Written by Damani Davis, Reference Archivist at the National Archives in Washington, D. C.
Due to the recent popularity of genealogy-based television series such as, African American Lives, Who Do You Think You Are, and Faces of America, the interest in genealogical research has grown rapidly among African Americans. Reference archivists and specialists at the National Archives Building in downtown Washington, D. C. have assisted many of these new researchers by describing to them the relevant Federal records held in NARA facilities. Among NARA’s records most immediately relevant to African American genealogy and history are the RG 105 Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, or the “Freedmen’s Bureau.” These records provide a glimpse into the lives and experiences of recently freed African Americans in the South during the years immediately following emancipation.
When I first embarked upon my new career as a reference archivist, my colleagues advised that the best way to get acquainted with the records to assist researchers was by researching my own genealogy. I immediately began my research by examining the US Census records. Starting with my paternal line, based in rural Maryland and Philadelphia, PA, I hit a major dead end when the 1900 and 1910 censuses revealed that my great-grandfather, Harold Davis, was an adopted foster child. Unable to find any information on his biological parents, my research into my paternal lineage ended with him.
I then switched to my maternal line, which was based in Augusta and Jefferson County in Georgia. The oldest names that I knew from maternal line were those of my great-great-grandfather, Cain Jordan, and his wife, my great-great grandmother, Mattie (Whitfield) Jordan. Prior to consulting these Census records, I had assumed that all members of my maternal lineage had resided in Georgia, exclusively, since their first forebears arrived from Africa. But the 1900 and 1920 censuses revealed that the fathers of both Cain and Mattie had been born in Virginia. Both of my thrice-great grandfathers would have been alive during slavery, and were likely sold from Virginia down to Georgia. The process of selling surplus slaves from the older tobacco producing states of the upper South to the cotton belt states of the Deep South was extremely common during the last decades of slavery. But this fact was inconvenient for genealogical aspirations, because I would need to trace their lineages back up to Virginia.
As African American descendants of enslaved ancestors begin to trace their genealogy, they will likely be required to track their lineage across different southern states because of the internal domestic slave trade. A glimpse into this history is provided by some of the Freedmen’s Bureau Transportation records that document the efforts of the Bureau’s agents, and the formerly enslaved themselves, to procure transportation to rejoin children, parents, and spouses who had been separated by sale across state lines. Below are some examples that I found while searching the records of offices based in Augusta, Georgia and in South Carolina.
Benjamin Pillman Requests Transport to Get His Three Daughters (Molly, Susan, & Maria) from Mississippi, and back to Augusta, GA.
“I am desirous of bringing from Mississippi my three children, all minors who are now without protection and support. Being twice notified of their condition and warned that I must come for them or they would be bound out for a term of years or set adrift in the world, I have made every exertion to accumulate the means to travel upon but am still unable to go unless you can afford me assistance. My family here consists of a wife and two children who are provided for during my absence to afford that protection and support due from a parent to his children,”
The Bureau Agent comments concerning Pillman: “States that he is desirous of bringing from Miss. his 3 children (minors) who are without support & protection and that he has been mortified that if he does not send for them they will be bound out, and that he is unable to go for them unless afforded transportation, and desires that it may be furnished him.”
Freedwoman’s Daughter was sold from Georgia to Galveston, Texas
Records of the Field Offices for the State of Georgia Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1872; microfilm publication M1903, roll 49, frame 227. (NAID 5717749)
“Nellie Carmichael, Freedwoman, states that her daughter Alice Heard was sold from this city before Emancipation to Galveston Texas where she now is in a destitute condition. She can be found in Galveston by addressing her through the Post Office. I would recommend that as her mother is in comfortable circumstances and able to support her, transportation be given her to this city by the proper authorities in Galveston….”
Transportation Requested for “Freedboy” from Augusta, GA to Richmond, VA
Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of South Carolina, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1870; microfilm publication M869, roll 44, frame 274. (NAID 6212822)
“I have the honor to request transportation from this city to Richmond Va, for Freedboy Samuel Smith. This boy has been transported thus far from Augusta Ga. He desires to be sent to his parents. This will relieve the government from his support….”
Transport for “Small Colored Girl” from Columbia, South Carolina to Virginia
Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of South Carolina, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1870; microfilm publication M869, roll 44, frame 263. (NAID 6212822)
“I have the honor to request that transportation be furnished from this city for one small girl (Colored) to Orange Court House Virginia. She is in this city in destitute circumstances. And no friends to assist her in getting to her parents. I think this an urgent case….”
