Monday, September 28, 2015

Unexpected Depositors of the Little Rock Freedman's Savings Bank

Black Churches Were Among Account holders at Freedman's Savings Bank
Source: "United States, Freedmen's Bank Records, 1865-1874," database with images, FamilySearch
Linked Image HERE

Roll 3, Feb 27, 1871-July 15, 1874, accounts 153-1359 > image 22 of 165; citing
NARA microfilm publication M816 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1970).

In the years after the Civil War, a major adjustment was made in the lives of those once enslaved. The need for work, for pay, and how to handle one's wages for the first time was not without its challenges. It is well known that the roll of the Freedman's Saving's Bank was put in place to assist the formerly enslaved with the practice of saving money as well.

There are many genealogists who access these records and who have appreciated information gleaned from the depositors in the Freedman's Savings Bank. In many cases family data was also collected and the information from the list of depositors has opened many doors for researchers. Among the depositors however, were not only individuals, but also institutions. Many African American churches in the post Civil War Black communities had placed their funds also into the Freedman's Savings Bank. In addition to the churches, various committees within the churches also held single accounts.

While recently looking at the depositors in the Little Rock Arkansas branch of the Freedmen's Bureau, I noticed several Little Rock churches that had accounts. Some of those churches held accounts for different ministries within the church. An unnamed Baptist Church held an account as did Bethel AME, the Missionary Baptist Church, and also Wesley Chapel, which was and still is an active Methodist Church in Little Rock.

Bethel AME Church of Little Rock Arkansas held several accounts with the Freedman's Savings. By examining these records, one can learn a lot about the structure of the church as well. In 1871, several accounts were opened by various committees at Bethel. There was the Widow's and Orphans Fund,  The Ladies Church Aid Society, The Arkansas Conference of the A.M.E. Church Preachers Fund, The A.M.E. Church Concess., J.T. Jennifer for Wilberforce University, Steward's Fund of Bethel A.M.E.,

At Wesley Chapel, the Ladies Aid Society also held an account.

One interesting group of depositors affiliated with a Baptist church, was found with the account for the Sisters of Faith, Hope, and Charity, of the Missionary Baptist Church.

In addition to the churches themselves, in many cases the pastors affiliated with the same churches that held accounts in the Freedman's Bank also had personal accounts themselves with the same church. J.T. Jennifer, pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church held a personal account with the bank.

The trustees of Bethel A.M.E. held a separate account as well.


Researchers of Pulaski Arkansas Black History are urged to examine the records of the Little Rock Branch of the Freedman's Saving's Bank. The data is rich and a few pages of missing history might be found with these images. And the larger lesson is for researchers from other states, to examine ALL of the names of the depositors--not just the name of an ancestor. It is easy to abandon the greater story of the community, once we fail to find an ancestor's name. Embrace the larger story, for it too is part of our own story to tell.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A Cemetery Visit: Honoring Dred Scott

He was a simple man, who had many odds against him. Born a slave, his name gained the attention of the world when he sued for his freedom. I had always heard of Dred Scott and I had the chance to visit his gravesite on Monday July 6th.

I arrived St. Louis, on an early flight on Monday, when I arrived to attend and to teach at the Midwest African American Genealogy Institute, (MAAGI). This early arrival allowed time for a pleasant lunch with genealogy friends. Upon leaving, it was suggested that we visit the gravesite of Dred Scott. I had never known where he was buried, and finally I got to stand over the final resting place of this man whose name will be forever known.

After a brief stop at the office of Cavalry cemetery, we were given a map that would direct us to his gravesite. Driving through this massive cemetery was amazing, with rolling hills and magnificent monuments to those long gone. After turning onto a nearby road, a glance to the left revealed a small yet neat stone bearing the name, Dred Scott. The stone is simple yet elegant.

Additional words about his life describe the significance of Scott's struggle for freedom and the impact of the Dred Scott decision. It is eloquently stated, "In memory of a simple man who wanted to be free."

Another small memorial stone next to  Dred Scott's stone is dedicated to his wife Harriet. That memorial marker was dedicated in 1999. Harriet Scott is believed to be buried at Greenwood Cemetery in St. Louis County.

