The Drayton Plantation (on which Mitchelville was located) was returned to the heirs of its former owner in April 1875, with the federal government deed failing to provide any protection for Mitchelville. The Drayton heirs, however, were not interested in planting the lands and began to sell it off to anyone interested in making purchases – including many freedmen. It was during the last quarter of the nineteenth century that most, if not all, of Mitchelville was purchased by a black man, March Gardner. March, while illiterate, was very successful – and apparently well respected. He placed his son, Gabriel, in charge of Mitchelville, which at this time also included a store, cotton gin, and grist mill. March also trusted Gabriel to have a proper deed made out. Instead, Gabriel took advantage of his father, eventually obtaining a deed in his own name and then transferring the property to his wife and daughter.
In the early twentieth century, the heirs of March Gardner took the heirs of Gabriel Gardner’s wife to court, claiming they owned what was left of Mitchelville and that Gabriel Gardner had stolen the property. Although this is a sad end to what was the birthplace of freedom for many Sea Island blacks, the court case does help us understand the village better during this period, since the court took extensive statements from people living in the village.
The daughter of March Gardner, Emmeline Washington, testified that a number of families were living at Mitchelville and farming three or four acre plots adjacent to their houses. The money that was collected for rent went to pay the taxes on the property. March Gardner, who was by trade a carpenter, had built a cotton gin, cotton house (for storing the cotton), and steam powered grist mill on the property while it was still a village. He also built a shop on one of the Mitchelville roads, apparently near his own house, where he planted peas and cotton.
The court papers also name a number of the Mitchelville residents during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – John Nesbit, Bob Washington, Caesar White, Charles Robins, Charles Perry, Robert Wiley, Scapio Drayton, Jack Screven, Charles Pinckney, Billy Reed, Peter Flowers, Joe Williams, Hannah Williams, Stephen Singleton, Linda Perry, Renty Miller, and Clara Wigfall. One resident, Hannah Williams, explained how she had purchased a house in Mitchelville for $5.
A number of individuals saw in Mitchelville an opportunity to make money. With the federal government leaving Hilton Head, and the blacks relatively illiterate, it was perhaps easy enough for Drayton’s heirs to sell Mitchelville twice – first to March Gardner, and then, again, to his son, Gabriel Gardner. Mitchelville was not situated on prime agricultural land and the Draytons probably felt (correctly, it seems) that few planters would want to purchase a black town. March, and later his son Gabriel, however, began collecting rents on (and selling) property other blacks had been using for years. The town functioned, essentially, as a collective, tying all of the parties together. It is likely that many of those living in Mitchelville had done so for several decades.
The court directed that a survey be made and the property of Mitchelville be divided among the heirs upon each paying their share of the costs associated with the case. Eugenia Heyward redeemed her tract of 35 acres on June 7, 1923. Celia and Gabriel Boston obtain the adjacent tract on September 2, 1921. Linda Perry, Emmeline Washington, and Clara Wigfall also obtained their respective parcels in 1921.
By 1930, the 35-acre Eugenia Heyward tract was sold for $31.00 by the Sheriff to pay a defaulted tax bill of $15.00. The purchaser was Roy A. Rainey of New York, who was purchasing much of the island for exclusive hunting. As more and more of Hilton Head Island was sold, the black population was reduced from the nearly 3,000 on the island in 1890 to only about 300 in the late 1930s.
By the early 20th century, Mitchelville no longer appeared on maps of the area. Fish Haul Plantation and the land that was once Mitchelville were sold to the Hilton Head Company in 1950.