[The following is reproduced from the original NARA descriptive pamphlet for M1901.]
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, also known as the Freedmen's Bureau, was established in the War Department by an act of Congress on March 3, 1865 (13 Stat. 507). The life of the Bureau was extended twice by acts of July 16, 1866 (14 Stat. 173), and July 6, 1868 (15 Stat. 83). The Bureau was responsible for the supervision and management of all matters relating to refugees and freedmen, and of lands abandoned or seized during the Civil War. In May 1865, President Andrew Johnson appointed Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard as Commissioner of the Bureau, and Howard served in that position until June 30, 1872, when activities of the Bureau were terminated in accordance with an act of June 10, 1872 (17 Stat. 366). While a major part of the Bureau's early activities involved the supervision of abandoned and confiscated property, its mission was to provide relief and help freedmen become self-sufficient. Bureau officials issued rations and clothing, operated hospitals and refugee camps, and supervised labor contracts. In addition, the Bureau managed apprenticeship disputes and complaints, assisted benevolent societies in the establishment of schools, helped freedmen in legalizing marriages entered into during slavery, and provided transportation to refugees and freedmen who were attempting to reunite with their family or relocate to other parts of the country. The Bureau also helped black soldiers, sailors, and their heirs collect bounty claims, pensions, and back pay.
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 former Confederate states, the border states, and the District of Columbia. The Bureau's operations began in Arkansas in May 1865, when Brig. Gen. John W. Sprague took command as Assistant Commissioner. By order of Commissioner Howard in Circular No. 5, dated May 30, 1865, he established headquarters at St. Louis, MO, the next month. Bvt. Maj. Gen. Edward O. C. Ord relieved Sprague in October 1866 and was succeeded by Bvt. Maj. Gen. Charles H. Smith in March 1867.
When Sprague arrived in St. Louis, his jurisdiction encompassed areas outside Arkansas, including Missouri, Indian Territory, parts of Kansas (around Fort Leavenworth and Fort Scott), and Illinois (around Quincy and Cairo). By September 1865, Commissioner Howard felt that the laws of Missouri afforded enough protection to freedmen for the Bureau's activities to cease there. On October 16, 1865, Sprague received orders from Commissioner Howard to transfer headquarters from St. Louis to Little Rock, Arkansas, and operations of the Bureau were by-in-large withdrawn from Missouri. However, in April 1867 Frederick. A. Seely was assigned as a disbursing officer for Missouri with headquarters at St. Louis, a position he held until February 1872. Although much of Seely's work related to the processing and payment of claims, he was also in charge of freedmen's affairs in Missouri. The headquarters remained in Little Rock until the Bureau's activities were terminated. While the work performed by Assistant Commissioners in each state was similar, the organizational structure of staff officers varied from state to state. At various times, the staff could consist of a superintendent of education, an assistant adjutant general, an assistant inspector general, a disbursing officer, a chief medical officer, a chief quartermaster, and a commissary of subsistence. Subordinate to these officers were the assistant superintendents, or subassistant commissioners as they later became known, who commanded the subdistricts. The major subordinate field offices for the Bureau at Arkansas, for example, included those with headquarters at Arkadelphia, Augusta, Batesville, Camden, Lewisburg, Devall's Bluff, Fort Smith, Hamburg, Hampton, Helena, Jacksonport, Lake Village and Luna Landing, Lewisville, Little Rock, Madison, Magnolia, Marion, Monticello, Napoleon, Osceola, Ozark, Paraclifta, Pine Bluff, Princeton, South Bend, Union, and Washington. Under the direct supervision of the subassistant commissioners were the civilian and military agents. Occasionally, the Bureau retained military officers in a civilian capacity after the termination of their military service. For a list of known Arkansas subordinate field office personnel and their dates of service, see the Appendix.
