Posts Tagged ‘Reconstruction’

Emancipation Celebration

Emancipation Celebration

Familysearch quietly released three more sets of Freedmens Bureau Field Office records: Kentucky, Georgia, and this month Louisiana. Now, the Bureau field office records for all southern states  are online, free for viewing! That is : Alabama, Arkansas, Washington, D.C., Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Delaware, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Sign in at Familysearch.org, click on “Browse the records,” and then type in the word “Freedmen” in the search box and the links for each state will appear. I cannot state enough how valuable these records are for African-American research during the period of Reconstruction. Alot could and did happen in the chaos of those 5 years between the end of the war and 1870.

Because they are mostly unpaged and unindexed, these records are one of the few large collections that remain mostly untapped by genealogists. The fact that you can now sit home, in the comfort of your pajamas, at midnight, and walk page by page through these records is astounding. I urge everyone to read some of the material about how to use these records and to get started. I did a post in 2012 on getting started, Angela Walton-Raji has set up a new website with resources here, and one of my favorite National Archives finding aids on the records can be viewed here.

They are still what I call “needle in the haystack” records, but when you do find something on your family, it tends to be a very big needle. Just as important as information on individuals, are the many letters and reports that detail what is going on in the community. The building of churches and schools, crimes, and descriptions of the economic and racial climate provide the important social history that can add meat to the bones of our family research. For example, the Superintendent of the Rockville Freedmens Bureau, where my relatives lived,  had this to say about the community in 1867:

The difficulties encountered in obtaining justice for the Freedmen are those incident to the opposition of a large majority of the community as well as to that of all the civil officers of the county (with the exception of two magistrates) who will do no more for the Freedmen than they are forced to, and that with a very bad grace, they also use their influence to dissuade Freedmen from prosecuting cases against white men and endeavor to counteract my influence with them—intimidation and misrepresentation are resorted to by the people to prevent Freedmen from bringing their complaints to this office, and where complaints have already been entered, to prevent them from testifying.

Here are a few more samples of the riches waiting for use in these records:

In the Washington, D.C. marriage records, which is Roll 12, you find beautifully written registers of marriage, many from Virginia and Maryland couples. D.C. was inundated with escaped slaves during the war. The registers contain lots of information on each couple.

Register Clipping

Register Clipping

In addition to noting where the couple had come from, what year they were married and by whom, and number of children, this registrar wrote interesting little notes such as,

“Grantlin is very intelligent and industrious, and his children can read well.”
“Smith is a Baptist minister, Is intelligent and industrious. Owns house and lot.”
“Roswell is a Plasterer. Has steady employment and good wages.”

Some of the comments weren’t very flattering, such as:

“This man is sad to be very abusive to his wife.”

One couple was described as “A rather worthless couple.” That really makes you wonder about what behavior elicited that comment!

Another amazing notation was this one: “Scott was separated from his first wife 22 years ago, and having heard from her lately, wishes to leave the present one and live with the first, by whom he has several grown children, but none by the last.”

First wife

First wife

This cold weather gives us the perfect excuse to start digging through these records! Please write back here in the comments and tell me if you’re found any interesting information on your ancestors in the Freedmen’s Bureau records.

On another note, my “Advanced African-American Genealogy” class at Howard Community College in Columbia, MD starts on February 17 and runs for 4 weeks, one night a week, from 7-9pm. The class is $89. I hope those in the local metro area who are at least “intermediate” level researchers will come and join us. I discuss primarily how to evaluate the evidence you’ve collected, how to ease into source citations, and I discuss research techniques such as Cluster Research. I also talk about slave research. You can find out more information about how to register at their website. The class is listed on page 45 and is class number: XE 131 6554, #3651. Please register immediately if you can, as they tend to cancel these classes quickly if they don’t have their minimum numbers! I look forward to meeting you and hope I can help you get further along in your research.


