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
Internet Archive Image Image on 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

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Freedmen's Bureau Indexing Initiative Begins June 19th

Live Announcement to be streamed online

A major initiative will be announced live on Friday June 19th at 1:00 pm EDT. Coming live via video stream from California, Family Search will announce that the genealogically critical records from the Bureau of Refugees Freedmen and Abandoned Lands---the Freedmen's Bureau, are now available online for genealogists to study. And for this critical record set to be used best by the genealogy community, Family Search is putting forth a call to action to get these records indexed!

Genealogists of all backgrounds will find the amazing records of the Bureau, to be vital to all 19th century southern research. The Bureau is also known by many researchers and scholars as National Archives Record Group 105. Now thanks to digitization genealogists with ancestors throughout the south, will be able to explore labor contracts, transportation records, hospital records and much more.

All Cultures Are Reflected in the Bureau Records

One thing must be emphasized---Record Group 105 should be of interest to all Americans, white, black and even Native American. The "refugees" served by the bureau were white southerners. The Freedmen were black people once enslaved, and newly freed, and the abandoned lands belonged to the white land owners, left abandoned during the years of the Civil War. This record set will allow many people to find their ancestors during those critical  years between 1865 and 1870 when they appear in the first Federal census as citizens in the land of their birth. And many southern whites whose families were left without land and resources after the Civil War will also find their ancestors receiving rations and petitioning for aid after the surrender.  Those whose ancestors served in the Union Army will find their ancestors among the workers of the Bureau, and others may find them as teachers in the Freedmen schools throughout the south. In western field offices like Ft. Smith Arkansas, one will even find Cherokee citizens being served by the bureau.

Early Marriages Recorded
For many, a particular treat will come with the dozens of Field offices of the Freedmen's Bureau that allowed formerly enslaved men and women to have their marriages recorded. Some of the records appear as simple ledgers while others are full elaborate certificates. These ceremonies were often recorded by the chaplain stationed at the military post that became the site of the Bureaus's field office. In some field offices full pre-marriage data was collected, in the form of co-habitation records as well. This name-rich record set will provide new information for researchers, and the access to these records is going to open doors once considered closed to many researchers whose ancestors were enslaved.

In previous posts I have shared samples of records from the Bureau. Hospital Records as well as marriage records, and transportation records reflect the vast amount of data found in the various field offices. In addition, bounty records reflecting payment of US Colored Troops after the war are also among the wonderful records to be found.

In 2011, I wrote a piece devoted to the Ft. Smith Arkansas marriage records that reflected ceremonies performed by Chaplain Francis Springer. 

The Challenge
The challenge is to get them indexed, so that families can be found. 

Many unwritten chapters in American history lie among the millions of pages to be indexed. 

Our charge is to get to them, and bring forth their names so that we can bring forth their stories!

We can get this done!

Friday, June 5, 2015

Southern California Genealogy Jamboree Begins

The Southern California Genealogy Jamboree is now underway! 

I had the honor to share a panel with Bernice Bennett, and Nicka Smith for the panel "Reaching Out and Reaching In" early this morning. This was the first session offered in the African American track at the Jamboree. 

(courtesy of Felicia Addison)
Our panel listening to comments from audience.

A very poignant discussion unfolded and the interactive action that we desired, unfolded smoothly. And delightfully there was good audience participation. They found the topic to be a much needed one, and everyone shared their thoughts and ideas.

Bernice Bennett served as moderator of the panel and raised several key questions,

What does reaching out reaching in mean to each of us?

Why isn't there diversity?

What is the community?

Who "owns" the African American story?

Where do we begin?

As a presenter I was delighted to see the participation from the audience, and their willingness to share their stories with each of us.

After the session ended, I had the honor of meeting a gentleman whose family history I had researched and blogged about in 2013. He had printed the article  and asked me to autograph it for him. What a humbling thing to meet him and to know that he had appreciated the article.  He, Mr. Tommy J. Clark of San Diego, is a direct descendant of Chickasaws, Samuel Chawanochubby and Mason Clark.

Awaiting the opening of the exhibit hall later and I shall be posting things from there. But the day is off to a great beginning!