, was created by an act of Congress on March 3, 1865.1 On May 12, 1865, Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard was assigned as the commissioner for the fledgling bureau. The bureau was a quasi-military organization charged with aiding the freedmen with financial, educational, social, and political matters in the Southern and border states.2 An assistant commissioner headed each field office and oversaw the bureau's activities in the states.
The Louisiana field office of the Freedmen's Bureau divided the state into seven districts. Each district consisted of one to three parishes supervised by an individual with the cumbersome title of assistant sub-assistant commissioner (most often referred to simply as agents).3 The first agents assigned in 1865 were almost exclusively former Federal army officers who had served in the Civil War or active army officers. Between late 1865 and 1868, many of these officers mustered out of the service or returned to their original homes and were replaced by civilians deemed "of high moral character and organizational skills.4 Commissioner Howard and his headquarters officers were given nearly complete autonomy by Congress to create policy for the Freedmen's Bureau. In turn, the assistant commissioners were given wide discretion to set field policies and administer their state operations.5
Seizure of Judge Rost's Property
The first assistant commissioner in Louisiana, Rev. Thomas Conway, used this power with great zeal. During the war, Conway had recruited black troops and supervised Negro laborers in Louisiana.6 In his brief role as assistant commissioner for the state, he pursued aggressive policies that proved extremely unpopular among whites in the volatile environment of postwar Louisiana. He circumvented the state's newly reconstituted legal system by setting up special courts to hear cases of freedmen's complaints, and he aggressively appropriated the property of former Confederate officers and politicians for bureau use. Conway directed that these confiscated lands specifically be used for the betterment of the freedmen's conditions.7
Judge Pierre A. Rost had been a high court judge in antebellum Louisiana before offering his services as an administrator to the Confederate government in 1861. He was assigned as the Confederate representative, or ambassador, to Spain for most of the war.8 On Conway's orders, the Louisiana Freedmen's Bureau seized Judge Rost's house in New Orleans and converted it into two schools for orphaned colored children.
The bureau also seized two plantation properties belonging to Judge Rost. One of these plantations was the Rost/Destrehan Plantation in St. Charles Parish. The bureau designated this plantation as one of four "home colonies" in Louisiana for the protection and care of freedmen and indigent refugees.9
In his 1867 annual report to Commissioner Howard, newly appointed Assistant Commissioner Joseph A. Mower went to great lengths to explain why Rost Colony was created and why he had advocated the continuation of the colony experiment. Mower cited the bureau's lack of resources and inability to properly train replacement agents as a reason why the bureau was unable to support more than two-thirds of the 150,000 freedmen he estimated were in Louisiana. The colonies were formed as a means of centralizing services such as medical and educational aid for the freedmen. He also noted that efforts to monitor contracts between freedmen and white planters throughout Louisiana overburdened the bureau. Mower charged the planters with wholesale defrauding of freedmen by intimidating them into accepting only verbal contracts and then refusing to pay them. He also charged that many planters were simply ignoring the written contracts brokered by the bureau and not paying freedmen for their labor. A home colony, he argued, allowed the bureau to more easily monitor contracts and eliminate swindling of the freedmen.10
Mower noted that the bureau was most effective in reaching freedmen with aid in the relatively few areas throughout Louisiana where troops were stationed. However, in areas where troops were not stationed, Mower charged that a climate of terror existed with rampant murder, beatings, rape, attacks, and destruction of freedmen's property by whites. His charges were similar to those listed in the previous year's annual report to Commissioner Howard in which the field office also cited widespread abuse and intimidation of bureau agents by the white population in Louisiana, culminating in the murder of bureau agent Lt. Simeon G. Butts in 1866. The report also described a rise in violent opposition to homesteading freedmen on farmable land.11
The Rost Home Colony is Born
Early in 1865, Circular Order 29 established the Rost Home Colony. Initially the colony consisted mostly of freedmen already residing on the Rost Plantation. Supervised by agent Capt. J. M. Blanchard, the colony was envisioned as a self-contained collective where freedmen families worked either for wages or for a share of the crop. The rest of the crop was to be distributed and sold by the bureau's agents. The colony featured its own schools, hospital, commissary, crop distribution and storage facilities, cotton gins, facilities for converting sugar cane to molasses, equipment repair shops, and freedmen-owned stores. In December 1865, Assistant Commissioner Absalom Baird requested that the headquarters of the Department of Louisiana transfer a squad of the Ninety-sixth United States Colored Troops from the Sparks Home Colony to Rost for increased protection of the freedmen, also ensuring that the colony had its own black police force.12
Rost Home Colony: A Budding Success Story
Despite the blights and floods devastating crops in Louisiana, the social and political conflicts racking the state, depressed prices for goods and high inflation throughout the South, and the relatively few freedmen at the colony capable of providing labor at any given time, the colony produced bountiful harvests and products from January to October 1866. In the second and last year of its existence, the colony paid for its own upkeep and returned a tidy profit to the bureau. The annual report for 1866 reported that the Louisiana Bureau spent $80,000 on direct support for the colonists at Rost. During the same period the plantation covered these expenses and returned $14,150 in profits. It is a lasting tribute to the administration of the Louisiana Freedmen's Bureau and the industriousness of the Rost Colony freedmen laborers that for all of 1866 they produced 31,500 pounds of picked cotton, 10,500 additional pounds of unpicked cotton, and 350 acres of sugar cane that produced 420,000 pounds of sugar and 6,000 gallons of molasses.13
The bureau invested the profits in United States bonds deposited at the Freedmen's Bank of New Orleans. In July of 1867, nearly eight months after the Rost Home Colony was disbanded, the first installment of interest payments was released to the bureau. It totaled $588 and was used to fund the salaries for two new teachers at two colored orphans schools in New Orleans. Interestingly, no mention could be found in any of the annual reports describing what happened to the rest of the money and bonds invested on behalf of the Rost Home, and there is no mention that any funds were disbursed to former colonists from the Rost Plantation.
