African American Records: Freedmen's Bureau
"...an unequaled wealth of information that extends the reach of black family studies and social history"
"In the years following the Civil War, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (the Freedmen's Bureau) provided assistance to tens of thousands of former slaves and impoverished whites in the Southern States and the District of Columbia. The war had liberated nearly four million slaves and destroyed the region's cities, towns, and plantation-based economy. It left former slaves and many whites dislocated from their homes, facing starvation, and owning only the clothes they wore. The challenge of establishing a new social order, founded on freedom and racial equality, was enormous. "The Bureau was established in the War Department in 1865 to undertake the relief effort and the unprecedented social reconstruction that would bring freedpeople to full citizenship. It 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.
Several generations of a family are pictured on Smith's Plantation, South Carolina, ca. 1862. (Library of Congress)
"The records left by the Freedmen's Bureau through its work between 1865 and 1872 constitute the richest and most extensive documentary source available for investigating the African American experience in the post-Civil War and Reconstruction eras. Historians have used these materials to explore government and military policies, local conditions, and interactions between freedpeople, local white populations, and Bureau officials. "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. No name indexes are available at this time, but the documents can be rewarding, particularly since they provide full names, residences, and, often, the names of former masters and plantations." (Text from National Archives)
Read more from the National Archives Guide The National Archives (NARA) has an excellent guide describing the different types of records produced by the Freedmen's Bureau:
The original manuscript documents are housed at NARA, and can be viewed on microfilm, but many of the collections are now available more conveniently online. For access see the guide's Online.