How To Research The Freedmen’s Bureau Records

The Freedmen’s Bureau was established by the U.S. government in 1865 after the end of the Civil War.  

It was originally called the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands.

The Bureau was set up to help the approximately four million newly emancipated African Americans as they transitioned from slavery to freedom.

The Freedmen’s Bureau provided assistance in areas such as education, employment, legal matters, and healthcare.

History Of The Bureau

The Bureau was created by an act of Congress on the 3rd of March 1865 when President Abraham Lincoln signed the legislation.

Major General Oliver Otis Howard was appointed as its first commissioner. As well as being a Union Army officer, Howard was also an abolitionist.

The bureau was initially intended to operate for one year after the end of the war. However, its mandate was later extended until 1872.

The mission was to provide aid and protection, promote education and employment, and help establish legal rights for former slaves.

In addition, the bureau provided assistance to impoverished white Southerners and refugees who had been displaced by the war.

The bureau was disbanded in 1872. This was partly due to a lack of funding and political support. There was widespread resistance from white Southerners and political opposition.

Records Of The Freedmen’s Bureau

Here is a rundown of the type of information held in these records.

Marriage records

The Freedmen’s Bureau recorded and legalized many marriages of formerly enslaved couples.

These marriage records may include the names of the bride and groom, their ages, residences, and names of witnesses.

Labor records

Labor contracts documented agreements between former slaves and their employers (often former slave owners).

They may include names, ages, family relationships, occupations, and terms of employment.

Medical and school records

The bureau provided food and clothing to impoverished African Americans. Rations and clothing records of these distributions often include names, ages, family relationships, and sometimes physical descriptions.

The bureau established hospitals and clinics for freedmen. The medical records of patients can include names, ages, medical conditions, and treatments.

The organization also established schools for African American children and adults. School records may include the names of students, their ages, and their attendance history.

The bureau was responsible for managing confiscated land and property. Records may include details about the property, its location, and the names of the individuals to whom it was allocated.

Court and legal records

The Freedmen’s Bureau intervened in legal disputes involving freedmen. This included labor disputes, criminal cases, and issues related to marriage and family.

Records may include case summaries, witness statements, and court rulings.

Administrative correspondence

Letters and reports from bureau agents were also preserved.

These can provide insights into local conditions and the experiences of freedmen in different regions.

How To Access The Records

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the U.S. government agency responsible for the bureau records.

Unfortunately, not all the records are digitized and available online.

Online access

The National Archives website offers a catalog that can be searched online.

However, in my experience, it isn’t easy to use and find what I’m looking for.

Thankfully, the organization has allowed other genealogical websites to index some of the material. Here is a link to the collection on is usually a subscription site, but they’ve made their collection of Freedmen’s Bureau records available for free here.

Physical records at NARA

As I mentioned, not all the records have been digitized. However, the physical records are stored at NARA research facilities.

These two sites have the most records:

  • the main National Archives building in Washington, D.C.
  • the National Archives at College Park, Maryland

Microfilm records at libraries

If you’re not planning to be in Washington D.C. or Maryland anytime soon, then you may get lucky if you have access to a large library.

I suggest you talk to the librarians about getting access to NARA’s microfilm catalog. They may be able to request loans of microfilm copies.