After the Civil War, 4 million enslaved blacks were released from bondage and subsequently entered the paid for labor workforce. Millions of refugees returned from the war and destitute whites were jobless. Many were in need of medical care. In 1865 the Freedmen’s Bureau was established to transition the nation from war to peacetime and deliver services to these two groups of people. The Bureau was the first major social service agency, enacted as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. It operated from 1865 to 1868, and was reauthorized from 1868 to 1872 with limited operations.
The bureau’s agents delivered medical care, rations, and transportation to destitutes and refugees—primarily white Americans. Its activities among freed people (former slaves) were varied and included drawing up and enforcing labor contracts; registering people and supervising work details; legalizing slave marriages; processing Civil War military claims; establishing schools; conducting trials for complaints, outrages, and murders; managing, leasing, and selling land abandoned by Confederates and sympathizers; and in general, presiding over Reconstruction policy. Some of the bureau’s records are rich in genealogical content, and some will reveal the name of the former slave owner.
The records are extremely valuable to white, as well as African American, genealogists. For blacks, the records bridge the gap from 1870 to pre-1865, at times revealing name changes or differences in names. Bureau records are often the main and only link to identify the former slave owner. They may also reveal migration patterns.
For researching whites, Bureau records show refugees who received food, transportation, and medical assistance. Others were farm owners or employed freedmen and were parties to labor contracts. Some taught in Freedmen’s Bureau schools or were otherwise employed by the Freedmen’s Bureau. And lastly, many whites owned land that was confiscated by the federal government during the Civil War. They had to sign loyalty oaths to get their land back. Some of the land records in the Bureau records are the only evidence of an ancestor owning land.
Administratively, the Bureau was divided into three levels, each with its own set of records. Oliver Otis Howard, the commissioner, had a headquarters office in Washington. The Assistant Commissioners were in charge of individual states, although some had to manage two states in the beginning. Field Offices were established in different cities where agents delivered services. A detailed finding aid for the headquarters records is available, and the aid to the field office records is combined with the aid to the assistant commissioner’s records.
Much of the assistant commissioner’s records are intra-bureau or intra-government communications, such as statistical reports, that hold little genealogical potential. However, the correspondence and reports of “outrages” (lynchings and other assaults upon African Americans) may be especially valuable. Some of the letters to the commissioner are also very important. Jacqueline A. Lawson has indexed some of them.
Of all the assistant commissioners’ records, those for Mississippi hold the greatest genealogical potential. Only in Mississippi were local marriage registers included with the state district records. These are from Vicksburg, Davis Bend (just below Vicksburg), Natchez, and Meridian, although there are very few records from the latter. These are among the most informative—and among the most poignant—of any American marriage records. Covering the years 1865 and 1866, these registers record the validation of “slave marriages” that occurred before emancipation. They also document the marriages of men and women who were just beginning life together following the war. Although the names of parents are not provided, the racial identity of the bride and groom and their parents is one of the categories of information included. Their residence is also shown. For the many men who had been Union soldiers, a unit is indicated.
Marriage records from the headquarters have been microfilmed separately, but do not include the marriages from the Mississippi Assistant Commissioner or marriage records from the field offices. They were filmed with the Assistant Commissioner’s records.
Also important among the Mississippi Assistant Commissioner’s records are the labor contracts. Most of these were implemented in 1865, the remainder being drawn up between 1866 and 1868. These agreements were primarily between ex-slaves and plantation owners throughout the state, although not every county is represented.
Given that all members of a freedman’s family are usually mentioned by name and that the contracts were sometimes executed with their former owners, the importance of these documents cannot be exaggerated. Many of the laborers are identified by given name and surname, although most are represented only by a first name.
The arrangement on microfilm of this extensive collection of documents will strike the researcher as haphazard, and searching them is problematic. However, the arrangement is chronological, with instances of records for a given county being “clumped” together. A microfiche index to these records was developed by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Labor contracts are also found in the assistant commissioner’s records for other states, and in some field office records.
Another useful set of records are those for transportation. Following the Civil War, the Bureau assisted many ex-slaves in their attempts to reunite with family members separated by circumstances of slavery or war. Others seeking jobs or medical attention often needed transportation; many freed people from Virginia and Maryland received transportation out of Washington, D.C. The Bureau also provided transportation to their employees and white refugees. (See figure 14-7).
Field Office Records
The administrative level below assistant commissioner is that of the field offices. Their records are organized by city within each state. As with the state records, the contents of the field office records can vary considerably. The proportion of genealogically useful records is much higher in the field office records than in the records of the assistant commissioners.
In October 2000, Congress passed the Freedmen’s Bureau Preservation Act. Since that time the National Archives has been microfilming the entire group of records, alphabetically by state. As the filming for each state is completed, reels are sent to all National Archives regional branches around the United States. The Allen County Public Library has the entire collection, and other libraries with genealogical collections will undoubtedly purchase some, or all, of the microfilm. A Descriptive Pamphlet (DP) accompanies the microfilm for each state, and is essential for item-level descriptions of the records.
Some Bureau records have been transcribed and placed on the Web, but use these with caution.36 Only a small fraction of the records have been placed on the Web. If transcriptions do not cite a specific National Archives microfilm reel number, or document an original manuscript record at the National Archives in Washington, be leery of the information. There may have been an error or omission in transcription, and the original document should always be checked.
The Bureau and the Bank: Separate Entities
Do not confuse the Freedmen’s Bureau with the Freedman’s Bank. Some researchers search the Freedman’s Bank records on CD-ROM and think they have researched the Freedmen’s Bureau. They have not.
Congress passed the Freedmen’s Bureau Act in 1865 and subsequent legislation to prolong Bureau activities. However, similar to today’s unfunded mandates, no financial appropriations accompanied passage of the acts. Since the Bureau was not funded, its services were implemented by the War Department. Records of the Freedmen’s Bureau in the National Archives are therefore included with military records.
In contrast, the Freedmen’s Savings & Trust Company was a private financial institution with a federal charter. Its operation was not related to the Freedmen’s Bureau. Records for the bank are at the National Archives as civilian records.
Military records and civilian records are organized and catalogued separately. Records for the Freedmen’s Bureau are in Record Group 105, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. Records for the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company (the Freedman’s Bank) are part of Record Group 101, Records of Controller of the Currency. These two completely different groups of records each have their own unique set of inventories, finding aids, and microfilm. See Burroughs, “Records Specific to African Americans” in African American Genealogical Sourcebook for more details.37
- Elaine Everly and Willna Pacheli, Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the Field Offices of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (Record Group 105) (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Record Service, 1973).
- See Jacqueline A. Lawson, An Index of African Americans Identified in Selected Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, 1995).
- For documentation of other slave marriages, see Christopher A. Nordmann, "Jumping Over the Broomstick: Resources for Documenting Slave Marriages," National Genealogical Society Quarterly 91 (September 2003):196-216.
- Marriage Records of the Office of the Commissioner, Washington Headquarters of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1861-1869, NARA microfilm M1875.
- Elaine Everly, Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, Washington Headquarters (Record Group 105) (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Record Service, 1973).