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[Nationwide] Ancestry Daily News

Ancestry Daily News

Today's Article
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands
by David Thackery, an excerpt from Finding Your African American Ancestors: A Beginner's Guide

The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, usually referred to simply as the Freedmen's Bureau, was established by the federal government in 1865. The bureau was primarily concerned with assisting ex-slaves in their transition to life after slavery, although it also aided indigent whites shortly after the close of the war to some extent as well. Its activities among freed people were varied, including drawing up and enforcing labor, feeding the hungry, conducting marriages, leasing abandoned land, providing transportation, and, in general, presiding over Reconstruction policy. The bureau's records hold great genealogical potential; however, their contents elude a concise description.

Records from Bureau headquarters in Washington, D.C. have been microfilmed but are not of much genealogical value. The next level down is that of the assistant commissioners, each one of whom presided over bureau activities in a given state, the only exception being the assistant commissioner for the District of Columbia. The following assistant commissioners' records have been microfilmed by the National Archives, in whose care they reside: Alabama (M809), Arkansas (M979), District of Columbia (M1055), Georgia (M798), Louisiana (M1027), Mississippi (M826), North Carolina (M843), South Carolina (M869), Tennessee (M999), Texas (M821), and Virginia (M1053).
Because of differences in record-keeping procedures, and possibly in the division of responsibility of record retention and storage between state headquarters and the field offices, their contents are by no means uniform. The contents also reflect a difference in the experiences of the state districts as well as the probability that more records survived from some states than from others.

The first fact the genealogist must understand is that the Freedmen's Bureau was not founded to create genealogically useful documents, and the same must be said for the microfilming of these records. Indeed, the records of the assistant commissioner for a given state may generally be without great genealogical utility. To get a sense of the contents of the records for a given district, consult Black Studies: A Select Catalog of National Archives Microfilm Publications (Washington, D.C.: National Archives, 1984). All of the district records contain correspondence and telegrams, as well as indexes to these documents. Much of these are intra-bureau or intra-government communications so, as record groups, they hold little genealogical potential. The assistant commissioners' records will also contain various reports from the district field offices. Again, many of these will hold little of genealogical interest, although those reporting "outrages" (lynchings and other assaults upon African Americans) could be especially interesting, albeit somewhat chilling, to the genealogist. It should be noted that such reports, though generally a constant in district records, do not list a great many incidents.

Of all the assistant commissioners' records, those for Mississippi hold the greatest genealogical potential. Only in Mississippi were local marriage registers included with the state district records. These are from Vicksburg, Davis Bend (just below Vicksburg), Natchez, and Meridian. These are among the most informative-and among the most poignant-of any American marriage records. Covering the years 1865 and 1866, these registers record the validation of "slave marriages" that occurred before emancipation and also record the marriages of men and women who were just beginning life together following the war. Although the names of parents are not provided, the racial identity of the bride and groom and their parents is one of the categories of information included. Often this description can be quite specific (for example, fraction of negro blood). Residence is also included, many of the men being Union soldiers, in which case a unit is indicated.

But probably the most important documents among the Mississippi assistant commissioner's records are the labor contracts. Most of these were implemented in 1865, the remainder being drawn up between 1866 and 1868. These agreements were primarily between ex-slaves and plantation owners throughout the state, although not every county is represented. Given the fact that all members of a freedman's family are usually mentioned by name, and the possibility that the contracts were executed with their former owners, the importance of these documents cannot be exaggerated. Many of the laborers are identified by given name and surname, although the majority are still represented only by a first name. The arrangement on microfilm of this extensive collection of documents will strike the researcher as haphazard; searching them is problematic. The arrangement is chronological, with instances of records for a given county being clumped together. The Mississippi Department of Archives and History has developed a microfiche index to these records.

Labor contracts are also found in the assistant commissioners' records for Arkansas and Tennessee, again ranging from 1865 to 1868. In the former, the arrangement is by year and alphabetically thereunder by name of employer. In the latter, the contracts are arranged in two sub-series, the first containing contracts in which the contracting parties were from Tennessee, with the arrangement being alphabetical by county and thereunder chronological. The second-and smaller-sub-series pertains to contracts with out-of-state employers.

Another useful source is the collection of transportation records from the assistant commissioner for the District of Columbia. Following the Civil War, many ex-slaves were attempting to reunite with family members separated by circumstances of slavery or war, and many were assisted by the bureau. The extensive records for transportation assistance from Washington, D.C. provide evidence for journeys to places as far away as Wisconsin.

