Freedmen Bureau records are a critical resource for African American genealogical research. It would have been impossible for the Genealogy Adventures team to reconstruct many of our enslaved family lines without this vital resource. These work contracts have opened door after door of discoveries in our African American research:
Freedmen’s Bureau records main page on FamilySearch (FREE):
As I mentioned in my previous post George Henry Roane: the new Freedmen’s Bureau databases on FamilySearch are incredible research tools, the various Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records databases on FamilySearch have provided a wealth of information about people from the various branches of my family. The previous post about George Henry Roane featured his fight to claim the legacy left to him in his former owner’s will.
EMANCIPATION AND THE AMERICAN HISTORY CURRICULUM
Emancipation wasn’t something that was really covered in my history classes. It was barely mentioned. It was presented as something of a 10 minute after-thought. A footnote to the American Civil War. My classmates and I were never taught about its implementation or its repercussions, which still echo down through the ages to the present day. My history classes never discussed what it was to be enslaved for generations – for centuries, actually – and then freed overnight. Or how persons born and raised in the centuries old institution of slavery coped. It wasn’t as if this was a bad school. Far from it. It was one of the best schools in the state. Which makes this even more of a lost learning opportunity.
The way it was presented kind of ran like this: President Lincoln freed the slaves, slaves were free overnight, everyone was happy. The proof of the latter were the brief mentions of freed slaves becoming congressmen, senators, academics, businessmen and businesswomen, etc. It never really occurred to me to question just how good things were after emancipation – or what percentage of the newly freed black population it was good for.
Born at the tail end of the Jim Crow Era and segregation –I knew those good times of freedom hadn’t lasted. While I grew up in a middle class home, I knew there was a portion of the American black population who didn’t. That’s not to say I had it easy. There are overt signs of inequality – and then there are the subtle yet equally pernicious forms of inequality. I grew up experiencing the latter. Somewhere in my teenage brain I knew there was a fundamental disconnect, a huge part of the story that was missing in terms of the post-Emancipation black experience in America. But I didn’t know what it was. I couldn’t put my finger on it. And then I stopped thinking about it altogether. Living abroad for most of my life, far away from the racial hurly burly of America, I didn’t have to think about it. An American homecoming has only served to throw this into exceedingly vivid, sharp relief.
Using the Freedmen’s Bureau database for my research, and reading hundreds of its documents, I’ve come back full circle to that disconnect in terms of American history. As a habit America doesn’t like re-visiting the dark chapters of its history. Somewhere, somehow, it was collectively agreed that ‘if we don’t talk about those things, they’ll go away. It’ll all just work itself out. We can ignore it – and it just won’t matter any more’. If I’ve learned anything, even in my time abroad, dark histories cause pain that is carried down through the generations – for the descendants of the victims as well as the descendants of the perpetrators. Just ask the Irish, the English and the Scottish. Dark chapters in history never go away. It’s 2014 and look at the race-related topics that remain in the American headlines.
NEWLY ACQUIRED FREEDOM IS A MESSY BUSINESS
So I find myself thinking of Emancipation. I find myself thinking about all those millions of newly freed people, the children of generations who had dreamed of freedom. I’ve gained an understanding that dreaming of freedom – and facing the realities of freedom head-on – are two very different things.
Just look at current world events in North Africa, the Middle East and to events in a post-Communist Eastern Europe. It’s not as though there’s a Freedom 101 course that people can take. Nor does it seem possible for there to be anything like a planned transition period for people to grasp the concept and responsibilities of freedom. Freedom for formerly oppressed and suppressed people, it would seem, is a messy business. That’s not to diminish freedom. It is a basic human right. It’s a comment on the mechanism by which a people become free. I’ve yet to find evidence of a smooth transition from a state of oppression to the state of being free and entirely responsible for one’s self and one’s actions.