The Assistant Commissioner corresponded extensively with both his superior in the Washington Bureau headquarters and his subordinate officers in the subdistricts. Based upon reports submitted to him by the subassistant commissioners and other subordinate staff officers, he prepared reports that he sent to the Commissioner concerning Bureau activities in areas under his jurisdiction. The Assistant Commissioner also received letters from freedmen, local white citizens, state officials, and other non–Bureau personnel. These letters varied in nature from complaints to applications for jobs in the Bureau. Because the assistant adjutant general handled much of the mail for the Assistant Commissioner's office, it was often addressed to him instead of to the Assistant Commissioner.
In a circular issued by Commissioner Howard in July 1865, the Assistant Commissioners were instructed to designate one officer in each state to serve as "General Superintendents of Schools." These officials were to "take cognizance of all that is being done to educate refugees and freedmen, secure proper protection to schools and teachers, promote method and efficiency, correspond with the benevolent agencies which are supplying his field, and aid the Assistant Commissioner in making his required reports." In October 1865, a degree of centralized control was established over Bureau educational activities in the states when Rev. John W. Alvord was appointed Inspector of Finances and Schools. In January 1867, Alvord was divested of his financial responsibilities, and he was appointed General Superintendent of Education.
An act of Congress, approved July 25, 1868 (15 Stat. 193), ordered that the Commissioner of the Bureau "shall, on the first day of January next, cause the said bureau to be withdrawn from the several States within which said bureau has acted and its operation shall be discontinued." Consequently, in early 1869, with the exception of the superintendents of education and the claims agents, the Assistant Commissioners and their subordinate officers were withdrawn from the states.
For the next year and a half the Bureau continued to pursue its education work and to process claims. In the summer of 1870, the superintendents of education were withdrawn from the states, and the headquarters staff was greatly reduced. From that time until the Bureau was abolished by an act of Congress approved June 10, 1872 (17 Stat. 366), effective June 30, 1872, the Bureau's functions related almost exclusively to the disposition of claims. The Bureau's records and remaining functions were then transferred to the Freedmen's Branch in the office of the Adjutant General. The records of this branch are among the Bureau's files.
Constrained by limited resources, Southern opposition, and the politics of Reconstruction, the Bureau faced an enormous challenge in its efforts to assist the freedmen and refugees. Its relief efforts, without question, saved thousands of southerners from starvation. Its attempts to assist freedmen to become self-sufficient, to provide public education, administer justice, and, to a lesser degree, to provide land, all worked with varying degrees of success to lessen the difficulties during the transition from slavery to freedom. One of the Bureau's greatest legacies is the body of records it created and received during the course of its operations. These records are arguably some of the most important documents available for the study of the Federal Government's policies, efforts to reconstruct the South, and Southern social history and genealogy.
THE FREEDMEN'S BUREAU IN ARKANSAS
The major activities of the Freedmen's Bureau in Arkansas and Missouri generally resembled those conducted in other states. The Bureau issued rations to both freedmen and white refugees, supervised labor contracts between planters and freedmen, administered justice, worked with benevolent societies in the establishment of schools, and assisted freedmen in locating land.