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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:



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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I attended the National Genealogical Society’s annual conference last week in Richmond, and had a wonderful time catching up with old friends, making new ones, taking classes and eating out every night for dinner which I haven’t done in years! For those of you who haven’t attended an NGS (or FGS) annual conference, I hope you will do so in the future. Now on to my post:

The challenge to find the last slaveowner for those researching African-American ancestry can be daunting. We need to trace our lines back as close to emancipation as possible and the 1870 population census becomes a critical document. If you can’t locate your ancestors in 1870, you can use other documents to record their presence in a particular time and place. Voter registration records are a widely untapped source, and although in most cases they are incomplete, they should always be searched.

For my friend Carole Hyman, we traced her ancestor Arden Hyman to the 1880 census in Edgecombe County, NC, but could not find him in 1870.  However, searching the 1867 voter registration record for Edgecombe County showed us that our Arden was in fact there:


It also showed another Hyman—Zion Hyman—noted as living in the same district. Finding those names together uncovered an important link to Arden’s enslaved roots. That “Zion” was likely Arden’s father Zion who was named in one of Arden’s marriage records. That connection helped us identify his likely slaveowner:

Arden mrg

By the end of 1866, Radical Republicans were in control of Congress and wanted to ensure some civil rights for blacks in the defeated south, but the now- President Andrew Johnson (who came to power after Lincoln’s assassination) wanted to deal with the South more leniently, and firmly believed in white supremacist notions of black people’s inferiority. He also wanted little to no retribution for former Confederates, and this clash set the scenes for what would be very familiar to most of us watching Congress today.

Important bills were constantly vetoed by Johnson (like the Freedmen’s Bureau bill and the Civil Rights bill); but the strength of the numbers of Radical Republicans enabled them to override those vetoes. Finally, the Congress decided to impeach Johnson and just get him out of the picture altogether. The House voted to impeach Johnson, but impeachment lost in the Senate by one vote. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (and later 1875) and 4 Military Reconstruction Acts. This divided the South into 5 Military districts each run by a Union General (see map below-click to enlarge). Notice that Tennessee did not go through Congressional Reconstruction and had rejoined the Union prior to enactment of these laws:

As a condition of re-joining the Union, the Southern States were required to ratify the 14th amendment, conferring citizenship to former slaves, and after 1870, also the 15th amendment. Reconstruction, the name given to the period between the end of the war in 1865 and about 1877 (although the opinion varies) was a volatile time period that I’ve discussed here before.

Take a walk around the web and read about the battles between the Congress and President Johnson.  There’s much more to the story that deserves a post of its own.

The brief taste of voting rights for blacks, which beginning in 1870 ushered in the first wave of blacks to serve in the U.S. Congress would not last. Violence and intimidation increased against blacks who dared to vote. The Ku Klux Klan was born. After 1877, Democrats start to take back state legislatures and later re-wrote their constitutions with laws designed to circumvent the 15th amendment, but designed to strip blacks of the right to vote using grandfather clauses, poll taxes, literacy tests and other tactics. Supreme Court cases like Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 and the 1883 cases that overturned the Civil Rights Acts of 1875  all closed the door to black voting and led to the resurgence of white dominance over black lives. By 1900, southern blacks were almost completely wiped out of the electorate.

Some of the voting records created during Reconstruction survive.  Here are some of the voting records that I am aware of for the various states (not available for all counties):

Tennessee, 1891 Voter’s List. Available on Ancestry, gives election district, name, sometimes race, and age.

Alabama: 1867 Voter Registration. searchable online at the AL archives. Some of these include length of time in county. (also check Alabama’s 1866 state census)

South Carolina: 1867-68 Voter Registrations available for some counties, Clarendon County is online (also check South Carolina’s 1869 state census and militia enrollment)

Georgia: 1867-69 Returns of Qualified Voters and Reconstruction Oath Books. Available on Ancestry.

Texas: 1867-1869 Voter Registration Lists. One of the best resources of its kind, these list how long the person has been in that county, in the state and what state they migrated from. Available on Ancestry. Someone posted a PDF of these records for Tyler County.

North Carolina: A book entitled “North Carolina Extant Voter Registrations of 1867,” by Frances Wynne lists records from 17 counties. This book is what led me to the Hyman discovery. Originals should be at the State Archives in Raleigh.

