Prologue Magazine

"Their . . . Bedding is wet Their floors are damp"

"Pre-Bureau" Records and Civil War African American Genealogy

Summer 2007, Vol. 39, No. 2 | Genealogy Notes

By Rebecca K. Sharp

Contraband school, ca. 1865

A contraband school, ca. 1860-ca. 1865. (111-B-5240)

On February 5, 1864, A. W. Hearlan reported to Maj. W. G. Sargent (U.S. Army), the Superintendent of Freedmen for Arkansas:

Their cabins consist of an incongruous assemblage of miserable huts no attempt having been made towards introducing any system whatever Their floors are on or quite near the ground They have no windows and are only lighted by holes in the roofs consequently in rainy weather most of their seamly Bedding is wet Their floors are damp and no wonder that from their little community they have already furnished one hundred and sixteen subjects for the graveyard notwithstanding quite a number had been sent off sick[.] 1

His superiors had ordered Hearlan to survey the camp of freedpeople living at the mouth of the White River and to distribute rations. He found that 183 African Americans had settled at the camp.

Eighteen-year-old Martha Thompson was among those living at the camp. The Union Army had recruited Martha's husband and brother into military service, leaving her behind with her infant. When Hearlan "inquired how she made a living she replied that she left her baby with a neighbor and then went and piled cord wood" at a nearby government wood yard. 2

Pre-Bureau Records

Researchers typically use the records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (commonly referred to as the "Freedmen's Bureau") to study either individuals or African-American communities during Reconstruction. Some records predate the establishment of the Freedmen's Bureau on March 3, 1865. In fact, many of the relief programs carried out by the Bureau have their roots in the "pre-Bureau." Pre-Bureau is a modern term used to refer to the military's efforts to address the needs of the wartime African American refugee community.

During the Civil War, thousands of African Americans sought protection behind Union lines, and many of the men joined the Union Army and Navy. The 1863 Annual Report of the Secretary of War contains evidence of the military actively addressing these needs:

The fortunes of war have brought within our lines a large number of colored women, children, and some aged and infirm persons. Their care, support, and protection rest a solemn trust upon the government. Their necessities have to some extent been supplied by the order of this department, but a general and permanent system for their protection and support should be speedily adopted by Congress. Even if they are to be regarded as in some degree a burden upon the government, they are a greater loss to the enemy. Every woman and child, from nine years old to sixty, has to the rebel planter a high market value. Their labor in the cotton field is a source of profit to him. Is it not better that we should feed them than that they should support the rebel master who is in arms against us? 3

The first Annual Report of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (1865) explains that "[b]efore the organization of the bureau, freedmen's affairs had been intrusted [sic] to department commanders, treasury agents, and other officers of the government. This occasioned a diversity of system in the different localities." 4

The War Department appointed superintendents of freedmen to oversee contraband camps. The pre-Bureau records contain evidence of the military's efforts to provide relief to the refugee population—clothing, education, employment, medicine, medical attention, rations, and shelter—and to administer abandoned and confiscated property. The pre-Bureau also solemnized slave marriages.

Many of the records contain registers that may provide names of individuals and family members; birth, marriage, and death information; the names of the last slave owner; places of residence; and occupations. The majority of the pre-Bureau records are intermixed among the Freedmen's Bureau field office records. Educational, marriage, and rations distribution records are three examples of pre-Bureau records that can be used to obtain information about individuals and communities.


In the fall of 1864, Hugh Brady, the pastor of the Methodist Episcopal Church, established a school for African Americans in Little Rock, Arkansas. In the first monthly report of the school, Hugh recorded the weekly attendance numbers and calculated that the student population averaged around 18 students per week. Hugh mentioned that he mainly taught his students music and penmanship. He stressed that his students were making progress in spite of the limited resources:

Many of them are learning to write very fast but we have had no desks yet except a few small tables and consequently we have not made as good progress as we could have done if we had the necessary conveniences. I have succeeded in getting 200 feet of lumber from the government which I intend to use for the purpose above named. 5
refer to caption

William W. Andress's 1864 school report shows enrollment statistics and the textbooks used by students. (Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, RG 105)

The 1864 school report of William W. Andress for another school in Little Rock reveals that students sometimes transferred to other schools. The report also indicates that the classroom was composed of students ranging from 6 to 35 years of age. From the textbook titles listed it is possible to gain a general idea of the subjects taught at this particular school, including arithmetic, geography, grammar, reading, and spelling. 6

In most cases, pre-Bureau records do not list the students by name. The records for the schools in Vicksburg, Mississippi, however, do list the names of the students as well as the amount of tuition paid from January through May 1865. 7

Although the educational records compose a small percentage of the pre-Bureau records, they remain an extremely valuable resource. The records provide information about the student population, school locations, and the varying curriculums of early African American schools.


