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.

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