Monday, March 9, 2009

Cultural Geography

Though President's Island* has always suffered flooding, it is said to exist on high ground. Though people assume that the island is named after Andrew Jackson, who appears to have once owned land there, the name predates this history. The truth is that the island, earlier called President Island, was so called because of its size. Known also as Island No. 45, it is one of the largest, if not the largest, on the Mississippi River. Its size is approximately 9,000 acres. The island, possibly also referred to as "Great Island," is located three miles from Downtown Memphis (and one mile below Fort Pickering) and can be reached via the Jack Carley Causeway.
During the War
Probably the most exact description of the camp was offered by General David Tillson, at one point head of the Freedman's Bureau at Memphis. Tillson, evaluating the camps in the city, reported that the camp was generally well run but that the streets were poorly laid out.

While most camps have been perceived as wretched, it is clear that refugees at President's Island were not without housing. Someone has referred to the "huts" of President's Island while Coffin noted that housing consisted of tents. Even when Coffin visited in 1863, it would appear that structure-wise and spiritually a community already had been created, for Coffin talks about attending church services on the island.

After the War
Far too little writing on the subject of President's Island has been done locally. From time to time, perhaps every ten years or so, a story will appear in the Commercial Appeal on the history of the island. In most cases, however, such stories suggest that the slave colony was created by the Freedmen's Bureau after the war. While the Freedmen's Bureau did not in fact come into existence until March of 1865, the contraband camp on the island "officially" opened in early 1863. This once-well known fact has been for maybe political reasons mostly lost to history. The correct dating of black residence on the island is important to the process of recovering the physical character of this community. If black residence on the island is perceived, for instance, as short-lived or temporary, this perception provides little ground for arguing that the site should receive preservation attention. Records reveal that blacks in fact lived on the island for as many as one hundred years, from Memphis' frontier era through the middle of the 20th century.
According to Rob Roberson, a long-time black resident interviewed in the '30s, there was once a store, and there was also a graveyard, located at the end of the island. A picture of the church was published with the Roberson interview. Another spokesperson, a white landowner by the name of Joe Sailors, considered to be president of the island, said that on his land, "high and dry in the middle of the plantation [was] a big stretch of sand, the former 'baptising' place for the island."** Between this sacred space and the graveyard, there are ghosts on President's Island waiting for acknowledgment.
*Referred to as President's Island by river voyagers as early as 1811. See Commercial Appeal, 1/19/1947.
**Press Scimitar, 11/2/1937.


alisea mcleod said...

According to an article in the Commercial Appeal, January 19, 1947, 1500 "refugees" lived on the island in the spring of 1865. The men farmed and worked in sawmills; the women learned to sew and cook.

Angela said...

I am glad that I located this site! My ancestors lived on President's Island from Fall of 1864 till after the end of the Civil War. The information about the settlement on President's Island came from the Civil War Pension file of my gr. gr. grandmother, Amanda Young. One of the witnesses was Mary Paralee Young, who testified on her behalf. They had been slaves in Ripley Mississippi, when a raid of Union soldiers came through the town. Many of the men joined the US Colored Troops, including Mary Paralee's husband Joseph. She described how the young women followed their husbands. When they got to Corinth---there was no room at the large contraband camp there, so they put these refugee slaves on a train to Memphis and on to President's Island. I have been trying to locate this place ever since. I found Alisea McLeod's site about 2 years ago, but did not bookmark it and "lost" it. So glad to find something about it again, and to see Alisea McLeod's posts.
(I have bookmarked it this time.)

alisea mcleod said...

Angela, I am equally glad that you located the site, and I am intrigued by your ancestors who lived on the island. Your story is fascinating. I'm interested in knowing how exactly the information about President's Island and the move from Corinth was explained. I have read exactly this same description in one of the relevant history books. The camp at Corinth was ordered closed and freedmen were moved to Memphis. The fact that Mary Paralee Young described this experience is invaluable to our recovering this history. In a sense, these two camps were "sister" camps since so many who ended up on P.I. started out in Corinth.
I'm also wondering what unit your ancestor, Joseph, was in. I imagine he was mustered in at Memphis? Does this show in his pension record? Have you ordered his service record as well? If not, do that since additional information will be made available to you in that record.
I think that it is great that Amanda Young was able to receive the pension. That too makes her story so interesting and important.
If you haven't already, check out:

You may or may not know as well that the camp at Corinth was officially recognized by that town's community in 2004. Though there is much work to be done, my goal is to campaign for the recognition of the many other camps including that at President's Island. More on this later.

Keep the dialogue going. Write back.