Although the majority of pre-Bureau records appear among the records of the Freedmen's Bureau field offices, in some instances, such as early marriage records, they were forwarded to the Bureau headquarters in Washington, DC. The Marriage Records of the Office of the Commissioner, Washington Headquarters of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1861–1869 (Microfilm Publication Number M1875) contains pre-Bureau marriage records for Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia. Early marriage records also appear among the field office records for Arkansas and Tennessee. They include marriage certificates, licenses, and registers.

During the Civil War, military chaplains performed marriage ceremonies and kept detailed records. Some of the records contain the bride's surname and may even list the name of the bride's father or mother. Marriage registers often contain information about the couple, including their ages, the number of years they cohabitated prior to marriage, and the number of children resulting from that union. Some registers also contain information about previous relationships, including the number of years an individual lived with another partner, the number of offspring that resulted from the partnership, and how the relationship ended (including death, infidelity, or sale to another slaveowner). These records offer insight into slave relationships. In many cases, slave couples remained in monogamous relationships for many years, only to be separated by death or sale.

If the groom served in the military, the marriage record includes his unit and company. The Subordinate Field Office records for Little Rock, Arkansas, contain a register of marriages for Charles Davenport's January 15, 1865, marriage to Susy Ann Tole. The register also indicates that Charles Davenport served in the 54th Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry. 8 The Index to Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Soldiers Who Served with the United States Colored Troops lists a Pvt. Charles Davenport of Company C, 54th U.S. Colored Infantry. 9 The Organization Index to Pension Files of Veterans Who Served Between 1861 and 1900 (National Archives Microfilm Publication Number T289) also lists a pension application file for Charles Davenport.

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This marriage register records the union of Charles Davenport to Susy Ann Tole. The register also contains military service information and details about previous relationships, including the number of years a couple resided together and the cause of separation. (Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, RG 105)

The compiled military service record primarily contains information about Charles Davenport's military service; however, there is a small amount of information about his life prior to the service. The record notes that Charles Davenport was born into slavery around 1833 in Rappahannock County, Virginia. 10 He enlisted at Helena, Arkansas, on August 9, 1863, and served with the 54th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Infantry for three years. 11

The pension file contains information about Charles Davenport's first marriage. According to the October 19, 1894, affidavit of his second wife, Winney Davenport, Charles:

was a slave in Va when the war broke out, and was sold down south where he married, and when he came to Ky and Woodford Co he had one child a girl about two years old named Florida, who claimant raised and took care of until she died in 1881, after her marriage to the soldier. Her husband reported that his [first] wife had died down south, and she has every reason to believe his statement to be true— she is unable to establish the fact further than his statement to her. 12

Several other affidavits within the pension file refer to Charles's slave marriage. Although the name of his first wife is not mentioned in the pension file, it is very probable that the Susy Ann who appears in the pre-Bureau marriage register was the first Mrs. Davenport.

Rations Distribution

"Sir I will Give you a list or Rather the Nomber of Contraban . . . in the Island that are Neading Rations, Men 23, Women 228, Cildren 365, I have just finished . . . [distributing] Rations for ten Days and it takes just about all that was in the Commissary. and I feer that if we dont get Rations here Sooner than we generly do, they will get Pretty Hungry. People are coming on the Island every day + they all seem to be Pretty well starved when they come here + there is No Employment here for them + there must be something done with them or for them." 13 The eyewitness account of L. E. Weaver, the superintendent of the Island 102 Camp, a Mississippi military post, is a rare find. 14 This source vividly describes the process of rations distribution and the daily struggle of African Americans to survive.

African Americans waited in line uncertain of the quality of the food being distributed. The rations usually included some combination of bacon, beans, cornmeal, coffee, fish, hard bread, pepper, pork, rice, salted beef, salt, sugar, and vinegar. On rare occasions, they received apples, fresh beef, and soft bread This information has been abstracted from the 1864 lists of rations distributed at Fort Monroe, Virginia, and other nearby locations. The lists are arranged in chronological order by distribution date and contain details about the kinds of rations and the quantities distributed to the population. 15

The contents of rations distribution lists vary due to the different recordkeeping practices of federal agents. In some cases the lists are extremely detailed and include information about the rations distribution date; the names of the recipients or an unnamed group of recipients (these groups are often labeled as destitute freedmen); the approximate number of days the rations were expected to last; and a tally of the individuals (adults versus minors) who received rations on behalf of a particular group. 16 Some rations distribution lists even give the marital status of the individual, a spouse's military service information, the names and ages of a spouse or child, and descriptions of disabilities. 17 On occasion, the record keeper also made note of the individual's occupation or a specific disability. 18

Refer to Caption This rations distribution list records the recipients of ration tickets at Fort Monroe, Virginia, including their place of residence, number of children, and marital status. A remarks column records gives details about illnesses and disabilities as well as military service information. (Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, RG 105)

Some rations distribution lists do not list the recipients by name. In the case of pre-Bureau Mississippi, for example, the Register of Rations Issued from January through October 1864 is organized chronologically by distribution date. The records are then organized by distribution station and contain tallies of destitute versus employed men, women, and children receiving rations. 19

Availability of the Records

The most voluminous pre-Bureau records are for Louisiana and Mississippi. National Archives staff found enough pre-Bureau records for Mississippi to justify a separate microfilm publication: Records of the Mississippi Freedmen's Department ("Pre-Bureau Records"), Office of the Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1863–1865; National Archives Microfilm Publication M1914. The field office records for Alabama, Arkansas, the District of Columbia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia contain a smaller percentage of pre-Bureau records.

