When you are trying to fathom African-American history or genealogy at a local level, it’s hard to get the information. This is of course true of slavery days and still a problem during the early days of slaves’ freedom after the Civil War and during Reconstruction. White-owned publications rarely contain much personal data on African Americans, unless their activities were perceived to be threatening to the white community.

And yet the rewards of tracing the stories of the African-American community during such formative times are great. This has been my experience working on several books and various articles about the story of Athens’ African-American community and its interactions with the white citizenry of our town and county, Clarke County, Georgia.

Many present-day African-Americans are faced with a lack of tools or knowledge in studying their own history in a local setting.

“How can I tell what happened to my family just after they were freed,” numerous African Americans here in Athens have asked me.  “Where do I start?”

         This blog deals with an underused source of historical data that can be extremely useful to historians and genealogists—the records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, usually called the Freedmen's Bureau. It was a controversial agency of the U. S. government  as it faced aiding freed slaves and some whites hit hard after the Civil War ended.  White Southerners generally disliked it strongly as a Yankee intrusion, but blacks looked to it for help and protection.

Feeding, clothing and transporting freed people, and some of the white population made destitute by the war was a daunting task. With much bickering and hesitation the federal government saw nobody else could do this and reluctantly entered its mission—but on a temporary basis. After Lincoln’s assassination, President Andrew Johnson pretty much sided with the South and saw the Freedmen’s Bureau as a detriment. Congress, however, made appropriations to set up the Bureau and ignored Johnson’s objections. The Bureau had its roots during the Civil War as Union forces occupied areas of the South and slaves had to be supported. But the Bureau officially came into existence after the war ended.

In addition to furnishing food, clothing, and transportation for refugees, the Bureau also pioneered in setting up schools for ex-slaves throughout the South. Freed persons felt learning to read and write was a key to any success. 

Another duty of the Bureau was to hear complaints lodged by both blacks and whites about racial relations and to work out labor contracts between white planters or farmers and African-Americans. It was very difficult to get a workable system that got the agricultural tasks done but paid African-Americans enough to keep body and soul together. Health care was also urgent for freed people, and the Bureau was active setting up hospitals throughout the South. Too, the Bureau dealt with what to do with abandoned plantations, and at one time parceled out some of these to blacks, especially in Georgia and South Carolina coastal areas.

Fortunately the Freedmen’s Bureau kept quite thorough records on national, state and local levels involving all these major tasks. We are lucky that  many of these records are readily available now online. Once it was necessary to go to the National Archives to research the Freedmen’s Bureau activities. In Washington are the original records and thousands upon thousands of microfilm rolls there. Microfilm of Bureau Records is also available  at some major libraries.

Within the last few years, however, many of the Freedmen’s Bureau records have been digitized and placed online on the Web. The largest readily available collection online is at Ancestry.com. You can get a personal subscription to use the multiplicity of services of Ancestry, or most libraries can give you free computer access to these online records. Many other sites on the Web also have other free collections of the Bureau’s records  which can be helpful. Check Google or other search engines and you’ll find many sites.

I am most familiar with Georgia records of the Bureau and have used microfilms in the Athens Regional Library and online access on my own subscription. Using these records have paid rich dividends. Parts of several of my books and articles would have been impossible  to write without  access to Bureau records.

The biggest problem you face using Freedmen’s Bureau records is that they are not well indexed, or in some cases, not indexed at all. There may be only broad headings such as Letters Sent and Received in various Freedmen’s Bureau offices records. For instance, Athens was the location of one of the Bureau’s sub-districts with agents reporting to the Athens office for 10 counties. The communication system was very similar to the military system up the channels of command, where the communications made their way from many Georgia Bureau agents, on to the state, or to the national level of the Bureau.

You can find complaints files, files on the number of assaults and murders investigated by the Bureau, the rations lists showing who drew rations from the Bureau or who received clothing. Many refugees used Freedmen’s Bureau funds to travel and re-unite themselves with their scattered families after the war. Names and details are available in all these files.  Monthly reports of activities are available.

The local Athens Sub-District field office records are scarcely indexed. Much browsing will be required to find items of interest, but there are some rudimentary indices, mainly by names of persons involved and by broad subject headings. Patience will be required. The online digitization gives you excellent images of the microfilmed letters, reports, tables, orders to agents, appointments of employees, lists of expenses of each office, etc. Microfilm reels of specific field offices are available for a fee from the National Archives.

Some of the most fascinating records are those of the Bureau’s mediation on labor contracts between whites and former slaves. Education files are very extensive, indicating the status of establishing schools throughout the Southern states. Athens files to the Bureau’s Education superintendents from 1865 through about 1874 are voluminous, giving names of schools, attendance, names of teachers,  critiques of performance and costs of education projects.

Separate from the Bureau Records, but online via Ancestry.com and on microfilm in the Athens library’s Heritage Room are the records of the African Americans setting up savings accounts as depositors in the Registers of Signatures of Depositors in Branches of the Freedman's Savings and Trust Company, 1865-1874.  As I recall, Augusta and Savannah also had branch banks in Georgia. The records of the Atlanta Branch are most fruitful for finding Athens area depositors. Many hundreds of blacks put their dollars into what they considered was a very safe bank. Tragically, however, many lost their savings when the bank later collapsed. The signature registers don’t have the amounts of deposits. I haven't found any records of individual deposits.

What can you find?

•               Number of application

•                Name of depositor

•                Date of application/deposit (with original signature if the applicant could write)

•                Name of employer (not always)

•                Name of plantation(sometimes, but other times a precise  town address.

•                Age

•                Height (not always)

•                Complexion (not always)

•                Name of father and/or mother (sometimes their ages)

•                Whether married (sometimes when)

•                Place of birth

•                Current Residence

•                Occupation

•                Names of children (sometimes ages)

•                Names of brothers and sisters (sometimes ages)

As Ancestry.com says: “Freedman's Bank Records is a great source for genealogists researching their African American heritage because of the amount of personal information recorded for each individual in it. Be sure to view the corresponding image of the original document associated with your ancestor in order to obtain all possible information available for them.”

The Freedman's Savings and Trust Company, which ran the bank, was incorporated in 1865 by an act signed by President Lincoln.

“The purpose of the company was to create an institution where former slaves and their dependents could place and save their money,” Ancestry.com says. “The original bank was first headquartered in New York and later moved to Washington, D.C. Shortly thereafter branch offices opened in other cities, primarily in ones in the South where there was a larger population of African Americans. Eventually there were 37 branch offices in 17 states with approximately 70,000 depositors (over the bank’s lifetime) and deposits of more than $57 million. In 1874, as a result of mismanagement, fraud, and other events and situations, Freedman's Bank closed.”

Obviously African Americans with more money were likely to be depositors, but upon occasion I found black domestic servants with carefully saved up deposits. There are several hundred thousand names and information about depositors and their family members in these records.

An entire book could be easily written about Freedmen’s Bureau and the Savings Bank records and their use for genealogists and historians.  But be warned: Working with the records takes dogged work, The nuggets of information about relatives and persons of interest, however, may be more valuable to you than gold. You’ll find your use of these records can become addictive.

A Freedman's Savings Bank depositor application from ex-slave Madison Davis of Athens. This shows the types of genealogical information available in these and Freedmen's Bureau records.