In the days following the U.S. military’s capture of Port Royal, South Carolina in November of 1861, hundreds of enslaved men, women and children flocked to military encampments and Union Navy vessels, seeking freedom and protection from Confederate raids aimed at returning them to slavery. As the numbers of those seeking sanctuary began to swell, the U.S. military established temporary contraband camps on and around the sea islands of South Carolina and Georgia. Two such encampments were established at Otter Island, South Carolina and Tybee Island, Georgia.
In March of 1862, military superintendents of the Otter Island and Tybee Island contraband camps recorded the names of the men, women and children in those camps. Remarkably, the lists also contain the names of the final slaveholders of the more than 100 individuals in the camps. The records are preserved in the collection “United States Union Provost Marshal Files of Two or More Civilians, 1861-1866,” digitized at FamilySearch.org. Here, we present transcriptions of those census lists, and a brief background of the contraband camps at Otter Island and Tybee Island.
Otter Island is a small island opposite Edisto Beach on the South Carolina coast. It is bounded by the Ashepoo River and St. Helena Sound. Now part of the St. Helena Sound Heritage Preserve/Wildlife Management Area, the island of just under 2,000 acres was a strategic point for the United States military to occupy because of its proximity to Charleston1.
The Confederate Army established a fort on Otter Island in 1861, but abandoned the fort in November of that year after the Union capture of Port Royal. Union army and naval forces occupied the abandoned fort on Otter Island in December of 1861. There, they encountered a small settlement of self liberated African Americans, some of whom provided important intelligence of Confederate movements and positions in the area. Naval Commander Percival Drayton established a contraband camp at Otter Island in December of 1861. The camp was placed under the supervision and protection of Navy Lieutenant James W. Nicholson, whose ships patrolled the waters around Otter Island to protect the contrabands from Confederate raids, and provide cover for contrabands as they foraged for food provisions2.
The lists transcribed below are searchable. You may also select how many rows to view per page for each list. These lists were transcribed by Alana Thevenet.
Descriptive List of Negro Contrabands Under Age on Otter Island, March 31, 18624
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Descriptive List of Male Contrabands On Otter Island April 1 1862: Males Over Age4
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Descriptive List of Female Contrabands on Otter Island, April 1, 1862: Females Over Age4
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Suggestions for Further Research
If you find an ancestor’s name among these lists, there are several avenues of research you can pursue next. Here are some starting points:
- Search Freedmen’s Bureau records to see if your ancestors had further interactions with the U.S. military or the Freedmen’s Bureau. You can start at www.discoverfreedmen.org to search for your ancestor’s name.
- Search for your ancestors in the collection “United States, Freedman’s Bank Records, 1865-1874” on FamilySearch.org.
- Search for your ancestor in the 1870 and 1880 U.S. Census. Note their location in relation to the slaveholder – did they return to their pre-1862 homes, or choose to live in an entirely different location?
- Research the slaveholder in the U.S. Census Slave Schedules. Note the age of your ancestor in the 1862 list, then search the 1860 U.S. Census Slave Schedules for the name of the slaveholder, to verify that they held an enslaved person of the gender and age that would match your ancestor’s age in 1860.
- Research the slaveholder’s genealogy to identify other slaveholding family members. In most cases you need not start from scratch, you may find family trees on Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.org that have been posted by descendants. Do be sure to conduct your own research to verify the family relationships in any family tree you find.
- If your ancestors were adults in 1862, search for probate records for the parents of the final slaveholder in the list transcribed here, to see if your ancestors are mentioned in wills, estate inventories or estate accounts. South Carolina probate records and Georgia probate records are searchable on Ancestry.com.
If you would like to learn more about the contraband camp at Otter Island, please see the book Bluejackets and Contrabands: African Americans and the Union Navy, by Barbara Tomblin. The book is searchable at Project Muse.
 Map of Otter Island, Edisto Beach. https://www.edistobeach.com/otter-island/, accessed 8 Aug 2017.
 Tomblin, Barbara 2009 Bluejackets and Contrabands: African Americans and the Union Navy. University Press of Kentucky, pp. 66-68.
 Leslie, Frank. 1896 “Famous Leaders and Battle Scenes of the Civil War.” New York, NY: Mrs. Frank Leslie, 1896. Digitized by The Florida Center for Instructional Technology.
 “United States Union Provost Marshal Files of Two or More Civilians, 1861-1866,” images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:939V-MV97-NR?cc=1845948&wc=M6KL-T38%3A165419801%2C165440901 : 22 May 2014), Records by Number and Date > 00821-01078, Mar.-Apr. 1862 > image 754 of 1211; citing NARA microfilm publication M416 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).