The Freedmen's Bureau Records

Explore Initiative

The Museum is focusing attention on the post-Civil War transition of enslaved people to freedom by making the records of the Freedmen’s Bureau accessible online.

The Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project  

The Museum has collaborated with the Smithsonian Transcription Center to transcribe nearly 2 million image files from the Freedmen’s Bureau records. The Transcription Center is a platform where digital volunteers can transcribe and review transcriptions of Smithsonian collections. The Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project is the largest crowdsourcing initiative ever sponsored by the Smithsonian.  

The Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project will allow anyone with internet access to research his or her family’s history online. The Museum began this project in an effort to help African Americans discover their ancestors and help historians better understand the years following the Civil War.

Help transcribe the Freedmen's Bureau collection

Freedmen’s School, James’ Plantation, North Carolina, UNC

The Bureau helped support schools like this one at James’ Plantation, North Carolina to educate newly freed children. (Learn NC, University of North Carolina)

History of the Freedmen's Bureau

Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands in 1865 to assist in the reconstruction of the South and to aid formerly enslaved individuals transition to freedom and citizenship. Administered by the War Department, the Bureau followed the department’s war-inspired record-keeping system. These handwritten records include letters, labor contracts, lists of food rations issued, indentures of apprenticeship, marriage and hospital registers and census lists. They provide a unique view into the lives of newly freed individuals and the social conditions of the South after the war.

The Bureau was responsible for providing assistance to four million formerly enslaved individuals and hundreds of thousands of impoverished Southern whites. The Bureau provided food, clothing, medical care, and legal representation; promoted education; helped legalize marriages; and assisted African American soldiers and sailors in securing back pay, enlistment bounties, and pensions. In addition, the Bureau promoted a system of labor contracts to replace the slavery system and tried to settle freedmen and women on abandoned or confiscated land. The Bureau was also responsible for protecting freedmen and women from intimidation and assaults by Southern whites. The Bureau set up offices in major cities in the 15 Southern and border states and the District of Columbia. Under-funded by Congress and opposed by President Andrew Johnson, the Bureau only operated between 1865 and 1872.

The Freedmen’s Bureau plays a key role in the Museum’s Slavery and Freedom and Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation, 1877-1968 exhibitions. In these exhibitions, the Freedmen’s Bureau provides a backdrop against which we see African Americans resisting white efforts to deny them “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The Freedmen’s Bureau records are also featured in an Interactive exhibition in the Robert Frederick Smith Explore Your Family History Center on the Museum’s second floor.

Project Origins

In 2009, the Museum partnered with Family Search International to create a searchable name index of the Freedmen’s Bureau records. Sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Family Search International is the world’s largest genealogical organization. Along with a host of genealogical services, the organization maintains freely accessible online genealogical databases. The Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society and the California African American Museum also collaborate on the Freedmen’s Bureau Project.

The National Archives and Records Administration preserves the original Freedmen’s Bureau records and sold an entire set of the microfilmed records to FamilySearch.

You’ll find African American genealogists are quite excited about the Freedmen’s Bureau Project. Each Indexed document brings us closer to reclaiming our ancestral heritage and historical past.

Hollis Gentry NMAAHC Genealogy Specialist
Freedman’s Village, Arlington, VA, LOC

Freedman's Village was located on what is now Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA. (Courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-117892)

On Juneteenth 2015, The Freedmen’s Bureau Project was publicly launched as FamilySearch made digital scans of the original documents available online for indexing. 

Elder D. Todd Christofferson represents The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Los Angeles, California, to showcase the prepared Freedmen's Bureau Record - a vast, 19th century government log containing the family histories of African-Americans, collected at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States.

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Within a year, more than19,000 individuals contributed to indexing nearly 1.7 million records. The indexed Freedmen’s Bureau records are now searchable online. The records and index will be featured in the Museum’s Robert Frederick Smith Explore Your Family History Center.

The Freedmen’s Bureau Project will continue indexing more records from the Freedmen’s Bureau as they become available from the National Archives and Records Administration.

Working on the Freedman’s Bureau Project has shed a light on the past for me that I never would’ve otherwise been able to experience. In working with these records, I gained a new understanding about how people lived. I hope the work we’ve done will be valuable for generations to come as people delve into their pasts.

Libby Herndon Museum Volunteer
Report of rations given to freedmen and poor whites, Raleigh, North Carolina, July 30th, 1866.

Report of rations given to freedmen and poor whites, Raleigh, North Carolina, July 30th, 1866.

Using the Records Online

The FamilySearch online database allows researchers to search for individual names. It then provides access to digital copies of the original handwritten records. For many people, this will prove to be a key to finding their family history and genealogy before the era of the Civil War.

Once completed, the Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project will allow full text searches that provide access to both digital copies and transcriptions of the original records. The two projects provide different ways for researchers to access the data from the Freedmen’s Bureau records. 

Family historians, genealogists, students, and scholars around the world will have online access to these records. In addition, these transcribed records will be keyword searchable, reducing the effort required to find a person or topic. Providing typewritten versions of the original documents will increase our understanding of the post-Civil War era and our knowledge of post-Emancipation family life.

Office of the Freedmen’s Bureau, Memphis, TN, NYPL

African Americans reported concerns and filed legal claims with agents at the Bureau’s field offices creating millions of handwritten documents. (Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections)