Family history research can be challenging for African Americans due to the long history of slavery in the U.S. and the lack of documentation about those who were enslaved. In an effort to enable more family history discoveries, Ancestry is continuing to add new record collections so every story can be told.
Today, Ancestry is unveiling 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 www.Ancestry.com/Freedmens. The addition of these significant records can be instrumental in helping descendants of previously enslaved people in the U.S. make additional discoveries about their families by offering a path to trace ancestors prior to 1870. 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.
Understanding the Complex History
The Freedmen’s Bureau was established near the end of the American Civil War to help formerly enslaved people transition from slavery to citizenship, providing food, housing, education and medical care. It also provided support for impoverished white people and veterans of the U.S. Colored Troops. Crucial records in the Freedmen’s Bureau include labor contracts, rations, apprenticeships, letters, marriages, and more.
Post-Civil War history is layered and complex and Americans are largely unaware of the part the Freedmen’s Bureau played in Reconstruction. In fact, according to a Harris Poll survey by Ancestry, a staggering 72% of Americans surveyed have never heard of the Freedmen’s Bureau. However, nearly all of those familiar with the Freedmen’s Bureau (90%) believe it was a turning point in American history and that it still impacts Americans’ lives today, and 87% of Americans surveyed agree that it is important for the public to have access to historical records--like those saved by the Freedmen's Bureau--in order for African Americans to be able to trace their family roots.
A More Complete View of This Chapter in History
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 and culture of African Americans and the Reconstruction Era.
She says, “The Freedmen's Bureau 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.”
Exploring Freedmen’s Bureau and Freedman’s Bank Records
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 the areas below.
In addition to Bureau records, Freedman’s Bank Records are also now available to everyone to search for free. The Freedman’s Bank was established by President Lincoln and active from March 1865-1874. As the Civil War ended, Congress and Lincoln recognized the need to aid newly freed African American men and women in their transition to freedom, and to support the land grants and other elements provided by the Freedmen's Bureau.
In this collection you can find family members’ names of former slave owners, thousands of signature cards, as well as rich details about the individual depositors, such as name, age, residence, place of birth, and occupation.
Find Your Connections
Discovering your ancestors' stories is possible. Get started for free at www.Ancestry.com/Freedmens.