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African American Freedmen's Bureau Records

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Definition. The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (often called the Freedmen’s Bureau) was created at the end of the American Civil War to supervise relief efforts (rations, clothing, and medicine) and the education of newly freed African Americans, and to supervise confiscated Southern properties.

Value. Because the Bureau's records contain a wide range of data about the African American experience during slavery and freedom, they are a valuable source for the black family historian. Among the records are registers that give the names, ages, and former occupations of freedmen and names and residences of former owners. In addition, there are marriage registers that provide the names, addresses, ages, and complexions of husbands and wives and their children. For some states there are census lists, details of labor and apprenticeship agreements, back pay records, complaint registers, personal data about black soldiers (including company and regiment), school records, hospital registers, census records, and records of murders committed against freedmen.

Jurisdictions. This bureau operated in all the former Confederate states, Maryland, the District of Columbia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, and Indian Territory (i.e. Oklahoma) and has records from 1861 to the 1870s. The Freedmen’s Bureau created records at headquarters in Washington, DC, or by field agents in the various southern areas.

There are two sets of records:

(1) commissioner’s records, and

(2) field office records—normally the most useful. However, the commissioner’s records contain lists and reports such as two linear feet of marriage papers. Records from the field offices vary from state to state. Since most freedmen contacted the bureau at the local level, you will find the most genealogical data and clues in field office records

Arrangement. The Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the Field Offices of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands: Record Group 105 by Elaine Everly and Willna Pacheli of the National Archives [FHL book 973 F23ea; fiche 6002638-40] describes the bureau’s records. They are organized alphabetically by state, thereunder by offices, and thereunder by county or town. Part One is about Alabama, Arkansas (including the Oklahoma Indian Territory), the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, and Louisiana. Part Two is about Maryland and Delaware, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Part Three is about Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and the Freedmen's branch at of the Adjutant General's Office.

Availability. Most of the subordinate field office records, with the exception of selected records for New Orleans and Tennessee have not been microfilmed and are only available at the National Archives in Washington, DC. For a list of Freedmen’s Bureau records that are microfilmed see the Black Studies: A Select Catalog of National Archives Microfilm Publications [FHL book 973 A3bs; fiche 6002413; and on the Internet].

The Family History Library has many of the Freedmen’s Bureau microfilmed records. The microfilm numbers for most of these records can be found in the Family History Library Catalog Keyword Search using the search phrase “Bureau of Refugees”

Other Web Sites

  • National Archives Black Family Research description of Freedmen’s Bureau records.
  • Freedmen's Bureau Records of Field Offices 1865-1872 index and images at This database contains about 102,010 personal names from field office records for Washington, D.C., Florida, Georgia, New Orleans, and North Carolina. Information available in the database includes: name, record type, year, and field office location. Family History Centers and the Family History Library have limited access to this index. There is a subscription fee for home use.
  • Elaine C. Everly, “Freedmen’s Bureau Records: An Overview,” article, National Archives, Prologue Magazine Summer 1997, Vol. 29, No., 2.