Want to know a great way to find out about the lives of your enslaved ancestors after the end of the War? The narrative reports of the Freedmens Bureau.
I have discussed the Bureau records numerous times in this blog. They are a critical resource for the tumultuous five years between 1865 and 1870.
Genealogists often search for labor contracts in these records since they can sometimes lead to finding the slaveholder. The fact that Familysearch indexed some of these records has been a massive help to researchers.
However, don’t overlook the narrative reports. I have found no better source to provide the detailed information “on the ground” in the county where our ancestors lived.
In fact, they are so engrossing, I often spend hours just reading through them. The level of violence and destitution many of the former slaves endured is sobering.
The Freedmens Bureau in Brief
Organized in 1865 by Congress, the Freedmens Bureau assigned officers (called agents) to the various counties of the Southern states. There was usually a central office and several field offices in each state.
Read the Freedmens Bureau publications available at the National Archives website in order to understand the fuller history and organization of the Bureau.
It is an understatement to say that there were nowhere near enough men to do the job assigned to the Bureau. But as the narrative reports show, many agents tried against enormous odds.
Ideally, the Bureau assigned one agent to each county, but in some cases one agent covered several counties.
The agents submitted monthly reports to their superiors in the State and in Washington, D.C. Here is a small sampling of 1866 reports from various Tennessee counties. I found these reports in The Records for the Assistant Commissioner in the State of Tennessee, BRFAL (publication number m-999).
These records show differences in every county, though as a general rule it was very, very bad for the freedmen and their families:
“Men who served for three years and upwards in the Federal Army are cursing the Freedmens Bureau…Men who were my comrades upon the battle fields have turned against me just because I accepted the appointment of Superintendant of the Freedmens Bureau in Bradley County just because I propose to do justice between man and man regardless of consequences and regardless of color…
There is one thing certain God knows we are in the right and we are bound to come out triumphantly in time. There is a feeling of revenge against the Freedman in the South that must be put down..”
“The Rebels are inclined to oppose [the freedmen] somewhat hard but I am endeavoring to keep a tight rule over them…The old Rebs grumble very much to have to pay them [the freedmen].
The Justices of the Peace are so prejudiced against the freedmen that I do not believe there is one in the county capable of giving them justice in their courts.”
“And besides I have had several cases against one Curry Pettigrew and he says he will take the matter out of my court of the Bureau if he can and he will then spend one hundred dollars in the Supreme Courts of the State of Tennessee for every dollar the Freedmens Bureau sues for before he will pay one cent. I understand he has several freedmen hired this year…”
“he has not recorded any contracts and others are doing likewise and at the end of the year they will refuse no doubt to pay again…The Freedmen cannot calculate much and such men as the before mentioned will swindle the Freedmen…I have not been able to open schools here yet even the so-called Union men are generally opposed to schools for the freedmen.”
“On the main, among the best of our citizens, the colored people are treated kindly, and their position respected. But there are those who cannot, or rather will not comprehend their new relations, and still continue to regard the freedmen as negroes–entitled to no rights which a white man is bound to respect. Some there are, indeed, believe that slavery will be restored.”
“There is evidently a restlessness, both among the white and black, in regard to the apparent conflict between the President & Congress. Both races are waiting or something to turn-up–the blacks with fear and trembling and the whites with encouraging hopes.”
“The masses of the old citizens have a high regard for the negro as a slave, but have not learned to respect him as a free man, but they are learning slowly.
The disposition to hire them is general[ly good] and pretty fair wages are paid. Among the uneducated whites the prejudice against the education of the negro is extremely bitter.”
“In some portions of the county there is a disposition to force the negro to remain very nearly in his old relations; and in one community a combination exists to prevent the freedmen from renting or purchasing lands.”
“There has been and still exists a strong disinclination upon the part of the whites to employ families, especially where there are small children for the obvious reason that said children can be of no profit but troublesome as well as expensive.
I have had great difficulty in persuading the farmers and others to take families and have been mortified and deeply grieved to learn how little sympathy and kind feelings was felt for this unfortunate class of people. Self-interest seems to be the ruling passion.
There are today, many women and children in and around Gallatin who are in a destitute condition having no means of employment…”
“The freedmen are generally at work and are attending to business. But a prejudice exists against them from the whites which at the present cannot be overcome. The white man thinks he still has the rite to whip, beat and abuse the black and the black must not complain and I am of the opinion that the [Freedmens Bureau] superintendent of White [county] will be in danger is he attempts to rigidly execute his office as I think he is required to do and he may have reason to fear personal violence.”
“…the citizens are hostile to the Bureau. They say they would do exact justice to the freemen and that there is no necessity of the Freedmens Bureau in this county. I think the Freedmen would stand very little chance of justice if there was no Bureau for their protection. A very prominent gentlemen of this county told me that he was sure that half the negroes would be killed off it was not for the Bureau.”
“The Freedmen are generally industrious and inclined to keep their contracts. Men generally from all parts of the county say to me that they are doing much better than they believed they ever would.
The idea that the negro could not be induced to labor without the lash is greatly on the wane even among the most rampant rebels…I think the people in the country are generally inclined to deal with them justly and treat them well…”
How To Find Narrative Reports
All research in these records start with the NARA publications mentioned earlier in this post. An Assistant Commissioner oversaw all operations in each state. Start with those records for your state (i.e., the Assistant Commissioner Records).
Read the publication and find the microfilm roll numbers that contain the narrative reports. For example, here is the page from the Asst Commissioner for TN Records:
This shows narrative reports submitted on the end of roll 16 and also on roll 17 (all of the excerpts in this post were from roll 17). Notice there are monthly, annual and quarterly reports.
After you know what roll numbers you need, this wonderful page at Familysearch.org will enable you to find that series of microfilm. When I scroll down this page I found this for TN:
You will see the same pamphlet number (m-999) that I named previously. Familysearch has conveniently included links back to the NARA site publications.
When you log into Familysearch, you can view the microfilm rolls for free. They are not indexed or paginated! Be patient and view each image. I often go through about 50 or 75 images a night until I complete the roll.
After reading the State reports, you can also find reports at the various Field Offices.
Ideally, the officer submitted the reports to their superiors, but sometimes the State Commissioner combined the various county reports into one report.
You can see in this image below (from the descriptive pamphlet for the Tennessee Field Offices) which rolls had reports:
Yep, there’s no easy way to do this. Just be happy these are now online. I did this when they were NOT!
The reports vary in length from a few sentences to several pages depending upon the author. Agents had to answer specific questions in many cases, such as how many schools they organized, how many rations/clothes/medicine they provided, and how many labor contracts they recorded.
Some reports are not in narrative format, but may be a list, a register or simply a chart. Do not neglect to read these. Keep in mind there is a lot more information than I showed in the above excerpts.
Some of the officers had obvious sympathies with the freedmen and did everything they could to help. Others, not so much.
In some locales, the environment was so dangerous the agent could do next to nothing except try to stay alive.
In Hickman County, locals burned the Freedmen Bureau office to the ground and the agent barely made it out with his life.
Every now and then, reports mentioned a specific person’s name and situation, but mostly they do not. These reports are mostly for social history, for local history.
Use these reports to describe and provide context for our ancestor’s lives during that terrible time.
If ancestors moved out of county, these reports can suggest reasons why. My ancestors left Northern Alabama and migrated just over the border to Tennessee, and the horrific situation in many Alabama counties is probably why.
County reports should exist from 1865 through at least 1867. Because of this, one can often see how a situation in the county improved (or not) over time.
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.