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An amazing set of records

This morning, at 9 a.m. Eastern time, an event took place in Washington, D.C., focusing on one of the most amazing record sets ever to be created in the history of the United States.

This morning, at 9 a.m. Eastern time, at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the completed index to the records of the Freedmen’s Bureau was presented by representatives of the indexing project, led by FamilySearch.

And, now, officially, that index belongs collectively to the people of the United States.

The presentation was keynoted by Thom Reed of FamilySearch, who spoke of the indexing project, an effort by 25,550 volunteers to index and arbitrate nearly 1.8 million records. The records themselves are digitized and available online at, made available by FamilySearch, the National Archives, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro-American Historical & Genealogical Society and the California African American Museum.

And now, for anyone who — like The Legal Genealogist — had ancestors anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line after the Civil War, with the help of the index we can hope to find our families by delving into these records.

There’s no way to overstate the value of the records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands — an agency that because known as the Freedmen’s Bureau.

It’s a record set extends far beyond its name to just about anyone who lived or worked in the south in those years right after the Civil War.


First and foremost, for descendants of all the slaves and all the slaveowners who struggled to redefine themselves, their lives and their communities after the war.

And for descendants all of the members of those communities who weren’t themselves slaves or slaveowners but whose lives were impacted by that struggle to redefine life after the war.

And for descendants of the legions of southerners who weren’t slaves or slaveowners before the war, but who simply needed government help after the war.

And for descendants of the legions of government workers and officials and teachers and relief workers who worked for the bureau.

In other words, for just about anyone who lived or worked in the south in those years right after the Civil War.

The records reflect a massive effort by the federal government first and foremost to assist the newly freed slaves in their transition to lives of their own. There are records of labor contracts as the freedmen sought employment, rather than servitude, after the war. There are the first ever real vital records for this community, as the freedmen sought to obtain recognition of their marriages and the legitimacy of their children.

There are records of schools for the freedmen and free children — often with the first ever records of those children and their accomplishments.

And there are records of the terrible clashes between the members of a society accustomed to being served and those no longer obligated to serve, and the role of the Freedmen’s Bureau in trying to obtain justice for the freedmen in a system stacked against them. It provides a view of the southern legal system that can’t be found in the records of the southern courts — an unparalleled opportunity to see how the system worked, and how it didn’t, in those years.

For descendants of slaves and slaveowners, the records help break through the issues of a system that left slaves with first names only — if even those were recorded — before the 1870 census. African-American research is dramatically aided by access to these records.

But the records are more than that. They reflect a massive effort also to stabilize the southern economy and bring the former rebel states back into the Union. So you will find evidence of relief provided to huge numbers of southern residents devastated by the war, and the interactions of ordinary citizens with government.

Sound good? That’s why heading to is one of the best decisions any southern researcher will make.

And it is, today, so much easier to access these records, thanks to this indexing effort.

But the task isn’t over.

At today’s presentation of the index, Smithsonian representatives reminded everyone that the Smithsonian has a transcription project to create an every-word-searchable transcription to make the records even more useful. You can get more information at the Smithsonian Digital Transcription Center and more information generally at the website of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

So if you’re still looking for a project to add to your advent calendar or to your list of random acts of genealogical kindness, I may have an idea for you…

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