The Freedmen's Bureau
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (Record Group 105), also known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, was established in the War Department by an act of Congress on March 3, 1865. The Bureau was responsible for the supervision and management of all matters relating to the refugees and freedmen and lands abandoned or seized during the Civil War, duties previously shared by military commanders and US Treasury Department officials. In May 1865, President Andrew Johnson appointed Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard as Commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Howard’s headquarters were in Washington, DC, but assistant commissioners, sub-assistant commissioners, and agents conducted the Bureau’s daily operations in the former Confederate states, the border states, and the District of Columbia.
Although the Bureau was not abolished until 1872, the bulk of its work was conducted from June 1865 to December 1868. While a major part of the Bureau’s early activities included the supervision of abandoned and confiscated property, its mission was to provide relief and help formerly enslaved people become self-sufficient.
Bureau functions included issuing rations and clothing, operating hospitals and refugee camps, and supervising labor contracts between planters and freedpeople. The Bureau also managed apprenticeship disputes and complaints, assisted benevolent societies in the establishment of schools, helped in legalizing marriages entered into during slavery, and provided transportation to refugees and freedpeople who were attempting to reunite with their family or relocate to other parts of the country. As Congress extended the life of the Bureau, it added other duties, such as assisting Black soldiers and sailors in obtaining back pay, bounty payments, and pensions.
Because the Bureau’s records contain a wide range of data about the African American experience during slavery and Reconstruction, they are an invaluable source for historians, social scientists, and genealogists.
Digital access to the records of the Freedmen's Bureau is currently available through FamilySearch.org. See the section below for more information and links to images (organized by their microfilm publication). Viewing images on FamilySearch may be restricted.
HR 613 - An act to continue in force and to amend "An act to establish a Bureau for the relief of Freedmen and Refugees"... May 20, 1866
More information and images of the Freedmen's Bureau Records
Headquarters files document the overall administration and operation of the Bureau, its education division, and the supervision of field offices. Records include letters, telegrams, and circular letters sent; special orders issued by Commissioner Oliver O. Howard; annual reports to the President; records relating to appointments; and letters received by the Commissioner. There are summary reports and communications from the State Assistant Commissioners on relief efforts, hospitals and vaccination programs, labor and land issues, legal issues, field office management, school reports, schedules of schools, and rental accounts from state superintendents of education.
These records are primarily official and statistical, but may contain some information on individuals at the local level.
M742 Selected Series of Records Issued by the Commissioner of the Bureau
M752 Registers and Letters Received by the Commissioner of the Bureau
M803 Records of the Education Division of the Bureau
State Records of Assistant Commissioners
Office for Freedmen in Beaufort, South Carolina (NAID 593460)
These records contain copies of letters and annual reports sent to the Commissioner in Washington, DC; narrative summaries of problems and developments in the state; letters received from subordinates in field offices; telegrams and issuances (general orders, circulars, and special orders) from Washington; narrative reports on such topics as condition of the destitute, misuse of public stores, status of Bureau property, abandoned and confiscated lands, murders and outrages, and other areas of concern; form reports on schools; labor and personnel records; returns of medical officers; and correspondence.
While most of these records are summaries and reports, many, such as collected labor contracts and letters received, can provide detailed information on individuals.
Microfilm is organized by state, see the table below for available records and information.
Field Office Records
These records, organized by state, contain field office reports, letters received and sent, contracts, certificates, registers, censuses, affidavits, and other documents. The field (or local) offices of the Bureau provided direct assistance to and contact with the formerly enslaved who were seeking relief. In addition to letters and accounts directly from freed people, these records also contain documents from employers, landowners, and others that were involved in the mission of helping the formerly enslaved become self-sufficient.
The records are rich with names and personal information of individuals whose correspondence includes marriage certificates, schooling information, labor contracts, hospital records, complaints, relief rolls, land applications, requests for legal aid and protection, and trial summaries.
M809 Assistant Commissioner Records for Alabama
M810 Superintendent of Education Records for Alabama
M1900 Field Office Records for Alabama
M979 Assistant Commissioner Records for Arkansas
M980 Superintendent of Education Records for Arkansas
M1901 Field Office Records for Arkansas
M1055 Assistant Commissioner Records for District of Columbia
M1056 Superintendent of Education Records for District of Columbia
M1902 Field Office Records for District of Columbia
M798 Assistant Commissioner Records for Georgia
M799 Superintendent of Education Records for Georgia
M1903 Field Office Records for Georgia
M1026 Superintendent of Education Records for Louisiana
M1027 Assistant Commissioner Records for Louisiana
M1905 Field Office Records for Louisiana
M1483 Field Office Records for New Orleans
M826 Assistant Commissioner Records for Mississippi
M1907 Field Office Records for Mississippi
M1904 Mississippi Freedmen's Department Records (pre-Bureau)
M843 Assistant Commissioner Records for North Carolina
M844 Superintendent of Education Records for North Carolina
M1909 Field Office Records for North Carolina
M999 Assistant Commissioner Records for Tennessee
M1000 Superintendent of Education Records for Tennessee
M1911 Field Office Records for Tennessee
M821 Assistant Commissioner Records for Texas
M822 Superintendent of Education Records for Texas
M1912 Field Office Records for Texas
M1048 Assistant Commissioner Records for Virginia
M1053 Superintendent of Education Records for Virginia
M1913 Field Office Records for Virginia
This series contains hundreds of marriage records of newly liberated African Americans in the Civil War era collected from 1861 through 1869 first by the Union Army and then by the Freedmen's Bureau in its field offices in the Southern States and the District of Columbia. The marriage records were then collected at the Washington, DC headquarters.
Record types include unbound marriage certificates, marriage licenses, monthly reports of marriages, and other proofs of marriage. Record type and quantity varies with each state.
Marriage Certificate of Thomas Harris and Jane Harris (Shute) Issued April 28, 1866 (NAID 595003)
M1875 Marriage Records of the Office of the Commissioner, Washington Headquarters
Freedmen's Marriage Certificates (NAID 595003)
Adjutant General's Office Records
The records of the Freedmen's Branch of the Adjutant General's Office (1872-78) contain valuable genealogical information on Black soldiers and sailors found in documents and letters they submitted for bounty, pension, arrears of pay, commutation of rations, and prize money. The branch continued the work of the Freedmen's Bureau in receiving, passing upon, and paying military claims. Other documents include letters sent, lists and registers of claimants, reports of persons and articles hired, returns of public property, and affidavits. The records can be useful when used in conjunction with military service and pension records.
The records are from field offices in Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.
M2029 Records of the Field Offices of the Bureau, Office of the Adjutant General