Louisiana: I find references to records available for New Orleans, but no info for other counties in Louisiana.

Mississippi: their records are strangely missing (?).

Virginia: Search by county in the Library of Virginia’s catalog, and search under the heading “Election records.” Some records exist, although many seem to be from the 1880s, 1890s.

Arkansas: The Arkansas Genealogical Society offers a “1867 Voter’s List” on CD for 25 counties.

Related to these records are the Poll Taxes that many southern states created to try to disenfranchise blacks. If they are available, they are also an excellent source to locate your ancestor between censuses. In one of my research counties, Hardin County, Tennessee, the tax collector wrote valuable notes beside each name like “dead,” too old,” or “gone.” These were found in county court minutes.

Some of these counties have voter registers through the 1880s and 1890s—be sure to check those as well. In various state archives, voting records are often “hiding” under Secretary of State Records. Also, check the online Family History Catalog for your state and county. They have a category called “Voting Registers.”

Please post a comment if you can add to the list above or have a story about how a voting record helped your research.

Note: Some of the richest records relating to the violence during Reconstruction, other than those found in Freedmens Bureau records, are the Congressional hearings that took place on the Ku Klux Klan the violence in places like Mississippi. You can read an excerpt here.


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Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson

The image on left is a famous Thomas Nast drawing illustrating Andrew Johnson’s veto of the Freedmens Bureau in 1866. It shows him kicking the “Bureau” and has little black people falling out. The drawing may be a funny caricature, but what black people were experiencing was no laughing matter.

One of the things sometimes overlooked is the absolute terror of the Reconstruction period for our ancestors. Although they were no longer enslaved, the vast majority of former slaves were still in the South and living amidst a very angry populace that had lost the War. White Southerners lost a war that eventually added the destruction of slavery as a war objective, much to their disgust. Most whites (North and South) did not consider black people worthy of anything close to equal treatment. Even minor displays of independence by blacks could and did invite deadly responses. It is no coincidence that the Ku Klux Klan was founded during this period and that Confederate soldiers were often guilty of much of the violence.

Many Freedmens Bureau offices kept records of crimes that were committed in their districts, what they termed murders or “outrages.” Most take the form of registers or logs or were written as summaries in letters of the reporting officers. Although these records usually captured crimes against everyone, black and white, a quick read show the vast majority of crimes were committed against the newly freed black population. The Freedmens Bureau in many places replaced the law enforcement of the local area and had the power to arrest and charge individuals, and to hold trials.

I still remember the first time I read one of these documents, shortly after I started doing genealogy. The records show freedmen and their families working under labor contracts, then being beaten or otherwise forced off the farm without any pay when the crops came in. There were also lots of cases of black men and women being randomly beaten, whipped or raped. Many of the perpetrators in the documents are listed as “parties unknown,” which would become a familiar refrain used during the era of lynchings.

These poor people just went from terror to terror. Even filing a charge with the Bureau could expose one to more retribution, so I’m sure many more crimes probably happened than were reported to the Bureau. Union soldiers, teachers, preachers, landowners and those attempting to vote were especially targeted. Most Southern whites were intent upon keeping blacks in their socially inferior and economically dependent status.

When you read these outrages, what comes across is the widespread level of violence and the terror that the newly freed lived under. Surely, some areas were worse than others. But when I think about the joy that freedom bought, I also remember it must have been stunted by the violence and terror that was to come. So many of the people weren’t even named, just “colored man” or “colored woman.” I wonder how many are our ancestors that seem to “disappear” after the 1870 census? I just don’t know how they made it through.

Freedmens Bureau.com has some transcriptions of Outrages. Here are some selections from Alabama in the year 1866:

District of Alabama, 1866

March – Bradley killed freedwoman with an axe. Montgomery.

April 3 – Woman taken by three men out of her house in middle of night to swamp & badly whipped – beaten on head with pistol &c.

April 27 – Freedman shot by Confed. Soldier wantonly [killed] near Livingston, Sumter Co.

May 30 – Mulatto hung by grapevine near roadside between Tuscaloosa & Greensboro.