The Judge Comes Home
Ironically, at the height of its production and during the period of its largest population, the bureau ordered the closure of the Rost Home Colony. Judge Pierre Rost had returned from exile in Europe and used his well-placed political connections to expedite a pardon across President Johnson's desk. He ararived in New Orleans in December of 1865 with pardon in hand and demanded the return of all his property. He met with Assistant Commissioner Baird on several occasions, and a deal was struck whereby Rost would get his house in New Orleans and his Hermitage Plantation returned to his custody immediately. However, the Rost Home Colony would continue to exist until the end of 1866, and Judge Rost would receive rent payments from the bureau during the period that the freedmen occupied the plantation.14
In an impassioned letter to Commissioner Howard dated January 4, 1866, Baird requested that the Rost Home Colony not be returned to the judge. Baird went on to note that the extreme expense of maintaining the three other colonies (that had not been as successful as Rost) had occasioned their closings and the transfer of their populations to Rost Colony. This process had just been completed in December 1865, when Judge Rost applied for the return of all his property. Baird argued that the bureau had not anticipated that Rost would be able to secure a pardon due to his high position in the Confederate government, and as a result, it was assumed the Rost Home Colony would exist indefinitely. The bureau had therefore invested large portions of its budget into starting and running the colony. Baird lamented that there were some 720 residents at the colony in January 1866 and that 600 of them were sick or helpless. He confessed to the commissioner that his office would have to turn the majority of these freedmen out with no resources to support themselves.
Sensing that the return of the Rost Plantation was inevitable, Baird submitted the alternate plan to rent the plantation. Washington did order the colony returned but allowed Baird to sign a rental agreement with Judge Rost for one year. Beginning in July 1866, the sickest freedmen at the Rost Home Colony hospital were transferred to the New Orleans Freedmen's hospital. The last colonists left the Rost Plantation in early December 1866.
Genealogical Gold Mine
The "Registers of Arrivals and Departures" provide a starting point for identifying hundreds of freedmen by name and family connection. Entries in the volumes are arranged by arrival or departure (between February 1865 and July of 1866), and then chronologically by year. There is no separate index, but each entry contains citation numbers cross-indexing the appearance of an individual elsewhere in the registers.
Carefully recorded in neat columns on each page are the dates of arrival (in the order that they arrived that day) for each freedmen, with numbers directing one to the entry for their departure. Subsequent columns list full name, sex, age, physical condition, former owner, former residence, occupation, and special remarks. The names of family members are listed together on each page. These entries can be used to piece together information on the activities, whereabouts, and conditions of whole families.
The registers reveal that freedmen arrived in increasing numbers at the Rost Home Colony after February 1865. The high number of departures listed in the registers also show that the colony's population was in a constant state of flux. There are more than a thousand recorded arrivals in the registers for 1865 through 1866. According to the assistant commissioner's 1866 annual report, the population averaged just over seven hundred "regular" residents at any given time. Based on the number of entrants listed as infirm or sick, as well as the fact that the Rost Colony hospital was one of only three hospitals admitting blacks in the entire state, it appears that a majority of the freedmen came to the colony seeking medical attention.15 In a January 1866 letter to Commissioner Howard, Assistant Commissioner Baird listed 720 residents at Rost Home Colony, of which 120 were fit for labor, while 600 were described as too young, old, or sick, to work.16
Fountain Johnson and His Family
The potential for tracing family histories in these registers is revealed by tracking the Johnson clan's arrival at Rost Home Colony in March of 1865. Fountain Johnson and his twenty-one member family were former slaves from the McCutchen Plantation of St. Charles Parish who migrated to Rost Home Colony in search of work, medical attention, and a new beginning. This family's journey typifies the hardships, triumphs, and tragedies experienced by freedmen seeking protection and opportunity at the colony in 1865 and 1866.
