United States, Freedmen’s Bureau Records (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2013. It is an excerpt from their course Research: African American Ancestors  by Michael Hait, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Freedmen’s Bureau records

The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, also known as the “Freedmen’s Bureau,” was created by an Act of Congress on 3 March 1865, to provide aid to former slaves. It remained in full operation from June 1865 through December 1868, with some functions continuing until 1872.

Among its responsibilities, the Bureau helped to provide homes and jobs to newly freed slaves, to perform and record civil marriages among blacks, and to serve as a judicial system for those whom the regular courts served only rarely and poorly. The records of the Freedmen’s Bureau include, among other records:

  • labor contracts—agreements between freedmen and plantation owners;
  • marriage registers for both contemporary and earlier unofficial slave marriages;
  • lists of freedmen living at Bureau-run work camps, including monthly lists of births, deaths, and migrations;
  • reports of “outrages”—racially-charged violence toward freedmen;
  • names of orphans residing at work camps.

Marriage Register

An example of a Freedmen’s Bureau marriage register appears below.

Freedmen’s Bureau - Marriage Register, 1866

“Report of Freedmen Married under the directions of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Ashley Co Ark during the month of June 1866,” digital images, “United States, Freedmen’s Bureau Marriages, 1815-1869,” FamilySearch; citing NARA microfilm publication M1875 FHL Film.


Labor Contract

This example of a labor contract is typical:

Agreement with Freedmen - Labor Contract

Agreement with Freedmen on F. A. A. Heisen’s Plantation, Parish of Caldwell, La., Employed by F. A. A. Heisen, 1 Jan 1867; Records of the Field Offices for the State of Louisiana, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1863-1872, NARA microfilm M1905, FHL Film roll 42.


Outrage Report

The following excerpt provides an example of an “outrage” report, as transcribed by Freedmen’s Bureau Online:

Tangapoho August 20th 1865
Mary Stewart (colored) complains of Demarcus D. Day as follows:
I was employed by Thos. Day to labor until January 1866 for $6.00 per month to give me a dress and feed me; on the evening of the 19th of August 1865 D. D. Day came into my own yard and ordered me into my own house and said he was going to kill me. That we were all free niggers and that he was going to kill the damned free niggers. He cut me twice on my left arm with a long pocket knife; I got away from him, he caught me again and took me up in the white folks house, he then cut me once with his knife in the head; he then took me along the road towards his house and said he would keep me until morning. While on the way he said “now I am going to kill you” before morning and bury you. When we arrived at his mother’s house she came out and begged him not to kill me, he became mad at her and struck me twice in the right arm. I then attempted to get away from him and succeeded but he made one stab with his knife which penetrated my side. He tore all the clothes from me.
Mary Stewart formerly owned by Thos. Day

As you can see, the “outrages” could be very violent, and the reports often carry graphic and disturbing depictions of the troubles that former slaves encountered in the South in the years following the Civil War. But in this particular case, the outrage also names Mary’s former owner, Thomas Day, and provides another clue with the name of her attacker, Demarcus D. Day, probably a relative of her former owner.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Research: African American Ancestors offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

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