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Welcome to Tenacious Genealogy! Today I’m going to delve into the Freedmen’s Bureau records. This is another set of collections that are important to genealogists and family historians, especially those with ancestors from the American South or who are researching family trees in states such as Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia West Virginia, and what is now Oklahoma.
This post is supposed to be a basic primer for those starting their family trees or genealogy and may have heard about the Freedmen’s Bureau and its records, but don’t know if it pertains to them or where to look if it does.
The Freedmen’s Bureau records
1) The Freedmen’s Bureau was established on March 3, 1865, and lasted ‘officially’ until 1872.
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (more commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau due to who it was mainly supposed to help) was created on March 3, 1865 by Abraham Lincoln as a way to supervise relief in the South, help newly freed slaves in a variety of ways, supervise confiscated properties, and in general help the South recover after the devastation of the American Civil War.
Unfortunately, from almost the get-go there was push back against the program from a variety of sources, both political and cultural, as well as a lack of support from President Andrew Johnson. Thus, federal funding for the Bureau officially ended in 1872. So the majority of records produced range from 1865 to 1872. That said, like many archival and governmental collections, there are documents with the Freedmen’s Bureau collections that were created either prior to 1865 or after 1872.
Wikipedia actually has a really good page on the Bureau that goes more in-depth into its history here.
2) Freemen’s Bureau records were only recently digitized and are in the process of being made fully available to the public
In 2000, the Freedmen’s Bureau Preservation Act was passed by the U.S. Congress at the time, directing the National Archivist to begin preserving the documents on microfilm and working with other institutions to get these documents indexed and available for public access and use.
The Freedmen’s Bureau Project was launched on June 19, 2015 (150 years after the announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas or what is generally celebrated as Juneteenth.) and was a collaboration between the National Archives (NARA), FamilySearch, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, AAHGS, and the California African American Museum.
As of June 20th, 2016 (one year later, the project was officially considered completed. However, there is work still to be done for those who want to help. While the records have been fully digitized and indexed, the Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project by the Smithsonian Institution is trying to further make these documents accessible to the general public by making all of the documents keyword searchable. For those interested in this project, click here and go to ‘The Project’ to learn more.
3) You can find marriage and bank records from the Freedmen’s Bureau records on Ancestry and more complete collections on FamilySearch.
As part of making the Freedmen’s Bureau records accessible to more people, especially those doing their family histories, certain parts of those records are available on Ancestry (marriage and bank records for freedmen and their families) and because of the collaboration between FamilySearch and NARA, most, if not all, of the digitized/indexed records are available on FamilySearch. FamilySearch also has a detailed page of what the various collections consist of and more information on them here.
4) Records from the Freedmen’s Bureau on FamilySearch range from 1861 to 1878.
As noted above, while most of the records come from the period between 1865 and 1872, there are collections from before and after that time period. For example, there are collections from Mississippi, North Carolina, and Arkansas and other states that go back to 1862/1863. There is also a collection of marriage records that start in 1861. On the other side, there are branch records that go from 1872 to 1878. You can find a list of these record collections here.
5) Records from the Freedmen’s Bureau are important for most anyone with ancestors from the American South during the second half of the 19th century.
Last but not least, it is important that these records are important for almost everyone who had ancestors living in the American South during this time period. While most of the documents refer to and are about recently freed slaves, the documents also reference former slave owners, employers who hired freedmen and their family members, as well as many others who interacted with the Freedmen’s Bureau during this time period.
So whether your ancestors were freedmen (and/or freedwomen) or not, if they lived in the states covered by these collections and documents, these collections are worth looking at.
Questions or comments about the Freedmen’s Bureau and its records? Let me know down below! And if you like what you’ve been seeing here on Tenacious Genealogy – please subscribe to our email list. Not only will you stay up to date with the latest blog posts, but you’ll also get access to freebies such as ’10 Tips for Starting Your Genealogy’ and other fun ‘subscriber only’ items!