Spotlight on the U.S. Freedmen Bureau Records

Many records we use as family historians are pretty uniform in content and format, but some of the richest records we find are not in the usual cookie cutter type of format. They’re in the form of narratives, reports, applications, and other types of correspondence. While some may be on neatly laid out forms, these forms may vary from place to place, and from year to year. While this variety can make them more difficult to navigate, the rich details contained in many of these records make them well worth the effort to explore. Browsing collections like the U.S. Freedmen’s Bureau records, you may find a reference to your ancestor, and you will come away with a real sense of history and a better understanding of life during the Reconstruction era for people living in the South.

U.S. Freedmen Bureau Records of Field Offices, 1865-1872
The Civil War devastated the South, leaving former slaves and many whites destitute and homeless. Returning veterans came home to a ruined economy and the loss of their fortunes. Former slaves now had to seek employment and were thrust into a new social order. The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (a.k.a., the Freedmen's Bureau) was formed in 1865 to help rebuild the South and assist the many needs of these Southerners.

The records of the Freedmen’s Bureau include:

  • Labor Contracts
  • Letters (mostly to or from Washington, D.C.)
  • Applications for Rations
  • Monthly Reports of Abandoned Land
  • Monthly Reports of Clothing and Medicine Issued
  • Statistical School Reports
  • Court Trial Records
  • Hospital Records
  • Lists of Workers
  • Complaints Registered
  • Census Returns
  • Other

While these records aren’t currently searchable by name at Ancestry, they are broken down by state and record type and there is fascinating information in here for those who are willing to take the time to browse through it. You can search the collection by keyword and by entering the name of your ancestor’s city, town, or county, you may be able to locate records pertaining to that area.

As I browsed through the images, I found quite a few hospital lists of admissions that included names, ages, dates of admission and discharge, death information, and illness. Another interesting item I found was under the Court Trial Records for Georgia. It was a Bounty Register that gave the soldier or sailor’s name, company and regiment, amount due, and when it was paid among other things. Here is a sample page from the register.

Freedmen’s Bureau Marriage Records
In addition to the above mentioned services, the Freedmen’s Bureau “legalized” the plantation marriages of many former slaves. These records have not yet been indexed, and the format varies by state, but many include names, ages, and residences; color of bride, groom, and both sets of parents; number of children; names of former “companions,” how many years they were together, and the reason for separation. Sadly, so many entries list this reason as "sale."

Click here to browse the records of the Freedmen's Bureau.

Click here to browse the Freedmen's Bureau Marriage Records.