About U.S., Freedmen's Bureau Records, 1865-1878
General Collection Information
This collection contains records from the Freedmen’s Bureau between 1865 and 1878. This collection offers a wealth of information. Because enslaved people didn’t have legal rights prior to 1865, it can be difficult to track them through censuses or birth, marriage, and death records. For many African Americans, records from the Freedmen’s Bureau may be the first time their ancestor’s name appears outside of inventory lists included in wills and probate records. Records from this collection may provide vital information, such as age or birthplace, in addition to a number of unique details such as military service and school attendance.
Included within this database are:
Records from this time period are unstandardized. The collection contains records from the following states: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.
Using this Collection
The registry may include the following information:
Because there are many different types of records in this collection, individuals may be found in multiple records. For example, a teenager may be listed on school records, in an employment record upon gaining an apprenticeship, and then in a bank record if they opened a bank account.
When searching the Freedmen’s Bureau records, there are a few things to consider to aid your search. First, try and trace your history back to the 1870 census. Having traceable records close to the date of the Freedmen’s Bureau records will help you ensure you’ve found the right person. If you’re unsure where to begin, Ancestry’s African American Research guide can help you get started: https://www.ancestrycdn.com/mars/landing/africanamerican/africanamerican_guide_2015.pdf
Consider the status of your family members. If they were enslaved, when were they emancipated? For many, freedom didn’t come until two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. If you aren’t sure, there are a few clues to look for. If a mother was legally freed, any children born afterwards would also be free.
Names are also a useful place to look. A common misconception is that enslaved people didn’t have last names prior to emancipation. Though many enslaved people adopted (or were assigned) the name of their former enslaver or plantation, some did in fact have their own last names passed down from a parent—though they typically weren’t acknowledged by their enslaver and aren’t noted in records from before emancipation. It wasn’t uncommon for people to revert to their family surname or choose a new one to distance themselves from their former enslaver.
In the aftermath of the war, many Black people migrated to different parts of the country. This can make tracing your ancestors difficult. If you can, talk to family members to get an idea of where your ancestors may have traveled to. It’s a good practice to also check bordering states, especially if your ancestors may have lived near the juncture of multiple states. Records from West Virginia will be listed under Virginia, because West Virginia didn’t become a state until 1863.
Collection in Context
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, was established in 1865 as a means to provide aid to newly emanicpated people transitioning from slavery to freedom. It supported more than 4 million people, which included some impoverished white people and veterans of the U.S. Colored Troops.
Aid was provided on a large scope; everything needed to reconstruct a new economy was included. Perhaps the most well-known legacy of the Freedmen’s Bureau was the founding of Freedmen’s Schools, which provided a free education to many formerly enslaved people; however, the Freedmen’s Bureau also offered employment, banks, hospitals, and rations to those in need. Transportation to work sites was even available. Congress voted to extend the Freedmen's Bureau twice, in 1865 and 1866; however the Freedmen’s Bureau ended abruptly in 1872.
Everly, Elaine C. “Marriage Registers of Freedmen.” Genealogy Notes. Published Fall 1973. https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1973/fall/freedmens-marriage-registers.html
Facinghistory.org. “Changing Names.” Last Modified 2020. https://www.facinghistory.org/reconstruction-era/changing-names
History.com “Freedmen’s Bureau.” Last Modified October 3, 2018. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/freedmens-bureau
National Archives. “African American Records: Freedmen’s Bureau.” Last Modified June 4, 2021. https://www.archives.gov/research/african-americans/freedmens-bureau
PBS.org. “Schools and Education During Reconstruction.” Last Modified 2021. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/reconstruction-schools-and-education-during-reconstruction/
Reclaiming Kin. “The Complexity of Slave Surnames.” Last Modified March 14, 2017. https://reclaimingkin.com/the-complexity-of-slave-surnames/
16 Jun 2022: Added 91,615 new records that were not previously keyed.