Seattle Genealogical Society Tip of the Week Freedmen’s Bureau Collection


A bill, passed by U.S. Congress and signed by President Abe Lincoln, established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands on March 3, 1865. It was part of their plan for reconstructing the post-Civil War South. This bureau, commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, was headed by Union Army General Oliver Otis Howard (Yes, Howard University was named for him).  President Andrew Jackson and the Southern States were vehemently opposed to the Freedmen’s Bureau and it was disbanded in 1872. 

From 1865-1872, the Freedmen’s Bureau was charged with overseeing the transition to freedom for over 4 million formerly enslaved people, providing assistance to them, as well as to poor whites and veterans displaced by the Civil War.

The 3.5 million records of the Freedmen’s Bureau have long been available on microfiche at the National Archives. Now that these records have been transcribed and digitized, they are searchable, and available for free to everyone via Ancestry. If you are not an Ancestry subscriber, you simply need to open a free Ancestry guest account.  

These records may help African Americans trace their family’s history in America. 

The scope of these records includes, but is not limited to:

  • Legalization of marriages entered into during slavery
  • Labor contracts with land owners
  • Bounty claims, pensions, and back pay for soldiers
  • Apprenticeship disputes and complaints

Watch this short video describing the interesting information you can find in this varied collection of records from the Freedmen’s Bureau:

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