Family historians interested in the history of Black Americans in the post-Civil War era should make themselves familiar with the detailed records of the Freedmen’s Bureau, the federal agency created to assist formerly enslaved people in building new, freer lives. Much like the Marshall Plan in postwar Europe, the Freedmen’s Bureau supported the creation of a democratic and free society in the wartorn and conflicted territory. Although the Freedmen’s Bureau was shut down before it could achieve all its goals, it remains an important source of research and an inspiration to all Americans as we continue our national quest to form a more perfect and equitable union.
Imagine the terror of a war being fought in your own town. Now imagine enemy soldiers bursting into your house and kidnapping three of your five children to be used as slave labor. Priscilla Marshall, of Antrim Township, Pennsylvania, faced this horror in 1863 when Confederate Army soldiers raided her home and disappeared with her children, Rosa, Sallie, and Jack, taking them from the free state of Pennsylvania to the slave state of Virginia. When the Civil War ended in 1865, Marshall and other Black families in similar situations evaluated their options for finding their loved ones.
Many Black families placed advertisements in southern newspapers, offering physical descriptions of their missing relatives. Patricia Marshall first contacted the state government of Pennsylvania, which was offering help to its citizens who had lost property during the war. The state wasn’t equipped to help find missing people, so Marshall looked elsewhere. Eventually she contacted a newly-created federal agency: the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, known as the Freedmen’s Bureau.
Established by President Lincoln and Congress in March 1865, two months before the end of the Civil War, the Freedmen’s Bureau was created explicitly to assist formerly enslaved people in transitioning to their new lives. The Bureau supplied "provisions, clothing, and fuel ... for the immediate and temporary shelter and supply of destitute and suffering refugees and freedmen and their wives and children.”
Once the war ended, it soon became apparent that Patricia Marshall was, unfortunately, not alone in her plight. The Emancipation Proclamation freed 4 million enslaved people, many of whom had been forcibly separated from their families before and during the war. Finding one another again was a huge challenge in an era when the newspaper was the only form of mass communication.
Patricia Marshall’s children had been kidnapped during the Gettysburg Campaign. Through personal research, Marshall was able to find evidence that at least two of her children might have been taken to the Shenandoah Valley. In 1866 Marshall wrote to the Virginia Freedmen’s Bureau seeking help. Since this was also an era before driver’s licenses and Social Security numbers, Marshall included six signatures with her letter. “The above signers are near neighbors the children will know most if not all of them,” Marshall wrote. “[S]hould this not be satisfactory I can furnish any amount of testimony to losing the children and they being taken by the Rebels.”
The Freedmen’s Bureau was charged with a massive undertaking: supporting a formerly slave-based economy as it transitioned to a nation of freedmen. The types of records kept by the Freedmen’s Bureau gives a sense of the huge task the agency faced. They included marriage licenses, labor contracts, medical files, bounty records, court records, employment records, and much more. The scope of the project was bigger than any federal program in American history at the time.
Implementation of the Freedmen’s Bureau work was performed by local hires as well as Bureau employees sent south from Washington, D.C. The job was not easy. Many were labeled carpetbaggers, referencing the inexpensive carpet-bags travelers carried at the time. Those who feared carpetbaggers believed they were corrupt outsiders (northerners) coming to exploit the resources and riches of the newly-conquered south. Employees of the Freedmen Bureau faced the challenging task of being the face of the federal government for a region that had just lost a devastating war to them. Slave owners considered slaves their property because, until 1863, they were legal property. When enslaved people were freed, a huge portion of southern slavers’ fortunes disappeared.
Pauline Marshall’s letter to the Virginia Freedmen’s Bureau worked. A few months after writing it, Marshall traveled to Virginia to reunite with Sallie and Jack. Later, with the help of local census records, the family reunited with the last missing child, Rosa. Her experience was shared by many Black Americans who discovered that the old biases of the antebellum era did not magically disappear when Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered. Most formerly enslaved people found that local governments in the south remained actively hostile to the ambitions of Black people. New anti-Reconstruction groups arose, such as the Ku Klux Klan, and Black Codes (laws targeting Black people, limiting their ability to work and travel freely) became common, forming the basis of what would become known as the Jim Crow system of racial oppression. Freedmen understood that the federal government was their only hope for supporting the goals of Reconstruction, such as ensuring fair employment and nondiscrimination in general.
After the assassination of President Lincoln, the Freedmen’s Bureau struggled under the leadership of President Andrew Johnson, who succeeded him. Johnson was a former slave-owner from Tennessee who vetoed funding for the Freedmen’s Bureau, arguing that it violated the rights of states and was too generous to its formerly enslaved recipients. Southern politicians starved their local Freedmen’s Bureaus of local funding, and the entire program was closed in 1872, well before it could accomplish all its goals.
Fortunately for historians, the Freedmen's Bureau created a wealth of documents that provide a view into this important moment in American history. As formerly enslaved people began to rebuild their lives as free people, nearly every aspect of their daily lives was touched by the Freedmen’s Bureau in one way or another, and those records are available to researchers today.
Emancipation freed approximately four million slaves who had largely been undocumented by name prior to that point. The Freedmen's Bureau was a social service agency established by the United States Congress at the end of the Civil War with the goal of assisting the previously enslaved in their transition to life as free citizens, as well as providing aid to impoverished whites. The efforts of this organization from 1865 - 1872 created millions of records, which include hundreds of thousands of names of the emancipated and constitute the most valuable source for researching African American ancestors post-Civil War and into the Reconstruction era.