Over the years visitors to the Dred Scott grave have started a tradition of leaving evidence of their visit to his gravesite by leaving a coin. The typical momento is to leave a copper penny at his grave. In respect for the tradition, my colleague Noreen Goodson and I, both left our pennies on the headstone, as well. A thank you for his struggle for freedom and a prayer that he and Harriet continue to rest in peace was said while standing there.

 To mark the occasion of this visit to the gravesite of Dred Scott, my colleague Noreen, and I posed for a photo next to the stone.

Few facts about the early life of this man are really known. He lived as a free man very briefly and facts about the lives of his wife and daughters in the years before the freedom suits are few. However, some poignant facts were collected a few years ago in a book about the lives of Dred and Harriet Scott, when genealogist and author Ruth Hager wrote a book that provided some insights into the life of the Scott family. The book is entitled, Dred and Harriet Scott: Their Family Story. 

In 2012 while attending a conference of the St. Louis African American Genealogy Society, I had the pleasure of meeting Dred Scott's direct descendant, Lynn Johnson, his gr. gr. granddaughter. She is now the director of the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation and works to keep the legacy of her ancestor alive.

Angela Walton-Raji and Lynn Jackson, standing near portrait of Dred Scott.

There are many notable names in history who struggled against the yoke of slavery. Some fought for themselves and their loved ones such as Dred Scott. Others fought for the freedom of others, like Harriet Tubman. We read about them, and remember their names, but the chance to visit their gravesite is rare. I am grateful that I was able to visit the gravesite of this man, whose struggle, and landmark case deferred a mighty dream. 

He was an ordinary man, a simple man who only wanted to be free. I am humbled by the chance to say that his battle mattered.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Buffalo Soldier Recruitment Letter Among Freedmen's Bureau Documents

Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen & Abandoned Lands, National Archives Publication M1901 Roll 7

The 9th and 10th Cavalry as well as the 24th and 25th Infantry regiments of the U.S. Army are known by many as Buffalo Soldiers. These men enlisted in the US Army after the Civil War.

While recently studying the records of the Freedmen's Bureau recently, an interesting letter was found among letters in the Ouachita County Arkansas records. (1) The letter was sent to the  various agents of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands. In the body of the letter were instructions to the agents to identify men from the newly freed population, and to encourage their enlistment in the army for the 10th Cavalry. The 10th Cavalry was one of the regiments that became known as Buffalo Soldiers and who made a name for themselves as they served on the western frontier.

Both pages are found on the Internet Archives site:
Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen &Abandoned Lands for the State of Arknasas, Roll 7

The letter reads:

"I am directed by the Assistant Commissioner, to inform you that he wishes the Agents of the Bureau  to render such service as they can, consistent with their other duties, in obtaining recruits for the 10th Regiment, U.S. Cavalry, (Colored). When it comes to the knowledge of any Agent, that there are colored men suitable for, and desiring to enlist in, this regiment, he will at once report by telegraph or letter to Capt. J. W. Walsh, 10th U.S. Cavalry, Little Rock, Arkansas.

All recruits are to be at least 5 feet, 6 inches high.  Capt. Walsh will soon furnish to the Agents a few posters giving all the terms of an enlistment. Any expenses incurred by telegraphing or otherwise in obtaining recruits will be paid by Capt. Walsh.

Agents will inform the colored men, through the medium of their preachers that recruits are wanted for this regiment, and the manner of effecting an enlistment.

                                                                                     I am very respectfully,

                                                                                     Your O B't Serv't

                                                                                      Jno. Tyler (signed)
                                                                                       1st Lt. 43rd, US Infantry
                                                                                       Act'g Ass't Adj't Gen'l

Joseph S. Thorpe

*****     *****     *****     *****

This is one of the more unique kinds of records to be found in this amazing record set. The records, also referred to as Record Group 105, contain many name rich records of newly freed slaves, southern whites and land owners. The typical records are labor contracts, marriage records, transportation records and a number of letters and complaints. This particular letter reflects some of the unique orders that were sent to and received by the various agents of the Freedmen's Bureau.

The critical lesson for genealogists is look beyond the lists of names. In the many letters, one can find other gems such as recruitment orders, local county stories and reports of unique incidents that never made it to published county histories.