The records can be difficult to use because the majority are not indexed. Since the pre-Bureau records are intermixed among the Freedmen's Bureau field office records, it is necessary to consult the descriptive pamphlet for the state of interest. Because descriptive pamphlets list the inclusive dates for a particular type of record, researchers can scan the pages for records that predate the establishment of the Freedmen's Bureau in March of 1865.


Microfilm copies of Freedmen's Bureau and pre-Bureau records are available at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, and at each of our regional facilities. For additional information about a specific microfilm publication, including digital copies of the descriptive pamphlets for the Freedmen's Bureau field office records, visit the online microfilm catalog. The microfilm is also available through the National Archives Microfilm Rental Program.

Rebecca K. Sharp is an archives specialist in the Research Support Branch of the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC. She specializes in federal records of genealogical interest. She graduated with departmental honors in history from McDaniel College (established as Western Maryland College).


1. A. W. Hearlan's report, "Condition of the Camp at the Mouth of White River and of abandoned disloyal land in that vicinity and suggestions," is found among the Retained Copies of Reports, Reports Received, and Miscellaneous Papers 1864–1865. The records have been reproduced as the Records of the Field Offices for the State of Arkansas, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865–1872 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M1901, roll 16), Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, Record Group (RG) 105.

2. Ibid.

3. Report of the Secretary of War, 38th Cong., 1st sess., 1863, H. Ex. Doc. No. 1, 8 (Serial 1184).

4. Message from the President of the United States transmitting Report of the Commissioner of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 39th Congress, 1st sess., 1865, H. Ex. Doc. No. 11, 2 (Serial 1255).

5. The monthly report covers the period of October 24 through November 30, 1864, and appears among the Narrative School Reports from Teachers and Superintendents of Freedmen's Schools, December 1864–June 1865. The records are in M1901, roll 16, RG 105.

6. This monthly report covers the period of October 17 through November 30, 1864, and is in M1901, roll 16, RG 105.

7. The Lists of Pupils in Schools at Vicksburg has been reproduced in Records of the Mississippi Freedmen's Department ("Pre-Bureau Records"), Office of the Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1863–1865 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M1914, roll 4), RG 105.

8. This Register of Marriages volume (121), 1864–1866, has been reproduced in M1901, roll 14), RG 105.

9. For the index listing of Charles Davenport's service information, see Index to Compiled Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served With U.S. Colored Troops (National Archives Microfilm Publication M589, roll 22), Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's–1917, RG 94.

10. Charles Davenport's birth date varies. Based upon the information contained in the pre-Bureau marriage register, CMSR, and the pension application file, his birth year ranges from 1819 to 1833.

11. The CMSR for Charles Davenport appears among the records of the USCT 54th Infantry, RG 94, National Archives Building (NAB), Washington, DC.

12. The pension file for Charles Davenport (WC 408.170) can be found in Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, RG 15, NAB. 13. L. E. Weaver's January 20, 1865, letter to Col. Samuel Thomas is found in the unbound letters received, June–November 1864, M1914, roll 5, RG 105.

14. In his March 14, 1865, ration report, Weaver identifies himself as the superintendent of the Island 102 Camp. This report is found among the Miscellaneous Reports from Subordinate and Staff Officers, December 1863–July 1865, M1914, roll 1, RG 105.

15. These lists appear among the Records Relating to the Issuance of Rations, Volume 1 (201) 1864–1865, which has been reproduced in Records of the Field Offices for the State of Virginia, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865–1872 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M1913, roll 115), RG 105.

16. The "Rations issued to Freedmen" list, arranged in chronological order, is found among the Accounts of Provisions Supplied Laborers in Records of the Field Offices for the State of Mississippi, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865–1872 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M1907, roll 65), RG 105.

17. Volume 2 (200) contains a register of persons receiving rations tickets dated December 1864 through February 1865 that has been reproduced in M1913, roll 127, RG 105.

18. The list of paupers receiving weekly rations is found under the Miscellaneous Lists, vol. 116, March 1862–January 1864, and is in Records of the Field Offices for the State of South Carolina, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865–1872 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M1910, roll 62), RG 105.

19. Volume 76 contains this list, which has been reproduced on National Archives Microfilm Publication M1914, roll 4.


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.