Freedmen’s Bureau records are a good example of “needle in a haystack” records for those doing African-American genealogical research. They are voluminous and rich, but they are notoriously difficult to approach. Most aren’t indexed; heck, most aren’t even paginated. That they were governed by the military, and arranged as such— is itself another obstacle. The National Archives won a congressional grant years ago to microfilm the originals, which was long overdue, but they still remain an uphill challenge to navigate.
Because of this, I usually recommend to my students that these be one of the last record types to search. They are an important resource, but most of the time you will be forced to read each page of the microfilm and that is not for the feint of heart. If you find something, it’s usually something really worthwhile. I myself have never found anything about my ancestors directly, although I’ve searched hundreds of pages in many different states. I offer here a process for those of you just starting to tiptoe into the murky waters of Freedmens Bureau records.
1. Start with the Field office records. You can download a copy of the descriptive pamphlet for your state on the lower right hand column of this page at the National Archives website. Each pamphlet will tell you exactly what each roll of film contains. These booklets also provide excellent condensed histories about the Freedmen’s Bureau operations in that state and they also contain great pointers to other relevant books and articles. Pay close attention to the descriptions of what happened in that state. This period of time is very important in the lives of our ancestors, so we want to mine this resource for as much information as possible.
2. Next, print a copy of a map of your research state—you’ll need to find one online that has major cities identified. Using the Freedmen’s Bureau pamphlet for your state, find the sections that identify the locations of the field offices. On the map you printed out, mark each city that had a field office. For example, I’ve marked field office sites for Alabama on the image below.
AL Freedmens Bureau
The tricky part is finding those cities that no longer exist today; Google searches enabled me to find locations for those former cities that are now ghost towns. Also, realize that the closest office to your ancestor might be in the next state over if they lived close to the border. My ancestors from Hardin County, TN often got married in Corinth, MS, because it was closest to where they lived.
3. Now you can start with the place where your ancestor lived, and start looking at records in the nearest field offices. For example, my ancestors lived in Lawrence and Colbert Counties, Alabama—so I have focused first on field office records in Tuscumbia, Athens and Huntsville.
4. Every field office had a different set of records. Use the descriptive pamphlet and read the descriptions of the type of records available for those field offices. Look first for any labor contracts. You can see examples of these at the wonderful Freedmens Bureau online website. Former slaves often had contracts with former slaveowners. Beware that there was no “standard” contract, so some were clear and detailed, identifying entire families, while others looked more like chickenscratch on a napkin.
4. After labor contracts, check to see if there are any local marriage records. Many of those were sent to the headquarters office in Washington D.C. Read this article to find out more details about Freedmens Bureau marriages. Many of those are starting to pop up online, like this one indexing marriages in Mississippi, and here’s an index that I transcribed for freedmen in Wayne County, TN:
5. I next check letters received and/or sent, but only *if* they are indexed by surname. If not, I save them for last and instead like to look for any rations or provisions issued to freedmen or transportation or employment records. After these, look for any hospital records, school records, or census records taken. For example, the Huntsville office took a census of blacks there in 1865, that includes their name, age, sex, former residence and former slaveowner!
6. After researching these types of records, look through the murders and outrages. Reading of the horror that the freedmen experienced really humbles me. Some areas were worse than others, but imagine having to feel the wrath of the Southerners who had just lost this war. There were so many stories of freedmen who were killed, whipped, raped, those who worked until the crop came in and then were kicked off the farm without pay, those who couldn’t get their children out of the slaveowner’s house…just on and on. I read story once in an Arkansas record that told of a slave having his penis cut off by the owner—in fact he made another slave actually do it! Horrendous stuff. I read these records to get a feel for the level of violence in the local area. The Freedmen’s Bureau tried to do what they could to adjudicate, but many times the crimes were committed by “persons unknown”. The Freedmens Bureau online site contains some of what you can expect to find in outrages. Put this together with the zeal of the freedmen for education and land ownership, and I believe I can make a case that these former slaves were truly the Greatest Generation.
7. If my head is not spinning yet and my eyes crossed, I may go back and search more diligently through the letters. I rarely check the general or special orders, and/ or circulars.
8. Once I thoroughly examine all the field office records, I work my way up and check any of interest at the State Level (i.e., the Office of the Assistant Commissioners, Quartermaster, Disbursement Officer, etc.), and then lastly I check the Commissioner records at the Washington Headquarters for that state.
Its all an exercise in extreme patience. Some of these records are starting to get transcribed and indexed, but it’s going to be some time before their accessibility is improved to any great extent. I do believe Virginia has their entire series of Freedmens Bureau Field Office records online at Ancestry. I also want to point you to the terrific Powerpoint slides that David Paterson created about searching through Freedmens Bureau records. You can download it at Afrigeneas, under the heading “Resource Guides”.
One final point–don’t neglect to read some of the monthly reports about the local area from the local leadership. Although they are summaries and don’t often list individuals, they are invaluable in helping us better understand the climate in terms of education, violence, and finding work.
I continue my search through these records and dream about the day I find something for my family directly. Tell me—what kinds of genealogical discoveries have you made in Freedmens Bureau records?
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