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.)


Unknown said...

Cousin thank you for your recent post on the Freedmens Bureau. I am now volunteering with Family Search cataloging these records. Again thank you....Mark

Anonymous said...

Thank you Angela! I have looked at those same documents many times and wondered what the background was. You have people going to work, info about prior enslavement owners, info about. Travel to family members located in other states, and areas etc etc etc. This series of documents I found particularly fascinating given the newly freed status of many, which shows intentions of mobility. Its an amazing testimony of people finding their way, at a time where they could have allowed years of supression to limit their desire to mobilize themselves. Evertime I look at these records I get chills, and imagine to myself what that would have looked like and felt like for them. The sense of empowerment and pride they must have felt being able to "carry" their selves to destinations by their own accord. Despite having to explain where, when, and to whom their destinations included. I appreciate your blog filling in more details about these records. And I am thankful thsese records survived! Sincerely your kin cousin, Kelly M. Shea. ( Hampton descendent by blood )

Jo Henn said...

I wanted to tell you that I've included two of your posts in my Noteworthy Reads for this week: http://jahcmft.blogspot.com/2015/06/noteworthy-reads-19.html. Thank you for explaining the treasures that can be found in this valuable resource.