Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Making the Overwhelming Searchable

The Freedmen's Bureau—officially known, at the time of its formation, as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands—was originally an agency of the United States Department of War set up to help those "destitute and suffering refugees and freedmen" in the aftermath of the Civil War. While that mission encompassed providing assistance for not only the former slaves but also displaced and impoverished whites in the South, the original intent soon refocused on the burgeoning needs created as the freedmen attempted adapting to a new life.

Within the agency's jurisdiction came such responsibilities as relief efforts, education, health care, employment issues, and pension provisions for soldiers and sailors. Of most importance—at least to us as researchers of family history—was expansion of the Bureau's efforts to help African Americans locate family members from whom they had become separated during the war.

While we may not be able to fully comprehend the level of upheaval encountered in southern quarters after the Civil War, what we can appreciate is the amount of paperwork generated in such an endeavor. The wide variety of records amassed by such a far-reaching jurisdiction over the course of its operation from 1865 through 1872 can yield family historians and others a gold mine of information—if we are able to search through the overwhelming volume of records. Search is the key.

As it turns out, there are several resources for delving into the depth of the Freedmen's Bureau records. Primary among them is the federal repository for all United States governmental records, the National Archives and Records Administration. Not only did the National Archives collect the federal records, but recall that much of the Freedmen's Bureau was focused on work through field offices in various southern states. That set of records, as well, are microfilmed and available through NARA.

But...microfilm. Hardly an expeditious way to hone in on the surnames we are seeking in this online research era. We have learned to expect faster and cleaner work with accurate results. We have been spoiled by and

Fortunately, The Freedmen's Bureau Project has taken on that challenge. A collaborative effort between FamilySearch International, the National Archives, the Smithsonian, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society and the California African American Museum, the main names in the records have been indexed.

Indexing, however, is just a start. The Freedmen's Bureau Transcription Project seeks to transcribe, word for word, every single document, yielding a keyword-searchable collection. The National Museum of African American History and Culture has partnered with the Smithsonian's Transcription Center to launch the "largest crowdsourcing initiative ever sponsored by the Smithsonian." While several projects are close to completion, several are still only thirty six percent complete—or much less. These sites are actively recruiting more volunteers willing to help complete the task.

As the results are made available—the roll out, in its completion, is scheduled to be released in two phases—we will begin to experience the yield of a complete search process. In the meantime, I tried my hand at one website to see if I could find anything on our King Stockton or his family in Florida—just in case Hester McClellan wanted to locate King's father back in Georgia. While the results didn't lead me to what I had hoped for, it did reveal some surprising information.


  1. Very interesting. I think the information that you share will be helpful to many.

  2. All of this is good news. I didn't realize so much is being done. I hope that somewhere in this massive project will be a better way to mine the Slave Narratives for names and places.

    I especially like the way you teach methodology and sourcing - by wrapping it in a great story, so that we keep checking back for the next installment :-)

    1. Isn't it amazing how story hold such a pull on our attention span? I find that it is most always the best way to help people follow the unwinding of concepts. We are so drawn to the human story--it's as if we need to find out "what's next?"--that it becomes a helpful way to absorb a lot of material, no matter how otherwise dry it might have been.

  3. Another resource not mentioned is the site: “Mapping the Freedmen’s Bureau.” It uses an interactive map to help determine what Freedmen’s offices, etc., were located in or near the community one is searching and for many locations has direct links to the relevant databases or at least the name of that data resource.

    1. Yes! Thank you so much for mentioning Mapping the Freedmen's Bureau. Co-founders Angela Walton-Raji and Toni Carrier have put together a useful online resource worth checking out.


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