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Figure11Familysearch is rolling with Freedmen’s Bureau Records. They now have Field Office Records digitized for Alabama, Arkansas, District of Columbia, Maryland, Delaware, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia! I have been looking at Alabama, which is one of my research states, and I am struck by several things.

Labor Contracts are one of the first categories of records that researchers should browse within Freedmen’s Bureau records, if they exist for that particular location. I posted awhile ago a suggested process to follow while searching these exasperating records. I have been searching through contracts in the city of Tuscumbia, Alabama. Most were for the calendar year of 1866. Contracts are very valuable because they were most often made between slaveowners and their former enslaved laborers.

After reviewing about a hundred of these agreements, I realize they tell us something more about the experiences of our enslaved ancestors.

There was no standard labor agreement; some were short where others went into great detail. What is apparent is that white planters were most interested in returning if not to slavery, than as close to slavery as possible. These agreements illuminate why it was so difficult for former slaves to achieve anything close to economic independence. Social equality was of course, off the table. What’s also clear is the devastation of freeing 4 million slaves who for the most part had no property of their own, were illiterate, and had no land when farming was the only skill most of them had. It was a recipe for disaster.

Slavery studies tell us also that freedmen wanted to get their wives out of the fields and refused to work as long and hard as they did during  slavery. Most agreements spell out that planters would provide the land, tools, animals, and seed, while freedmen would cultivate and gin the crops. Some planters paid the freedmen in cash, but most paid freedmen by giving them ½ or 1/3 of the crop. Agreements vary on who would provide clothing, medicine, and food. The restrictions on their behavior was what struck me most, as well as the ability of the planter to unilaterally cancel the agreement for supposed bad behavior.

Most added that freedmen were not allowed to either leave the plantation or have visitors without consent of their employer. What kind of freedom was that about? While freedmen tried to get more flexibility, planters all but forced them into year-long agreements instead of shorter timeframes. The language used in the agreements show the lengths some planters went to maintain not only their workforce but their absolute power and supremacy over that workforce:

  • Fred Sherrod, in addition to providing land, tools, animals, feed, cabins, meat and meal required the freedmen to  “commence work at daylight and work the entire day except for half hour for breakfast and dinner, to work six days out the week, and to work at night if necessary.”
  • D.W. Hicks added that freedmen would “abstain from all impudence, swearing or indecent and profane language to or in the presence of employer or his family.” Other planters added that freedmen had to be “respectful, obedient and submissive at all times.” That is a very interesting word choice…..submissive.
  • Kirk and Drake demanded in their contracts that there be “no general conversation to be carried on during work hours.”
  • Joseph Thompson wasn’t leaving any detail to chance. His lengthy agreements spelled out that freedmen would “do fair and faithful mowing, patching, hauling, plowing, howing, reaping, chopping, making rails, & boards, making and repairing fences, gates, houses, cribs, barns, shops, sheds, gin houses and all labor necessary for successful cultivation & management of plantation…Commence work at sunrise and stop at sunset reserving one hour in spring, fall and winter months and one and a half hours in summer for dinner…freedmen are not to leave the plantation w/o permission and they labor for Thompson at all times except the afternoon of  Saturday which is reserved to them for working their own patches…but…when the crop is behind or when any extraordinary occasions occur which requires their services on the afternoon of Saturdays it is to be rendered faithfully and cheerfully.” Thompson’s view of the freedmen is evident when he further states “anyone failing to work for any cause will be charged 50 cents/day and if any freedmen shall become habitually idle, worthless and troublesome then he or she will be discharged and sent from the plantation never to return.” He also noted that a journal would be kept of all start and finish times, quality and quality of work.
  • William Hooks may have been more progressive than other planters as he added in his agreements that he would see to it that “peace, harmony and good feelings prevail and equal rights are given.’ That was a rarity.

My guess is that these agreements reflect what the former slaves’ lives were like with that particular owner. By 1870, many of these former slaves would be still living near their former owners. They had few choices. William Ricks is shown below, from the 1870 Colbert County, AL census. His high real estate value suggests prior slaveownership:

1870 Wm Ricks

1870 Wm Ricks

Here is a portion of his labor agreement with several freedmen:

Ricks Contract

Many of his contracted freedmen (Jack Ricks and William Fort) are still living near him in 1870:

Freedmen

Freedmen

This was about the control of labor, plain and simple. It was also about trying to enforce dependence, and continued racial subjugation. That the US Government choose to perpetuate servitude and dependence at that moment in time is one of the greatest, in my mind, tragedies of U.S. History. Let’s not forget that many of the planters broke these agreements: Bureau Complaints are filled with refusals to pay the freedmen when the crop came in, violence against them, or just plain kicking them off the plantation after the crops were in.

Take a look at these valuable records. Seeing original historical documents still has a powerful impact on me, a strong emotional impact. They tell us much about our ancestor’s plight and the hardships that “freedom” brought.

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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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