Records of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Reconstruction of Black Families

Today’s post was written by Bob Nowatzki, Archives Technician in Research Services at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.

Illustration showing an African American soldier at his wedding in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Marriage of a colored soldier at Vicksburg by Chaplain Warren of the Freedmen’s Bureau (Library of Congress)

During the Reconstruction period of U.S. history (1865-1877), many people who had previously been enslaved tried to reunite with family members from whom they had been separated by their enslavers. This collective search can be seen as another kind of reconstruction – that of Black families. One federal agency that often assisted in this collective effort was the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau. During the seven years of its existence (1865-1872), this agency helped freed people rejoin with their separated partners, children, parents, and siblings, and it also presided over and documented marriages between freed couples whose relationships had not been legally recognized during slavery.
The National Archives offers many records and resources for conducting research on specific Black persons and families as well as Black life during the Reconstruction generally. Many of these records were created by the Freedmen’s Bureau; these can be found in Record Group 105 (Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1861-1880 (National Archives Identifier 434). Within this record group are 53 record series relating to marriages of freed couples, including certificates, licenses, and registers of marriages as well as monthly reports of marriages. The National Archives Catalog also includes several digitized images of marriage certificates and registers, including the marriage certificate of Isaac Kelly and Catherine Kelly of Nashville, Tennessee:

certificate listing couple and their child
Certificate of Matrimony for Isaac and Catherine Nelly, Nashville, TN Feb 26, 1866 (NAID 595025)

The certificate indicates that the couple had lived together as husband and wife for three years. A handwritten note on the document states, “These parties have been separated by sale once and have again assumed the marriage relation since the war.”

Here is a first page of a digitized image of the Register of Marriages among Freedmen during 1865:

log of marriages between freed ppl
Record of Marriages among Freedmen in Arkadelphia, 1865 (NAID 594898)

Many of the Freedmen’s Bureau records have been transferred to microfilm, digitized, and are available online through Microfilm Publication M1875 consists of five microfilm rolls of marriage records of the Freedmen’s Bureau dating from 1861 to 1869; the records are in the National Archives Catalog under the series Freedmen’s Marriage Certificates (NAID 595003). Staff at the National Archives have also created special catalog searches for the following subjects (click on a button to take you to the National Archives Catalog):

The Freedmen’s Bureau topic page under the Migrations Portal includes additional information, focusing on the entire Freedmen’s Bureau Record Group, which includes links to finding aids for over 40 microfilm publications, selected images, and additional resources.

Here are some links to other digitized images of marriage certificates and registers for freed people from the National Archives Catalog:

Other resources:

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