The researcher who is contemplating the use of the Freedmen's Bureau records should always take into account the possible mobility of the people under study. Many freed people from Virginia and Maryland received transportation out of Washington, just as, for example, many ex-slaves from the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River were married in Vicksburg, Davis Bend and Natchez, Mississippi.

The next level below that of the assistant commissioners' records is that of the field offices. With the exceptions of the records of the Arkansas field offices and portions of the field office records from Louisiana and Tennessee, these materials have not been microfilmed and exist only in the form of the original documents stored at the National Archives. A final description of these records has yet to be published; however, a preliminary inventory was generated in 1973 and can be found in some genealogical libraries. As with the state records, the contents of the field office records can vary considerably. It is probable that the proportion of genealogically useful records is much higher in the field office records than in the records of the assistant commissioners. If at all possible, the researcher should consult the preliminary inventory to determine, first of all, whether there are any field records for the localities under consideration and whether the records being described would have any genealogical potential. For example, any labor contracts or records of apprenticeship or marriage should be of interest.


A native of Urbana, Ohio, the late David Thackery had a life-long passion for history and research. As head of the Newberry Library's (Chicago, Ill.) local and family history department, he worked to enhance the library's collection of African American family history sources and compiled some of the best bibliographic sources available for African American researchers.

Copyright 2005,

Clipping of the Day
A New-York Free Colored Man Sold Into Slavery
From the New York Times (New York, N.Y.), 03 February 1858, page 5

Interesting Letter from Mayor Mayo, of Richmond, Va.

An interesting case has been brought to the notice of Mayor Tismann, in which there is alleged the kidnapping of a colored man, who formerly lived in this City, and the selling of him in Virginia as a slave. The name of the alleged kidnapper is Mason Thomas, and that of the colored man George Anderson. Thomas sold Anderson in Richmond, Va., insisting that he was his slave. Owing to the persistent assertions of Anderson to the contrary, and circumstances which developed themselves subsequent to the sale, Thomas was arrested by the Richmond authorities, and taken before the Mayor. On hearing the statements of the parties, Mayor Mayo was inclined to believe the allegations of the colored man.


Subscribers with access to the Historical Newspapers Collection can view this clipping.

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Fast Fact
Black History Month Links and Resources

Celebrate Black History Month with Below is a collection of articles from the Library and some websites to help you get started:

Genealogical Articles Online

"Finding Your African American Ancestors: A Beginner's Guide," by David Thackery
"African American Family Research, Part 1," by Roseann Hogan, Ph.D.
(Ancestry Magazine, Mar/Apr 1996, Vol. 14, No. 2)
"African American Family Research, Part 2," by Roseann Hogan, Ph.D.
(Ancestry Magazine, Jul/Aug 1996, Vol. 14, No. 4)
"African American Family Research, Part 3," by Roseann Hogan, Ph.D.
(Ancestry Magazine, Nov/Dec 1996, Vol. 14, No. 6)
"The Challenge of African American Research," by Curt B. Witcher, FUGA
(Ancestry Magazine, Sep/Oct 1997, Vol. 15, No. 5)
"The Transition from Slavery to Freedom," by David Thackery
(Excerpt from Finding Your African American Ancestors.)
"Slavery Up Close and Personal," by Arica L. Coleman
(Ancestry Magazine, July/August 2002) Databases

1850 U.S. Federal Census--Slave Schedules
(Requires U.S. Census subscription)
1860 U.S. Federal Census--Slave Schedules
(Requires U.S. Census subscription)
Slave Narratives
(Requires Family & Local History Collection Subscription)

More Websites to Help You Trace Your African Ancestry

NARA's Genealogy Pages: African American Research
Christine's Genealogy Website:
Freedmen's Bureau Online:
Africa WorldGenWeb Page:
The African-Native American History and Genealogy Home Page:
Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System: U.S. Colored Troops:

Product Spotlight
Finding Your African American Ancestors and Slave Narratives CD-ROM

Finding Your African American Ancestors , by David T. Thackery
Normally, this book retails for $12.95, but today you can buy it in the for $9.95.

Slave Narratives CD-ROM
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Thought for Today
Martin Luther King, Jr.

"The quality, not the longevity, of one's life is what is important."

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