Discover the Freedmen’s Bureau record collection

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24 August 2021
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Freedmen's School, James Plantation, North Carolina
Containing more records than the 1880 United States Census, the Freedmen’s Bureau record collection is a must-search on the research list of any family historian with ties to America

Are you interested in the history of the abolition of slavery, the American Civil War 1861-1865, in tracing ancestors in America in the later 1800s, and in digging deep into the social history of the country in the past? If so, you need to check out the Freedmen’s Bureau, Records of Freedmen, urges Pro Genie Nicka Sewell-Smith.

How did these records come about, and what do they contain?

At the end of the American Civil War, the Freemen’s Bureau was established as ‘one of the first social service’ operations we see nationally in America, explains Nicka. It was known as the ‘Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands’, because in the wartorn States both formerly enslaved people and ‘indigent’ white people were desperately in need of rations, clothing and hospital treatment. The Bureau was established to help to ascertain and meet these needs.

Going beyond meeting the immediate needs of the refugees and recently freed, the Bureau (which had originally been intended to just be in operation for a year) took on other roles - such as teaching literacy, and working to reunite families separated and displaced by the years of war.

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Within the Freedmen’s Bureau you will find records of:

  • Schools
  • Hospitals
  • Marriages
  • Apprenticeships
  • Transportation
  • Military records and more.

Officially the Freedmen’s Bureau was established on 3rd March 1865, and ran until 30th June 1872. There are entries for several years before 1865 contained in the collection too.

Why are the Freedmen Bureau records uniquely useful?

The diversity of the records held within the Freedmen Bureau makes it difficult to state any single reason, and it is by exploring the collection that you will come to appreciate the wealth of material it holds. There are a few stand-out reasons that make it a useful go-to American source on the check list of any researcher of the period:

To take African American research back before 1870: Typically when researching African Americans, the 1870 US Census is seen as the ‘brickwall’, beyond which it is harder to trace family. The Freedmen’s Bureau could be the tool you need to smash through this obstacle to your research and take your tree back several generations.

To find local censuses: If you are fortunate you may find local headcounts for a place, effectively a census, which can take your research back further.

To provide substitute records: The Freedmen’s Bureau is a Federal collection of records. As such it wasn’t stored in the local court houses – and thus provides a great alternative to burnt court records, if such a disaster has occurred in your area of interest.

To gain period insights: With month by month, even day by day, entries in the records, it is different from that ‘snapshot’ that the decennial census returns provide. Instead it gives a more immersive picture, and richer more detailed clues about the people you find recorded.

How large is the Freedmen’s Bureau collection?

At 1,650 microfilms the collection is larger than the 1850 US Census, and the 1880 Census too – and comes in slightly smaller than the 1870 Census.

What geographical area does the Freedmen’s Bureau collection relate to?

While the emphasis is clearly on the Southern States, being the location of the war, it is worth searching for ancestors from across America who may have connections.

As well as being a hugely informative collection of records, it’s also a very moving one too. It is within the documents of the Freedmen’s Bureau that you find – for the first time in their lives - ‘Formerly enslaved people making choices about their work… even their names,’ explains Nicka. The marriages found in the Freedmen’s Bureau represent the first time that the formerly enslaved could legally marry – something denied to them as slaves.

Where can I search the Freedmen's Bureau?

The Freedmen’s Bureau, Records of Freedmen, collection will go live and searchable on Ancestry on 24 August 2021 with an ‘every name index’. It will join the other record collections related to slavery as part of the philanthropic scope of Ancestry, and as such will be free to search. You will need to register for an Ancestry account, but you do not need a paid subscription.

The Freedmen’s Bureau, Records of Freedmen is also available to search when logged into FamilySearch.