The Freedmen's Bureau Papers

Thank you for being a digital volunteer! It’s very important that this work is performed in a standardized manner, so please make the effort to read and follow these instructions. Also remember to check the GENERAL INSTRUCTIONS page.

  • Our Peer Review Process

  • The Freedmen's Bureau Papers Overview

    • Transcribing Tables with Markdown

      • Frequently Asked Questions about the Freedmen's Bureau Papers

        • Additional Resources

          • Get Started

            • Our Peer Review Process



              We seek to balance quality and speed with our transcription process - which of course is still evolving as we continue to develop this service. At the moment, this is how our system works:

              1) Anyone can start transcribing or add to a transcription of a document.

              2) Once a volunteer decides they've finished and they're ready for review, a different volunteer (who must have an account on the site) can review the transcription and either send it back for edits, or complete the transcription.

              3) The finished transcript is sent to the Smithsonian, where it may be used immediately, or undergo additional work.


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              The Freedmen's Bureau Papers Overview



              The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, often referred to as the Freedmen's Bureau, was established on March 3, 1865. The duties of the Freedmen's Bureau included supervision of all affairs relating to refugees, freedmen, and the custody of abandoned lands and property.

              Please explore in more detail the Freedmen's Bureau's history and the ways the public is helping historical and genealogical research at this overview from the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

              The Freedmen’s Bureau collection is available courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, FamilySearch International, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

              These images were provided to the National Museum of African American History and Culture courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration and FamilySearch International. The original records are located in the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, National Archives Record Group 105.

              Read on to find instructions, as well as frequently asked questions below.


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              Transcribing the Freedmen's Bureau Papers


              The Freedmen’s Bureau papers are a unique set of materials. The papers include lists, letters, tables, notes, handwritten documents, and typed documents. Each page is different. Please transcribe the words and paragraphs as you see them. The transcription center has a set of basic and advanced guidelines to help you transcribe. Please review the guidelines before you begin.


              You can also download these PDF icon Freedmen's Bureau Instructions & Helpful Hints. The instructions will open in a separate tab and you may then download them.


              Transcribing Tables with Markdown

              Some of the Freedmen’s Bureau papers include tables or columns of information. If the table is not too complicated, please try and transcribe the table using markdown. 

              Please remain consistent in your transcription of columned data across a project, and limit the use of brackets as much as possible. 

              All transcriptions of pages containing tables should include, at the top of the trancription box, bracketed information on how many columns are included in the table.  For example: [[4 columned table]] 

              Then begin transcribing the table by indicating the column headers. To start transcribing a table, type the column headers first, separating these using the pipe (|) symbol (press the shift + backslash key). Then underneath the column headers, type three or more hyphens (---) to separate the headers from the columned information, again using pipes (|) to separate each column. You can optionally add pipes on either end of the table. This format for transcribing tables follows markdown guidelines (or plain text). Transcribing tables in markdown allows for this information to be shared seamlessly from computer to computer, and system to system--maximizing the potential for these transcriptions to be adapted and used by a wide range of researchers.


              For example: 

              [[4 Columned Table]]

              | Date | Name | Age | State |

              | --- | --- | --- | --- |

              | Aug. 7, 1865 | John Smith | 32 | Virginia | 


              To demarcate between cells in table, use a vertical bar/pipe (|). Use this only to mark transitions left-to-right. No special mark is necessary for line breaks or new rows. Please include empty cells where appropriate, but do not feel the need to add empty rows. To transcribe empty cells, please simply use two vertical pipe bars (|) with three empty spaces in between, or type [[blank]]. 

              For example: |   |  (and refer to transcribed example page below, which contains multiple empty cells). 

              See example page here


              Transcribing Correspondence with Marginalia and Footnotes

              Some correspondence includes names, events, organizations, or dates in the margins of the letter. There are two different options for transcribing marginalia or footnotes. Whichever you choose, please remain consistent throughout the page and project you're working on.


              OPTION A:
              The following are guidelines for transcribing the margin notes, demonstrated in this example correspondence page, which has been formatted by the Freedmen's Bureau Papers team. 

              First, transcribe the address of the letter writer first even though it is on the right hand side of the page


              Bureau of Refugees Freedmen &c Hd. Qr. Asst. Commissioner Raleigh N.C. July 12th 1865


              Next, transcribe the address of the recipient. The last name of the recipient is always in the left margin.


              Cilley Maj. Clinton A. (or – Maj. Clinton A. Cilley) Asst. Adjt. Genl.


              Lastly, transcribe the correspondence or letter. If a note appears in the margin, write [[footnote #]] or [[margin note #1]] in line with where the margin note falls. Number the footnote or margin note sequentially for each letter and transcribe the margin notes at the end of the letter using brackets to indicate the note as this example page demonstrates. Each separate piece of correspondence should as best as possible match the following format:


              Letter #

              Sent from


              Letter text including [[footnote 1]] or [[margin note 1]] etc at the end of the line where it occurs in the document

              Footnotes of comments in the margins using this format [[footnote 1]] text of margin notes.

              OPTION B:

              You may also transcribe margin notes after or before other linear text is transcribed (at the end or beginning of the main transcription text) & tagged in a way that indicates they’re additional notes/marginalia ex: [[left margin]] or [[margin note]] or [[note]] etc. See example page.  


              Transcribing Numbers in Tables

              While transcribing and reviewing almanac tables, you may see numbers on their side. Please transcribe these as though they were upright with standard numerals: 1, 2, 3, etc.


