National Museum of African American History and Culture

Selected Series of Records Issued by the Commissioner of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865–1872

Collection ID:
Physical Description:
7 Reels
This collection is comprised of digital surrogates previously available on the 7 rolls of microfilm described in NARA publication M742. These digital surrogates reproduced the records of the Selected Series of Records Issued by the Commissioner of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865–1872. This collection contains seven volumes of letters sent, six volumes of endorsements sent, one volume of circulars issued, and one volume of special orders issued by the Commissioner. Also included are fourteen volumes of indexes. These records relate to the general operation of the Bureau.

Historical Note
Historical Note
[The following is reproduced from the original NARA descriptive pamphlet for M742.]
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands often referred to as the Freedmen's Bureau , was established in the War Department by an act of Congress approved March 3, 1865 (13 Stat. 507). Congress assigned to the Bureau responsibilities previously shared by the military commanders and the agents of the Treasury Department, which included the supervision of all affairs relating to refugees and freedmen and the custody of all abandoned or confiscated lands and property. The act also provided that the Bureau was to be headed by a Commissioner, appointed by the President by and with the advice and consent of the Senate.
In May 1865 the President appointed Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard as Commissioner. Howard, who served until the Bureau was discontinued in 1872, established his headquarters in Washington, D. C. Although the size and organization of the Bureau headquarters varied from time to time, Howard's staff consist primarily of an Assistant Adjutant General, an Assistant Inspector General, a Chief Medical Officer, a Chief Quartermaster, a Chief Disbursing Officer, and officers in charge of the Claim Division, the Education Division, and the Land Division.
The Bureau's operations were confined principally to the former Confederate States, the border states, and the District of Columbia. Assistant Commissioners supervised the work of the Bureau in the districts into which the States were divided. Officers subordinate to the Assistant Commissioners carried out the policies of the Bureau within the districts.
During the years of its greatest activity, the operations of the Freedmen's Bureau resembled, in many ways, the work of later Federal social agencies. In addition to supervising the disposition of the abandoned or confiscated lands, Bureau officers issued rations, clothing, and medicine to destitute refugees and freedmen. They established hospitals and dispensaries and supervised tenement and camps for the homeless. Bureau officers and members of philanthropic organizations cooperated in establishing schools, operating employment offices, and dispensing relief.
The main concern of the Bureau was the freedman. Bureau officers supervised the writing of labor contracts and terms of indenture, registered marriages, listened to complaints, and generally concerned themselves with improving almost all aspects of the freedman's life. In March 1866 the Bureau assumed the function of helping colored soldiers and sailors to file and collect claims for bounties, pensions, and pay arrearages.
By the beginning of 1869 most of the work of the Freedmen's Bureau had come to an end. An act of Congress approved on July 25, 1868 (15 Stat. 193), provided that on January 1, 1869, the Commissioner was to withdraw the Bureau officers from the States and discontinue the functions of the Bureau except those relating to education and to the collection and payment of claims, effective June 30, 1872 (17 Stat. 366). All unfinished work, which by this time related chiefly to the collection and payment of claims, was transferred to the Freedmen's Branch that was established in the Office of the Adjutant General.
The volumes reproduced in the microcopy were originally arranged by type of record and thereunder in numerical sequence, with no numbers assigned to index books or to series consisting of single volumes. Later all the volumes were arbitrarily assigned numbers. In this microfilm publication the last set of numbers assigned are in parentheses and are useful only as an aid in identifying the volume.

Immediate Source of Acquisition
Acquired from FamilySearch International in 2015.

Using the Collection
Conditions Governing Access
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 commercial use of the digital images may be requested from FamilySearch International, Intellectual Property Office, at:
Preferred Citation
Courtesy of the U. S. National Archives and Records Administration, FamilySearch International, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

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