[The following is reproduced from the original NARA descriptive pamphlet for M980.]
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 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.
In a circular issued by Commissioner Howard on July 12, 1865, the assistant commissioners were instructed to designate an 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 some centralized control was established over the educational activities of the Bureau in the States with the appointment of Rev. John W. Alvord as Inspector of Finances and Schools. In January 1867 Alvord was divested of the financial responsibilities and was redesignated General Superintendent of Education.
The educational activity of the Bureau in Arkansas was under the control of Brig. Gen. John W. Sprague until the appointment of William M. Colby as Superintendent of Schools (later Education) on March 1, 1866. Colby, a former lieutenant and agent under Sprague's command, served as the Bureau's Superintendent of Education until January 1, 1869. At the time, Bvt. Maj. Gen. Charles H. Smith reorganized the education branch. He divided the State 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 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 Howard reappointed Colby as the Superintendent of Education, 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.
The Superintendent of Education served under the Assistant Commissioner as a staff officer. Subordinate to both the Assistant Commissioner and the Superintendent of Education were the general superintendents, superintendents, or agents who commanded the local field offices into which the State was divided for administrative purposes. These superintendents supervised all Bureau activities, including education, in their respective areas and reported on educational matters to both the Superintendent of Education and the Assistant Commissioner. After December 1868 the superintendents were withdrawn from Arkansas in accordance with the act of July 25, 1868. The teachers, who had reported to the superintendents for their subdistricts before 1869, then reported directly to the Superintendent of Education.
The schools maintained by the Bureau in Arkansas included day schools for children, night schools for adults, and Sabbath (Sunday) schools for both groups. Reading, writing, and arithmetic were studies of greatest of importance to freedmen, and these subjects received the greatest emphasis in most Bureau schools in Arkansas. Teachers were recruited from the local white population, from among the freedmen themselves, and from the North by freedmen's aid societies, such as the Western Department of the American's Aid Commission, the American Missionary Association, and the Indiana Yearly Meeting of Friends.
The Bureau's responsibility for education included the establishment and maintenance of schools and the examination and appointment of teachers. Bureau funds were used to pay for the construction and repair of school buildings, for rent of properties used for educational purposes, and for providing the teachers with transportation. Private organizations and individuals also helped in establishing and financing freedmen's schools in Arkansas. A number of schools were established upon the initiative of local whites and freedmen, although subsequently they were given direction and support by the Bureau. The American Missionary Association and the Indiana Yearly Meeting of Friends provided some of the pay for the teachers they recruited, and salaries were partially subsidized by contributions from the freedmen. Bureau policy dictated that, whenever possible, subscriptions be solicited from freedmen for the establishment of schools and that tuition be charged for each student attending. However, most freedmen plantation laborers were paid yearly and consequently had difficulty in making regular tuition payments. Many of the schools established on plantations, therefore, foundered because teachers failed to receive funds to meet monthly expenses.
GENERAL RECORDKEEPING PRACTICES
The correspondence of the Superintendent of Education was handled in accordance with typical 19th–century recordkeeping practices. The letters 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 writing a piece of thin paper and pressing it on the original letter through the use of a press–copying machine, which 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 were frequently 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 the receipt.
There are name indexes in the volumes of letters sent, endorsements, and registers of letters received. 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 are followed by black and red numbers. The black numbers refer to the letters and endorsements in which the names are addressees and to registers of letters received in which the names are correspondents. The red numbers refer to the letters to make the distinction between the red and black numbers observers on microfilm, the National Archives and Records Service (NARS) has underlined the black numbers.
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 Adjunct 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.