Genealogy 101: Using Records from the Freedmen’s Bureau

Introduction: In this article – part of an ongoing “Introduction to Genealogy” series – Gena Philibert-Ortega gives tips for using the records of the Freedmen’s Bureau, 1865-1872. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.

After the Civil War, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (“Freedmen’s Bureau”) assisted former slaves and impoverished whites in the Southern states and the District of Columbia between 1865-1872.

Illustration: a Freedmen’s Bureau agent stands between armed groups of whites and freedmen, by Alfred Rudolph Waud, 1868
Illustration: a Freedmen’s Bureau agent stands between armed groups of whites and freedmen, by Alfred Rudolph Waud, 1868. Credit: Harper’s Weekly; Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

According to the National Archives and Records Administration’s website African American Records: Freedmen’s Bureau, the Bureau:

“…issued food and clothing, operated hospitals and temporary camps, helped locate family members, promoted education, helped freedmen legalize marriages, provided employment, supervised labor contracts, provided legal representation, investigated racial confrontations, settled freedmen on abandoned or confiscated lands, and worked with African American soldiers and sailors and their heirs to secure back pay, bounty payments, and pensions.”

A photo of a marriage certificate from the Freedmen's Bureau
Image source: National Archives and Records Administration.

The Bureau’s records are available to the public on microfilm, and some records have been digitized and indexed. According to its website:

“These records present the genealogist and social historian with an unequaled wealth of information that extends the reach of black family studies. Documents such as local censuses, marriage records, and medical records provide freedpeople’s full names and former masters; Federal censuses through 1860 listed slaves only statistically under the master’s household.”

Types of Records

So, what kinds of records did the Freedmen’s Bureau create? There’s a wide range with rich genealogical information including marriage records, food rations, “census lists, details of labor and apprenticeship agreements, back pay records, complaint registers, personal data about black soldiers (including company and regiment), school records, hospital registers, census records, and records of murders committed against freedmen.”(1) What this means is that records can include such information as name, age, location, familial relationships, occupation, and more.

Information from records differs not only by type but also location. In this example of a marriage record from Mississippi, note the inclusion of previous relationships, number of children and parents’ race. This is not true of all marriage records created through the Freedmen’s Bureau; but consider how valuable these records are for researching a previously enslaved ancestor who left few records behind.

A photo of a marriage certificate from the Freedmen's Bureau
Image source: “United States, Freedmen’s Bureau Marriages, 1861-1872,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HY-DYQN-TM?cc=1414908&wc=Q893-MY3%3A28210001%2C28530601%2C28439801: 20 May 2014), Mississippi > Christman > Mollie > image 1 of 1; National Archives, College Park, Maryland.

Finding Records

In 2015, FamilySearch conducted a yearlong Freedmen’s Bureau project utilizing 25,000 volunteers who indexed the names of 1.8 million people in partnership with the National Archives, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, and the California African American Museum.(2)

Those images and indexes are now available on FamilySearch. You can learn more about searching the Freedmen’s Bureau records and what information they contain on the FamilySearch Family History Research Wiki page, African American Freedmen’s Bureau Records.

Other websites that can assist you in learning more about this record set include the National Archives and Records Administration’s African American Records: Freedmen’s Bureau and the Freedmen’s Bureau Online.

In addition, Mapping the Freedmen’s Bureau is a website that assists researcher with locating:

“The sites where Freedman’s Bureau offices were located… In addition, other institutions that served former slaves are marked – the branches of the Freedman’s Savings Bank, Freedmen Schools, contraband camps, and even the location of battle sites where men who were in the U.S. Colored Troops fought.”

Illustration: Office of the Freedmen's Bureau, Memphis, Tennessee, 1866
Illustration: Office of the Freedmen’s Bureau, Memphis, Tennessee, 1866. Credit: Harper’s Weekly; NYPL Digital Gallery.

Once you locate the area where your ancestor lived, you can click on the icon marking that area. This will provide you with information, the National Archive microfilm number for the records, and a link to see the digitized records on FamilySearch.

The Freedmen’s Bureau records are an important resource for researching your African American ancestor in the post-Civil War years. Thanks to the work of volunteers and organizations we now are able to search or browse these records to learn more.

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(1) “African American Freedmen’s Bureau Records,” FamilySearch Family History Research Wiki (https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/African_American_Freedmen%27s_Bureau_Records: accessed 21 February 2018).
(2) “The Freedmen’s Bureau Project,” Discover Freedmen (http://www.discoverfreedmen.org/: accessed 8 Feb 2018).

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6 thoughts on “Genealogy 101: Using Records from the Freedmen’s Bureau

  1. Thank you so much for all you do in helping the community at large learn what we can about our family histories!

  2. Thanks for the information. While I have written a document on my family history, there are still valuable nuggets of information missing. My family came to Illinois at statehood in 1818 as indentured servants and stayed to become prominent citizens. However, I need more information on the Brooks (paternal side) who came initially from Tennesee. I have gathered some information but could use more when I am able to peruse more data.

  3. Hi Amie, Thanks for reading the article. The other Genealogy 101 articles in this series might be of use to you. Also, make sure to do a FamilySearch Catalog search on the place/s where your Brooks line lived. That will help you determine records that might aid in your research. Take care, Gena

    1. Lucy,

      Thanks for your kind comments. It’s important to me that researchers find what they need in my articles. Good luck with your research!–Gena

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