There are many common hurdles that every family historian faces: not knowing where to start, which records to search for or where to look next, are just a few of them. Family history research can often be particularly challenging for those of African American descent due to the long history of slavery in the U.S. as well as the lack of documentation about those who were enslaved. At Ancestry, we are committed to continually adding new record collections so more people can discover their families untold stories
One such collection which may help lead to breakthroughs in family history research is the Freedmen’s Bureau and Freedman’s Bank. These significant records can be instrumental in helping descendants of previously enslaved people learn more about their families backstory by offering a path to trace ancestors prior to 1870. This collection can enable meaningful family history discoveries because it is likely the first time newly freed African Americans would appear in records after Emancipation.
Understanding the Complex History
The Freedmen’s Bureau was established near the end of the American Civil War to help formerly enslaved people transition from slavery to citizenship, providing food, housing, education, and medical care. It also provided support for impoverished white people and veterans of the U.S. Coloured Troops. Crucial records in the Freedmen’s Bureau include labour contracts, rations, apprenticeships, letters, marriages, and more.
The Freedman’s Bank was established by President Lincoln and was active from March 1865-1874. As the Civil War ended, Congress and Lincoln recognized the need to aid newly freed African American men and women in their transition to freedom, and to support the land grants and other elements provided by the Freedmen’s Bureau.
A More Complete View of This Chapter in History
To better understand the African American experience during this chapter in history, we turned to experts, academics, and authors, like Dr Karcheik Sims-Alvarado, Assistant Professor, Africana Studies at Morehouse College, who focuses on the history and culture of African Americans and the Reconstruction Era.
She says, “The Freedmen’s Bureau records paint a picture of who was migrating to major cities, what type of people they were, and their economic aspirations. This narrative is largely untold in Reconstruction Era history, as those writing the history did not consider the perspectives of how Black people experienced and defined freedom. Increasing awareness of and access to this history is a key step toward a new understanding of this complex American history.”
Exploring Freedmen’s Bureau and Freedman’s Bank Records
- Before we start exploring the collection, here are questions you should consider:
- Have you traced your family from the present back to 1870?
- Have you confirmed that your ancestors were enslaved or free?
- What oral history do you have about your ancestors?
Whether you are looking to trace your own lineage or looking to understand this period of history more deeply, it is a fascinating collection to explore. Once you’re ready to search the records, keep in mind that the Freedmen’s Bureau only operated in certain Southern US states, so you may be more likely to find personal connections if your family has ties to the areas below.
- Virginia (West Virginia)
- South Carolina
- North Carolina
- District of Columbia
In this collection, you can find names of former slave owners, thousands of signature cards, as well as rich details about the individual depositors, such as name, age, residence, place of birth, and occupation.
Search the collections here – U.S., Freedman’s Bank Records, 1865-1874 | Ancestry® and U.S., Freedmen’s Bureau Records, 1865-1878 | Ancestry®