If you’ve heard anything about the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, it’s probably that the museum is the hottest ticket in Washington, D.C., resulting in long lines and the need to purchase passes three months in advance.
Genealogy buffs ought to know that the museum has a hot ticket, of sorts, for them as well. In collaboration with FamilySearch, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, the National Archives and Records Administration, the California African American Museum and thousands of volunteers, the museum has made it easier to access the historical records of emancipated African Americans with the recent launch of DiscoverFreedmen.org.
Instead of answering a reader’s question for this column, we decided to take a look at this new development in African-American genealogy research.
“The website provides free online access to an index of approximately 2 million African-American names or potential ancestors, from 1865 to 1872, a period that is challenging to document African Americans in records,” explained Hollis L. Gentry, a genealogy specialist for the museum through the Smithsonian Libraries, in an email to us. “The index connects researchers to digital images of original records of the Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal agency created in 1865 to assist ex-slaves and Southern whites as they reconstructed their communities near the end of the Civil War.”
As we have noted previously in this column, in March 1865 the Freedmen’s Bureau (formally known as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands) was established in the U.S. War Department to provide aid to thousands of emancipated slaves and poor whites living in the South and the District of Columbia. The act creating it limited the agency’s operation to just one year after the end of the Civil War, applying only to the former Confederate states.
President Andrew Johnson, who assumed the presidency after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, twice vetoed legislation to extend its time and scope of operations. As an article on the U.S. Senate website explains, “The battle to establish the Freedmen’s Bureau, and then to extend the legislation one year later, was a major factor in the struggle between President Andrew Johnson and Radical Republicans in Congress over Reconstruction and the role of the federal government in integrating 4 million newly emancipated African Americans into the political life of the nation.”
Congress overrode Johnson’s second veto, and the Freedmen’s Bureau Act of 1866 became law on July 16, extending the work of the agency for two more years. Subsequent legislation extended it further until, in June 1872, a law was passed abolishing the bureau and turning over its records to the National Archives.
Between the years 1865 and 1872, the bureau kept track of a variety of records, including marriage, medical, school and census information. Because the enslaved had been considered property and were therefore rarely named in pre-Civil War records, Freedmen’s Bureau records can provide an important starting place for many African Americans who are tracing their roots.
With partial name-searching available, the database has already revolutionized the way in which we can research African-American ancestors. While in the past the records themselves were available digitally through FamilySearch (the website of the genealogical organization sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), it took a lot more time and guesswork to search records page by page in hopes of finding mention of an ancestor. Now, at DiscoverFreedmen.org, you can type a name into the search and find any records in the Freedmen’s Bureau papers that may relate to your ancestor.
The Freedmen’s Bureau collections available to search through the site include a wide variety of records, including marriage, land, court, bank, medical and educational records as well as work and labor agreements. The information each record holds will vary, sometimes including information on family members or other associates.
The ease of locating relevant records lends itself to conducting cluster research for anyone who may have been related to or known your ancestor. This type of research is often critical to African-American research, since even after emancipation, records on one individual were often scarce.
For example, to test out the database, we searched for the name George Washington Cooke in Mississippi, and the results included this labor contract dated June 5, 1865, which records a work agreement between George J. Mortimar and his former slaves in Copiah County, Miss. This record not only connects George Washington Cooke to his former slave owner, George J. Mortimar, but also includes the names of 19 other individuals who were also once enslaved by Mortimar. Searching for more records of any one of these individuals could provide more information on the plantation, relationships among the enslaved or the slave owner to add to the story of George Washington Cooke.
In other instances, the results may lead to a wealth of information almost instantaneously. Searching for Peter Pickens returns a bank record for Peter Pickens in Richmond County, Ga. This record includes his birthplace, in Dallas County, Ala., where he also claims that his mother, Amelia, was left 22 years prior. The record also includes the names of his siblings, Cely, Jerry and Benjamin, who were also left with his mother; and a sister, Molly, who was left in Mississippi. His wife’s name was Mary, and he worked for Robert H. May. This record provides a number of different avenues for further research.
Using the database is also a great way to connect individuals through their former slave owners. Once you have the slave owner’s name, you can search for them in the same database and it will return any other work agreements or other records in which their names appear.
This newfound ease of use with the Freedmen’s Bureau records brings “a sense of connection to times past that were lost to us,” said Sherri Camp, national president of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, in an email to us. “Gratitude has been the largest reaction.”
“We received a tremendous amount of positive and enthusiastic support from the genealogy community, especially from descendants of those named in the records, as well as from bloggers who helped promote the project, and genealogy lecturers,” according to Gentry. “Educators and students from grade school to college also expressed tremendous interest in the project. They helped index names and are using the records in their courses on American history and slavery.”
However, the work isn’t yet done. “The next steps for NMAAHC and Family Search will be to prepare the data for full online research access at our websites,” she continued. Besides DiscoverFreedmen.org, those sites will include NMAAHC and FamilySearch (where image browsing and partial name-searching is currently available).
“NMAAHC is also collaborating internally on a project with the Smithsonian Transcription Center to transcribe the Freedmen’s Bureau digital images to provide full-text research access at our website,” she said. “Finally, the museum also plans to create a clearinghouse or research portal to identify content related to the Freedmen’s Bureau. This includes published and visual content that identifies institutional holdings, genealogical case studies, scholars’ research, and images of Bureau personnel and offices, as well as the individuals named in the records.”
Camp told us that members of AAHGS chapters will be among those helping to transcribe the full records of the Freedmen’s Bureau. If you want to join the effort, read FamilySearch’s explainer.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.
This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, Ph.D., a senior researcher from the 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 1 billion 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 about researching African-American roots.