The Port Royal Experiment was a bold Federal government – private initiative to ready the former enslaved abandoned by their owners after the Battle of Port Royal Sound in November 1861 for life as freed individuals. In early 1862, Edward L. Pierce and Rev. Mansfield French arrived to survey local conditions and circumstances and determine what should be done. Soon representatives of the American Missionary Association, Educational Commission of Boston, the National Freedman’s Relief Association, and the Port Royal Relief Committee began schools to educate the freedmen, dispensed medical services, and other relief as needed. Many of these so-called “Gideonites” later worked with the Freedman’s Bureau from 1865 – 1872. A few stayed many years, among them Laura M. Towne whose Penn School became one of the first institutions to educate the former enslaved.
Compiled by Grace Morris Cordial, MLS, SL, CA, Beaufort District Collection Manager, Beaufort County Library (SC). Latest revision: 30 November 2020. All links active on 5 May 2020. Created: 21 February 2011.
“Teachers” (Reed Collection, Beaufort District Collection)
The Lifestyle of Freedmen at Mitchelville, Hilton Head Island: Evidence of a Changing Pattern of Afro-American Archaeological Visibility by Michael Trinkley, Chicora Foundation, 2001.
Of Freedom Unto All: An Archaeological Examination of the Port Royal Experiment by Michael Trinkley, Chicora Foundation, 2001.
“The Port Royal Experiment” by Ben Parton in the Essential Civil War Curriculum web series at the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Polytechnic and State University, 2010 – present.
New South newspaper (March 15, 1861 – September 29, 1866) is also available on microfilm in our Research Room.
Beaufort Republican newspaper (October 12, 1871 – October 16, 1873) is also available on microfilm in our Research Room.
For a visual treat in case you are unaware of some of the treasures about Smith’s Plantation in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs catalog. Insert the keywords “Smith’s Plantation Beaufort” in the search box for 14 highly relevant results (as of this revision).
The Beaufort District Collection has two mid-19th century stereoscopic photograph collections posted online through our long partnership with the Lowcountry Digital Library that contain images of the Port Royal area:
Check out these materials from a SCLENDS Library:
After Slavery: The Negro in South Carolina during Reconstruction, 1861 – 1877 by Joel Williamson, University Press of New England, 1990.
Bury Me Not in a Land of Slaves: African-Americans in the Time of Reconstruction by Joyce Hansen, F. Watts, 2000.
Department of the South: Hilton Head Island in the Civil War by Robert Carse, State Print Co., 1961. Photographic image on p. 58 of Department of the South by Carse has this caption: “The tents and arbors put up by General Stevens’ men by the Smith plantation house were still in use when this picture was taken, in 1864.” The “Illustrations Credits” on p. x, state that “Photographs in this book are from the United States War Department General Staff and from the private collection of Charles E. Fraser.”
Letters and Diary of Laura M. Towne: Written from the Sea Islands of South Carolina, 1862 – 1884, edited by Rupert Sargent Holland, Reprint ed., Higginson Book Co., 1996.
The Northern Teacher in the South, 1862-1870 by Henry Lee Swint, Octagon Books, 1967.
Rebellion, Reconstruction, and Redemption, 1861 – 1893, volume 2: The History of Beaufort County South Carolina by Stephen R. Wise and Lawrence S. Rowland, University of South Carolina Press, 2015.
Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863 – 1877 by Eric Foner, HarperPerennial, 2014.
Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment by Willie Lee Rose, Oxford University Press, 1976. This remains the most important book about the era as it played out on the Sea Islands in Beaufort District.
A Sea Island Diary: A History of St. Helena Island by Edith Dabbs, Reprint Co., 1983.
Schooling the Freed People: Teaching, Learning, and the Struggle for Black Freedom, 1861 – 1876 by Ronald E. Cutchart, University of North Carolina, 2010.
The Story of Sea Island Cotton by Richard Porcher and Sarah Fick, Gibbs Smith, 2010.
Yankee Missionaries in the South: The Penn School Experiment by Elizabeth Jacoway, Louisiana State University Press, 1980.
A Yankee Scholar in Coastal South Carolina: William Francis Allen’s Civil War Journals edited by James Robert Hester, University of South Carolina Press, 2015.
Come to the Beaufort District Collection Research Room to view these materials:
SC 973 HAN 2000 Bury me not in a land of slaves: African-Americans in the Time of Reconstruction by Joyce Hansen, F. Watts, 2000.
