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Posts Tagged ‘researching slaves’

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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I know, I know, I have been gone too long! A short word of explanation. I recently celebrated my 40th birthday with a party and a week-long trip to Barbados (check out my tan!). I’m feeling whole and happy, and fortunate to be surrounded by friends and family who love me. I have a such a good life.  This has been a busy last few months, and I haven’t had as much time to blog as I’d like, but rest assured my genealogy passions still burn bright. My next class in Advanced African Amercian Genealogy starts April 20 at Howard Community College, if anyone is in the local area and interested.

I’ve been perusing Southern Claims Commissions records lately and rediscovering how fabulous they are. Footnote has put up many (not all) of the original images. The Southern Claims Commission was established in 1871 to receive and adjudicate claims by loyal Southerners for reimbursement of property damaged or taken (animals, food, housing, etc) by Union soldiers. The Commission received over 20,000 claims applications. Claims fell into three categories: approved, barred, or disallowed.

The claimant had to present proof of ownership of the it and also prove they had always been loyal to the Union cause. This proof was often in the form of depositions giving eyewitness accounts. These depositions include, many times, depositions from former slaves. Content of the files vary. Some have just a few pages and some run 20 or more pages long. Here are a few examples of what I’ve found interesting lately:

Cupid Hamilton, Beaufort County, SC
My name is Cupid Hamilton. [I am] 45 years old. I live at Wm Heyward’s plantation near Pocotaligo, Beaufort County, SC. I have lived here all my life. My business is farming…I was the slave of Mr. William Heyward. I became free at the end of the war. I carry on farming—plant principally rice. I owned the property charged in this claim before the war. I got the property after Hilton Head was taken by the United States. My master Mr. William Heyward gave me two horses and a wagon to make a living for myself and family as he could not afford us any longer. He said I could keep them my lifetime as he did not intend to carry on planting any longer. He is dead now. He died in Charleston of yellow fever in 1872. His grandson Mr. William Hankel was not present when he gave me the horses and the wagon, but he lives on the plantation now and I believe knows all about it…I was the waiting man of Mr. Wm Heyward on the plantation and when he left the place after Hilton Head was taken he gave me the two horses and the wagon and gave me [and] Moses Washington, the driver, also one horses and gave Alleck Wilson [?] the head carpenter one horse also for faithful services.

Coleman Sherrod, Lawrence County, AL
At the beginning of the war, I was a slave and belonged to Mrs. Tabitha Sherrod. I became free when Lincoln set us free by his Proclamation. I worked on the farm after I became free. I rented land from Mr. Shackelford. I bought the mule when I was slave. My owner allowed me to own a horse. Mr. Sam Shackelford allowed me the privilege to own a mule. I was with him under his control. I bought the mule from Mr. Gallahan a year or two before the war commenced. I gave him $164 or $165. Mr. Jack Harris and Oakley Bynum went with me to see me righted in the trade…they saw me pay the money. It passed through their hands to him, Mr. Gallahan. I got the money by trading. I was [a] carriage driver and [had] the privilege of trading.I paid $60 in gold which I got from Mr. John Houston for a horse I sold him….

Primus Everett, Halifax County, VA
During the war, I was the slave of Wm Everett, but lived with Mr. Alex Thompson to whom my wife belonged about seven miles east of the courthouse. For more than six months in the last year of the war I went off to North Carolina for fear of being put to work on the breastworks–I went of my own accord. I said nothing about it to my master…I was always a Union man. My simple reason was that I wanted to be free all the time & I belived the Yankees would set us free, and they did….I was hired to Mr. Thompson–he allowed me to keep all I could make over a certain fixed sum. I bought the horse with the proceeds of my own labor and raised the bacon.

Look all all the wonderful details about slave life that can be gathered from just these few examples. I think one of the biggest myths that need to be dispelled is this image of slavery as a monolithic enterprise. As evidenced here, some slaves worked on the task system and were allowed to keep their own money. There are also details given about the slaveowner’s family. I hope these examples will inspire you to look at these records if you haven’t already. Be sure to all categories–allowed, disallowed, and barred. Also, Ancestry. com has an index to these records on their website, while Footnote, as I mentioned before, has many of the original files. This website is a terrrific resource for more details about these records and how to research them.

You may not find your ancestor, but you may find other slaves owned by the same person. If not, research claims by others in the county. All this can give you more detail for a hard-to-research time period.

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