This month, Ancestry unveiled the world’s largest digitized and searchable collection of Freedmen's Bureau and Freedman's Bank records to date, with more than 3.5 million records available for everyone to search for free at Ancestry.com/Freedmens. This collection can enable meaningful family history breakthroughs because it is likely the first time newly-freed African Americans would appear in records after Emancipation.
Beyond discovering potential family connections, these significant records offer the opportunity to look into a complex part of history and learn about the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era, while also documenting the social, political, and economic conditions of African Americans as they sought to embrace the full depth of freedom during Reconstruction.
To better understand the African American experience during this chapter in history, we turned to experts, academics, and authors like Dr. Karcheik Sims-Alvarado, Assistant Professor, Africana Studies at Morehouse College, who focuses on the history of the Reconstruction Era. Below Dr. Sims-Alvarado writes about the Freedmen’s Bureau's important impact on history.
In 1865, more than 4 million formerly enslaved persons of African descent in America became free with the close of the Civil War. Eager to exercise their freedom of movement, they abandoned rural plantations, urban factories, and dwellings that held them in captivity for years. Unfortunately, this came with a plethora of challenges, and soon Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau to provide emancipated African Americans and impoverished whites with food, medical treatment, and much more.
Four ways to learn about the experiences of freed people through the newly digitized collection of Freedmen's Bureau and Freedman's Bank records:
1. African Americans’ Desire for Education
It is well established that nearly 25 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were founded by the Freedmen’s Bureau during Reconstruction. Lesser known is the role African Americans played in their own efforts to fund public education for formerly enslaved people.
The details found within the Freedmen’s Bureau’s records demonstrate how much African Americans valued the importance of receiving an education. Superintendent Reports documented the number of African American institutions, such as churches, that functioned as schools; the rate of enrollment, attendance, punctuality, and academic performance of students; as well as the sentiment of whites toward African Americans receiving an education in an integrated learning environment. These reports also provide names of teachers and school locations.
2. Health Conditions of Formerly Enslaved People and Medical Treatment Received by Freedmen’s Hospital
Following the war, thousands of emancipated African Americans migrated across the U.S. in pursuit of a better life. Destitution claimed the lives of many as they suffered from disease and malnutrition. While the death toll of African Americans between 1865 and 1870 still remains uncertain, medical records offer insight into the various ways the agency responded to the health conditions of African American patients, the types of illnesses they suffered from and more. The records serve as a helpful genealogical source and can assist in identifying the names of patients and the movement of freed people as they traveled across the South seeking a place to settle.
3. Economic Autonomy as Documented by the Freedman’s Bank
The Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company, also referred to as the Freedman’s Bank, was enacted in conjunction with the Bureau, with the acknowledgment that freed people needed an institution to save their earnings. The bank was first headquartered in New York and later moved to Washington, D.C.. Thirty-seven branches were located in 17 states, mostly throughout the South.
While the bank closed in 1874, it acquired more than 70,000 depositors over its near decade of operation, with deposits reaching more than $57 million. The bank’s records can serve as an example of freed people’s desires for self-determination as they worked to earn and save income in pursuit of establishing businesses, purchasing land, and acquiring real estate.
Additionally, by exploring these records, you can uncover a wealth of information including applicants’ physical appearances, family histories, employers, and more, which are often not found in the standard U.S. Census records.
Rev. William Finch was one of two African Americans elected to serve on the Atlanta City Council in 1870. Above, his bank deposit application lists his profession as a tailor, physical distinctions, parents, children, and siblings.
4. Love as a symbol of Personal Freedom
Enslaved Africans were limited by law to legally marry. Being able to go beyond the words, numbers, or photographs, we can now have a greater appreciation for their stories. Freedom offered the right to love, seek companionship, and have a family.
African Americans, with assistance from the Freedmen's Bureau, helped to find loved ones, spouses, friends, parents, and children--once thought lost forever. This need to exercise their right to personal freedom was a powerful transition point for African Americans who were simultaneously claiming their humanity and citizenship.
Hawkins Wilson, writing from Galveston, Texas, to the Freedmen's Bureau in 1867 inquiring about his sisters who were separated from him during enslavement. In the letter he writes, "I have never heard from them since I left Virginia twenty-four years ago. . . .I am in hopes that they are still living and I am anxious to hear how they are getting on."
The Freedmen's Bureau and Freedman’s Bank records paint a picture of who was migrating to major cities, what type of people they were, and their economic aspirations. This narrative is largely untold in Reconstruction Era history, as those writing the history did not consider the perspectives of how Black people experienced and defined freedom. Increasing awareness of and access to this history is a key step toward a new understanding of this complex American history.
By Dr. Sims-Alvarado, Assistant Professor, Africana Studies at Morehouse College
Exploring Freedmen’s Bureau and Freedman’s Bank Records
Before you start exploring the collection, here are questions you should consider:
Once you’re ready to search the free records, keep in mind that the Freedmen’s Bureau only operated in certain Southern US states, so you may be more likely to find personal connections if your family has ties to those areas.
Find Your Connections
Discovering your ancestors' stories is possible. Ancestry.com/Freedmens offers everyone the opportunity to search this collection for free--simply create a free account to view the records.