To prevent widespread starvation and destitution in Arkansas and Missouri, the Freedmen's Bureau issued some 1,705,055 rations to both blacks and whites from June 1865 to September 1866. In May 1865, prior to the Bureau's relief efforts in the Arkansas district, the Federal Government had issued 75,097 rations to refugees and 46,845 to destitute freedmen. After late October 1865, the Bureau's ration–relief efforts were discontinued in Missouri. Because civil authorities in the Arkansas district failed to provide medical assistance to the "Destitute and Starving," the Bureau, with assistance from Northern societies, established asylums, hospitals, and various kinds of relief camps. By the fall of 1866, with two commissioned medical officers, contract physicians, and male and female attendants, the Bureau had treated more than 100 refugees and over 1,500 freedmen. In late October 1866, Assistant Commissioner John W. Sprague reported that Arkansas hospitals alone had given medical aid to 3,260 people, nearly 200 of them freedmen. By the end of June 1868, Bureau hospitals in Arkansas had treated four times as many patients as in previous years, and greatly curtailed the attacks of smallpox and cholera.1
The regulation of written labor contracts between planters and freedmen was a major concern of the Bureau in Arkansas. In Circular Number 16, issued October 26, 1865, Commissioner Sprague outlined the rules governing the free labor system in Arkansas. Sprague ordered that all contracts in the Arkansas district were to be in writing with the approval of a Bureau official. Labor agreements were not to exceed 1 year, and no fixed rates were to be established. A 10–cent fee paid by the planter was required for each laborer. Generally, men could earn $16 per month, women $10, and children $6. First–class laborers could earn $20 per month, and received room and board, medical attention, and other essentials. In some cases, freedmen worked for a share of the crop. Whatever the agreement, subordinate Bureau officers were required to keep a record of labor contacts that they approved and witnessed, and freedmen were free to seek employment where they wished. Bureau officials often encouraged freedmen to give special consideration to employers who offered schools for their children.2
In response to Commissioner Howard's orders of July 12, 1865, concerning the education of refugees and freedmen, Assistant Commissioner Sprague appointed William M. Colby as general superintendent of refugee and freedmen schools. Colby was instructed "to cooperate with the state authorities and if possible work out a general system of education for those classes." Colby faced a great deal of opposition from southern whites who felt that freedmen taught by "evil emissaries from the North" encouraged social equality, an idea that they vehemently opposed. In spite of this bitter opposition, however, Bureau officials in Arkansas furnished buildings for schools, and sent agents throughout the district to advise freedmen about education. From November 1865 to September 1866, working with such groups as the Indiana Friends and the Western Department of the American Freedmen's Aid Commission, the Bureau paid more than 30 percent of the cost for instructing freedmen in the alphabet, arithmetic, geography, and writing. By the summer of 1868, there were more than 30 teachers and over 1,000 pupils attending some 27 day and night schools. Some 118 teachers were instructing over 1,800 students in 24 Sabbath schools.3
In January 1869, Bvt. Maj. Gen. Charles H. Smith, then Assistant Commissioner for Arkansas, reorganized the education branch into three districts, with an assistant superintendent for each, for the purpose of cooperating with State officials in the transfer of the Bureau schools to the State's system. William M. Colby, David C. Casey, and James T. Watson were appointed to these new positions. General Smith held the position of chief superintendent of education. The Assistant Commissioner's office was abolished in April 1869, and Commissioner Howard reappointed Colby as the superintendent of education on May 1, 1869. Colby held that position until July 1870. By that time the Bureau had turned over most of the schools to the State Board of Education.
When Commissioner Sprague established his headquarters in St. Louis, several benevolent societies had already begun work on the establishment of schools for freedmen in Missouri. In 1864, the American Missionary Society established a freedmen school at Warrensburg, and the Western Freedmen Aid Society (WFAC) assisted military officials in the education of freedmen at Benton Barracks. By the time disbursing officer Frederick A. Seely opened his office in Missouri in 1867, there were more than 1,000 students attending some 30 schools in St. Louis alone. Seely, however, did provide support and assistance to local groups in the construction of additional schools in St. Louis, Warrensburg, Kansas City, Westport, and Carondolet.4
