African Americans Share Stories of Finding Ancestors in Freedmen’s Bureau Records

June 26, 2015  - by 
Freedmen’s Bureau schools educated former slaves

The Freedmen’s Bureau helped transform the lives of African Americans following the Civil War. In addition to providing critical goods and services to emancipated slaves, the Freedmen’s Bureau documented the names of freed individuals in a systematic way for the first time.

Before the Freedmen’s Bureau, there were no formal record collections for births, deaths, and legal designations like marriage during the time of slavery. The Freedmen’s Bureau helped usher in a new era of recognition and dignity.

Today, Freedmen’s Bureau records are critical genealogy resources for African Americans tracing their roots.

We’ve asked African American genealogists to share stories of ancestors they have found with the help of Freedmen’s Bureau records. Read these tales from the early days of freedom that may have been lost to us if not for the Freedmen’s Bureau.

The Key to a Genealogical Breakthrough

Sharon Leslie Morgan
Sharon Leslie Morgan

Our first story comes from Sharon Leslie Morgan, founder of Our Black Ancestry and the co-author of Gather at the Table.

My great grandfather Wash Nicholson died in Clay County, Mississippi, of yellow jaundice. There is no record of Wash’s death in 1907 because Mississippi, like most states, did not institutionalize vital records until 1912 (or later).

I have spent a lifetime trying to reconstruct the lives of ancestors like Wash, but it hasn’t always been easy. As a consequence of the poverty engendered by slavery and Jim Crow, there is little documentation of my ancestors’ lives.

Because Wash was born in 1864, the year after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, I could only hope there might be a record somewhere – back beyond the 1870 Federal census in which African Americans were documented with surnames. In that census, Wash’s father Count, his mother Lucy, and his brothers Paul, Henderson, and Charles were living in Township 16 at Noxubee County, Mississippi.

A huge barrier was overcome on the day I found a Freedmen’s Bureau record – a labor contract – that named Wash’s parents and grandfather. They were contracted in June 1865 to sharecrop on the farm of J.J. Nicholson in Madison County, Mississippi. The contract identified the slaveholder, which gave me the ability to find that person’s will and other relatives – my African American forebears. This document opened the door to data I would not have discovered if I had not found the Freedmen’s Bureau record.

Discover unknown details about your ancestors with the help of Freedmen’s Bureau records. Use labor contracts and other documents to achieve breakthroughs while recording your family history.

An Ancestor Living in the Early Days of Freedom

Angela Y. Walton-Raji