The Freedmen's Bureau in Florida
The Freedmen’s Bureau activities in Florida generally resembled those conducted in other states. The Bureau issued rations to both freedmen and white refugees, supervised labor contracts between planters and freedmen, administered justice, worked with benevolent societies in the establishment of schools, and assisted freedmen in locating land. This last service contributed to an important, distinctive success in the Florida Bureau’s program: more freedmen secured homesteads there than in any other Southern public-land state.
The Florida Bureau regularly assessed the need for services in the state. The resulting reports appear in these records and are valuable for learning about social conditions. In November 1865, for example, Asst. Comm. Osborn sent Capt. George Thompson on an inspection tour of southern Florida. During the following 4 months, Thompson toured the lower part of the state. His 47-page report includes living conditions of the populace, agricultural possibilities, and geographical information. He discusses how the Bureau can assist freedmen in education and land ownership .
Image: The Freedmen's Bureau / Drawn by A.R. Waud 
To prevent widespread starvation and destitution, the Florida Bureau issued more than 25,000 rations in its first year to some 22,000 blacks and nearly 4,000 whites . By December 1868, the Bureau had issued more than 760,000 rations, at a cost of $102,669.45 . In addition to its general distribution of rations to those in dire need, the Florida Bureau also utilized a relief system similar to one in use in Louisiana and South Carolina that provided planters with food for their laborers. Under this system, blacks who rented and cultivated at least 10 acres of land on a crop-sharing basis were issued rations. This allowed planters to produce a crop without having to feed their workers during growing season.
Of genealogical interest are the applications of freedmen for rations. These printed documents give the number of acres of rented land. They list the first and last name and age of the freedman renting the property, of family members, and of any others who will live and work the named property. Included in the information are the location of the property and the name of the owner. In some cases the relationship of those living with the freedman is given (e.g., stepson or nephew) .
The regulation of written labor contracts between planters and freedmen was a major part of the Bureau’s operation in Florida. Between 1865 and 1868 thousands of freedmen entered into contract agreements for either wages or a share of the crops in virtually every part of the state. Contracts generally stipulated the hours and days of work, types of rations to be provided, and the amount of wage or crop to be paid.
Nearly half of the freedmen on plantations in Florida worked for a third of the crop plus rations. Those who worked for wages also received rations and were paid at a rate of $12 per month for men, $9 for women, and $5 for children. Bureau officials generally witnessed the contracts and were paid a small fee by the planter.
Safeguarding the rights and securing justice for freedmen was of great concern to the Freedmen’s Bureau as well. Following the Civil War, several Southern states enacted a series of laws commonly known as “black codes,” which restricted the rights and legal status of freedmen. Freedmen were often given harsh sentences for petty crimes and in some instances were unable to get their cases heard in state courts. In a circular issued by Commissioner Howard in May 1865, Assistant Commissioners were directed to adjudicate all difficulties occurring between blacks and whites in places where the civil courts were interrupted or where blacks were not allowed to testify . On November 15, 1865, in response to Howard’s order, Florida Assistant Commissioner Osborn issued a circular ordering that freedmen be allowed to testify in court and that corporal punishment be restricted and personal violence be reported to military commanders . In Florida, Bureau officials, for the most part, supervised state courts until a new government was established under the military reconstruction act of March 2, 1867 (14 Stat. 428).
Bureau educational activity in Florida officially began with the appointment of E. B. Duncan as inspector and superintendent of schools in November 1866. Duncan served until June 1867, when he was replaced by C. T. Chase. Chase, who served from June 1867 to March 1868, was succeeded by Charles Foster, formerly Assistant Commissioner, who served from March through December 1868. In January 1869, in accordance with an act of July 25, 1868 (15 Stat. 193), Bureau operations in Florida, as in other states, were terminated except for the educational functions and the collection of claims. George W. Gile, who was the Assistant Commissioner at the time, became the superintendent of education and served in that capacity until August 1870, when the remaining Bureau activities in Florida were also terminated.
The schools maintained by the Bureau in Florida included day schools for children, night schools for adults, and Sabbath schools. Rudimentary education including reading, writing, arithmetic, and geography received primary emphasis in most Bureau schools. Teachers were recruited from the local white population, from among the freedmen themselves, and from the North by freedmen’s aid societies. No single policy of assigning responsibilities in the maintenance of the schools was followed consistently. The Bureau generally supplied buildings for schools and transportation for teachers and relied on the aid societies and freedmen to pay for textbooks and teachers’ salaries, although at times teachers were paid from Bureau funds.
The Freedmen’s Bureau in Florida sought, with a mixed degree of success, to secure land for African Americans. The Southern Homestead Act, approved by Congress on June 21, 1866, made available for public settlement 46 million acres of public lands in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Nineteen million acres of this Federal land was located in Florida. Because the Act specified that persons who applied could not be discriminated against because of race, it offered an opportunity for many Florida freedmen to become landowners. The land office opened on August 25, 1866. The Freedmen’s Bureau, through “locating agents,” assisted interested freedmen in finding plots, and provided them with 1-month subsistence, free transportation to their prospective tracts of land, and seeds for the initial planting . By October 1866, in spite of the poor quality of much of the land, the absence of basic necessities, and white opposition, freedmen had made land entry transactions (“entered”) for 32,000 acres of public land. One year later, they had secured more than 2,000 homesteads, totaling 160,960 acres, and by 1868 freedmen entered over 3,000 homesteads, more than in any other Southern public land state .
Related Internet Reading
Freedmen's Bureau Reports, Hernando County, Florida by Jeff Cannon
 See microfilm roll 15, Subordinate Field Offices, Tallahassee, Letters Received, Apr. 1866–Feb. 1868.
 House Ex. Doc. 1, 39th Cong., 2nd Sess., p. 740.
 Joe M. Richardson, “An Evaluation of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Florida,” The Florida Historical Quarterly XLI, no. 3 (January 1963): 224.
 See microfilm rolls 11 and 12, Office of Assistant Commissioner, Other Records, “Applications of Freedmen for Rations.”
 Richardson, “An Evaluation of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Florida,” pp. 228–29; House Ex. Doc. No. 11, 39th Cong., 1st Sess., p. 45.
 House Ex. Doc. 70, 39th Cong., 1st Sess., p. 87; Richardson, “An Evaluation of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Florida,” p. 228.
 Paul A. Cimbala and Randall M. Miller, The Freedmen’s Bureau and Reconstruction: Reconsiderations (1999), pp. 67–83.
 Richardson, “ An Evaluation of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Florida,” pp. 230–31. In spite of these entries, only 1,073 freedmen are listed on the 1870 Federal census as landowners.
 "African American Family at Their Log Cabin Home." Image Number RC09568, Florida Photograph Collection, Florida State Archives. Image online at http://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/32352.
The article presented above is a verbatim transcription from National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). 2005 Records of the Field Offices for the State of Florida, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1872. Micropublication M1869, Reel Guide, Introduction. Washington, D.C.: NARA.
As a work product of the NARA the text resides in the public domain and may be reproduced elsewhere without seeking permission from Lowcountry Africana. You may read the text in its original context here on Lowcountry Africana: Records of the Field Offices for the State of Florida, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, 1865–1872.