Freedmen's Bureau Records ~ Reading the Descriptive Pamphlet Can Lead You to Treasures
Perhaps the most significant event in African American genealogy in South Carolina in 2013 came at year's end, when FamilySearch digitized all 106 reels of microfilm of the NARA micropublication Records of the Field Offices for the State of South Carolina, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, 1865–1872 (NARA Micropublication M1910).
We dare say that there is scarcely a collection more significant for breaking through the 1870 brick wall than Freedmen's Bureau records. The records in this collection were made at the dawn of freedom, and can help you locate your SC ancestors in the period between 1865 and 1870 (the first year that the US Census recorded African American ancestors by name).
Before you dive into the new collection "South Carolina, Freedmen's Bureau Records, 1865-1872," taking a few minutes to read the descriptive pamphlet (reel guide) would be time well-spent. A close reading of the descriptive pamphlet can point you towards records you might miss by simply reading the titles of the reels in the new collection.
After you have identified and combed the richest records in this new record set, you may feel that you have exhausted the research possibilities. At that point in your research, the descriptive pamphlet could well become your best friend in your quest to leave no stone unturned.
Why? Because there are hidden treasures in this enormous body of records. And you can find them by reading the descriptive pamphlet closely.
Accessing the Descriptive Pamphlet for This Collection
There are two ways to access the descriptive pamphlet online. Within the collection at FamilySearch, the descriptive pamphlet is the first reel listed in the collection. There, you can browse the guide page by page.
If you wish to have the descriptive pamphlet open in another window, download the pamphlet for offline use or search the pamphlet, you can access the pdf version available here on Lowcountry Africana, in our Research Library.
Information in the Descriptive Pamphlet
Let's take a closer look at the descriptive pamphlet to see how it is organized, and what information it contains.
First Thing First: History of Freedmen's Bureau Operations in South Carolina
The first portion of the descriptive pamphlet outlines the history of Freedmen's Bureau operations in South Carolina. Here you can learn about the duties of the bureau and how these duties were divided among the various departments within the bureau.
Knowing which branches of the bureau generated records, and for what purpose, can not only help you identify records of interest within the collection, but can also help you identify related record sets and next steps if you find a record of interest.
Example: Property Dispute
For example, let's say you found a record in the new collection concerning a dispute between an ancestor and a former slaveholder over ownership of an item of personal property, and you would like to know where to look for more information about the settlement of the dispute.
From the descriptive pamphlet we learn that between May and September of 1865, Assistant Commissioners of the Freedmen's Bureau adjudicated cases between African Americans themselves, and between African Americans and whites.
In September 1865, military courts were given responsibility over all cases involving African Americans, and state courts were to handle cases involving whites. After the South Carolina Legislature adopted a measure in October 1866 recognizing freedmen’s rights and making African Americans' testimony admissible in state courts, all cases involving freedmen were turned over to state courts.
This background information can help us infer that if a dispute between an African American ancestor and a former slaveholder was settled before October 1866, records of the settlement may be in Freedmen's Bureau records. If the case was not settled before October of 1866, further records concerning the dispute may appear in records of the South Carolina state courts rather than in Freedmen's Bureau records. Knowing the history of the bureau's operations in South Carolina has in this instance opened a window to next steps and new research possibilities.
Now we have some background on the bureau, so what's in this record set exactly? Here's where you find out.
Here we learn that the records consist of volumes and unbound records, and there follows a description of which records are contained in each. We also learn that some of the records for South Carolina created in 1862-1864 are included in this series. An important research tip in this section of the pamphlet is:
Some of the volumes contain more than one type of record, reflecting a common recording practice of clerks and staff officers in that period. On roll 32, for example, the Register of Letters Received, Vol. 1 (95), also contains a register of complaints. Researchers should read carefully the records descriptions and arrangements in the table of contents to make full use of these records.
Related RecordsPay close attention to this section of the pamphlet, for here are your research "next steps."
In this section of the reel guide, we learn about related record sets available from the National Archives that supplement the records in this collection.
Table of Contents
Now that you have a solid background on the historical context, ready to dig into the records? This section of the descriptive pamphlet is where you can do just that, to identify which reels you would like to view. The Table of Contents lists in detail what is on each reel of the collection.
Below is an example of a page within the descriptive pamphlet (please click on the image to view larger). At the top of the page is the information for reels 62 and 63, Berkeley District. The pamphlet describes the contents of each reel and how the records are arranged, then follows detailed information about specific record types.
The order the records are listed in is the order in which they appear on the microfilm.
We recommend reading every word of the descriptive pamphlet, to make the most of these records!