ONE CHAPTER IN TOBIAS ROANE’S LONG LIFE
Tobias “Tobey” Roane of Essex County, VA and his wife, Ainsley, are perfect examples of those lost in the chaos of Emancipation. In 1868, Tobey and Ainsley were in their Eighties. They were old. They were crippled, presumably from a life of toil as well as old age. They were also the primary care givers for their three young grandchildren. At the moment, the names of their grandchildren are unknown. Nor do I know what happened to the children’s parents.
Early correspondence about Toby Roane with his family in 1866. Citation: “Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872,” index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/FPFD-JZR), Toby Roane, ; citing NARA microfilm publication M1913, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland; FHL microfilm 2413570.
At the close of the Civil War, Toby, Ainsley and their grandchildren were forced out of their home. Presumably, their former master had no further use for them and felt no obligation towards them. As the letter below will show, this family of children and the elderly came to reside in a derelict old stable on the periphery of land owned by John A Parker. It’s unclear if Toby and his family had a connection to Parker or to the McGuire family, Parker’s white tenants who lived in the house on the property and worked the land. Parker clearly wasn’t happy about Toby and his family residing in the disused stable.
Letter dated 9 Nov 1866 outlining John Parker’s complaint against Toby Roane.Citation: “Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872,” index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/FPLV-6ZW ), Tobey Roane, ; citing NARA microfilm publication M1913, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland; FHL microfilm 2414655.
The indignity of their plight did not end there.
Parker began court proceedings to have them evicted from said derelict stable, their only refuge. Correspondence about the case follows below:
Parker vs Roane. Letter dated 8 Dec 1866. Citation: “Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872,” index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/FPNJ-PMW : accessed 16 Jul 2014), Toby Roane, ; citing NARA microfilm publication M1913, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland; FHL microfilm 2413683.
Parker vs Roane. Letter dated 27 Oct 1866. Citation: – “Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872,” index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/FPNH-QM2 : accessed 16 Jul 2014), Toby Roans, ; citing NARA microfilm publication M1913, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland; FHL microfilm 2413681.
In desperation, Toby applied for relief to the local poor house via the local office for the Freedmen’s Bureau. The letters below show how Toby and his family were turned away from the poor house solely based on race.
Toby Roane’s petition for admittance to the poor house. Letter dated- 9 Nov 1866.Citation: “Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872,” index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/FPLV-62J), Tobey Roane, ; citing NARA microfilm publication M1913, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland; FHL microfilm 2414655.
Toby Roane’s petition for admittance to the poor house. Letter dated 10 Dec 1866 – Citation: “Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872,” index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/FPNR-MMV), Toby Roane, ; citing NARA microfilm publication M1913, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland; FHL microfilm 2413680.
Toby Roane’s petition for admittance to the poor house. Letter dated- 24 Dec 1866.– Citation: “Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872,” index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/FPNJ-PZL), Tobey Roane, ; citing NARA microfilm publication M1913, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland; FHL microfilm 2413683.
This short series of correspondence gives a sense of the bureaucracy involved in cases like Tobey’s. The letters also evidence the prejudice he and his family faced. And, ok, I’ll say it – I don’t find any decency, much less any Christian behaviour, anywhere in this story…with the exception of Second Lieutenant Watson Wentworth. Whoever his descendants are, they should feel proud of the work their ancestor did and the personal dangers he faced in executing his duty.
I don’t know the ultimate outcome of their story. I don’t know if the local poor house came to house this family. I hope so, even it was due to being ordered to do so. It was certainly ordered to do so in the end.
I guess the obvious question would be ‘where was Tobey’s extended family?’ It’s a good question. I’m still trying to place Toby in the Roane family tree. He was of the same generation as other African-American members of the Roane family in Essex County: Spencer Roane (b. 1795), Nelson Roane (b. 1810), George Roane (b. 1810) and Randall Roane (b. 1815). The families of these men were also resident in Essex County at this time. Research hasn’t provided information about the exact nature of the kinship between these men. In the end, I think, the answer is fairly straightforward: these men had their own families to provide for in an uncertain and challenging environment.
The saddest part of this story isn’t Toby and Ainsley’s poverty, infirmity or struggle. At this point in their story they were 80 years old. 80 years. And the only part of their story I know anything about is this one sad episode. Nothing of the joys in the births of their children and their grandchildren. Nothing of their joys in being together. Just a story filled with pettiness, viciousness, uncharitable actions and rather unchristian behavior.
