Freedman's Savings and Trust Company
Serving in the Civil War, many ex-slaves who had labored without wages all their life suddenly had cash in their pockets. In addition to earning a bounty for enlisting in the military, they received $10 a month in pay. Many soldiers sent their money home, but a fair amount was spent on gambling, liquor, and women. Military officers who wanted soldiers to save their money started a military savings bank for the “colored” troops.
General Rufas Saxton, commanding general of the Department of the South, began the Military Savings Bank at Beaufort, South Carolina, in August 1864. In Norfolk, Virginia, General Benjamin Butler undertook a similar enterprise in the fall of 1864. And General Nathaniel Banks established a military savings bank in Louisiana in 1864.
New York businessmen learned of these banks and saw an opportunity. After the Civil War, they applied to the federal government to start a savings bank where soldiers and former slaves could invest their money. On 3 March 1865, the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company, sometimes referred to as the Freedman’s Bank, was incorporated by an act of Congress. Accounts from the military savings banks were transferred into the Freedman’s Bank.
The first Freedman’s Bank was established in Washington, D.C. Later, thirty-six additional branches were opened, mainly in the South, but also in New York, Philadelphia, and St. Louis. Due to mismanagement and fraud, the bank failed in 1874. Its assets were taken over by the federal government and liquidated. Fortunately many of the records were saved and eventually transferred to the National Archives.
Surviving records include signature registers, pass books, questionnaires for lost passbooks, dividend payment schedules, an Index to Deposit Ledgers, voided dividend checks, correspondence, and loan papers and schedules.
The Signature Registers hold the most interest for genealogists. A Signature Card was completed for each account holder upon opening an account. Many depositors could not read, write, nor sign their names. Because photography was very rare and costly in the 1860s, the means of identification became answers to questions. The bank asked many personal questions of the depositor, about him or her, and about the depositor’s family, in the belief that only the depositor was likely to know the answer. The surviving records of this detailed examination have created a gold mine of information for genealogists.
The register format varied among branches and changed over time. The extent to which the forms were filled out also varied. Generally, the questions asked included name; residence; name of spouse, children, parents and siblings; and place of birth. Other genealogical data sometimes included complexion, former residence, occupation, employer, and names of deceased relatives. The early forms asked for name of master and name of mistress. The names of the former slave owners are essential to search enslaved people during the antebellum period.
A seamstress and washerwoman named Nancy Patterson established an account in the Louisville branch on 15 September 1865. In the final “remarks” portion of the signature record, it is noted that she “formerly belonged to Bob Smith, was bot [sic] by her mother upon the block in 1854 or 5.”25 No relatives were noted in her record, but in some cases it is not unusual to find three generations chronicled in a single instance.
One typical entry is that for Elias Webb, who held an account in the Vicksburg, Mississippi, branch. His record states that he was born and raised in Anderson District, South Carolina, and was residing in Port Gibson, Mississippi, at the time his account was opened. His father was Moses, his mother Rachel. He had four brothers, listed as Green Webb, Jeremiah Webb, Marcus Webb, and Scipio Lewis. His sisters were listed as Emeline, Mary, and Amanda Webb.
It was not unusual for people to cross a county line to make a deposit in a branch office. Therefore, while the number of cities with branches was limited, those branches served more than just the immediate vicinity. In addition, the bank had agents collecting money from soldiers in the field. The signature records indicate that significant numbers of ex-slaves from at least ten Mississippi counties and three Louisiana parishes opened accounts at the Vicksburg branch.
Many of the signature record forms contained space to indicate military regiment and company, providing evidence of Civil War service in the United States Colored Troops. Veterans continued to provide this information for many years after they had mustered out of the service.
There are several ways to access the Signature Registers, which are on microfilm at the National Archives and many genealogical libraries.Cite error: Closing
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Like all sources, the CD-ROM has advantages and disadvantages. You can search for names of brothers, sisters, parents, or anyone who is mentioned on the Signature Registers. However, search engine results do not include alternate spellings of surnames. One genealogist who was searching for the surname Harget in New Bern, North Carolina, could not find it on the CD-ROM. However, a check of Bill Reaves’s North Carolina Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company Records revealed that sixteen Hargets opened accounts: eight under Hardgate; six under Hardget; and two under Hardgett. Although these sixteen entries were located on a second check of the CD-ROM, none of these spellings had been suggested for alternate searches.
Therefore a genealogist searching for the surname Harget in New Bern, North Carolina, would have to enter each spelling variation to find the eight Hardgates, six Hardgets, and two Hardgetts.
For a subscription fee, Ancestry.com and Proquest have recently added the Freedman’s Bank records to their online databases.
An Index to Deposit Ledgers was the only other record microfilmed. However, it is not an index to the Signature Registers, and the deposit ledgers themselves did not survive. Nevertheless, the index can be proof that an account existed for an ancestor when the Signature Registers did not survive for a branch.
There are a few passbooks that are at the National Archives. Some of the best records yet unfilmed are the questionnaires for lost passbooks. The questionnaires ask for similar information to that which is on the Signature Registers, and can substitute when Signature Registers have not survived. The added bonus is that some questionnaires were completed by descendants of deceased relatives who held accounts. Such a return can pick up additional ancestors and descendants.
Also not filmed are dividend payment schedules from 1882 to 1889. These schedules indicate an account’s balance and how much was returned after the bank folded. The five payouts returned 62 percent of the depositor’s account.
For more details, see Brewer’s “Do You Trust That Freedman’s Bank?”; Burroughs’s “Records Specific to African Americans” in African American Genealogical Sourcebook; and Washington’s “The Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company and African American Genealogical Research.”30
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
- Carl R. Osthaus, Freedmen, Philanthropy, and Fraud: A History of the Freedman's Savings Bank (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976), 3.
- Ibid., roll 15, Vicksburg, Mississippi, branch, record no. 1186.
- Bill Reaves, North Carolina Freedman's Savings and Trust Company Records (Raleigh: North Carolina Genealogical Society, 1992).