SC 973.715 BOT First Days Amongst the Contrabands by Elizabeth Hyde Botume, Lee and Shepard, 1893.
SC 973.77579 ALL 2015 A Yankee Scholar in Coastal South Carolina: William Francis Allen’s Civil War Journals edited by James Robert Hester, University of South Carolina Press, 2015.
SC 973.8 TEL Cultivating a New South: Abbie Holmes Christensen and the Politics of Race and Gender, 1852-1938 by Monica Maria Tetzlaff, University of South Carolina Press, 2002.
SC 975.799 PEN The Nomination of the “Emancipation Proclamation Site” to the National Register, 1993-1995 by the Michigan Support Group of Penn Center of the Sea Islands, no date given. 20 pages. Annotation: On January 1, 1863, Brigadier General Rufus Saxton told the contraband slaves who had assembled at the John Joiner Smith Plantation that they were formally free. One hundred thirty years later, a re-enactment of that momentous event was staged on the site involving local and state government officials, the 1st South Carolina Volunteers Reenactment group, the Penn Center organization, and interested citizens. This brief but meaty booklet details the nomination of the site for the National Register of Historic Places, supplying copies of the original submission for inclusion and supporting documentation. (gmc)
SC 975.799 ROW V. 2 Rebellion, Reconstruction, and Redemption, 1861 – 1893, volume 2: The History of Beaufort County South Carolina by Stephen R. Wise and Lawrence S. Rowland, University of South Carolina Press, 2015.
SC 975.799 TOW Letters and Diary of Laura M. Towne: Written from the Sea Islands of South Carolina, 1862 – 1884, edited by Rupert Sargent Holland, Reprint ed., Higginson Book Co., 1996.
SC 975.799 TRI The Archaeological Manifestations of the “Port Royal Experiment” at Mitchelville, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina by Michael Trinkley, Chicora Foundation, 2001.
Beaufort County Historical Society Papers
BCHS Paper, #45. “The Great Port Royal Experiment Following the War Between the States,” by W. Brantley Harvey, Jr., unpublished paper presented before the Beaufort County Historical Society, no date.
BCHS Paper, #53. “Occupation of the Beaufort Area by Northern Forces During the War,” by Roger Pinckney, 10th. , unpublished paper presented before the Beaufort County Historical Society, 1975.
BCHS Paper, #62. “William Henry Brisbane: South Carolina Slaveholder and Abolitionist,” by Blake McNulty, unpublished paper presented before the Beaufort County Historical Society, 1984.
SC MM 5 “Connecticut Yankee in a Praise House School” by Dr. Josephine W. Martin, 40th Annual Meeting Address South Caroliniana Society, 21 April 1976.
BDC Vertical Files
- Port Royal Experiment
- Reconstruction Heritage Partnership
- History—Reconstruction, 1865-1898
- Emancipation Oak
- See Oaks (tree)
- See also Emancipation Proclamation – Commemoration
- Emancipation Proclamation
- Emancipation Proclamation – Commemoration
- Gannett, William Channing (1840-1923)
- Towne, Laura Matilda (1825-1901)
- Grimke, Charlotte Lottie Forten (1837-1914)
- Schools – Mather School
Map #283 Smiths Plantation, 26 May 1864
Maps #102 -117, 274, 629 and 804 relate to the Tax Sale of properties 1863 – 1876
Penn Center, Inc. Penn School Papers, 1862-1976 [33 Microfilm reels, BDC only]
The Penn School, 1862-1948 [Microfilm] : A Look at Negro Education in South Carolina : Master’s Thesis, UNC-Chapel Hill, 1968.
New South newspaper (March 15, 1861 – September 29, 1866)
Free South newspaper (January 17, 1863 – November 19, 1864)
Palmetto Herald newspaper (March 17, 1864 – December 29, 1864)
Beaufort Republican newspaper (October 12, 1871 – October 16, 1873) – also online at
Palmetto Post newspaper (January 5, 1882 – December 27, 1906)
Note: The Beaufort District Collection (BDC) exists to acquire, preserve, maintain and make accessible a research collection of permanent value which records the history, culture, and environment of the South Carolina lowcountry wedged between the Combahee (pronounced “kum-bee”) and Savannah Rivers.
Contact the Beaufort District Collection at 843-255-6468 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for additional information about local history and archives relating to the people, places, and themes of the history, culture, and natural environment of Beaufort County, Jasper County and Hampton County, South Carolina.
Please check the Beaufort County Library (SC) system’s homepage for current hours of operation and locations.