Searching the Freedmen's Bureau Records

By Caitlin Haynes, Transcription Center Program Coordinator

Searching the Freedmen's Bureau Records 

Established by Congress at the end of the American Civil War in 1865, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (Freedmen's Bureau) oversaw the political, social, and economic reconstruction of the south and aided over 4 million newly freed African Americans in their transition to freedom and citizenship. The Bureau - which established offices in all 15 southern and border states - helped to reunite loved ones separated under slavery, settled land, labor, and legal disputes, supported the creation and management of public schools for white and Black citizens, legalized marriages, managed abandoned and confiscated southern lands, provided rations and healthcare for freedpeople and destitute southern whites, and much more. These efforts resulted in over 1.7 million pages of records, now stored at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C, and represent the largest source of historical documentation on African Americans pre-1870. 

 

Since 2016, we've been collaborating with digital volunteers, staff at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, the U.S. National Archives, and Family Search, International, to improve access to these incredible records. Thanks to this hard work, the entirety of the Freedmen's Bureau records are digitized - and available to view online at the Smithsonian. The names of individuals represented in the records are also fully indexed through Family Search, and more than 350,000 pages (and counting!) of Bureau records are fully transcribed and text searchable through the Transcription Center. 

 

Explore the information below to learn more about how best to navigate these sites, locate historical information, and discover your connection to the past. 

 

Search Transcribed Freedmen's Bureau Pages in the Transcription Center

 

 

Option 1:
Search for a keyword, topic, name, etc. on TC's search page: https://transcription.si.edu/search. Note that this will return results from ALL transcribed Smithsonian collections. To limit your results to Freedmen's Bureau records only, choose "Freedmen's Bureau" from the "Museums and Archives" drop-down menu.

 

 

 

Included in these search results will be links to individual pages containing the word you searched for (listed under the column titled "Page"), as well as the larger project (or series of documents) each particular page is part of (listed under the column "Project Title").

 

 

 

Tip: Once you find a page including information you are looking for, use the left and right arrows to explore pages directly before and after -- these may contain additional related content. You can also head to the larger project web page and download a full PDF of the entire project/collection series containing the page(s) you're interested in, and use the CTRL+F shortcut on your keyboard to search for the project for additional instances of the name/word you are looking for. 

 

 

 

Note: Our digital volunteers are transcribing thousands of pages from the Freedmen's Bureau records each week. So, if you don't find transcribed search results one day, check back the next - there may be more content that includes what you're looking for! 

 

 

 

Option 2:
Browse all transcribed Freedmen's Bureau records by project title. Head to https://transcription.si.edu/freedmensbureau --> then click the box at the top labeled "include completed projects." You can choose an option to display the completed Freedmen's Bureau projects from the "sort" drop-down menu at the top. For example, A-Z, latest, etc. Then simply browse, and click into any project/collection series that interests you or relates to your research. You can then view individual pages within that project, or click the "download PDF" button to get a full PDF version of the transcribed project that is searchable using CTRL+F. 

 

 

 

 

 

View all 1.7 Million Pages of Bureau Records in the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archive (SOVA)

 

Browse through individual series and pages of the Freedmen's Bureau Digital Collection by heading to: https://sova.si.edu/record/NMAAHC.FB.

 

Scroll down the page to see all 44 "Collections" within the Freedmen's Bureau Records - organized by the Bureau's own record-keeping structure and the original arrangement at the U.S. National Archives (where the physical records are held). Each blue collection title link will lead you to a new finding aid - listing the content included in that series. You will also see a summary of the overall Freedmen's Bureau Collection, a "historical note" on the materials, information on citing and using the collection, and contact information for reaching out to the National Museum of African American History and Culture staff. 

 

 

 

 

Note: All series in the Freedmen's Bureau Digital Collection include the corresponding microfilm reel (displayed next to each series title as "M___, # rolls) for the material at the U.S. National Archives. 

 

 

Clicking on an individually linked series within the Freedmen's Bureau Collection will open a new webpage. From there, click on the "CONTENTS" tab in the upper-left corner to see more detailed information about the documents within this series. Scroll down the page to see more information, including "scope and contents notes" and individually linked (in blue) subseries of records within the larger series you've clicked into. 

 

 

 

By clicking the blue record links, you will see a digitized image of the first page of the related documents. Click into that, which will load a "digitized slideshow" where you can browse through pages by clicking the individual image tiles. Use the larger image of the document on the right side to zoom in and out. Metadata (or information about the collection) can be found on the left side, as well as a button that leads you back to the "SOVA Finding Aid" you were on most recently and a button to download the collection as a PDF.

 

 

If the particular collection you're viewing in a digitized slideshow has been transcribed in the Transcription Center, you will see on the left side of the page (next to the SOVA finding aid button) a button that will lead you to the corresponding project in the "Transcription Center," as well as a link to the "Collection Record." Underneath the collection metadata on the left side will also be the digitized page's corresponding transcription (which will auto-populate based on which digitized image tile above that you click on). Use the blue "Keyword" search bar to search for any names or individual words. A yellow circle will appear indicating the number of "hits" on that keyword --- scroll through the numbered pages to locate that circle on pages containing results. 

 

   

 

 

 

Discover Indexed Names through Family Search

 

Prior to launching the digitized Freedmen's Bureau records in the Transcription Center, Family Search, International volunteers indexed individual names found within the collection. Searching for the location of names in these records on Family Search is free, and open to all, but does require a Family Search user account (also free). 

 

Search for a name by going to discoverfreedmen.org --> then log in to your Family Search account --> explore results, which may include citation information for the location of the individual in the Freedmen's Bureau records (including page and series), date, and/or a digital image of the related document. 

 

 

Tip: Use the citation information included from Family Search to dive deeper into the records through the Freedmen's Bureau Digital Collection on SOVA and/or on the Smithsonian Transcription Center

 

 

 

 

 

View this short video to see all 3 options outlined above for searching the Freedmen's Bureau records.

 

 

 

Have other tips for using the digitized and transcribed Freedmen's Bureau records to locate historical information or ancestors? Discovered your own family history thanks to volunteer transcription? Reach out! We'd love to hear from you. Email the Transcription Center team anytime at transcribe@si.edu or share your discovery on social media using #DiscoverTCFreedmen.