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

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
Angela Y. Walton-Raji

Our next story is from Angela Y. Walton-Raji, founder of the African-Native American Genealogy Blog.

My ancestors lived in a tiny hamlet called Horatio – located in Sevier County, Arkansas – and I wasn’t sure their names were recorded by the Freedmen’s Bureau. Nevertheless, I looked at the records from the nearest field office in Paraclifta, Arkansas.

While going through the documents, I came upon a list of former plantation owners in the county. My eyes scanned the names of plantation owners, and then I saw the name H.C. Pride.

I knew that name!

Henry C. Pride was always said to have been the slave holder of my great grandfather, Mitchell Bass. I continued working my way through the records, hoping to find mention of Mitchell.

The next set of pages consisted of names from a Roster of Freedmen and notes on employers and wages. I looked for the name of H.C. Pride, knowing the records could also feature notes on those he had enslaved.

And then on page 9, there he was – my great grandfather Mitchell! He was listed along with others who were “employees” of Pride after emancipation. This roster is the earliest record of my great grandfather.

Mitchell would not keep the surname Pride. Instead, he would forever be known as Mitchell Bass, reclaiming the name of his own family, and not that of the last slave holder.

By 1870, Mitchell was a farmer of his own, and within a few years, he purchased land as a homesteader in Sevier County. He raised his children there, including a daughter – my grandmother Sarah Ellen Bass.

A lot is still to be known about how freedom came to my ancestors, but oh, what a joy it was to find my great grandfather Mitchell’s name documented in the early days of freedom.

Document the stories of your ancestors who lived during the Civil War era. Explore Freedmen’s Bureau records to validate relatives’ residences and map the journey to freedom.

A Labor Contract Revealing a Family Legacy

Robin Foster
Robin Foster

Our last story comes from Robin Foster, founder of Saving Stories.

I do not research only African Americans – my ancestry is made up of both colors – and I have used Freedmen’s Bureau records to help research my entire Southern heritage.

While examining a labor contract in Union County, South Carolina, I found the names of three ancestors. James A. Tucker, who was a former slave holder, and my third great grandparents, Sciller (who took Tucker’s surname) and Henry Sims, who were enslaved by him.

While living on the Tucker plantation after the Civil War, serving as contracted laborers, Sciller and Henry had a daughter, Martha – my second great grandmother.

Martha was freed when she was young and eventually had a child with George Epps Tucker, the grandson of James Tucker.

Because James Tucker protected the inheritance of his grandson, George came into much wealth when he became of age. He never married Martha (perhaps because it was illegal in those days), but he provided for her in his estate. This wealth eventually was passed to her son, George Anderson Tucker.

I have let this story stand as proof that out of the indecent system of slavery – and the aftermath of slavery, which was often more inhumane – this branch of my family was blessed to have land and provisions that kept them from having to flee or migrate. The stability left for them has lasted for generations.

I have been able to piece together enough to know that the dynamics of these family relationships back then were very complicated. This legacy has served to germinate a small seed of hope within me that I can find the good in people if I look hard enough.

Discover stories of your ancestors with the assistance of Freedmen’s Bureau records. Learn details about the people who helped shape your family legacy.

Discover Your Ancestors

Freedmen’s Bureau records open up incredible possibility for African Americans looking to explore their family history. Let the above family stories serve as inspiration to explore your own family ancestry with Freedmen’s Bureau records.


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