On the heels of the Union’s first military victory of the Civil War at Fort Hatteras in August 1861, Northern forces took Roanoke Island in 1862 in another of the earliest Union military victories over the Confederates. Escaped slaves seeking the army’s protection began pouring onto the island. In response, the army seized local property to use for the establishment of a Freedmen’s Colony on the north end of the island in what became one of the first free African American communities established by the federal government in the South during the Civil War. Some of the former slaves helped rebuild the forts on Roanoke and Hatteras islands and others found jobs such as cooks, woodworkers and blacksmiths. Still others became army scouts, spies, or enlisted in the Union Army. At its peak population, there were nearly 4,000 former slaves from across the east who had made their way to Freedman’s Colony. When the war ended, the land was returned to the original owners. With no home to call their own, many former slaves left the island. Of the few families who remained, many were able to do so because Richard Etheridge of black lifesaver fame sold them portions of property that he had acquired. Several Freedmen’s Colony descendants still live on the Outer Banks.
While the Freedman’s Colony no longer exists today, you can experience its spirit and learn at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. Located outside the Fort Raleigh visitor center the First Light of Freedom Monument commemorates the Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony. Inscribed on the back, visitor can view a brief description of the colony that was located approximately one mile west of the monument. From the First Light of Freedom Monument travel west to the Freedom Trailhead located at the parking area to the Elizabethan Gardens. This 1.25-mile trail winds through mixed pine forests to the shores of Croatan Sound. At the terminus, explore the panel describing the battle of Roanoke Island and stand on the ground where the north end of the Freedmen’s Colony once stood.