February is Black History Month and thus a good time to examine the records available to those doing African-American family history research.
The basics of doing U.S. based genealogy research requires working back from yourself a generation at a time. Most frequently the U.S. Federal Census proves to be an excellent resource for tracking family groups back one decade at a time. For so many of those with African-American ancestry, though, the 1870 U.S. Federal Census is the end of their research trail or at least it can be.
The 1870 U.S. Federal Census was the first one in which formerly enslaved people were listed by name. In the previous 1860 census enslaved people were recorded in what are called the Slave Schedules where they were listed under their owner’s name by sex and age – not by their own names. This often proves to be a brick wall to going any further back in time.
However, there are some lesser known resources that may prove incredibly beneficial. The library provides you free in-house access to Ancestry’s databases in which there is a record set called the Freedman’s Bank Records, 1865-1871. Ancestry describes this dataset as follows:
The Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company was incorporated in 1865 by an act signed by President Abraham Lincoln. The purpose of the company was to create an institution where former slaves and their dependents could place and save their money. The original bank was first headquartered in New York and later moved to Washington, D.C. Shortly thereafter branch offices opened in other cities, primarily in ones in the south where there was a larger population of African Americans. Eventually there were 37 branch offices in 17 states with approximately 70,000 depositors (over the banks lifetime) and deposits of more than $57 million. In 1874, as a result of mismanagement, fraud, and other events and situations, Freedman’s Bank closed.
This collection contains the digitized images of the forms depositors had to fill out when opening an account. The forms asked a plethora of personal information. Granted not every branch asked the same questions and the questions varied from year to year but if you are fortunate to find ancestors in this dataset you could be provided with an extraordinary amount of personal information regarding depositors’ parentage and extended family. This includes but is not limited to the depositor’s date and place of birth, parents’ names, marital status, spouse’s and offsprings’ names, a physical description (height, weight, distinguishing marks, etc.), and even sometimes the name of the plantation they once worked on or their former owner.
As always you want to be sure to view the actual image of the original document associated with your ancestor and not just the indexed information. The image will include much more information – often very enlightening information about one’s ancestors during and immediately following emancipation.
If you need assistance in starting or advancing your family history research, feel free to contact our reference desk to sign up for an appointment with our Genealogy Consultant.
Happy Heritage Hunting!