(1) Bureau of the Office of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands. National Archives Record Publication M1901, Roll 7.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Finding Mitchell Bass in the Early Days of Freedom

Louis Mitchell Bass, Horatio Arkansas

     I recently, had one of those genealogy “happy dance” moment while researching records from the Freedmen’s Bureau. Now, I have been looking at the these for many years, but until recent months the search has always been on microfilm. That usually involved a trip to the National Archives, threading the microfilm reader, and sitting down to scroll page after page. But in recent years, two online web sites have digitized these records: the Internet Archive, and most recently Family Search.  And as a result, research can be conducted without travel to Washington, but from the comfort of my own home.

     One of my ancestral communities is southwestern Arkansas, in Sevier County. There was a field office of the Bureau, located in that part of the state, in the town of Paraclifta, Arkansas. So, recently, I sat down to inspect the records from that county.  My ancestors lived in a tiny hamlet called Horatio Arkansas during those post civil war years, and I was not even sure that my ancestors would have made it to the town of Paraclifta, or that their names had been recorded by the Bureau at all. But nevertheless, I looked.

     While going through pages, I came upon a set of pages that contained the names of plantation owners from Sevier county where the my great grandparents lived. I saw one letter from bureau staff, that a circular had been sent to the plantation owners to reply to the bureau stating what their agreements were that had been made with freedmen, now that the War was over and that slavery was abolished.  

So, my eyes scanned the names, of plantation owners, and then I saw the name of one that made we stop:  H. C. Pride. 

National Archives publication M1901 Roll 18, page 1007
     I knew that name! 

     Henry C. Pride, of Sevier County Arkansas, was always said to have been the slave holder of my great grandfather, Mitchell Bass. And there was H.C. Pride’s name as a plantation owner to whom, letters had been sent from the Freedmen’s Bureau. A circular had been sent for him to record the names of the Freedmen employees, and state their wages.

     But after seeing Pride's name, my next question was, “Did he reply, and would I see Gr. Grandpa Mitchell’s name as now an employee?”  Or, I wondered, did my ancestor Mitchell leave and find employment with someone else now that freedom had come?

     The next set of pages consisted of names of a Roster of  Freedmen and notes pertaining to the employer and wages to be paid. I could only hope that H.C. Pride would respond to the circular sent to him by the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands.  I carefully examined each page looking for those enslaved by H.C. Pride. And then came page 9.

     There was Pride, and whoa!! There was my great grandfather Mitchell!  He was listed along with others now “employees” of Pride.

  And as I looked at their names, I could not help but also notice Susan. Was this possibly the same Susan who was also part of our family? Grandpa Mitchell married a Susan after the war. In fact in the 1870 Federal Census, Mitchell was enumerated with his wife Susan and their children. Could this be the same Susan? I am not certain of that, but both names truly caught my attention. But I knew with certainty that this Mitchell was MY Mitchell.

     The heading of the page recorded the names of the Freedmen, the employer, an employee number, date, and wages paid.


     Every entry on the page and on all of the pages of the register consisted of the same payment: B. C. and Med. Att. This meant “Board, clothing and medical attention.” The date of this register was July 1865 and the war had not long been over.

     I could not help but notice however, no money was paid for labor.

     However, seeing Mitchell’s name on this roster, I know was the earliest record of my great grandfather! Mitchell would not keep the surname Pride, and by 1870 five years later, he was using the name that he attributed to his parents from whom he was separated years before. He had once lived with his family who lived and worked as enslaved people on the Bass estate, in Giles County Tennessee.

      By 1870, in an effort to reclaim his tie to his own family from whom he was taken in 1860, he chose to use the surname of his parents, which was Bass.  Mitchell would forever be known as Louis Mitchell Bass, reclaiming the name of his own family, and not that of the last slave holder.

     By 1870 he was a farmer on his own, and within a few years, he would purchase land as a homesteader in Sevier County, Arkansas. He would raise his children there, including a daughter, my grandmother Sarah Ellen Bass. 

     The document from the Freedmen's Bureau, tells a lot. It shows that he remained in the same community after freedom came, and he, like many others did, worked but was not paid cash at that time. And as the document reflected, his name was not yet inscribed with a surname. But a mere five years later, he would be recorded in the federal census as Louis Mitchell Bass with wife Susan and family.