The Johnson family arrived at Rost Home Colony on March 20, 1865, and were entered into the registers under the numbers 574 - 589. Fountain Johnson, age 41, was listed first, followed by Thomas (age 35), Louisa (36), Horace (31) and Sarah (30) Johnson. After the names of the related adults follow the names of their children, ranging in age from one month to twelve years. Fountain had been hired as a laborer at the Rost Home Colony. Several family entries down on the page and later on the same day, six more names appear with the last name Johnson. In the departures section at the end of each register, the names of departing freedmen are listed with a departure number. Above the departure number is another number that cross-indexes the name with an arrival number. Under the name Fountain Johnson, the family members are all listed; however, after the column listing each individual's sex is a column listing the family relation of each member (husband, wife, son, daughter, etc.). Furthermore, the column also reveals that the two Johnson families that arrived on March 20, 1865, are indeed related. The "remarks" column of departures often lists reasons for departure and occasionally the intended destination. The Johnson family departed Rost Home Colony October 10, 1865, because the family's working members had their contracts terminated (due to the closing of the colony).
Occasionally whites also visited the colony for assistance. Hanson Medley and his family departed the Rost Colony on July 20, 1865. In the "remarks" column for the entire family is a note stating that Hanson was "a white man with [a] colored family discharged to return to their homes in Florida."17
The Louisiana field office records for Rost Home Colony also contain a register of accounts of rations and clothing issued to the freedmen (volume 160), registers of births and deaths (volume 161, half a page of entries), a register of applications for laborers (volume 162), and a comprehensive register of sick and wounded freedmen in the hospital (volume 163). These registers can be used to get a more complete picture of the freedmen at the Rost Home Colony. Sadly, when the Johnson family left Rost Colony in October 1865, two of their children were left behind. Sarah and Josephine Johnson had both died of dysentery on the same day, July 2, 1865.
"Registers of Arrivals and Departures of Freedmen at the Rost Home Colony," from the Louisiana Field Office records in Record Group 105, are listed in the National Archives and Records Administration preliminary inventory number NM-95, part 1, Alabama - Louisiana, as entry numbers 1854 (volume 158) and 1678 (volume 159). Volume 158 contains the arrivals and departures for Rost Home Colony, and volume 159 is a combination of arrival and departures at Rost Home Colony and McHatton Home Colony (reflecting the transfer of residents at McHatton to Rost Home Colony late in 1865. These registers are not on microfilm, but researchers may view them in the Washington, D.C., research rooms of the National Archives and Records Administration.
Michael F. Knight is an archives specialist in the Old Military and Civil Records unit, National Archives and Records Administration. His subject specialty is nineteenth-century African American military records.
This article was completed with the kind assistance of Constance Potter, Reginald Washington, and James P. Collins.
1. Howard A. White, The Freedmen's Bureau in Louisiana (1970), p. 8.
2. Elaine Everly and Willna Pacheli, Preliminary Inventory NM 95 of the Records of the Field Offices of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands: RG 105 Part 1, Alabama to Louisiana (1973), p. 8.
3. "Reports of Operations and Conditions in Louisiana" in "Assistant Commissioner's Annual Reports, 1866," Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of Louisiana, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865 - 1869 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M1027, roll 27), Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, Record Group (RG) 105.
5. Preliminary Inventory NM 95, part 1, p. 2.
6. Howard A. White, The Freedmen's Bureau in Louisiana (1970), p. 18.
7. Thomas Conway to O. O. Howard, July 21, 1865, Records of the Field Offices of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, box 262, RG 105, National Archives Building (NAB), Washington, DC.
8. White, The Freedmen's Bureau in Louisiana, p. 53; Absalom Baird to Howard, Jan. 4, 1866, "Letters Sent," Vol. 17, p. 69, No. 11, Records of the Field Offices of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, RG 105, NAB.
9. Annual Report, 1866, M1027, roll 27.
10. Joseph A. Mower, "Assistant Commissioner's Annual Reports, 1867," M1027, roll 27.
11. Annual Report, 1866, M1027, roll 27.
12. Baird to Cranby, Dec. 6, 1865, "Letters Sent," Vol. 17, p. 32, Records of the Field Offices of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, RG 105, NAB.
13. Louisiana Assistant Commissioner's Annual Report, 1866, M1027, roll 27.
14. "Issuances," M1027, roll 26.
15. "Register of Arrivals and Departures, Roth [sic] Home Colony," entry 1854, Vol. 158, ibid.
16. Baird to Howard, Jan. 4, 1866, "Letters Sent," Vol. 17, p. 69, ibid.
17. "Register of Arrivals and Departures,
Roth [sic] Home Colony," entry 1854, Vol. 158, ibid.
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