I’ve poured through innumerable records provided by these databases. There are uplifting and positive tales. And a few humerous ones (I’m sharing one of these in my next post). There is the other side of the coin, however – dark stories, poignant tales and tales that are simply tragic. If you were black, elderly, a child or a single woman with children, infirm or not fully physically able – freedom presented new challenges, cruelties and humiliations to be faced. There are pages and pages of petitions for relief, ledger sheets showing food and clothing being given to people who fell within the above groups. There are letters requesting travel fares to enable former slaves to leave the places where they had been enslaved in order to re-join family members in different cities, towns and states. There are also plenty of petitions to the Bureau for assistance in securing wages from employers who either couldn’t or wouldn’t pay for the labor of their black work force. And petitions for the care of newly freed orphaned children.
MY TAKEAWAY THOUGHTS
I’ve come away with three primary thoughts. The first is the sheer scale of the endeavor the Freedmen’s Bureau was tasked with – assisting millions of people who experienced freedom for the first time, with all the fears, challenges, hardships, institutional inequities – and hopes – that entailed.
My second thought is that a subjugated and oppressed people didn’t give up. They persisted and they fought. While freedom was far from being easy, freed slaves clearly grasped it with both hands.
The last thought is around educational opportunities. It’s the academic in me. The digitized versions of these original records are invaluable teaching tools. They come from people who experienced emancipation from all sides – freedmen, their former owners, local peoples and communities as well as the US government’s viewpoint and the viewpoint of its official representatives. Written in their own hand, their words transform Emancipation from a concept into the reality that it was. Collectively, these documents form an eloquent and articulate road map showing the journey of how the ghosts of emancipation still haunt America to this very day.
UPDATE: dated 1 Oct 2014
It never ceases to amaze me how random events connect strangers. I received an email from Lt Watson Wentworth’s 3x great grandson, Sam N., who found this post. He was kind enough to share some of Watson Wentworth’s history, which I’m sharing here.
“Watson was born in 1844 and orphaned by the age of 12. His father died when he was about 6 years old. He and his sister seem to have been left with relatives when his widowed mother and his three youngest siblings were all drowned in a shipwreck en route to Chicago via the Great Lakes. Perhaps the experience of insecurity stemming from these early tragedies somehow informed his work with the Freedman’s Bureau as a young man. “
UPDATED: 15 July 2015. Thanks to a distant cousin, whom I’ll refer to as Mia, more information about this story has come to light. Mia spent the day in the Library of Virginia ad made some amazing discoveries.
The digitized Freedmen’s Bureau records just keep throwing up surprise after surprise. Some of these surprises have answered some questions I’ve had over the years – like how some individuals in a locality were related to one another. Other surprise record finds have relayed experiences that were tragic, poignant and, occasionally, humorous. I can’t stress this enough – if you’re an African American researching your southern Emancipation Era ancestors…the Freedmen’s Bureau records and databases are tools you need to familiarize yourself with.
As a quick re-cap, the records held by the Freedmen’s Bureau’s national office – as well as its regional and local offices throughout the American south – were produced from 1865 to 1872. I’ve seen a handful of records pertaining to people who were 100+ years old when they were freed (meaning they were born roughly around 1765) who mention their parents and grand-parents by name. One record like that can push your family’s genealogy and history back to the 1690s and the first decades of the 1700s.
These databases don’t just cover freed slaves, either. They are treasure troves that also have records for blacks who were free men and women during the time of slavery.
I’ve heavily researched the Freedmen’s Bureau’s banking records database. These were the records produced when emancipated blacks opened up bank accounts with the Bureau. In numerous cases, the names of the account holder’s parents, siblings and children appear. This is invaluable information if that ancestor’s family were split up and sold to separate owners throughout the south. This information allowed me to connect tangent lines to my family tree.