     A lot is still to be known about how freedom actually came to Mitchell, Susan and the others, but oh, what a joy to find great grandpa Mitchell’s name, in the bureau records, in the early days of freedom. He was a survivor, and he did make it to see a brighter day.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Unique Freedmen's Bureau Records Reflect Rations given to Whites and Indians

The recent news in the genealogy community is that Family Search has partnered with a number of African American organizations, societies and communities to participate in the national indexing initiative. The goal is to make the recently digitized records of the Freedmen's Bureau, available online.

The bureau is officially known as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, and field offices existed throughout the south after the Civil War. One such office was located in Ft. Smith Arkansas, and this office not only assisted former slaves in western Arkansas, but also assisted local whites in need of aid, and also Indians from nearby Cherokee and Choctaw Nations. On the following document one can see clearly that rations were shared with persons of all backgrounds.

National Archives publication M1901 Roll 8, Ft. Smith field office

Source for all images:
Same as above: National Archives publication M1901 Ft. Smith Field Office
Also found on Family Search:
"Arkansas, Freedmen's Bureau Field Office Records, 1864-1872," images, FamilySearch (,1076659805 : accessed 25 June 2015), Fort Smith (Sebastian County) > Roll 8, Register of application for restoration of property, register of marriages, and register of persons drawing rations, 1867 > image 16 of 23; citing NARA microfilm publication M1901 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).

Interestingly during that time, it is fascinating to see that Freedmen, or former slaves were the smallest population receiving rations at the Ft. Smith field office. Also from these particular pages this was now two years after the Civil War, and assisting the hungry and people in need was still a large focus of the bureau.

There was a community that lived by the Arkansas River for many years. The area was sometimes referred to as "Coke Hill." Though there is no evidence, it is possible that these may have been early settlers in the community that would later develop. By the late 1800s and early 1900s this community still lived near the Arkansas River. And for many years both poor whites and blacks lived along the banks of the River. With time as the city grew and changed, the communities would reside along 2nd 3rd, 4th street. By the mid to late 20th century they would eventually disappear.

These western Arkansas records are unique in that they are reflecting the population not often mentioned as having been affected by war. These refugees requesting rations in the western Arkansas field office are quite revealing. Seeing the number of white citizens, and even those from the Cherokee and Choctaw nation, tell a story on the local history level that is unique. These pages shed light on the importance that the western military post on the Arkansas river had on the civilians living nearby.
It is hoped that the new indexing project launched by Family Search will see the value of including the whites and Indian in the indexing as well. Including their names will be of benefit to genealogists, historians and students of state and county history. For genealogists the value of all names on a record are important. It is understood that the bureau served millions of former slaves, but this record set holds many other stories as well on those pages, and it is hoped that all will be included in the new indexing effort underway.

Thanks to the digitization of these records, more chapters of the unwritten post civil war years can be written. For family historians the value is clear. For community historians there are equally valuable stories to extract from these pages. And for those who study Civil War history and its impact upon the civilian population, records such as these will shine the light on many areas never studied before.

It is hoped that as many study the records that they will share the stories and place all who were there on the historical landscape where they belong.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Rail & River Passes from the Freedmen's Bureau

Freedom of movement of was the one thing that restricted enslaved people every moment of their lives while enslaved. Unless one had a pass--written permission from a slave holder giving permission for a person of color to walk on the road, enslaved people were invisible from the roads and lanes for decades.But the end of the Civil War brought about something new. Freedom brought movement!

At last, as the structures of a slave culture began to crumble, black men, women, young, and old took to the roads. This was unnerving and shocking to the local southern white populations, when as early as 1861, when contraband camps began forming, the word was out--get on the road, get to the union line and find freedom!

People who at one time could never been out of sight of slave holder, or overseers during the day, and the slave patrols at night. Slaves caught without passes were severely punished by whippings and even being sold away from family. So the chance to move brought about immediate changes in their lives. Early photos in post civil war days reflect the movement of African Americans choosing to leave, and find another life and move about freely.

A rich source of records for formerly enslaved people are the transportation records found in Record Group 105, commonly referred to as the Freedmen's Bureau. These records reflect movement. Some were leaving places where they had been enslaved and seeking a new life, others were seeking family that had been taken, and others seeking to return to families from whom they had been separated.

