Researching African American Ancestors in Government Documents Part 1 : U.S. Federal Census, Freedmen’s Bureau and Freedman’s Bank Records

Do you have African American ancestry and wondered how to begin researching those lines? Perhaps you have an ancestor who enslaved African Americans and you have discovered documents mentioning their names. If you help others with their family history research you may eventually come across either of those scenarios. Many resources are available to aid in African American research and this series will outline those created by the United States Federal Government.

I recently attended the course titled “Researching African American Ancestors: Government Documents and Advanced Tools” coordinated by Deborah A. Abbott, PhD. The course was part of the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research (IGHR), held virtually the last week of July. The course instructors shared their expertise in a variety of topics related to how African Americans came into contact with the government. We looked at records like the U.S. federal census and military records with new eyes attuned to the African American experience. I learned an incredible amount in the week-long course and highly recommend it.

U.S. Federal Census

The 1870 U.S. federal census was the first to list formerly enslaved individuals by name. Keep in mind that African American surnames were fluid in the era after emancipation. A freed person might have taken the name of their former enslaver or a name prominent in the community. A household of African Americans in 1870 might be family and have several different surnames. By the 1880 census, some of those surnames could have been changed. Always research individuals within their family group and look for naming patterns.

Free people of color were enumerated by name in the census prior to emancipation. Don’t assume that an African American ancestor was enslaved during the antebellum era. Race may be noted differently among the census years, depending on the enumerator who determined the classification.

In 1850 and 1860, separate slave schedules were taken and only gender and age listed, no names. Use a five year range for analyzing the family groups and comparing them to the 1870 census as the exact ages may not have been known.

Prior to 1850, the slave schedules were included in the general schedule. An enslaved person was counted as 3/5 of a person for tax purposes and had to be listed separately.

Freedmen’s Bureau Records

At the end of the Civil War, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (Freedmen’s Bureau) was established to aid the millions of formerly enslaved African Americans. The bureau operated from 1865-1872 and covered the southern states as well as the District of Columbia. The bureau operated on three levels: national, state, and local.

The local field office records are the most likely to hold documents for specific individuals. The website, Mapping the Freedmen’s Bureau is the starting point for the research. The website hosts an interactive map. Zooming in locates the various field offices that a person might have used to apply for aid. Clicking on the office brings up the box with a link to the digitized microfilm on FamilySearch. These records have not been indexed and need to be searched page by page.

Mapping the Freedman’s Bureau

What might be listed in the records? Keep in mind that the freed people were looking for work, relief from illness and hunger, back pay for military service, education opportunities for children, and more, so these situations are addressed. Legalizing marriages and reuniting with lost family members also brought people to the field office and resulted in records. The field office records vary and not all survived, but they are invaluable for the information they hold.

Mapping the Freedmen’s Bureau has several sample documents to view from a variety of locations. Included are a register of African American Families, a register of Complaints of Illegal Apprenticeships, an affidavit of identity, a transportation order, bounty claims, a marriage certificate, a register of patients, a register of school children, and more.

Descriptive pamphlet for Alabama

The National Archives and Records Administration, Washington D.C. produced Descriptive Pamphlets that detail the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau in each state where it functioned. The pamphlets give the history of the area after emancipation and the specific administration of relief in each state. The records for each field office are detailed by type of record and date coverage. Study the pamphlet before searching the records to provide a solid foundation for the research.

Several useful resources for learning about the records:

Using Freedmen’s Records in Genealogical Research on Ancestral

The Freedmen’s Bureau Preservation Project on

African American Freedmen’s Bureau Records on the FamilySearch Research Wiki

Freedman’s Bank Records

Another set of records created by the federal government are those associated with the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company. An act of Congress on 3 March 1865 established the institution and was commonly called the Freedman’s Bank. The collection covers the years 1865-1874 and contains registers of accounts opened by freed enslaved people and African American’s who served in the military.

The FamilySearch Research Wiki article “United States, Freedman’s Bank Records” details the record collection of the same name indexed and imaged on FamilySearch.

The Wiki article states:

Depositors included about 67,000 African Americans, or about two percent of the former slave population. In addition, thousands of non–African Americans made deposits at the bank. These people were primarily immigrants who were born in the British Isles, Scandinavia, and Continental Europe. Depositors listed the names of close relatives. All together, the records lists about 480,000 names.

The form provided space to list place of birth, residence, age, complexion, occupation, wife, children, and parents. The record for Elias Webb, shown in the following image reveals his birth in Anderson District, South Carolina, and his current residence in Port Gibson, Mississippi. Age 34, black, and a laborer, he worked for himself and had no wife or children. He served in Company C of the 51st U.S. Colored Infantry. His father was Moses, his mother Rachel, and his brothers: Green Webb, Jeremiah Webb, Marcus Webb, and Scipio Lewis. His sisters: Emeline Webb, Mary E. Webb, and Amanda Webb.

“United States, Freedman’s Bank Records, 1865-1874,” record for Elias Webb #1186, 1868, database with images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 19 August 2020), Vicksburg, Mississippi > Roll 15, July 28, 1868-June 29, 1874, accounts 1157-8662 > image 13 of 730; citing NARA microfilm publication M816 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1970).

Of note is the different surname of Elias Webb’s brother, Scipio Lewis and the naming of nine family members. The excellent information that could be included in these records makes them well worth searching.

Stay tuned, next up are discovering African Americans in the military and land records generated by the United States Federal Government.

Best of luck in your genealogical endeavors!

Source: Family Locket

Posted On: August 19, 2020 at 04:08PM