I’ve stumbled across a new Freedmen’s database on FamilySearch.org which has offered some stunning finds. The database I’ve discovered is called the Records of the field offices for the state of Virginia, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands: NARA, RG105, M1913, 1865-1872. True, the database I used is specific for Virginia (here’s the link https://familysearch.org/search/collection/1596147). For other southern states, please see the link provided at the bottom of this post.
What can you find?
Lists, ledger entries, notes, reports and letters related to:
Rations for freedmen and women who were ill, incapacitated, infirm/crippled and those without employment and incapable of providing for themselves (this is a dark aspect of Emancipation I’ll be covering in my next port)
Medical relief to both freedmen and white refugees
Supervised labor contracts between planters and freedmen
Administered justice involving freedmen
Petitions to and work with benevolent societies in the establishment of schools and poor houses
The opening of several hospitals for the sick and infirm, schools and places of worship
My 3x great grandfather, George Henry Roane (1796-1876) is going to kick things off.
GEORGE HENRY ROANE vs THE EXECUTORS OF MAJOR EDMUND CHRISTIAN’S ESTATE
Even though he was a recognized member of the aristocratic slave-owning Virginian Roane family, George was sold to Edmund Christian in Henrico County, Virginia – and not his son-in-law, John D Warren, as previously believed. Mia is hoping to find the deed record of George’s sale to Edmund Christian. Both of us are hoping this will provide the elusive link to the Scotts-Irish Roane who owned him. It will, we hope, shed some light on which Scots-Irish Roane was his father (March 2016 update: we now know that William Henry Harrison Roane was George’s father via 2 DNA tests).
Language around slavery is tricky to use. Americans haven’t had an honest and open discussion about slavery, its ramifications, much less its aftermath. So forgive me if I use terms which may appear inappropriate.
George was thought of very fondly by his second owner, Edmund Christian. In a Codicil of his March 1851 Will, Edmund willed George an annuity of $30 per annum for the remainder of George’s life. 1851 – a decade and a bit before the civil war. In other words, George was still a slave when Edmund left him this annuity in his will. He received the annuity due to the manner in which he had served Edmund. I’ve yet to come across anything remotely like it.
In this will, George’s children are mentioned. I knew of three children: Patrick Henry Roane (my direct ancestor), Anthony Roane and Edmund Roane. Edmund Christian’s will provided three more names: Priscilla, George and Joseph. Mia’s message about the previously unknown children was an exciting piece of information – one I was so happy that she shared with. She shared it with me pretty much as soon as she made the discovery. The will also confirmed the name of George’s wife, Eliza.
You can read a digital copy of Edmund Christian’s will and codicil below (courtesy of cousin Mia) – click the thumbnail to see the larger image.
Edmund Christian’s Will, Page 1
Edmund Christian’s Will, Page 2
Codicil to Edmund Christian’s Will, citing annuity for George Henry Roane
Upon Edmund’s death, as per the terms of his will, his daughter, Edmonia, became the mistress of George and his family. When Edmonia married John D Warren, the ownership of George and George’s family appears to have transferred to him.
The relationship between John Warren, his wife Edmonia Christian Warren, George and George’s family also appears to have been a close one. Both sides seem to have held the other in high esteem. The relationship was close enough for Patrick Henry Roane, George’s son, to name his only daughter after Edmonia Warren when his daughter was born in 1871.
From what I can gather from the court documents, Edmund Christian Sr’s son William, one of the executors, died insolvent. His son, William Christian Jr, was left to handle his grandfather Edmund’s estate. George’s payments ceased. Whether George knew this or not is unclear. He pursued the matter of his legacy through a petition lodged with the Freedmen’s Bureau’s Richmond Field Office.
It’s worth bearing in mind that, although free, those of African descent (including those who had always been free people of color) could not bring a lawsuit against someone of European descent. Not directly. An intermediary was required. The Bureau’s Richmond Office was George’s intermediary.
