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 also 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. However, they still remain an uphill challenge to navigate.(Update, 10/2018: Familysearch has indexed some of the Freedmen’s Bureau records!)
Because of this, I usually recommend to my students that these records be further down your “to do” list. They are an important resource. However, most of the time you will be forced to read each page of the microfilm and that is not for the faint of heart.
If you find something in these records, 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. (Update, 10/2018: I found some records about my ancestors)
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 pamphlets provide excellent condensed histories about the Bureau operations in that state. They also contain great references 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. I used Google to find former cities that no longer exist.
Know that the closest Bureau office to where your ancestors lived might be in the next state over if they lived close to the border.
3. Start with the place where your ancestor lived and search through records in the nearest field offices. For example, my ancestors lived in Lawrence and Colbert Counties, Alabama So, I 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” labor contract. Some were clear and detailed and identified entire families. Other contracts looked more like chickenscratch on a napkin.
4. After labor contracts, check to see if there are any local marriage records. Many of these records were sent to the headquarters office in Washington D.C.
Read this article to find out more details about Freedmens Bureau marriages. Many of these are starting to pop up online. I found this one indexing marriages in Mississippi, and here’s an index that I transcribed for freedmen in Wayne County, TN.
5. Next, check the letters received and/or sent. Some are indexed by surname of the author. Some offices had separate indexes to their letters.
The “Registers of Letters Received” are pretty easy to scan through and a letter summarized in a Register can often be found in “Letters Received.”
Be sure to check “Unregistered” Letters Received as well. “Endorsements” is the term the Army used for letters that were forwarded to other offices for action (as many were), so be sure to check those records.
6. After researching these types of records, look through the murders and outrages–they might be under the heading “Complaints.” Reading of the horrors 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 made a valiant effort to adjudicate, but some of these 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. Next, look for any hospital records, school records, or census records taken. For example, the Huntsville office took a census of blacks in 1866, that includes name, age, sex, former residence and former slaveowner!
8. Read the monthly Reports that Commissioners wrote. They provide a wonderful window into the chaotic local communities whose social order had been turned upside down.
I often use these reports when I write up my family histories. They cover a wide spectrum of topics. The building of schools for freedmen, crimes committed against freedmen and efforts to get justice, efforts to find work and collect military bounties and pensions, and the social climate are just a few. Although these reports are summaries and don’t often list individuals, they are invaluable in helping us better understand an important time.
9. Once the field office records have been exhausted, check records at the State Level (i.e., the Office of the Assistant Commissioners, Superintendent of Education). Lastly, check the Commissioner records at the Washington Headquarters for that state.
David Paterson created some terrific Powerpoint slides about research in Freedmens Bureau records. You can download it at Afrigeneas, under the heading “Resource Guides.”
Tell me—what kinds of genealogical discoveries have you made in Freedmens Bureau records?
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.
I have been enjoying reading your blog and learning how to best do research for enslaved ancestors. I have just started to research my one line of Southern ancestors and unfortunately they were slave owners. (They were in Lawrence Co. AL also, but do not seem to be related to your folks.) This article has helped me to understand how to best approach the Freedmen’s Bureau records and find out what happened to people they enslaved. Thanks!
Thank you so much for this wonderful advice. I’m a professional historian, but new to these records, and I’m blown away by how clear and helpful you’ve made this. Thank you!!!
[…] Smith, “A Strategy for Researching Freedmens Bureau Records,” Reclaiming Kin blog, posted 20 January 2012 (http://msualumni.wordpress.com : accessed 28 […]
Thanks so much for these great tips!
Excellent article. Wish I had read it before I plunged in but my experience reinforces the tips here. I believe I found ancestors in the patient lists and on a labor contract in Georgetown, SC.
Yes, the labor contracts are a pain to search but you have given some wonderful advice. I am lucky to research in Mississippi where the labor contracts are indexed by name of planter, county and freedmen. I have found the labor contracts for my Hathorns, Griffiths and Loflins.