National Museum of African American History and Culture

Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the District of Columbia, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1869

Collection ID:
Physical Description:
23,105 Digital files
The collection is comprised of digital surrogates previously available on the 21 rolls of microfilm described in the NARA publication M1055. These digital surrogates reproduced the records of the Assistant Commissioner for the District of Columbia, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865–69. The records consist of 42 bound volumes and 18 feet of unbound documents. The bound volumes include letters and endorsements sent, registers of letters received, and special orders issued. The unbound letters consist primarily of letters and reports received.

Historical Note
Historical Note
[The following is reproduced from the original NARA descriptive pamphlet for M1055.]
The Freedmen's Bureau, as the Bureau was commonly known, was established in the War Department by an act of March 3, 1865 (13 Stat. 507), and extended twice by acts of July 16, 1866 (14 Stat. 173), and July 6, 1868 (15 Stat. 83). Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, appointed Commissioner by the President in May 1865, served in that position throughout the life of the Bureau. In January 1869, in accordance with an act of July 25, 1868 (15 Stat. 193), Bureau operations in the States were terminated except for educational functions and the collection of claims. Remaining activities were terminated June 30, 1872, as required by an act of June 10, 1872 (17 Stat. 366).
Although the Bureau was part of the War Department, its work was primarily social and economic in nature. The Bureau cooperated with benevolent societies in issuing supplies to destitute persons and in maintaining freedmen's schools; supervised labor contracts between black employees and white employers; helped black soldiers and sailors collect bounty claims, pensions, and backpay; and attended to the disposition of confiscated or abandoned lands and other property. Much of the Bureau's time and effort in the District of Columbia were consumed in procuring transportation for freedmen who wished to travel north to seek employment and in supervising freedmen's farms in Maryland and Virginia.
The act of March 3, 1865, authorized the appointment of assistant commissioners to aid the Commissioner in supervising the work of the Bureau. In the District, operations began in June 1865, when Col. John Eaton was appointed Assistant Commissioner with headquarters in the city of Washington. Brig. Gen. J. C. Fullerton succeeded Eaton in December 1865 and served until February 1866. Brig. Gen. C. H. Howard, the brother of Commissioner O. O. Howard, then served as the Assistant Commissioner until the position was discontinued in December 1868. Bvt. Maj. David G. Swaim, as aide-de-camp, then supervised operations until October 1869, when virtually all Bureau functions, except education, were terminated.
The Assistant Commissioner for the District of Columbia was responsible for Bureau activities not only within the District but also in certain counties in Virginia and all or parts of Delaware, Maryland, and West Virginia during certain periods of time. In September 1865, the Assistant Commissioner was made responsible for implementing Bureau policies in Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles, Montgomery, Prince Georges, and St. Mary's Counties in Maryland; also in Alexandria [then a county], Fairfax, and Loudoun Counties in Virginia. In August 1866, Loudoun County was transferred to the jurisdiction of the Assistant Commissioner of Virginia, as were Alexandria and Fairfax Counties in March 1867. In March 1867, West Virginia was placed under the control of the Assistant Commissioner for the District of Columbia. In January 1868, this official also assumed jurisdiction over Allegany and Washington Counties, MD., and in August 1868, over the remaining counties of Maryland and the entire State of Delaware.
The staff of the Assistant Commissioner's Office for the District of Columbia, like those in the various States, included at one time or another such officials as the Superintendent of Education, Assistant Inspector General, Assistant Quartermaster and Disbursing Officer, and Surgeon in Chief or Chief Medical Officer. Subordinate to the Assistant Commissioner's staff were the local superintendents and county agents. For administrative purposes, agents were assigned to the various counties of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. Within the District, a Subassistant Commissioner was appointed to supervise Bureau activities for the cities of Georgetown and Washington. In 1868, Montgomery and Prince Georges Counties were added to his jurisdiction. A Subassistant Commissioner was also assigned to Alexandria County in January 1866 and reported to the Assistant Commissioner until responsibility for the supervision of the county was transferred to Virginia authorities. In addition to county agents and subassistant commissioners, local superintendents were appointed to supervise such Government projects as Barry Farm, located south of the Anacostia River, and the Sothron Farm in St. Mary's County, MD. These farms were purchased with Bureau funds to aid freedmen in buying farmland. Other local superintendents were assigned to administer Freedmen's Village and schools and hospitals. Freedmen's Village, organized on the site of Gen. Robert E. Lee's Arlington estate, was used primarily as a center for old, infirm, and destitute freedmen. Here, small plots of land were rented to freedmen to enable them to provide food for themselves.
The volumes reproduced in this microfilm publication were arranged originally by type of record and thereunder by volume number. Originally no numbers were assigned to series consisting of single volumes; later, all volumes were arbitrarily assigned numbers by the Adjutant General's Office (AGO) of the War Department after the records passed into its custody. In the table of contents, which follows these inductor remarks, and on the title pages and target sheets filmed with the records, the AGO numbers are shown in parentheses as an aid in identifying the volumes. Numbered blank pages have not been filmed.

Acquisition Note
Acquired from FamilySearch International in 2015.

Digital Content
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Using the Collection
Citation Note
Courtesy of the U. S. National Archives and Records Administration, FamilySearch International, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Access Note
Freedmen's Bureau Digital Collection, 1865–1872, is a product of and owned by the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution. Copyright for digital images is retained by the donor, FamilySearch International; permission for commerical use of the digital images may be requested from FamilySearch International, Intellectual Property Office, at:

Related Archival Materials note

Keywords table of terms and types.
Keyword Terms Keyword Types
Slaves -- Emancipation Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Freedmen's Bureau Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Reconstruction, U.S. history, 1865-1877 Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
American South Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid

Repository Contact
National Museum of African American History and Culture
Washington, D.C. 20004