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Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Land Records

Syllabus for class taught by Joan Healey from FamilySearch at NGS Conference 2010

The purpose of this class is to familiarize the participants with the records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands. The participant should then be able to identify the types of available records; the specific value and challenges they represent; the location and availability of these documents; and what online access, if any, may be elicited.

The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, was initially proposed by President Abraham Lincoln and subsequently established by an act of Congress March 3, 1865. The Bureau’s name is usually abbreviated simply to the “Freedmen’s Bureau.” The records of the Freedmen’s Bureau are often referred to as “emancipation transition records” and span the years 1865 to 1872.

The Freedmen’s Bureau records contain a wide range of information about the African American experience during slavery and freedom. They are a valuable source for the Black family historian and genealogist.


The Bureau was a federal government agency created to aid distressed refugees and former slaves of the American Civil War. The war liberated nearly 4 million slaves.

Aid involved:

  • Education: established 4,300 schools
  • Health care: established 100 hospitals, issued food and clothing, and operated refugee camps
  • Employment: supervised labor contracts, worked with African Americans soldiers and sailors and their heirs to secure back pay, bounty payments and pensions


Washington Headquarters

Commissioner, Superintendent of Education, Adjutant General’s Office- aided United States Colored Troops with claims and bounty State Officials

Assistant Commissioner, Superintendent of Education

Field Offices-Local

Most people came in contact with the Bureau at the local level.

Bureau Personnel included: Commissioner, subordinates, superintendents, agents, claims officers, provost marshals, disbursing officers, medical officers, clerks and others

Records are available for:

  • Confederate States: South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia
  • Border States: Kentucky and Missouri and the District of Columbia, Delaware, Maryland, and West Virginia


The records of the Bureau contain administrative records, records concerning the goals to assist with education, employment, and health care. The records type and quality vary with each state and from field office to field office. The records contain data on names, residence, occupation and former owner

Census records- local

Labor Contracts and Registers



Register of marriages

  • Minister reports

Register and application of persons receiving rations

Court records

  • Legal aid in court, affidavits, and trials
  • New state legislated repressive “black codes”

Land records

  • 40 acres and a mule”
  • Homestead
  • Southern Homestead Act 1866, register of property, property restoration (freedman and loyal whites)
  • Public land in states of: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi

Medical records

  • Register of patients, monthly reports of sick and wounded

Military records – U.S. Colored Troops (USCT)

  • Case files for claims for bounty, pension claims and register of contraband camps (fugitive slaves crossed Union lines to settle in contraband camps)

School records

Register and list of claimants

Registers of letters sent and received



  • Gather information on your ancestor and their extended family.
  • Make a list of all family names and nick names (first and last) sometimes the records only give initials of first names.
  • Research recent family history first.
  • Find your ancestors and their extended family in the 1870 U.S. federal census.
  • Study family in community context. Extract and make copies of records including individuals with same surname in the area.
  • Search Federal and State records: Census, Military, Land and Property.
  • Start by searching internet sites for Freedmen’s Bureau records in the state where your family lived, learn if any records have been indexed and imaged.

Refer to the publication:

Everly, Elaine C. and Pacheli, Willna. Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the Field Offices of the Bureau of Refugees, Freemen and Abandoned Lands: Record Group 105. Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1973. FHL 973 F23ea or Fiche 60026338



  • Surname changes
  • All Records are not indexed or imaged in a searchable data base
  • Determine location of field offices


Original and filmed copies

National Archives and

Filmed copies

Family History Library and Centers

  • FamilySearch Catalog
  • Register/Notebook

Most site information is arranged by locality or by record type. Remember at this time (2010) the collection is incomplete (indexed and imaged) at any given site.

Online Sources

  • Freedmen’s Bureau Online, African American history on line
  • is a site devoted to African American genealogy, to researching African Ancestry
  • Subscription site online Freedmen’s Bureau records, searchable by name
  • an online encyclopedia where you can find research information; with links to other FamilySearch products and services.
  • African American Historical and Genealogical Society – AAHGS
  • Virginia Center for Digital History: topics.htm


Everly, Elaine C. and Pacheli, Willna. Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the Field Offices of the Bureau of Refugees, Freemen and Abandoned Lands: Record Group 105. Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1973. FHL 973 F23ea or Fiche 60026338

National Archives Trust Fund Board. Black Studies; A Select Catalog of National Archives Microfilm Publications. National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC FHL 973 A3bs 2007

Washington, Reginald. Black Family Research; Records of Post-Civil War Federal Agencies at the National Archives Reference Information Paper 108. National Archives and Records Administration Washington. D.C. Revised 2006. FHL 973 F27wr

Woodtor, Dee Parmer. Finding a Place Called Home A Guide to African-American Genealogy and Historical Identity, Random House, New York 1999. FHL 973 F2wd