Finding Family History in Freedmen’s Bureau Records

July 20, 2019  - by 

The Freedmen’s Bureau records were created more than 150 years ago and are a wonderful resource for anyone searching African American ancestors, especially for the difficult pre-1870 years.

Although the Freedmen’s Bureau records have been available to the public for many years, they used to be housed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., making them difficult for most people to access. Now they have been digitized and indexed, making them easily searchable here on FamilySearch.org.

What Was the Freedmen’s Bureau?

Near the close of the Civil War in 1865, the United States government created a commission to help formerly enslaved persons navigate their new freedom. The bureau was tasked with supervising relief efforts for education, health care, legalization of marriages, employment, bounty payments and pensions, and banking needs. The collection of records covers the years 1865–1872.

a school run by the freedmen's bureau.

The Freedmen’s Bureau assisted over one million African Americans, which was 25 percent of the population of formerly enslaved persons in the United States. The reach of these records makes this collection a go-to resource for African American family history research.

Separate from the Freedmen’s Bureau was the Freedman’s Bank. Originally called the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company, this bank assisted newly freed slaves and African American soldiers. Sadly, the bank failed in 1874, and many people lost their savings. The records from the bank still exist, however, and provide a great deal of genealogical data.

What Are the Freedmen’s Bureau Records?

The Freedmen’s Bureau records contain more than just names; they include details about formerly enslaved persons and their families, births and deaths, previous owners, and residences.

The Freedmen’s Bureau records on FamilySearch.org include 31 searchable collections. Here’s a quick peek at just a few of the collection titles:

More about the Freedman’s Bank Records and the Vital Information They Hold

Although the Freedmen’s Bureau bank and trust ultimately failed, the records created by it are filled with documentation for many African American families. Thousands of signature cards contain personal information about individual account holders, including name, age, birthplace, spouse’s name, children’s names, parents’ and siblings’ names, and residences.

an example of a freedmen's bureau record.

More about the Freedmen’s Bureau Records and the Vital Information They Contain

You might be surprised to learn that the hospital and medical records are filled with genealogically relevant information too! They include indexes of patient names, ages, dates of admission, discharge or death dates, names and locations of the cemetery where the deceased were buried, if applicable, estimated date and place of birth, marital status, and sometimes the names of family members.

The Freedmen’s Bureau records for marriage contain information to legalize marriages entered into during slavery.

These marriage records include all or some of the following key information:

  • Date the marriage was registered.
  • Names and residences of groom and bride.
  • Age, race, and parents’ race for both groom and bride.
  • How many years the groom or bride lived with a former companion, if applicable.
  • Cause of separation.
  • Number of children by former companion.
  • Number of children with present companion.
  • Names and ages of children.
  • Name of officiator of marriage.
a marriage that took place during the era of the freedmen's bureau.

A Personal Story of Using Freedmen’s Bureau Records

Judy Williams of Ohio found a record of her ancestor dated September 13, 1871, in the Freedmen’s Bureau bank account records. It was a record of her second-great-grandmother Jane, who was opening an account. Jane listed her spouse as James W. (deceased) and gave her own maiden name as Ford. She listed her minor children as Margaret Frances and Mary Ellen and then named her own mother as Judy Robinson.

Of finding this amazing genealogical record, Judy Williams says, “This record was invaluable for me in terms of researching my female ancestors. Not only did I discover Jane’s maiden name [Ford], I also learned that her mother, my third-great-grandmother, had apparently remarried and was now a Robinson. The record also mentioned the child Margaret Frances, my great-grandmother. That was three generations of my direct female line in one document. Hooray!”

Did You Know?

You may not know that the United States Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, shortened to the Freedmen’s Bureau, was created to help formerly enslaved individuals and Southern white refugees. For this reason, its records are a great resource for many of us with ties to the South. Try looking for your ancestors in the Freedmen’s Bureau record collections today!

Amie Tennant

Amie Bowser Tennant is a genealogy researcher, writer and presenter.She writes blog articles and other content for many top companies and societies in the genealogy field. Her most treasured experience is working as a consultant for family history. Amie lives with her husband and three children in Ohio, surrounded by many of her extended family.

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  1. These records are also valuable for people not of African American descent but lived in the South. The records include many interactions with people in the community. In fact most records also include people of non-African descent. One lady in my local Genealogical society talked about a lady who was not African-American who had lost her husband in the war. The lady received a ham and some corn from the bureau and the entry also mentioned the lady’s daughter and mother. The bureau also records labor contracts with local farmers. Many of the contracts are for a share of the crop and the farmer must also provide clothing, housing and medical care.