Celebrate Juneteenth by searching Freedmen’s Bureau Records

June 17, 2021  - by 
Multi generation black family look at each other in garden

Juneteenth is an important historical and joyous holiday that celebrates the abolition of slavery. It begins June 19 and lasts at least that day, a week, or an entire month.

What is Juneteenth?

The Juneteenth celebration commemorates June 19, 1865, when General Gordon Granger and 2,000 troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to enforce the freeing of enslaved people. The formerly enslaved began the celebration of Juneteenth (Emancipation Day)  in the streets of Galveston. Today, Juneteenth is celebrated by millions of people throughout the nation.

General Gordon Granger enforced the freeing of slaves which led to Juneteenth.
General Gordon Granger (right).

What are the Freedmen’s Bureau Records?

In March of 1865, the Federal Government created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, more commonly referred to as the Freedmen’s Bureau. The goal of the Bureau was to help 4 million enslaved people make the transition to freedom.

The Freedmen’s Bureau had vast responsibilities. It provided needful services including rations, medical care, employment assistance, and support for education. Two hundred hospitals were built and 4,000 schools were established.

And of course, where such orchestrated government support services were offered, and abundance of records were required. This can be a great resource for those researching their African American roots during this time period.

Freedmen’s Bureau records include:

  • Documentation of the legalization of marriages entered during slavery
  • Labor contracts (the beginning of share cropping)
  • Military payment registers
  • Hospital logs

5th Anniversary of the Freedmen’s Bureau Project

Many of these records were brought to light thanks to the work of volunteers in their participation of the Freedmen’s Bureau project. Six years ago, FamilySearch made the announcement to begin a national wide effort to index these works.

More than 25,000 volunteers participated in the project coast to coast in the United States and Canada. Out of the four million people who were enslaved, participants uncovered the names of nearly 1.8 million of them.

Searching the Freedmen’s Bureau Records

An example of freedman's bureau records.

Robin Foster, a National Genealogy Examiner and a member of the South Carolina Genealogical Society suggests the Freedman Bureau records are crucial to tracing your African American genealogy back past 1870.

Records from the Slave Era in the U.S. are so valuable because they create the bridge from before the Civil War—when few records existed that mention identifying information about individual enslaved people—to the 1870s where formerly enslaved individuals began appearing. Records give names, dates of birth, marriage, and death. Additionally, records provide clues to past slave owners and locations.

The value of a single Bureau record to your family tree can be very exciting. Janis Forté, a lecturer, author, and publisher, and Recording Secretary of the Afro-American Genealogical and Historical Society of Chicago, was able to trace back three generations from one record. It even mentioned his slave ancestor’s daughters’ names and their married names. He discovered a great-great uncle had two marriages, one he didn’t know about.

Their records can bridge the genealogical gap from slavery to freedom.

Note that the “Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872,” and “United States, Freedmen’s Bureau Ration Records,1865-1872” collections have been recently updated.

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  1. I am trying to help a black American friend with her genealogy; I take it back about 3 generations and then run into trouble when there are so many with the same last name which is the last name of the plantation owner—looks as if everyone is related because of the same last name. This is in Mississippi. Not sure what to do next……

    1. I would definitely call FamilySearch Research Help at 1-866-406-1830. They should be able to get you on your way.

  2. This is such wonderful information—thank you! Might I make a suggestion? Black Americans prefer their ancestors to be referred to as “enslaved” rather than as “slaves.” This simple change from noun to adjective denotes an action taken against them, rather than bestowing a title of possession.

    1. Thank you for this suggestion. I will pass it on to our editors in order to increase sensitivity in our writing.

  3. I have a book “The Bridwell Family of America.” There are two families that list the names of their slaves. One family even lists their ages. How do I get this information to FamilySearch or another genealogical society that would benefit Afro-Americans? Thanks for your help.

  4. Interesting. About 20 years ago my wife and I demonstrated the Freedman’s Bank CD collection the church prepared to dignitaries in the New York City Area. We also handed out free copies to the attendees, It was well received..

    1. This indexing project is finished but there are tons of other records that still need to be indexed!

        1. Great question! I know of this project which is from Bureau of Land Management records starting in 1800. I have a hunch that there may be post-slavery sharecroppers records in this project.

          You may also choose to index records for a state that you think had a large number of people who were freed from slavery during the time period the project is covering, such as this Mississippi project.

          There are also English records to index in places like the Caribbean and South Africa that may give you more insight into the history of global racial inequality. You wouldn’t be working on records having to do with American enslavement, but rather those enslaved in the Caribbean or the effects of the South African Apartheid.

          I hope that helps! Thank you for being so willing to volunteer and serve by indexing. I hope others see this comment and feel drawn to indexing these types of records too. It’s such an important job to index these records to help families connect with their ancestral roots.