The records of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company, better known as the Freedman’s Bank, are among the most popular records for those researching African-American roots. Established by Congress in 1865, the Bank was primarily designed to be for the use of the nation’s recently freed four and a half million former slaves. It eventually grew to have 37 branches in 17 states and Washington, D.C. While a laudable effort, the Bank closed its doors after nine years due mainly to corruption and fraud.
The National Archives in College Park, MD, holds the original bank records, and their website contains both a general information sheet as well as a lengthier detailed article about their use. The records are comprised of three general types: Administrative Records, Registers of Signatures of Depositors, and Indexes to Deposit Ledgers. The Registers of Signatures of Depositors are the richest collection and have been digitized.
The availability of these records on Ancestry and Heritage Quest has greatly increased the ease of searching these records. However, most researchers type their ancestor’s names into the search template, and, finding nothing, move on to other records. I’d like to suggest taking a closer look at these records, whether a direct ancestor has been located or not. I think a lot of us are missing a potential match in this important set of records.
First, after searching for known ancestors (using different spellings), I want you to try putting just the county and state in the “birth location” search template; leave everything else blank. What will happen is that you will pull up people born in your target county who, were probably sold as slaves and ended up living somewhere else. Here we can see Lloyd Beckett, currently living in St, Thomas Parish, SC, was born in Montgomery County, MD:
Other than that location search, I want to suggest an alternate strategy of *browsing* these records instead. Find the bank branch nearest your ancestors. For example, if you have relatives in northern Georgia, browse the Atlanta and August branches. If you have relatives anywhere in Maryland or DC, check the DC branch and the Baltimore branch.
Browsing Freedman’s Bank records offers a glimpse into the difficult-to-reconstruct life of the enslaved. It also offers evidence and insight into other aspects of slavery, like the domestic slave trade and kinship networks. As you’ll see in the examples, the cards potentially include several other names of relatives; if you search for one of those names, the correct card may or may not display.
Of course, the content of the cards was largely determined by the person who was filling out the information. Some bank employees wrote sparse information about the depositor, while others filled every space on the card with as much detail as possible.
In all cases, substantial information can be drawn about not just individuals but the entire community by closer inspection. In the next series of posts, I want to highlight some of the information we can glean from Freedman’s Bank records, in the hopes of encouraging us all to look again by browsing this valuable resource. To browse, look to the right side of the screen on Ancestry (on Heritage Browse it is on the top) and choose the dropboxes for state and year: For my first set of examples, we see enslaved people who were sold away from their families, often during the Domestic Slave Trade. That trade transported over 1 million slaves from the North and Upper South to the newly opened Deep South and western territories and states. Leah Calhome of Alabama, says she was born on the “Easter[n] Shore of Maryland” and laments the siblings she left there: Henry Somers in Memphis, Tenn. Was born in Rappahannock, VA, “sold from Va when 5 years old.” He was “raised” in Fayette County, KY, then “was sold from Fayette Cty to Smith [Cty] when his youngest child was a baby”. His card also tells us his wife Rhody died in Kentucky “5 years before the war”. He could not recall the names of his siblings. Also, his parents full names are given–”Phil Shirley” and “Matilda Stencil.” Henry is not using either of those surnames:
Mingo Steele of Huntsville, AL was born in North Carolina. He was “removed to Huntsville” when a boy. His mother was “taken away from Huntsville” when he was a child and he had “not heard from her since”. He had “not heard from his father since he left North Carolina.” His parents names are given as “Ned” and “Hannah”:
Miller Featherston of Alabama was “took to Miss. ten years ago” and had made her way back to Alabama. She “was parted from her husband ten years ago”:
Samuel Edwards of Alabama was born in West Virginia, and “had 4 brothers but don’t know if any of them are living and one sister but can’t say whether she is living or not”. He names his parents as “Bailey” and “Rachel”. He also served as a soldier in the war in the 42nd Regiment, Company E:
These cards, and thousands of other primary sources, illustrate the tragic consequences and frequency of slave sales, especially the fact that young children were often separated from parents at very young ages. Stay tuned as we continue to take a new look at the wonders of the Freedmans Bank records.