Press Room

Locating Ancestors through the Freedmen’s Bureau

by rlavery

bureauDiane Boucher, a lecturer in history at the United States Coast Guard Academy, gave a presentation titled “The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands: Securing Freedom During and After the Civil War” on April 27 in conjunction with the BPL’s Local and Family History Lecture Series, detailing the Freedmen’s Bureau’s functions and its tie to Massachusetts. The Freedmen’s Bureau, established in 1865 by the War Department, was in charge of providing education, health care, housing assistance, and employment arrangements to former slaves as a temporary means to get them situated as they began a new life. Former slaves fought to gain economic and social status, along with finding their families, establishing their own land, and gaining an education. The Bureau also gave assistance to families and others fleeing north after the war.

Field offices were established to help people post-war across the east coast, and in 1866, the Walnut Street School, later the Howard Industrial School, was founded by Anna Lowell in Cambridge, serving as a trade school and housing for former women slaves and women in search of work. Most women were anxious to earn wages, and desired to be independent. They moved quickly into employment once arriving. An average of 30 people lived there at any given time, with most people from the Washington, D.C. area. The school served 355 people its first year. In 1868, Congress voted to end funding for the Freedmen’s Bureau, and it is likely the Howard Industrial School dissolved not long after.

The lecture concluded with conducting a sample search for an audience member’s ancestor.  Transcriptions of documents from the Freedmen’s Bureau are ongoing, and resources vary in their search capabilities. Below are a variety of resources that may be helpful for genealogical research related to that time period. The Local and Family History Series concludes on Wednesday, May 11, with Joseph Bagley speaking about his book A History of Boston in 50 Artifacts.

Free online databases available at Boston Public Library:

  • Ancestry Online: This site has some of the Freedmen’s Bureau records online at the Ancestry.com Learning Center. Select digital copies of microfilmed reels are searchable by field office, but a name search is not available.
  • US Congressional Serial Set: This contains reports generated by the federal government in conjunction with Freedmen’s Bureau activity, available through Archive of Americana.

Additional Resources: