Familysearch is quickly digitizing Freedmens Bureau Records. Labor Contracts are one of the first categories of records that researchers should search within these valuable records. I posted awhile ago a suggested process to follow while searching these exasperating records.

Background and Importance

Labor Contracts are very valuable because they were often made between slaveowners and their former enslaved laborers. They also tell us something more about the experiences of our enslaved ancestors.

What is apparent is that white planters were most interested in returning if not to slavery, than as close to slavery as possible. It is unfortunate and tragic that the Freedmen’s Bureau chose to go along with this system. They supported year-long agreements with the former slaves and these agreements essentially nullified the one true bargaining chip enslaved people had.

These agreements illuminate why it was so difficult for former slaves to achieve anything close to economic independence. Social equality was of course, completely off the table.

What’s also clear is the devastation of freeing four million slaves who had no property, were mostly illiterate, and had no land. Farming was the only skill most of them had. This 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.

What is In the Agreements?

Most agreements spell out that planters would provide the land, tools, animals, and seed. Freedmen would cultivate and gin the crops and perform a wide variety of other tasks.

There was no standard labor agreement; some were brief and sparse where others went into great detail. 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 stood out to 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? It forces us to really confront what actual freedom the former slaves had.

Language in Agreements: Sherrod, Hicks and Drake

The language used in these Alabama labor agreements illustrate how far planters went to maintain their absolute power over the 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.”

Language in Agreements: Thompson and Hooks

  • 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.

Continued Proximity

In 1870, many of these former slaves were still living near their former owners. They had few choices.

Shown below is William Ricks’ 1870 Colbert County, Alabama household. His high real estate value ($10,930) suggests prior slaveownership:

1870 Wm Ricks

Here is a portion of his labor agreement with several freedmen:

Freedmens Bureau contract

Ricks Contract

Many of his contracted freedmen (e.g., Jack Ricks and William Fort) were still living near him in 1870:



Let’s not forget that many of the planters broke these agreements. Bureau Complaints detail refusals to pay the freedmen and violence against them. Many simply kicked the freedmen off the plantation altogether after the crops were in.


This was about the control of labor, plain and simple. It was also about trying to enforce dependence, and continued racial subjugation.

That the government choose to perpetuate servitude and dependence is one of the greatest, tragedies of U.S. History. It set the stage for the later horrors of Reconstruction.

Take a look at these valuable records. They tell us much about our ancestor’s plight and the hardships that “freedom” brought.

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