How Do I Trace My Former-Slave Ancestor?
Tracing Your Roots: Search the records of the Freedmen's Bureau kept by the National Archives.
Field-office records: Names, personal information and a vivid account of the experiences of freed people can be found in these records, which include field-office reports, letters received and sent, contracts, certificates, registers, censuses, affidavits and other documents. According to the National Archives, the documents contain "desperate pleas for food, clothing, and medical care from rural communities; freed peoples' testimonies about delinquent employers, continued use of forced labor and apprenticeship, violence, and restrictions due to the new state-legislated and repressive 'black codes'; petitions for new schools, legal aid in courts, and protection from violence; applications for land; and marriage certificates," as well as hospital records, complaints, relief rolls and trial summaries.
Marriage records kept by the Office of the Commissioner, Washington headquarters of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1861-1869: Find marriage records of the newly liberated, collected from 1861 through 1869, first by the Union Army and then the Freedmen's Bureau in its field offices in the Southern states and the District of Columbia. According to the National Archives, record types, viewable on microfilm, include "unbound marriage certificates, marriage licenses, monthly reports of marriages, and other proofs of marriages."
Freedmen's Branch, Office of the Adjutant General: Spanning the years 1872 to 1878, these documents contain "valuable genealogical information on black soldiers and sailors found in documents and letters they submitted for bounty, pension, arrears of pay, commutation of rations, and prize money," according to the National Archives. "Other documents include letters sent, lists and registers of claimants, reports of persons and articles hired, returns of public property, and affidavits. The records can be useful when used in conjunction with military service and pension records." The records are from the following field offices in the following cities: Charleston, S.C.; Fort Johnston and Fort Macon, N.C.; Louisville, Ky.; Fort Leavenworth, Kan.; Fort Monroe, Va.; Memphis and Nashville, Tenn.; Natchez and Vicksburg, Miss.; New Orleans; St. Louis, Mo.; and Savannah, Ga.
Check the National Archives website for a full listing of records available and how to view them.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root.
Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.
This answer was provided in consultation with researchers from New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country's leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.