Woman Seeks Transport From Augusta, GA to Montgomery, AL to Reunite with Husband
Records of the Field Offices for the State of Georgia Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1872; microfilm publication M1903, roll 49, frame 243 (NAID 5717749)
“Caroline Thomas has applied at this office for transportation from Augusta, GA to Montgomery, AL, where she states she has a husband who is willing to provide for her. She states that she will become a burden upon public charity if she is not sent to her husband. Her husband’s name is Josephus Thomas, and is supposed to be living with S.H. Grant at Montgomery, Ala., at the West Point & Montgomery depot. (her husband is a carpenter). I would respectfully recommend that transportation be furnished in this case if upon enquiry it be found that her husband is able and willing to provide for her….”
Five Formerly Enslaved Persons Seek Transport from Atlanta, GA to New Bern, NC
Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of South Carolina, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1870; microfilm publication M869, roll 44, frame 276 (NAID 6212822)
“This will be handed to you by a Freedman who is one of a party of 5 who have been furnished with transportation from Atlanta to Augusta as you will see endorsed upon the enclosed com[munication]. They are desirous of reaching their sons & daughters living near Newbern, N.C. where they can be properly provided for, and to th at end it is necessary that the Asst. Comm of South Carolina furnish them with transportation to such point en route to Newbern as he may have the power to grant and if he may deem it practicable to do….”
Transport of Old Freedwoman from Milledgeville, GA to Charleston, SC
Records of the Field Offices for the State of Georgia Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1872; microfilm publication M1903, roll 71, frames 959-961. (NAID 5756962)
“The Bearer of this a freedwoman Lativa Clements is old & infirm & destitute. She has relatives & children in Charleston, SC to whom she desires to go—if it is possible to give her transportation it will be an act of great kindness to a worthy though unfortunate person….”
Response Letter From Daughter: Charleston, February 8th, 1867
Records of the Field Offices for the State of Georgia Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1872; microfilm publication M1903, roll 71, frame 962. (NAID 6212822)
“Dear Mother, it is with much pleasure that I sit down to write you these few lines hopeing that they will find you well as the leaves me at present. …I would have written to you before but I did not know how to direct your letter. I was more than glad to hear from you and glad to hear that you is well….You must be in good cheer until we send for you; I expect to get a free transportation from Genl. Scott to come for you, but if I do not get it I will send for you. All is well all of the children sends howdy for you; they says that they would like much to see you….Harry Mathews expect to get a free transportation to go for his family and I think I will get one the same time; but the General is not here at present, he has gone to Savannah to see about some business. But I will see him as soon as he comes….When you write you can Direct your letter to Mrs. Celia Gibbs for I do not know any one else that you could Direct to. Write soon for I am longing to hear from you….I hope that I will see you before long for I am very anxious to see you. If god spears my life I hope that we will meet once more again before we die. I have no more to say at this time I remain your Daughter Sophy Brown.”
Not all of the Freedmen’s Bureau transportation records reflect the efforts of separated family members seeking to reunite with loved ones. Some transportation records document the first voluntary migrations of groups of African American seeking to gain land or better opportunities elsewhere. This not widely-known, first mass-migration of African Americans was actually an intra-South migration in which recently freed blacks hoped to get land or better pay in relatively newer southern areas in Arkansas, Texas, Florida, and even parts of Mississippi. The majority of blacks that were part of this particular migration were departing mainly from states Georgia and South Carolina. Examples of this process are documented in travel registers from these states.
While searching records of the Augusta field office in Georgia, I found several work contracts documenting large groups of freed black departing for Arkansas. One travel register from South Carolina has lines that list large groups departing:
Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of South Carolina, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1870; microfilm publication M869, roll 44, frame 245 (NAID 621822)
- from line 7: “35 adults, 14 children from Columbia, SC to Grenada, MS (49 persons).
- from line 8: “Adam Pully & fifty-six others from Columbia SC to Vicksburg, MS (57 persons)
- Other lines on the same register show much smaller groups, couples, and single individuals trying to get Virginia.
So these records highlight two important aspects of early black movement. First, there was the effort to many to get back to their native states in order to reunite with family. This movement was mainly towards the old tobacco states like Virgina from which they were likely sold or forced to move with owners who had relocated to states further south. The second aspect reflects the voluntary migration of large groups of African Americans from states such as Georgia and South Carolina who hoped to gain better opportunities in other southern states. The main point to take away from this, from a historical and genealogical standpoint, is that the lineages of majority of African Americans will ultimately lead back to the oldest southern states: Primarily back to Virginia and the greater Chesapeake region; and secondarily, back to South Carolina and Georgia.