Researching with Freedmen’s Bureau Records

Many thanks to our members who were able to come yesterday for our workshop on using Freedmen’s Bureau records for family history research! This was our 2nd members-only workshop of the year; our 3rd one is in November and will be about DNA for genealogy research.

Formally known as “The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands”the “Freedmen’s Bureau,” was established in 1865 to provide assistance for thousands of formerly enslaved African Americans and impoverished whites. Operating in the Southern United States and the state of Ohio, the Freedmen’s Bureau played a critical role in relief efforts after the Civil War.

Many records were created as part of this extensive effort – records about schools, health care, marriages, employment, labor contracts, military claims, crimes, and so much more. With records spanning the time period between 1865-1872 and containing a plethora of information about black Americans, learning the ins and outs of how to use this collection is important for everyone researching individuals of African American ancestry.

Here are some resources to help you navigate this collection of records:

  • Just as with other forms of genealogy, location is important.  Use the maps at Mapping The Freedmen’s Bureau to find field offices, hospitals, and bank offices located near where your family lived.
  • Thanks to the wonderful efforts of FamilySearch, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, the California African American Museum, and about 20,000 volunteer indexers, more than 1.8 million names have been indexed from the collection and are searchable on the DiscoverFreedmen website. Search for your own family members!
  • Even with the excellent indexing efforts over the past couple of years, not all the records are indexed; FamilySearch has many sets of the records with the images available online that you can browse, including the Tennessee Field Office Records. Though not indexed, browsing online is certainly much more convenient than using traditional microfilm readers. Learn more about which record groups are searchable vs. browsable on the FamilySearch Research Wiki. Explore the browsable collections to see what you can find.
  • The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) created very detailed descriptive pamphlets of the records — you will definitely want to peruse them to learn more about the structure of the records, and for insight that will help you use and interpret what you find in your search results. Visit NARA’s African American Freedmen’s Bureau Records page for details.
“United States, Freedmen’s Bureau Marriages, 1861-1872”, database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:Q296-QX9V : 25 February 2016), George Mcgowen and Rachel Anksum, 1864.

In my own research, I’ve located marriage records, labor contracts, and more about my family. At the meeting yesterday, one of our members shared a bank record she located that listed her ancestor and his family; the family members had been previously unknown to her!

Have you found something relevant for your own family? Share and let us know.

Our next meeting is October 7th (see details). If you’re in the Nashville area and interested in African American history 0r genealogy, we hope to see you there!

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Author: Taneya

Information professional, genealogist, technology aficianado, WordPress lover, loves living in the cloud & mother of 5. Life is good. :-)

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