Sunday, June 19, 2011

Lessons Learned from Contrabands at Camp Nelson

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I just had the experience of attending the week long Institute for Genealogical and Historical Research in Birmingham Alabama, on the beautiful Samford University Campus.  I participated in Course 8: Land Records: Using Maps.

We discussed many things including military maps. Examples of all kinds of military maps were shown, but one map caught my eye immediately.  It was a map of Camp Nelson, in Kentucky.

Map of Camp Nelson

The camp had been surveyed and platted by A.B. Miller, one of a small number of engineers approved by the government to survey military lands.

Map was platted and surveyed by A.B. Miller

The map is part of the National Archives Record Group 92 and the image is map number 74

But what caught my attention is that the map also reflected the presence on the military base of a community of refugee slaves.  This was, in fact, a contraband camp.

Map reflected "home for colored refugees"

I studied the map and became interested in the size.  The scale indicated that 1 inch was equal to 400 feet. By measuring the length of the refugee site, I was able to learn that the camp for former slaves was more than 1000 feet in length. It appeared that by the time the map was made, the camp no longer consisted of tents, but of separate dwelling for each family. 

Of course having a strong interest in contraband camps I decided to learn more about the Camp itself. Could I possibly learn something about the lives of the refugee slaves? 

Well I played with the name of Camp Nelson, and discovered a book, by Richard D. Sears.  His book is called  simply "Camp Nelson, Kentucky".  

Book by Richard Sears 

The book is a true gem for it also described how freedom was brought to many of the refugees and how they learned officially of their status:

(Image of text from Sear's book)

In March of 1865, several hundred refugees had occupied the camp and it was decided to move from the temporary tents to the use of wooden structures to serve as temporary homes for the refugees. Order was being established and the word was sent out by the superintendent of the camp that teachers were needed, as well.

Excert of letter from Sears book.  Letter appears on page 185 of book.

Some of the stories about the former slaves appear in the book, taken from official records.  On page 186 he tells the story of Martha Cooley, a slave of John Nave of Garrad County Kentucky.

(Excerpts taken from book by Richard D. Sears)

There were so many stories of the trials and agonies of the slaves who described the beatings and horrors of Kentucky slave holders who tried to prevent their slaves from escaping. Many stories described horrific beatings given to female slaves whose husbands had enlisted in the Union Army. But nevertheless, some did make it though and although conditions were harsh also at the contraband camp, with disease, Camp Nelson was still their portal to another life.

As I continued to read more, I was even more delighted to discover online, an actual image of the Camp Nelson Contraband Camp.

One of the points made in the week long course on maps at Samford, is that many maps tell stories.  This proved to be true, and it took me to an experience where I learned more about the lives of those slaves who escaped.  

I have such joy to learn of those who made it to freedom. And my heart aches for those who stayed behind and could not leave. Their fate was a painful one at the hands of angry masters in so many cases.

I never would have thought that a week long seminar on maps would provide another opportunity to learn more about some dimension of the lives of the ancestors.  

And on this day when we celebrate freedom, I  salute the Ancestors and thank them for their strength and endurance. 

It is upon their shoulders that I stand. And so, I shall continue to trace the footsteps of the Ancestors.


  1. The AAGGKY met at Camp Nelson on June 18th. It was the first time many of us had visited there even though it is on our doorstep, less than 10 miles from Lexington. I look forward to re-visiting in Sept when there will be a USCT reenactment. If you are ever in Kentucky, the AAGG of Kentucky would certainly welcome you. Sharyn Mitchell, Pres. AAGGKY

  2. Thank you for sharing your remarks. I am happy to learn that the local population is embracing this history. Contraband camps provided refuge for so many, even though many lost their lives just trying to get there, as well. Does the spot where the Freedmen camp have a marker?