Safeguarding rights and securing justice for freedmen was of paramount concern to the Freedmen's Bureau. Following the Civil War, several Southern states enacted a series of laws commonly known as "Black Codes," which restricted the rights and legal status of freedmen. Freedmen were often given harsh sentences for petty crimes and in some instances were unable to get their cases heard in state courts. In a circular issued by Commissioner Howard on May 30, 1865, Assistant Commissioners were directed to "adjudicate, either themselves or through officers of their appointment, all difficulties arising between Negroes themselves, or between Negroes and whites or Indians." In the Arkansas district, freedmen were tried in both provost courts and freedmen courts. Freedmen courts were used when Bureau officials determined that freedmen were being treated unjustly. A freedmen court consisted of a Bureau official and two citizens of a given county. The three–member court had jurisdiction over all matters involving labor disputes and other cases relating to freedmen and refugees that did not exceed $300, 30 days in prison, or a fine of $100. In October 1865, Sprague appointed civilian superintendents to administer justice, especially in instances where freedmen were denied the right to testify in courts. Superintendents were told to follow state court procedures and laws as long as the laws made "no distinctions on account of color." By summer 1866, despite continued allegations of mistreatment of freedmen, all cases except those relating to labor contracts were being handled by state courts or military authorities. In 1867, when reconstruction acts placed Arkansas under the fourth military district, both state and Bureau courts were put under military supervision.5
The Freedmen's Bureau in the Arkansas district sought, with limited success, to secure land for refugees and freedmen. It intended to establish freedmen on lands under its control that had been abandoned or confiscated. However, its efforts were nullified by President Andrew Johnson's Amnesty Proclamation of May 29, 1865, which provided pardons and the restoration of lands to Confederates who took an oath of allegiance to the Federal Government. To minimize the impact of Johnson's Proclamation, the Bureau required that refugees and freedmen occupying land under cultivation be allowed to remain on the land until crops were harvested or just compensation was rendered. It also required that existing lease agreements be honored until they expired and that refugees and freedmen would not be moved from the land until arrangements could be made for them elsewhere. There was no complete effort to restore lands to their original owners in Arkansas until the Freedmen's Bureau was withdrawn from the State.6
The Southern Homestead Act (14 Stat. 66), approved by Congress on June 21, 1866, made available for public settlement 46 million acres of public lands in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Nine million acres of this Federal land was located in Arkansas. Because the Act specifically prohibited discrimination against applicants due to race, it offered an opportunity for Arkansas freedmen and others to become landowners. Generally, the Freedmen's Bureau, through "Locating Agents," assisted interested freedmen in finding plots, and provided them with 1–month subsistence, free transportation to their prospective tracts of land, and seeds for the initial planting. Despite his concerns that a large percentage of the Arkansas land was worthless and that many freedmen who were under labor agreements for the year would not be able to take full advantage of the Southern Homestead Act, Assistant Commissioner Sprague hired Dr. W. W. Granger as locating agent for Arkansas freedmen. By early summer 1867, Granger had located 1.5 million acres of land available for entry (application) and recommended more than 400,000 acres for settlement. By fall 1867, Granger reported that of the 243 tracts he had surveyed, freedmen had entered 116 of the 143 that were suitable for settlement. A total of 26,395 entries were made in Arkansas under the Southern Homestead Act during the 10 years of the Act's existence. Less than 11,000, however, were carried to completion. Of the approximately 250 freedmen who eventually made land entries, only 25 percent completed them. Whites made most of the entries in Arkansas, and many of the freedmen who sought land there came from Georgia.7
1 Thomas S. Staples, Reconstruction in Arkansas, 1862–1874 (New York: 1923), pp. 205 – 207.
2 House Ex. Doc. 70, 39th Cong., 1st Sess., Serial Vol. 1256, pp. 77 and 255.
3 Thomas S. Staples, Reconstruction in Arkansas, pp. 207 – 210.
4 Richard O. Curry, ed. Radicalism, Racism, and Party Realignment: The Border States during Reconstruction (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1969), pp. 258 – 259.
5 House Ex. Doc. No. 11, 39th Cong., 1st Sess., Serial Vol. 1255, p. 45; Staples, Reconstruction in Arkansas, 1862–1874, pp. 211 – 215.
6 House Ex. Doc. 70, 39th Cong., 1st Sess., pp. 70 – 71.
7 Paul A. Cimbala and Randall M. Miller, eds., The Freedmen's Bureau and Reconstruction: Reconsiderations (New York: Fordham University Press, 1999), pp. 73–77; see also Claude F. Oubre, Forty Acres and a Mule: The Freedmen's Bureau and Black Land Ownership (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1978), p. 109.