Other than the service of Black veterans in the Union armed forces during the Civil War, the work of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (the Freedmen’s Bureau) represents the federal government’s earliest and most extensive interaction with formerly enslaved African Americans. The Freedmen’s Bureau itself had its genesis in the U.S. War Department during the Civil War. After all, it was the Union forces that were initially faced with the task of accommodating the masses of so-called “contraband” (the throngs of enslaved refugees) who were fleeing to Union lines as northern troops advanced through the South.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the Freedmen’s Bureau was often the only governmental institution of any kind operating in the war-torn South. As such, the Freedmen’s Bureau served multiple roles as the prime relief agency, employment agency, travel agency, hospital system, educational department, court system, law enforcement, veteran’s administration, and census bureau, among other roles depending on the state. The records generated by the Freedmen’s Bureau over the short seven years of its operation reflect its varied mission and are of great value to historians, social scientists, and genealogists.
The general type of information preserved among the Freedmen’s Bureau records may include:
- Registers of Employees, Students, and Patients
- Names, Residences, and Occupations of “Former Slaves”
- Names of Slaveowners
- Marriage Records
- Transportation Records
- Freedmen Disputes and Complaints
- Lists of Destitute Freedmen and their Families
- Lists of Abandoned and Confiscated Property
- Labor and Apprenticeship Agreements/Contracts
- Outrages and Reports
- Claims for Back Pay, Bounty Payments, and Pensions
Regarding its transportation records, my 2014 article “Freedmen’s Bureau Transportation Records: Letters of ‘Sold’ Former Slaves Seeking to Rejoin Loved Ones” for the Rediscovering Black History blog provides a detailed illustration of the valuable personal information that can be found in these records.
There is no systematic or standardized format to this information however, and the arrangement of the records can vary sharply across offices and states. This is due to the fact that the Freedmen’s Bureau state offices and local field offices were not heavily micromanaged or rigidly controlled from the Washington, DC, headquarters. Commissioner Oliver Otis Howard gave the assistant commissioners the freedom to address the unique issues of their particular states as they saw fit (as long as they regularly communicated with and kept the headquarters informed of their activities). This flexibility allowed each assistant commissioner and sub-assistant commissioner to focus on those matters deemed most pressing in their particular jurisdiction, which resulted in certain tasks being more emphasized in one state or field office as opposed to another.
The ability to access these voluminous records has improved greatly over the past two decades. The original textual records were completely reproduced on microfilm at the National Archives by 2006. An extensive digitization, indexing, and transcription project of the Freedmen’s Bureau records was launched in a 2015/2016 collaboration with FamilySearch.org, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and other institutions, which made the records more accessible in an online format (some digitized images have also been made available in NARA’s online catalog). Most recently, in August of 2001, Ancestry.com unveiled what it has characterized as an updated, refined, and more searchable database of digitized Freedmen’s Bureau records.
Although these developments have greatly increased the accessibility of the records, the problem is that the Freedmen’s Bureau records as a collection are extremely voluminous and variegated. Many researchers conducting more in-depth exploration into the Freedmen’s Bureau records have often expressed frustration in navigating them, whether on microfilm or in an online format. I typically suggest to such researchers that they use NARA’s “descriptive pamphlets” (DPs) as a valuable tool to approach these records. NARA printed descriptive pamphlets for the majority of its microfilm publications, including the many Freedmen’s Bureau microfilm publications. These descriptive pamphlets outline and describe the type of records contained on each roll of the microfilm publication.
Hard copy versions of each Freedmen’s Bureau descriptive pamphlet are available in finding aids and microfilm reading rooms at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, but researchers can also access digitized copies on Archives.gov. On the site’s African American Heritage webpage, there are descriptive pamphlets for each of the Freedmen’s Bureau microfilm publications listed by headquarters, state, and office. Under the Freedmen’s Bureau topic tab, researchers can locate the appropriate Freedmen’s Bureau microfilm publication numbers pertaining to each state and the headquarters. By clicking on the relevant microfilm publication number, the researcher can then access PDF copies of each descriptive pamphlet. Once accessed, the researcher can view, save, or print each descriptive pamphlet for their own personal use.