              Using Indexes to Help Transcribe Full Documents/Letters

              Many of the letters, reports, and other documents in the Freedmen’s Bureau records had name or subject indexes created to make it easier to find related documents that reference a particular person or subject. These indexes are part of the records being transcribed by the Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project.
              When transcribing a document that is difficult to decipher, it is often useful to use the index (if available) to see if a name or subject is easier to read or understand. Check the finding aid to determine if there is an index available for the set of records that you are working on. Likewise it is often helpful to reference the documents being indexed when transcribing an index. In many cases the description of the indexed subject is in an incomplete sentence and sometimes difficult to understand. One important thing to note is that the short entry for an indexed subject term often leaves the subject term out of the entry.


              Additional Resources


            • As you transcribe and review, you may find these Abbreviations Lists and Staff Rosters useful.

              You can may want to download the PDF icon Freedmen's Bureau Abbreviations List to help your efforts.

              The PDF icon Freedmen's Bureau Staff might assist you in identifying signatures, as well.

              Additionally, you may find the following resources useful as you work specifically on Freedmen's Bureau Records from the state of North Carolina: 

              A list of counties in North Carolina which may help in identifying words and spelling.

              The North Carolina Digital Collections Family Records, from the State Archives of North Carolina and the State Library of North Carolina, provides genealogical and historical information on individuals from North Carolina. This may be helpful in identifying individuals listed in the Freedmen's Bureau Records. 

              The PDF icon Mississippi Assistant Commissioners and Field Office Staff List may be helpful in identifying individuals listed in the records.

              This PDF icon Style Sheet by digital volunteer, Beth Graham, outlines guidelines, tips, and helpful resources for transcribing and reviewing Mississippi Freedmen's Bureau Records. 


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              Frequently Asked Questions about the Freedmen's Bureau Papers


              You can may want to download these PDF icon Freedmen's Bureau Frequently Asked Questions. The FAQ will open in a separate tab and you may then download them.


              What is the Freedmen's Bureau?

              As the Civil War drew to a close, President Lincoln and members of Congress debated how to reunite the nation, reconstruct Southern society, and help formerly enslaved individuals make the transition to freedom and citizenship. As one response, in March 1865 Congress created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly referred to as The Freedmen’s Bureau.

              The Bureau was responsible for providing assistance to four million formerly enslaved individuals and hundreds of thousands of impoverished Southern whites. The Bureau set up offices in major cities in the 15 Southern and border states and the District of Columbia.

              The Bureau provided food, clothing, medical care, and legal representation; promoted education; helped legalize marriages; and assisted African American soldiers and sailors in securing back pay, enlistment bounties and pensions. In addition, the Bureau promoted a system of labor contracts to replace the slavery system and tried to settle freedmen and women on abandoned or confiscated land. The Bureau was also responsible for protecting freedmen and women from intimidation and assaults by Southern whites.

              By most accounts, the Bureau was only partially successful. Congress did not provide sufficient funds or staff for the Bureau to be truly effective. The Bureau only operated from 1865 to 1872. It generally failed to protect the freedmen or their political and civil rights from white Southerners intent on re-establishing their local power.

              Administered by the War Department, the Bureau followed the record-keeping system inspired by the war effort and the expansion of the Federal Government it required. Those hundreds of thousands of documents provide an unexcelled view into the lives of the newly freed slaves.


              Why is transcribing the Freedmen's Bureau records important?

              Family historians, genealogists, students and scholars around the world will have easy online access to these records. In addition, these transcribed records will be word searchable, vastly reducing the effort required to find a person or topic. Anyone who has tried to read 19th century handwritten letters knows just how frustrating and time-consuming this can be. Providing typewritten versions of the original documents will make it more likely that more people will use these records. These researchers will vastly increase our understanding of the post-Civil War era and our knowledge of family life, especially African American family life.


              What's the difference between the FamilySearch genealogical indexing project and the NMAAHC Smithsonian Transcription Center project?

              The Freedmen’s Bureau Project has created a searchable database of genealogical material drawn from the Freedmen’s Bureau records: primarily, names, places, dates - you can find that at DiscoverFreedmen. This information is particularly useful for African American family historians who cannot rely on their ancestors appearing in the pre-1870 United State census or many other official records.

              On the other hand, the NMAAHC Smithsonian Transcription Center project will transcript every word of every document in the Freedmen’s Bureau records. Once transcribed, those records will be word searchable. This will allow anyone to search for a name, a place, a topic and to read the full document and connect it to other related documents.


              Where are the original documents located? What if I want to see the original document?

              The original Freedmen’s Bureau records are preserved by the National Archives and Record Administration, headquartered in Washington, D. C. The original documents are not accessible to individuals but researchers can view microfilm copies of the records at many of the Federal Record Centers.


              Where can I go to learn more about the Freedmen’s Bureau?

              Web Resources

              More Resources

              • Bentley, George R., A History of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1955. Reprint, New York: Octagon Books, 1974.
              • Cimbala, Paul R., Under the Guardianship of the Nation: The Freedmen’s Bureau and the Reconstruction of Georgia, 1865-1870. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2004.
              • Crouch, Barry A. The Freedmen’s Bureau and Black Texans. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.
              • Du Bois, W. E. B. Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880. New York: Harcourt, Brace, c. 1935. Reprint, New York: The Free Press, 1998.
              • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1988.


              Ready to Get Started?


              Thank you for volunteering to transcribe the Freedmen’s Bureau papers! We truly appreciate your time and effort in making these materials available to a broader audience.

              Have questions? Please contact the Freedmen's Bureau Papers team.



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