National Museum of African American History and Culture

Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of Arkansas Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, 1865–1869

Collection ID:
Physical Description:
52 Reels
The collection is comprised of digital surrogates previously available on the 52 rolls of microfilm described in the NARA publication M979. These digital surrogates reproduced the records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of Arkansas, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865–69. The records consist of 24 volumes and some unbound documents. The volumes include letters, telegrams, and endorsements sent; circulars and special orders issued; registers of letters and telegrams received; bound letters sent and received; a register of abandoned and confiscated lands in the State of Arkansas; and a station book of officers and civilians employed by the Bureau. The unbound documents consist primarily of letters and reports received.

Historical Note
Historical Note
[The following is reproduced from the original NARA descriptive pamphlet for M979.]
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), its operations in the States were terminated except for educational functions and collection of claims. These 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. It 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. In Arkansas, the Bureau had a difficult time in protecting freedmen from persecution, intimidation, and physical violence at the hands of whites or other freedmen.
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 States. In Arkansas, operations began in May 1865 when Brig. Gen. John W. Sprague took command as Assistant Commissioner and 1 month later established headquarters at St. Louis, Mo. 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, and parts of Kansas (around Fort Leavenworth and Fort Scott) and Illinois (around Quincy and Cairo). Commissioner Howard felt by September 1865 that the laws of Missouri afforded enough protection to freedmen for the Bureau's activities to cease there. Therefore, on October 16, 1865, Sprague received orders from Commissioner Howard to transfer headquarters from St. Louis to Little Rock, Ark., and the operations of the Bureau were withdrawn from Missouri. The headquarters remained in Little Rock until the Bureau's activities were terminated.
The organization of the Bureau's staff in Arkansas was similar to that of the Bureau's headquarters in Washington, D. C. The Assistant Commissioner's staff consisted at various times of a Superintendent of Education, an Assistant Adjutant General, a Surgeon–in–Chief, a Chief Quartermaster, a Disbursing Officer, and an Assistant Superintendent of Education. Subordinate to these officers were the general superintendents or superintendents who commanded the subdistricts. The more important subdistricts in Arkansas included those with headquarters at Little Rock, Pine Bluff, Monticello, Washington, Jacksonport, Helena, and Fort Smith. Under direct supervision of the general superintendents or superintendents were the civilian and military agents. Occasionally military officers would be retained by the Bureau in a civilian capacity after the termination of their military service. Ultimately, Bureau personnel were stationed in 24 different counties.
The correspondence of the Assistant Commissioner was handled in accordance with typical 19th–century recordkeeping practices. The letters sent are either fair or press copies. The fair copies are handwritten duplicates of the originals. They are clear and easy to read. The press copies were obtained by wetting a piece of thin paper and pressing it on the original letter through the use of a press–copying machine that caused the image to be transferred to the moistened paper. Because of the relative crudeness of this method, many of the press copies are difficult to read and some are virtually illegible. Because fair copies were not made of all the letters sent, some press copies are reproduced in this microfilm publication. Replies to incoming letters frequently were written on the letters themselves or on specially prepared wrappers. The replies, known as endorsements, were then copied into endorsement books, and the endorsed letter was returned to the sender or forwarded to another office. Endorsement books usually included a summary of the incoming letter and sometimes previous endorsements that were recorded on it. Incoming correspondence was frequently entered in the registers of letters received. In addition to a summary of the contents of the incoming letters, the registers usually included such identifying information as the name, and sometimes the office, of the writer; the date of receipt; the date of the communication; the place of origin; and the entry number assigned at the time of receipt.
The letters, telegrams, and endorsements sent; registers of letters and telegrams received; registered letters and telegrams received; and special orders, which are reproduced in this microfilm publication, are cross–referenced to each other by the use of various symbols. Letters sent (both fair and press copies) are designated "L. S.," or "L. B.," or "L. S. B.," followed by the page and sometimes by the volume number. Endorsement books are designated "E." or "E. & M." Registers of letters received are referenced as "L. R." or "L. R. B.," followed by the appropriate file number and sometimes the volume number. Special orders issued by the Assistant Commissioner are referred to by the symbol "S. O." followed by the number of the order.
The Assistant Commissioner utilized various types of issuances to convey information to staff and subordinate officers. Circulars and circular letters related to matters of general interest, including implementation of Bureau policies throughout the State, duties of subordinate personnel, administrative procedures to be followed, relevant acts of Congress or issuances from Bureau headquarters, and the appointment or relief of staff officers. In other States, the assistant commissioners may have issued these directives as general orders. Special orders were used to communicate information of less general interest such as duty assignments of individual field officers; however, in Arkansas, many pertained to the transfer of abandoned lands to their former owners.
There are name indexes in the volumes of letters and telegrams sent, endorsements, registers of letters and telegrams received, and issuances. The indexes provide references mainly to personal names but also include a few citations to places, groups, and titles of organizations. The names in the indexes for the volumes of letters and telegrams sent, registers of letters received, and special orders are followed by black and red numbers. The black numbers refer to letters and endorsements sent in which the names are addressees and to registers of letters received in which the names are correspondents. The red numbers refer to names contained in the body of the letter or endorsement. In order to make the distinction between the red and black numbers observable on microfilm, the National Archives and Records Service (NARS) has underlined the black numbers.
The volumes of letters and telegrams sent, registers of letters and telegrams received, and special orders for 1867 are divided into two parts. The letters, telegrams, and issuances were numbered consecutively for January through March 1867 and were entitled "General Ord's Series." Beginning in April 1867, they were numbered consecutively in a second series entitled "General Smith's Series." The volumes reproduced in this microfilm publication were originally arranged by type of record and thereunder in sequence 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 of the War Department after the records passed into its custody. In this microfilm publication, the last set of numbers assigned are shown in parentheses and are used as an aid in identifying the volumes. Numbered blank pages have not been filmed.

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