Searching Freedmen’s Bureau Records

About a month ago, I learned that searching Freedmen’s Bureau records was now a possibility. What a wonderful resource for African American family historians! Between 1865 and 1872, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (what came to be known as the Freedmen’s Bureau) assisted tens of thousands of former slaves and impoverished whites in the South and the District of Columbia, in a wide range of areas that included education, employment, and poverty relief.

The Freedmen’s Bureau archives contains well over a million documents. For African American family historians, what is important is that records kept in the Bureau enable one to push further back historically. The records name not only people who were emancipated from slavery in the South, but also their family members and specifics about where people lived, what they did, and who was related to whom. This video from the Freedmen’s Bureau Project elaborates on the importance of these records:

Actually, Freedmen’s Bureau records have been publicly available for years through the National Archives, but only on microfiche. Headquarters records include letters and telegrams related to administration of the bureau, its education division, and communication with state offices. State records include much more localized information that family historians would find useful, such as reports about the destitute, misuse of public stores, reports on murders, and reports on schools; some state records such as labor contracts name specific people. Field office reports can be highly useful to family historians, as these are filled with information about individuals (such as census records, applications for land, and marriage certificates) as well as detailed records about conditions Black people faced, such as forced labor, violence, and “Black Codes.” A marriage records series contains various kinds of marriage records and certificates. The microfiche are viewable at the National Archives in Washington DC, as well as ten regional sites around the country.

Recently, the Freedmen’s Bureau Project was launched to make searching Freedmen’s Bureau records possible from anywhere. The project involves a partnership between FamilySearch International, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro­-American Historical and Genealogical Society (AAHGS), and the California African American Museum. As records are digitized, they need to be indexed so they are searchable. Indexing refers to entering into a database specific information from a record, particularly names of people. At the time of this writing, about 30% of the documents have been indexed.

The project seeks volunteers to assist with indexing. Easy directions are provided on the project website. Essentially, becoming an indexer entails setting up a Family Search account, downloading and installing a Family Search indexing program, joining an online indexing group, and jumping right in. I hope some of my readers volunteer, as I believe this resource will open up a wealth of data to African American family historians, as well as anyone else interested in searching Freedmen’s Bureau records to learn more about African American history. 

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