From Devall's Bluff, Arkansas, a unique set of transportation records were found. It is known that rivers were widely used for transportation, and like trains, frequently long distance travel was made via river ways and trains.

As a result a unique set of pages from Devall's Bluff Arkansas, were found among the bureau records. This subset of record consisted of passes to travel via rail or river. This set of records is found on Microfilm Roll 8 of the Records of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands for the state of Arkansas.

The rosters consist of the name of the traveler, their place of residence, and their destination. This can be seen as equivalent as a passenger list or passenger manifest, with the primary travelers being post Civil War Freedmen.

Many of the Freedmen were travelling from Devall's Bluff to Little Rock, the capital, but some were traveling to other cities and states such as Memphis Tennessee, or Brownsville Texas.

A quick search on Google Maps, shows the distance between Devall's Bluff, and Memphis. Today such a journey takes less than 90 minutes by car. But in the mid 19th century, the journey would have been a combination of possibly rail and rivers, partially traveling on the many wandering tributaries of the Arkansas River.

Google Map showing today's route from Devall's Bluff to Memphis


Source of Bureau Images: National Archives publication M1901 Roll 8, Target 2
Subordinate Field Office, Devall's Bluff, Prairie County, Contracts, Volume 1 (75)
January 1865 - July 1865

Rosters such as this, which can be found among bureau records are unique as they show movement made by former slaves as they formed new lives. They are among the many gems to be found in Record Group 105.

Hopefully as researchers get more acquainted with these records, they will move beyond the joy of finding a loved one, and graduate to a wider story involving entire communities. There are amazing stories that come out of these records and transportation records are among the treasures to be found.
Both the Internet Archive and Family Search, now have these records digitized. 

(Genealogists and researchers are encouraged to make these records more easily accessible, by participating in the Indexing Project conducted by Family Search.)

Monday, June 22, 2015

Understanding and Exploring Freedmen's Bureau Records

Many of us watched the announcement several days ago of the new indexing project presented by Family Search, elders of the LDS church, and leaders from the African American genealogy community.  It is encouraging to know that an effort to index these records has now unfolded.

As genealogists, our task is not only to collect information, but also to tell the story, cite the correct record group for our data accurately, and to present it clearly for others to follow. As we begin to negotiate these post Civil War records, it is important that the records are fully understood.

So what are these records?
These records reflect the business conducted by the US military after the Civil War. The goal was to assist the communities affected by war, and to assist with bringing order throughout the south.

What is the official name of this agency?
The official name is the Bureau of Refugee, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands. It has been a part of the National Archives records categorized as Record Group 105.

Who were the people served by the Bureau?

Refugees were southern whites, left destitute and homeless after the  Civil War.
Rations Issued to white refugees in Ozark Arkansas.
Source of Image: Internet Archive

Freedmen were people of color, black people, recently freed from bondage.
Roster of Freedmen employees in Sevier County Arkansas
National Archives M1901 Roll 18

Abandoned Lands pertained to property of white land owners of plantations and farms abandoned during war.

Document reflecting lands abandoned in Jacksonport Arkansas
National Archives M1901 Roll 6

What kind of records are there to be found in the Bureau?

*There are ration records, reflecting people who receive rations of food and clothing. Recipients of these rations were white, black and in western Arkansas, there were even cases of Indians receiving rations.

*There are marriage records reflecting many former slaves wanting to have their marriages officially recorded.

*There are bounty records reflecting payments to Union soldiers, many of whom were US Colored Troops.

*There are transportation records of freedmen being relocated to other states, fleeing terror in their old communities.

* There are school records, some reflecting student enrollment of black children being taught to read without punishment.

* There are hospital records, from the many freedmen hospitals that were created during and after the war. Some suffered from disease, such as measles, typhod, cholera, and others from injuries.

*There are countless letters from citizens requesting assistance in bringing children back, still held in bondage. Other letters reflect decisions made to settle disputes between Freedmen and employers refusing to pay former slaves wages.

The potential is there for many more chapters to be opened in America's post Civil War story. The need is for all of the genealogy community to get involved, and hopefully the appeal to bring these records to life will be felt by all.

To find the field offices for the bureau, visit Mapping the Freedmen's Bureau. The records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, belong to all of us. It is an American record set with an American story, still to tell.

Join the Indexing Project