Field offices for the Freedmen’s Bureau were established in all of the states that had been part of the Confederacy, as well as bordering states: Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri. Records created by the state-level offices captured the experiences and circumstances of many of the formerly enslaved in great detail. The types of records maintained by the local offices included employment-related records, such as labor contracts, apprenticeships, indentures, as well as labor-related documentation, including delinquent payment of wages from employers, reports of apprenticeship violence, continued use of forced labor, and the like. Much of the information was communicated through correspondence, with supporting documents, such as certificates, contracts, register, censuses, in addition to pleas for assistance with food, clothing or medical care. Many of these records have been indexed and are available in the record collections, United States, Freedmen's Bureau Labor Contracts, Indenture and Apprenticeship Records, 1865-1872 and U.S., Freedmen's Bureau Records of Field Offices, 1863-1878.
One of the initiatives of the short-lived bureau was to promote and provide education to the newly freed and impoverished by establishing schools. By the end of 1865, over 90,000 of the formerly enslaved, both adults and children, were enrolled as students in the public schools, with attendance rates ranging around 80 percent. More than 1,000 freedmen schools were in existence by 1870 and approximately 4,300 had been opened by the time the bureau was abolished. Unfortunately, records for the freedmen schools are largely limited to the attendance numbers and subjects taught at a school level, and not at a student-level. They do, however, provide context to the environment in which our ancestors grew up in and how their lives may have changed with the rise and fall of the organization.
Medical care was extremely important to a recovering country. In accordance with the great post-war needs, hospitals and dispensaries were established to treat the sick and wounded freedmen and the poverty-stricken. Records include not only the names and ages of the patients, but also detail admittance and discharge dates, dates of death, desertion or ailment, among other things.
A precursor to our modern-day welfare system, the Freedmen’s Bureau was responsible for providing food rations and other supplies to the freedmen and war refugees. In some areas, soup houses were erected, while in others, food, clothing and other necessities were provided to those in need. The ration records can be biographically rich, as they include not only the name of the recipient but also the location of residence, number of children in the family, sometimes by sex, as well physical condition, military afiliation or other context.
Though the mission of the Freedmen’s Bureau was to provide relief to a mistreated people and to aid in the transition to freedom, they also worked to solemnize the marriages which individuals had entered into during slavery. Most states did not allow or recognize a marriage of a person of color prior to Emancipation, so most enslaved people were married in informal ceremonies with no legal binding. The bureau offered a way for the couples who identified as married to have that union observed legally. The resulting records include marriage certificates, marriage licenses and other proofs of marriage and oftentimes includes the names and skin color or complexion of the bride and groom, date and location of marriage, the officiant, as well as the number of children born to the couple.
The Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company, better known as the Freedman’s Bank, was established as part of the Freedmen's Bureau in an effort to aid with the transition from a system where the enslaved worked without pay to that of earning a wage for work conducted and being responsible for the purchase of the necessities of life. The goal of the bank was described by Frederick Douglas, as to “instil in the minds of the untutored Africans lessons of sobriety, wisdom, and economy, and to show them how to rise in the world.” To encourage deposits and instill confidence in the safety of their money, officials used many tactics, including passbooks and numerous advertisements and slogans focused on "on temperance, frugality, economy, chastity, the virtues of thrift and savings." The Freedman's Bank opened thirty-seven branches in seventeen states and the District of Columbia between 1865 and 1871. It is estimated that cumulatively, more than 70,000 accounts were opened by depositors, encompassing more than 57 million of their hard-earned dollars. That trust turned out to be ill placed. After a series of problems, including overexpansion, abuse, fraud and general mismanagement, the Freedman's bank closed, devastating the African American community. Though they had been led to believe that the funds were backed by the federal government, that was not the case and left over 60,000 depositors with losses of nearly $3 million. Some were eventually able to reclaim a small portion of their money by submitting their passbooks to the Office of the Comptroller. The Freedman’s Bank records are an often overlooked source for researching ancestors and can provide a great deal of context to the family’s history.
Indexes, abstracted transcriptions and maps for some Freedmen’s records and institution locations can be found at The Freedmen’s Bureau Online and Mapping the Freedmen’s Bureau.
Though records pertaining to the Freedmen’s Bureau are limited in scope and time period of coverage, and vary in type and quality by state and field office, they can hold a wealth of information for descendents of those who were recorded.
Additional sources for tracing African Americans ancestors are detailed in our blog post, African American Sites to Break Brick Walls.
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Smithosonian, National Museum of African American History & Culture (https://nmaahc.si.edu/ : accessed 4 February 2021), “The Freedmen’s Bureau Records.”
Hilarn N. Green, The Journal of the Civil War Era (https://www.journalofthecivilwarera.org/ : accessed 4 February 2021), “Tracing Black Mothers’ Love: Reconstruction-era Reunification and DH Possibilities.”
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Reginald Washington, National Archives (https://www.archives.gov/ : accessed 4 February 2021), “The Freedman's Savings and Trust Company and African American Genealogical Research.”
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BEWARE! This is one of our favorites: Drawing Garden 🥕 (hint: do it with sound)
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