Thursday, July 2, 2020

Freedmen's Bureau Records Offer Clues to Family Research

Freedmen's Bureau record, 1868. Image courtesy
of Arkansas State Archives.
One of the most commonly overlooked records in family research, especially for African American genealogy, is the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust records. These documents contain more than 480,000 names, making them the largest single collection of lineage information for African Americans.

Commonly referred to as the Freedmen’s Savings Bank, it was established by the United States government in 1865. Its purpose was to serve Black veterans and former enslaved individuals and their families, by ensuring they had a secure place to build their savings. Later, social groups, churches, charities and other private organizations opened accounts with the bank, establishing bonds of trust between the African American community and the institution.  Its headquarters was first established in New York and later was moved to Washington, D.C. Eventually, 37 branch offices opened across 17 states, serving 70,000 clients who over the institution’s lifetime deposited $57 million.

The Freedmen’s Savings Bank only lasted until 1874. Bad investments, rapid expansion of branches and construction of a handsome new headquarters building in Washington, D.C., put an enormous strain on the bank, but the financial Panic of 1873 proved to be the final nail in the coffin. The panic, an outcome of successive economic expansion and contractions, caused a financial crisis in North America and Europe that lasted from 1872 to 1877. The Freedmen’s Bank, which had overextended itself by making real estate loans, collapsed and closed its doors in June 1874. Since the United States government controlled the Freedman’s Savings Bank, Congress established a program to reimburse depositors, up to 62 percent of their savings. Many never received the compensation, because the government simply could not provide it: The economy had failed.

Records from 29 of the bank’s 37 branches survive. These records contain papers that each patron was required complete when opening an account. The information requested, as well as the degree of the forms’ completion, varies between branches and year. The information might include the depositor’s name, date of deposit, current employer, the name of the plantation the depositor lived on before emancipation, age, height, complexion, parents’ names , military unit (if the depositor served in the Civil War), marital status, place of birth, current residence and occupation, as well as the names of children or siblings. 

Guardian Bond for Thomas Bassett, 1835. Image
courtesy of SARA.
This information can help guide pre-Civil War record searches for African Americans in local deed records, slave schedules probate and will records.  The Freedmen’s Bank records have in many cases been the only documents in which the names of individuals’ parents or siblings have been recorded in connection to that individual; this information can assist in confirming or expanding upon data collected from other record sets. These may include Federal military pension records, fertile sources for information on individuals who served in Federal units during the Civil War. The files contain personal accounts of service, affidavits from individuals who may have served with the pension applicant, family history information and medical details. These pension files, some of which are over 100 pages long, are located at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The microfilm version of the pension records index is 544 rolls long, which gives an idea of the volume of records available.

You can access the Freedmen’s Savings Bank records, however, by visiting the Arkansas State Archives. Records for the Little Rock (MG02259) and Memphis (MG02260) branches are available on microfilm in our research room. You can look at the entire collection on of Freedmen’s Bureau material at, available for use in our research room. also offers a limited number of images.