Here’s one record about the case. It’s the Freedmen’s Bureau record that sparked off this whole journey of discovery about George’s case:
Freedmen’s Bureau, Richmond Office, correspondence re: George Henry Roane’s suite against the executors of Edmund Christian’s estate. Citation: “Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872,” index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/FPLQ-RYC : George Ronn, ; citing NARA microfilm publication M1913, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland; FHL microfilm 2414642.
My initial hunch that George won his suit was, in the end, wishful thinking. It transpired that he lost his case. The Codicil, which had bequeathed him the annual annuity, was deemed to be invalid. The documents are a bit hazy about why. It’s interesting that the defense counsel for the Christians didn’t use an insolvency argument. That would have been the logical, the understandable, route to take. No, not a bit of it. Instead, the Christian’s counsel went with something almost surreal: that the Codicil and annuity to George were only applicable if George were still a slave. In other words, that the annuity had been Edmund Christian’s way of a moral reparation to a fondly remembered slave. Now that George was free, there was no longer a moral obligation to carry out the deceased’s wishes.
You can click on the images below (courtesy of Mia) to see the larger image.
Still, what a prized find! And it all began with the discovery of one digitized record.
I was curious about how much $30 from 1868 would be worth in 2014. The answer? Approximately $750.00. I’ve used a historic standard of living value of income or wealth as a comparison. A Historic Standard of Living measures the purchasing power of an income, or wealth, in its relative ability to purchase a (fixed over time) bundle of goods and services such as food, housing, clothing, etc that an average household would buy. I feel it’s the best economic comparator to use. No matter how you cut it, $30 was a nice chunk of money in 1868.
One hint when searching these databases…use every variation of names you’re aware of. For instance, when researching the Roane side of my family, I got the best results for the whole of the family when I searched on: Roane, Roan, Rone, Rhone, Rowan, Rowen and Rowand.
I received such an excellent comment to my “Free blacks in Virginia: The Drew Family” post….that I decided to feature it as a guest post. It’s a great overview covering free blacks in Virginia. It also arrived at the perfect time. I’m currently drafting a blog post about the long-standing community of free African-American community which lived (and thrived) in Charles City County, Virginia in the 18th and 19th Centuries.
Thank you Aubrey for providing such a considered comment:
As a descendant of free people of color from Virginia I decided to respond to the above post (http://genealogyadventures.net/2012/07/16/free-blacks-in-virginia-the-drew-family/) in an effort to share some of what I have learned. I learned that I am a descendant of one of the original Africans brought to Virginia. Not all Africans were subjected to permanent slavery but were indentured servants, much the same as their European counterparts. After completing their indenture, they received their “freedom dues” which generally consisted of a certain acreage of land plus tools and a years worth of food clothing and possibly seed for planting.
These formerly indentured servants frequently intermarried and formed the basis for the community of free people of color in Virginia. This population grew as a consequence of natural expansion by birth and emancipation (for various reasons including emancipation of children by their white fathers or through slave owners’ Wills). It should be pointed out that in the early period of the colony, Native American in Virginia were frequently enslaved much the same as their African counterparts.
The legal status of emancipated people in Virginia changed around the early 1800′s as a response to the revolt of Gabriel Prosser. A state constitutional convention, held a few years later, made changes to the Virginia state constitution. These changes enabled the enactment of laws that required emancipated people to leave Virginia within a year of emancipation or suffer re-enslavement. It is likely that those that did not leave, remained because of family who were still enslaved.
Furthermore, it is also like that in some cases free born people of color retained family members who had been purchased or otherwise were legally considered slaves (such as the the children from a wife who had been purchased from enslavement. The children of enslaved mothers were legally classified as slaves). The slave status was maintained because if they were emancipated these family members would be required to leave the state.
Frequently emancipation in such cases happen by wills or other legal mechanisms. It should be noted that in Virginia free born people of color who were descendants of those free born or emancipated prior to the change in Virginia law were not required to leave the state. Petitions to the Virginia General Assembly could result in permission to remain in the state.
Additionally, free born people could be subject to life time slavery as a consequence of convictions for certain crimes.
Genealogy Adventure additional note: Emancipated and free born blacks could also be kidnapped and sold into slavery.