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Mystery Solved: New Bern census of 1863

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In early January, I received a question from a patron via email regarding information in an NCpedia article about Union Volunteer Regiments in North Carolina during the Civil War. In the article, it states that an 1863 census of the freed black population of New Bern was 8,500. The patron wanted to know if the census listed them by name and also the location. In order to find out if they listed them by name, I needed to find out where the census was located. Since this question was related to 2 other research projects I’m working on, I took a lot more time than usual to find this information. It was a 3 week journey with a lot of twists and turns and surprising finds! My intent is to use this as an example of how to follow sources back to the original.

My first step to find this source of information was to look at the list of references at the end of the NCpedia article. None of them were primary sources and I had no idea which one the information came from. The NCpedia article is a verbatim transcript from the book Encyclopedia of North Carolina. I also googled the terms “1863 census” and “New Bern.” I came up with the book by Judkin Browning called Shifting Loyalties: the Union Occupation of Eastern North Carolina. Page 88 talks about a census  in an 1864 report with 8,500 freedmen in New Bern. He cites a couple of sources on that page and one stuck out to me: [Horace] James, Annual Report. 3, 6. I was curious who Horace James was and what was in this report. I went back to NCpedia and learned that Horace James was appointed as the Superintendent of Negro Affairs  in January of 1863 and that he was the one who took census of black refugees in eastern NC! Ah Ha! Now I knew I was on the right track.

Cover page to the Horace James Annual Report

Cover sheet to the Horace James Annual Report, 1864.

I still needed to find this report, or at least where it is located. I wondered if our library has a copy of the report so I went to the GHL catalog and did a search under author for Horace James and found that we do indeed have a copy of the published report. The report was published in Boston in 1864. Our copy of the publication does not circulate, but can be read in the library if you are planning a visit. It should be noted that no where in the report does it give a list of names of people enumerated. Just statistical information about the number of African Americans residing in the Eastern part of NC. Information in the report also gives insight into why the population grew rapidly from the time of the 1864 report through the time of the 1865 report. For example, the African American population, including free African Americans before the end of the Civil War, in 1864 was 8,591, but in 1865, just 1 year later, the population was 10,782 (pp. 3-4). The Internet Archive has a digitized copy of this report for those who cannot view it in here at GHL. It is located on

I wondered if there was another similar report. I looked in another book in our collection, James City: A Black Community in North Carolina, 1863-1900.  I’ve read this book before so I knew it included information about New Bern as James City is in close proximity to New Bern. I hoped it would give clues about other similar reports. Page 5 talks about an earlier report by a man named Vincent Colyer. This report is from 1861. I checked the GHL catalog and we also have a copy of this report. Eastern Carolina University has this report fully digitized and accessible for free to the public. This report is much longer and includes letters. The report is dated 1862 and published in 1864. According to this report, the population of New Bern and vicinity was 7,500 in 1861 and a total of 10,000 from the areas of New Bern, Roanoke Island, Hatteras, Washington, and Beaufort compared to over 10,000 just in the area around New Bern itself a few years later! It is very interesting to see the population growth in such a short time for African Americans living along the eastern coast of North Carolina and both of these reports combined help explain why the population grew in such a short time.

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