May 29 – Richard Dick’s wife beaten with club by her employer. Richard remonstrated – in the night was taken from his house and whipped nearly to death with a buggy trace by son of the employer & two others.

June 16 – Mr. Alexander, colored preacher, brutally beaten & forced to leave his house at Auburn, Ala.

July – Band of armed men came to house of Eliz. Adams, threatened to kill her & her sister if they did not leave the county, abused & beat them. (illegible) Franklin & (illegible) started to report outrage, not heard from afterward.

Sept. 14 – Black man picking fodder in a field shot dead — & another who had difficulty with a white man abducted & supposed to have been murdered near Tuscaloosa.

Sept. 3 – Murderous assault upon returned black Union soldier in Blount Co.

Dec. 17 – Enoch Hicks & party burned school house in Greenville in Sumner – assaulted Union soldier &c. Judge Bragg & son mercilessly beat wife & daughter of James, freedman & drew pistol on James. Kell Forrest beat wife of colored man George.

July 16 – Mrs. Prus beat Eve & her children. Henry Calloway beat freedwoman Nancy with buck, wounding her severely in the head. J. Howard & nephew beat & shot at Frank. Jno. Black attempted to kill Jim Sneethen with an axe. Jack McLeonard whipped his freedwoman mercilessly. Lee Davidson tied freedwoman up by wrists & beat her severely. Frank Pinkston cutting freedman Alfred with knife. Louisa’s husband murdered by unknown white man.

July 18 – One Yerby set fire to colored [church] Near Tuscaloosa, threatened to kill black man who saw him do it.

August – Gang of ruffians in Clarke Co. set fire to house & fired on family as they ran from it – one killed, two wounded.

February 1866 – Freedwoman beaten with club by her employer near Selma, head cut in most shocking manner.

June 1866 – Freedman shot while at his usual work by his employer for threatening to report his abusive conduct to the authorities of the Bureau – Mobile.

December 1866 – Freedman killed by parties unknown, brought to hospital in dying condition, shot through brain.

Here are a few reported from Murfreesboro, TN in 1866:

July 28th 1865 – Ben (col’d) Plaintiff vs. Beverly Randolph. Ben says ” on the 29th of June Randolph beat my wife with his fists then caught her by the chin threw back her head pulled out his knife swore he would cut her throat—His brother-in-law stopped him, he then went to his house got his pistol and swore he would kill some dam nigger—-fired of his pistol and went to Mr. Harris’s (the woman was large with child at the time).” Defendant admitted the charge—-was fined 50 Dolls. Which was paid to plaintiff.

Aug. 1st. Egbert (col’d) vs. J. Irvin. Egbert says “Irvin returned from the Reb. Army & found I had a crop growing (I staid on the place and took care of his family house and stock ever since the war begun). When I began to gather the crop (I was to have the 1/3) he drove me and my family off and would not give us a bit of anything to eat and said he did not care a dam for the Bureau.” Got 3 mounted men sent for & brought Irvin who was very penitent under bayonet force and secured by bond. The crop to plaintiff. Since, all paid.

Aug. 2nd. Sam Neal (col’d) vs. Andrew B. Payne. Sam says “Payne hired myself and family 10 altogether to work for the season, he has made several base attempts on my daughter, has ordered me off without pay or share of the crop & because I did not go he got his pistol & threatened to shoot me—-he got Miles Ferguson to beat me & the both together beat me badly.” Payne came by a summons & on proof of guilt offered to let them go back gather the crop & have their share & I fined him for beating and ordering Ferguson to beat him 25 Dolls. Paid to Sam—-

Aug. 4th. Anthony (col’d) vs. Bill Murray. Anthony says “Mr. Murray did on the 1st severely beat my wife and daughter with a stick because we were singing a union song.” Send an order to Murray to appear at this office but was taken with the appoplexy & it is said died from mortal fear of the being put in the Bureau.

These are a sad but informative set of records that paint a picture of what our ancestors endured. Of course, 99.9% of these records are not online, but they can be located by referring to the Freedmens Bureau pamphlets on the National Archives website.

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