by Henry Weincek


Many of the Freedman's Bureau papers relating to Virginia are on microfilm at various libraries (the originals are in the National Archives). The papers are difficult to use because of the arcane 19th-century filing system, and because the records are fragmented chronologically. Different years are contained on different film reels.

If you are searching for information regarding a particular person, such as someone with the last name "Fossett," you should look first at the "Registers of Letters Received." The "Registers of Letters" are for the most part indexed by names of senders, receivers, and persons mentioned in the letters. If someone named Fossett wrote to the Bureau, or was mentioned prominently in a letter written by someone else, there should be an entry in the index under Fossett. (The indexes are not absolutely alphabetical--all the "Fs" are heaped together and you have to scan the whole column.) The Register will contain a digest of the letter (these digests are on so-called "endorsements"--basically notes written on an envelope enclosing each letter).

The entry in the Register may be all that you will find. If the actual letter survives there will be an asterisk next to the entry in the Register and a notation telling you where the actual letter is filed. The Register will direct you to look in a "Letters Received" file or a "Letters Sent" file, where the letter might be filed under "Fossett," but more than likely it would be filed under the name of the bureau officer who handled the inquiry.

For a variety of reasons, it is unlikely that you will find a letter written by the person you are interested in. Do not give up. Start thinking in terms of the county where the person or family resided. Local officers of the bureau filed a variety of reports on a variety of subjects, and these reports sometimes offer a great deal of information about the community as a whole and about individuals. The best way to obtain a documentary portrait of, for example, Charlottesville and Albemarle County, is to compile a list of all the bureau officers who served there and the officers at the regional headquarters to whom the local officers reported, and then to search the Registers for their names. This is not as daunting as it sounds, and it can yield great results. I found letters and inspector general reports with highly detailed narratives that shed a great deal of light on life during Reconstruction.

How do you find the names of the officers? Start by reviewing the "Monthly Report of Outrages." These are filed separately, in chronological order. Each region of the state filed a report every month. By scanning the entire run of these reports you will find, first of all, the level and types of complaints the freedpeople made about their treatment, and you will be able to make a comparison to other areas. You may very well find mention of an individual you are interested in.

The Monthly Reports of Outrages are signed by the local officer and by the regional officer. Make a note of these names, taking care to scan the whole run of reports, since officers are transferred in and out, and assistants sometimes sign the reports. Take all these names and settle in once more with the Registers of Letters. You should find many, many entries for these officers, with digests of their correspondence. You can then look for the actual letters in the "Letters Received" or "Letters Sent" files. In addition, there are some subject indexes to the letter files -- you could scan these indexes looking for "outrages." You may also find some useful information in the records of the FB's Superintendent of Education.

Not all the FB papers have been filmed, but I have looked through some of the unfilmed papers from Virginia that are held at the National Archives and it seems that they filmed just about all the important and interesting material, although there are unfilmed papers of the Adjutant General and Inspector General offices that I have barely skimmed. The usefulness of the FB records varies by state. I found that the North Carolina and Mississippi records were sketchy compared to the Virginia records. Tennessee records, however, were quite rich. You will also encounter variations in the quality of the records region by region. Some officers were diligent, others were not. I suggest that you keep your eyes open for any Inspector General reports--these can be very detailed overviews of conditions in a region. If you wish to broaden your search, I suggest looking at the records of the Department of Justice. I found very valuable information about Virginia in "Letters Sent by the Department of Justice--Instructions to U.S. Attorneys and Marshals 1867-1904." These files, for example, contained a report from an informant within the Ku Klux Klan in southwest Virginia.

[This guide was prepared by Henry Wiencek and may be freely reproduced and circulated in electronic form for research purposes only; the author reserves copyright and this guide may not be included in any anthology in any form, including electronic, without written permission from the author. It may not be reprinted in paper form without written permission from the author. -- Henry Wiencek, Charlottesville, Virginia, HSW@CSTONE.NET April 20, 2000]


23 Feb 2000 | 26 Apr 2000
Copyright © 2000. Not to be reproduced in any form without permission of the author.