Entering the World of a Civil War Missionary: Laura M. Towne

The following is a guest post by Gay Colyer, Digital Library Specialist in the Prints and Photographs Division.

Not every Northerner who traveled to the Confederacy during the Civil War went to fight. Some journeyed South on a variety of educational and humanitarian missions.

After Federal forces seized Beaufort, South Carolina, and the sea islands surrounding the port town in the November 1861 Battle of Port Royal, Lowcountry slaveholders and farmers abandoned their property and fled. The cotton grown on their plantations, tended by African American slaves, was left in the fields. The free former slaves became participants in a government-sponsored program preceding Reconstruction called the Port Royal Experiment.

Abolitionist and pacifist groups such as the American Missionary Association and the Port Royal Relief Committee of Philadelphia responded by making plans to send teachers to the area to educate and help the "freedmen" and their families adjust to their new lives. Young men and women signed up to travel to the Beaufort area and moved into the abandoned plantations seized by the Federal government. The missionaries performed a number of tasks including distributing clothing and supplies while they too adjusted to their new environment.

Photograph shows three women and a man holding croquet mallets in front of a nearby structure. An African American boy sits on the steps. The location, on Port Royal Island in Beaufort County South Carolina, later came to be known as Smith's plantation.

Croquet Party, Old Fort Plantation, Port Royal Island, South Carolina. Photographer not identified, between 1863 and 1865(?). //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/stereo.1s03981

One of these teachers was Laura Matilda Towne. At age 37, Towne left her Philadelphia home and moved south to St. Helena Island. She rapidly immersed herself in the community, nursing and assisting freed people of all ages before beginning her school in the spring 1862. She named it Penn School, after William Penn, the noted pacifist and founder of Pennsylvania. Laura Towne settled into a plantation home, "Frogmore," which she would purchase in 1868.

Beaufort photographers Hubbard & Mix came to St. Helena Island in 1866 to photograph the school, its students, and their teachers such as this scene below:

Photograph shows the children of freedmen and their teachers in front of the Penn School on St. Helena Island, South Carolina.

Miss Laura Towne’s School, St. Helena Island, South Carolina. Stereograph by Hubbard & Mix, between 1863 – June 1866. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/stereo.1s03953

Illustration showing freedmen's school at St. Helena Island, South Carolina, with text below.

Sea Island School, no. 1 – St. Helena Island. Established April, 1862. Illus. in Education Among the Freedmen, published between 1866 and 1870. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c07754

Laura Towne and her friend Ellen Murray would spend the rest of their lives teaching and serving the residents of the area. Still standing today, Penn School is now a part of the Penn Center Historic District.

Photograph shows Laura M. Towne, seated second from right, and a group of visitors at her residence on St. Helena Island, South Carolina.

Group Taken at Miss Towne’s Residence, St. Helena Island, South Carolina. (Laura M. Towne is seated, second from right.) Stereograph by Hubbard & Mix, between 1863 – June 1866. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/stereo.1s03952

Learn More:

  • The 1866 pictures taken by Beaufort photographers Hubbard & Mix on St. Helena Island are held within the 2015 acquisition, the Robin G. Stanford Collection. View over 400 currently available Civil War era stereographs from the Stanford Collection in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog. The collection also includes stereographs taken by James M. Osborn and Frederick E. Durbec, photographers based in Charleston, South Carolina. The two men recorded scenes in the early 1860s in their locale, including slaves at Rockville Plantation and the ruins of Fort Sumter after bombardment.
  • More than 20 structures are documented within the Penn School Historic District in the Historic American Buildings Survey including the Arnett House, the Brick Church, and numerous other buildings in the district.
  • Author Sarah Orne Jewett wrote a story, "The Mistress of Sydenham Plantation," after visiting Laura Towne on St. Helena Island. First published in the August 1888 Atlantic Monthly, the story also appears in Jewett’s 1890 collection Strangers and Wayfarers.
  • Laura Matilda Towne, 1825 – 1901: A List of Selected Materials & Links gathers citations and annotations in a web resource available from the Beaufort County Library’s Beaufort District Collection. The list contains references to primary sources such as Towne’s letters and diary as well as scholarly histories of the Penn School and the Port Royal Experiment.
  • Another primary source, the Penn School Papers, 1862 – 2004 are part of the Southern Historical Collection held by the University of North Carolina Libraries.

3 Comments

  1. Tom Liljenquist
    November 21, 2015 at 6:47 am

    What a remarkable young woman. Thank you so much for sharing her story and for posting these lovely stereographs!

  2. barbara anne egypt
    June 13, 2017 at 1:39 pm

    Thank you!

  3. Janice White
    December 22, 2019 at 7:16 pm

    Ellen Murray was from a remarkable family. Born in 1834 in Saint John, New Brunswick. Her sister, Frances Elizabeth Murray (1830-1901) was”“ probably the foremost woman in St John in all matters pertaining to the betterment of humanity; she was prominent in local and national councils of women, and numbered close friends among Canadian and American people.” Boston newspaper of 14 February 1901. See Dictionary of Canadian Biography On-Line.
    Their uncle, (Rev.) George Pakenham Despard (1813 Lisbon, Portugal-1881 Victoria Co., Australia) was Missionary to the Falkland Islands, in a plan to “civilize” the Terra del Fuegians – much info on-line about him.

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