Two decades after they married on a porch in late October 1843, Benjamin Manson and Sarah White walked proudly into the Tennessee Freedmen’s Bureau to renew their vows. Together they had had a grand total of 16 children, built a life despite living in different households, and weathered the conflict of the Civil War. Yet that day, April 19, 1866, was the first they were legally recognized as husband and wife.
From 1865 to 1872, the Freedmen’s Bureau helped tens of thousands of freed slaves build new lives, while documenting nearly every aspect of the post-Civil War experience. As a result, the Freedmen’s Bureau records are among the most valuable sources of information on African American genealogy.
To observe the Juneteenth holiday, we called on prominent African American genealogists to reflect on the importance of this records collection.
Genealogist Robin Foster describes the personal significance of the Freedmen’s Bureau records:
It’s very emotional. As a descendent of an enslaved ancestor, you can only research back so far. You feel like an orphan. Many African Americans are told we can’t document our family before the 1870 census.
It restores a lot of hope to find an ancestor prior to that year in the Freedmen’s Bureau records. Even without a photograph or a story, seeing their name helps you put together another piece of who you are.
The Freedmen’s Bureau records were produced at the dawn of freedom and can be among the richest records for learning where an ancestor was living, and what they were doing in the days following Emancipation.
The 1870 U.S. Census was the first to list freed ancestors with surnames, but the Freedmen’s Bureau records list freed ancestors with surnames as early as 1865. They can thus be an important resource for breaking through the 1870 Brick Wall. Many Freedmen’s Bureau records identify a freed ancestor’s final slaveholder.
Before the records were digitized and available on FamilySearch.org, Our Black Ancestry founder Sharon Leslie Morgan remembers searching page by page though Freedmen’s Bureau records in Jackson, Mississippi.
I’d always resisted looking at the Freedmen’s Bureau Records because they were such a mess. There was no way to know what was in there except by reading page by page. I only finally did it because I was desperate.
I started by looking for the county that I wanted. The records had a listing of names that were included, although they were not indexed. Then I read page by page by page.
Not only did I find the person I was searching for, I found his father and his brothers. It was astonishing. The labor contract listed everyone who was hired under this contract. It turned out that most of the people were related. There was a father, a mother, three children, an uncle, living in a county that I did not realize they had ever gone to. Plus the labor contract I found identified the slaveholder, which gave me the ability to find that person’s will and find other relatives. It opened the door to a lot of data that I would not have known about if I hadn’t seen the Freedmen’s Bureau Record.
Though it may be disturbing to learn where ancestors were enslaved, finding the name of a former slaveholder can be key to researching African American genealogy before the end of the Civil War. With the name of an ancestor’s former slaveholder, you can often uncover probate records or wills that will reveal details about previously unknown ancestors.
Head to the Freedmen’s Bureau page and start searching the records collection to uncover fascinating historical details from the time period following the Civil War. Toni Carrier recommends starting your research with:
- Labor contracts
Agreements between newly-freed ancestors and former slaveholders are often a clue to where an ancestor was enslaved and the name of their former owner. Contracts typically list the employer, the plantation name and location, the terms of the agreement and the names of the freed men, women and children who entered into the contract. Often freedmen were listed in family groups and some contracts even state family relationships.
- Rations Lists/Distribution Lists
Frequently titled “Names of Destitute Freedmen to Whom Rations Were Distributed,” rations lists contain the freed person’s name, age, plantation or place of residence, and why they were unable to work. Family historians can use rations lists to discover young children, or people who were very old or infirm (and who may not have been alive at the time of the 1870 Census.) It’s possible to uncover an entire older generation by finding elders with the same surname who live on the same plantation as your ancestors.
While Freedmen’s Bureau records are especially significant for African American family historians, they are also an excellent resource for individuals interested in their Southern heritage.
“It’s important to remember that the Freedmen’s Bureau records are not just African American records,” adds Robin Foster. “You can find records of anyone in the south who was involved during that period of time.” During her family history presentations in South Carolina, Robin often has descendants of slaveholders approach her to say, “I want to find my family.”
Sharon Leslie Morgan has also had a similar experience. “We seek to connect because there’s a missing link in our history,” she told FamilySearch. Sharon is involved with Coming to the Table, an organization that helps descendants of slaveholders connect with descendants of freed slaves to heal past wrongs and to share knowledge about their heritage.
For family historians, the Freedmen’s Bureau records are key to learning about southern ancestors after the end of the Civil War. With their vast amount of information about the assistance provided to newly freed slaves, the Freedmen’s Bureau records can help family historians studying African American genealogy break through the 1870 “brick wall” to learn more about their ancestors. In some cases, the historical information uncovered in the Freedmen’s Bureau records can even add entire generations to a family tree.
What better way to observe the Juneteenth holiday than by exploring your roots? Learn more about the Freedmen’s Bureau records to shine a light on previously unknown ancestors and enrich your family legacy.